Thomas More was born in London on February 7, 1478, the son of Sir John More, a prominent judge. His education took place at St Anthony School in London. In his youth he served as a page in the household of John Morton, Bishop of Ely who had served Edward IV while remaining at heart a Lancastrian, who predicted he would be a “marvellous man.” More’s studies took him to Oxford to study under Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn. While at Oxford, he studied Greek and Latin literature and wrote comedies.
Around 1494 More returned to London to study law, was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1496, and became a barrister in 1501. However, More did not yet seem to have made the law his permanent career choice. He was undecided as to whether to follow a monastic calling or seek a position in the civil service. While at Lincoln’s Inn, he made a decision to become a monk and to live at a nearby monastery. The monastic lifestyle of prayer, fasting, and penance habits stayed with him for the rest of his life. More’s sense of duty to serve his country, by entering politics, put an end to his desire for the monastery. He entered Parliament in 1504, and in 1504 or 1505 he married for the first time.
One of More’s first acts in Parliament had been to argue for a decrease in a proposed appropriation for King Henry VII. Henry VII imprisoned More’s father in revenge and kept him until a fine was paid and More himself retired from public life. After the death of the king in 1509, More once more became active in politics. In 1510, he was appointed one of the two under-sheriffs of London. In 1511, More’s first wife died in childbirth, but he was soon re-married to Dame Alice.
Over the next ten years, More came to the attention of King Henry VIII. In 1515 he was part of a delegation sent to Flanders to help clear disputes about the wool trade. His work Utopia opens with a reference to this delegation. More also play an instrumental role in helping to quell a 1571 London uprising against foreigners. More was part of the king’s entourage at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In 1518 he became a member of the Privy Council, and was knighted in 1521.
Henry VIII’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments, a repudiation of Luther, may have been co-written by More who, writing under another name, also sent an answer to Luther’s reply. In further proof of Henry’s favor, More was made Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523 and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525. A turn of events came about when he refused to endorse King Henry VIII’s plan to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragón in 1527. Still, More became Lord Chancellor after Thomas Wolsey fell in 1529, becoming the first layman to hold the post.
More continued to succeed, but in the end his fall came quickly. He resigned in 1532, claiming ill health. At this time Henry VIII was breaking with Rome and More could not countenance that. His refusal to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn in June 1533 did not escape the king’s attention. In 1534 Elizabeth Barton, a nun of Kent publicly opposed Henry’s break with Rome. Thomas More was implicated in the plot but was not attainted due to protection from the Lords who refused to pass the bill until More’s name was taken off the list of those charged with complicity. In April 1534, More refused to swear to the Act of Succession, and the Oath of Supremacy, and was sent to the Tower of London on April 17. He was found guilty of treason and was beheaded on July 6, 1535.
More’s unfinished work, The History of Richard III, was found after his death and was subsequently published by his son-in-law, Rastell in 1557. The following foreword was part of this publication:
The History of Richard III (unfinished) written by Master Thomas More, then one of the under-Sheriffs of London about the year 1513 Which work hath been before this time printed in Hardyng’s Chronicle and in Hall’s Chronicle, but very much corrupt in many places sometime having less and sometime having more and altered in words and whole sentences, much varying from the copy in his own hand, by which this is printed.
Since More was only a child of seven at the time of the Battle of Bosworth it stands to reason that he must have received the information from John Morton, in whose home More has spent time as a youth. Morton had served in Edward IV’s government but always remained steadfastly for the Lancastrian cause. He would prove to be a formidable enemy to the last Plantagenet king.
There is some suggestion that Morton was himself the author of The History and that More had only set out to copy it out, never finishing the task. In the seventeenth century George Buck supported this theory stating that “Doctor Morton made the book and Master More…set it forth, amplifying it and glossing it.” This theory is supported by the level of detail presented about certain events at which Morton was known to be present, i.e., the deathbed scene of Edward IV.
Whether or not the manuscript was written by Morton, we can be almost certain that he provided the source of information for More. Given the implacable enmity that Morton bore Richard III that source must always be viewed upon as being besmirched. Thomas More had a reputation for integrity and may have believed what he had been told by his former mentor. The fact that the manuscript was left unfinished could also be an indication that More had stumbled upon facts that did not jive with the story Morton had given him.
More’s account of events basically follow the same outline as Polydore Vergil but is more richly detailed, further supporting the idea that an eye-witness had supplied More with his information.
More’s History makes the following claims:
Richard III began plotting to claim the throne long before the death of his brother, Edward IV. The fact that this would have meant removing not only Edward’s sons, but also Clarence and his two children only gives More the opportunity to accuse Richard of being responsible for the death of Clarence.
More is the first historian to make this accusation against Richard. Yet even in doing so he couches it in such a way as to show Richard as being evil and scheming, while still claiming that all is hearsay:
Some wise men also ween that his drift covertly conveyed lacked not in helping forth his brother Clarence to his death; which he resisted openly howbeit somewhat (as men deemed) more faintly than he that were heartily minded to his weal. And they that thus deem think that he long time in King Edward’s life forethought to be King in case that the King his brother (whose life he looked that evil diet should shorten) should happen to decease (as indeed he did) while his children were still young; and they deem that for this intent he was glad of his brother’s death the Duke of Clarence, whose life must needs have hindered him so intending whether the same Duke of Clarence had kept him true to his nephew the young King or enterprised to be King himself. But of all this point there is no certainty, and who divineth upon conjectures may as well shoot too far as too short.
Next, More has Richard plotting to prevent the new young king, Edward, from entering London with a large escort. At the time Richard was in the North and an unaware as yet of the happening down South. More cites that he has the evidence of certain people, but does not substantiate who they are – more hearsay.
More continues his narrative with the incidents leading up to the removal of the Duke of York from his mother. While the sequence of events appear to be factual it is the spin that More puts on them that is damaging to Richard. More emphasizes a motive whereby Richard is trying to get both young princes in his clutches. This is unsubstantiated evidence and it would be just as easy to spin it another way and say that Richard wanted the younger prince to keep his older brother company in the Tower while awaiting his coronation.
The infamous council chamber meeting in the Tower, which ended with the execution of Lord Hastings is another example of how More twisted actual events to point up a darker version. Again the actual events are probably set down correctly. Richard, after arriving in good spirits suddenly turned and accused Morton, Rotherham, Stanley, Hastings and the Woodvilles of plotting against him. Hastings was executed soon after, although the actual date is still in question. More’s account leads the reader to believe that Richard had fully planned out the events before the meeting and killed off Hastings quickly because he believed Hastings would oppose his plan of seizing the throne for himself. Another interpretation was put forth by V.B. Lamb in The Betrayal of Richard III. Lamb puts forth that Richard, being faced by Bishop Stillington’s revelation of the illegitimacy of Edward IV’s children, had to find out who his allies were. He would have sent Catesby to determine if Hastings could be relied upon. Catesby, discovering the scope of the plot against Richard, interrupts the council meeting, calling Richard out of the room to inform him of his findings. Richard, upon returning is, by even More’s account, deeply shocked and fighting for self-control. Lamb’s view is that this would not have been the case if Richard had already fully planned out the events of that day. Lamb further points out that the quick execution of Hastings (whether it occurred that day or a week later) is another indication of the suddenness of the plot with which Richard was faced. Richard was well known to be a stickler for all forms of justice and to have proceeded as he did indicates how deeply shaken he was.1
The point being made here is that More’s version of the council meeting events have been twisted to show Richard as being evilly manipulative, ruthless in eliminating those who stand in his way. Since John Morton was one of those involved in the plot and present at the council meeting it is most conceivable that More would have gotten his information from him. Again, given that Morton was instrumental in Richard’s downfall, not much credence should be given to his relation of the story.
There are a few blatant errors in More’s History. He places the executions of Rivers, Vaughn and Grey on the same day as Hastings thereby giving the impression that they were all part of the same plot. The actual date was not for ten days later, as can be substantiated by the date on River’s will, June 23rd.
Another error is the name given by More as the woman to whom Edward IV was pre-contracted. More states the name is Elizabeth Lucy. The subsequent finding of Titulus Regius indicates that Lady Eleanor Butler was in fact the correct name. There is no good reason why More used Elizabeth Lucy instead, unless Morton, providing the details to More, decided to muddy the waters further with a false name.
The question of the fate of the two princes is most vague in More’s account. His telling of the story is close to Vergil’s version and is based upon the confession of John Tyrrel. What is most intriguing is More’s statement concerning the supposed murder of the two princes. He states:
“whose death and final infortune hath natheless so far come in question that sPrimary Sourcesome yet remain in doubt whether they were in his (Richard’s) days destroyed or no”
More was obviously very unsure of what really happened.
The portion of More’s The History of Richard III written in his own hand-writing breaks off at the point where Morton, under captivity by the Duke of Buckingham in Wales, is successfully attempting to get the Duke to turn on Richard and back Henry Tudor. The narrative is then continued by Hardyng, who brings it up to Richard’s death. It is Hardying who gives a physical description of Richard, almost identical to Vergil’s. More himself made no mention of any physical deformities, which Morton, as his source, would undoubtedly have mentioned.
Shakespeare would have had access to More’s History and very likely relied upon it for his play. However, just by the fact alone that Morton was a primary source for Thomas More calls the whole version into question. The account would have been biased and self-serving. As one of Henry Tudor’s staunch supporters, Morton saw More’s work as a propagandist tool to discredit the former regime.