Saint Thomas More has gone down in history as the man who opposed King Henry VIII’s divorce. He was not only a staunch supporter of marriage (and earned martrydom for it), but he was also a happily married man himself. He is the patron saint of difficult marriages, large families, step-parents and adopted children, and widowers. His feast day is celebrated on June 22.
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To become a saint in a terribly imperfect world, while being terribly imperfect oneself, is the challenge of every person. So More believed. Such a challenge More knew to involve difficult trials which he saw as the forge needed to fashion genuine strength and refinement of character—a character that would be capable of serving in any and all seasons. ~ Gerard B. Wegemer, A Portrait of Courage
Thomas More’s Early Life
Thomas More was born in London in 1478. His father was a judge and lawyer whose connections and wealth helped his son follow in his footsteps. Thomas’ mother died when he was a boy. He attended one of the best boys’ schools in London and then was apprenticed as a page to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor. The Archbishop became a mentor to young Thomas.
In 1492, he entered Oxford to study Latin and Greek. He then trained as a lawyer until he began his own practice in 1502. In 1501, he was elected as a Member of Parliament. Then, Thomas took a break from law and politics to enter the Carthusian Monastery. He was attracted to the religious life and spent two years following a lifestyle of simple piety. He eventually decided he couldn’t give up marriage and family life.
Aside from his interests in law and faith, Thomas also enjoyed writing. He wrote poetry in both Latin and English and was a regular correspondent. He met Erasmus in 1497 and the two men enjoyed a close friendship until Thomas’ death. He also had a deep interest in the early Church Fathers and delivered a series of lectures on St. Augustine. Later in his life, he wrote Utopia, a fictional satire about a perfect world which is now his best-known work.
Thomas met his first wife, Jane Colt, during a visit to a friend’s estate. Jane was one of 17 children of Thomas’ host (from two marriages). Although she was a decade younger than he was, they fell in love and were married. Theirs was a happy marriage and resulted in four children: three daughters and a son. Even twenty years later, he still called her his “dear little wife.” However, Jane died in 511 after only six years of marriage, leaving Thomas a widower with four young children.
For the sake of his children, Thomas soon remarried, this time to a silk merchant and widow, Alice Middleton. Their marriage seems to have begun not from love but from convenience, but their relationship was equally as happy as Thomas’ first marriage. She brought with her a child from her first marriage, and they were also the foster / adoptive parents of two other children.
In Married Saints and Blesseds through the Centuries, Thomas Holbock notes that Alice “fulfilled in exemplary fashion her duties as a mother in raising the children from his first marriage and also kept up with the household chores. Thomas More was often away from house and family because of the great demands that his work made upon him; he was grateful to know that he could rely completely on Lady Alice.”
Alice, however, did not agree with Thomas’ position against Henry VIII’s marriage. When she visited him in the Tower of London, she urged him to cave in to Henry’s demands, as all the bishops and others in England had, and return home to Chelsea, his wife and his children. She didn’t understand his jokes and perhaps founds him too talkative, but she did learn from him to appreciate music and play several instruments.
A secret that lies hidden in the soul of Thomas More remains a mystery even when we reflect that the young man’s saying, “Because I love you, you are my wife,” is supposed to become the mature man’s saying, “Because you are my wife, I love you.” Only in this way does marriage succeed. ~ as quoted by Holbock
Thomas More and Henry VIII
Thomas More began his career in the public service in 1510, when he was made under-sheriff in London. He served in various other positions and was knighted in 1521. He bought his Chelsea property in 1523 and built a mansion there, where he often hosted King Henry VIII for dinner. Thomas was always wary of the king’s attention, knowing how soon Henry’s favour could change.
In 1527, the king reached out to Thomas for legal advice about his marriage problems. He wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon dissolved because she had failed to give him an heir. Thomas replied that this was a theological or canonical problem, not a legal problem. When pressed by the king, Thomas did further research and affirmed again that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was valid.
Two years later, King Henry VIII deposed Cardinal Wolsey as lord chancellor because of his failure to help annul Henry’s marriage. Henry then appointed Thomas More has lord chancellor, despite Thomas’ attempt to decline the position and the fact that this position was usually given to a churchman. Thomas again warned the king that he did not agree with the King’s attempt to divorce his wife. Henry assured Thomas that he wouldn’t make him act against his conscience.
Over the next three years, King Henry continued his attempts to annul his marriage and finally broke completely with Rome in 1532. Thomas More then handed in his resignation as chancellor. He was fully aware that this meant the end of his income, that his family would now be like the beggars he had previously helped. He did his best to prepare his children (including, now, three sons-in-law) for this fall in fortunes. In this, he found inspiration in the saints:
More would talk unto his wife and children of the joys of heaven and the pains of hell, of the lives of holy martyrs, of their grievous martyrdoms, of their marvellous patience and of their passions and deaths, that they suffered rather than they would offend God, and what a happy and blessed thing it was, for the love of God to suffer the loss of goods, imprisonment, loss of hands, and life also. ~ More’s son-in-law, as quoted in Holbrock
In the next two years, various accusations were made against Thomas, who remained in seclusion at Chelsea. He defended himself from them all. Then in 1534, he refused to sign the succession oath, objecting to the preamble which declared Henry’s first marriage invalid and rejected papal authority. He was arrested and put into the Tower of London. His imprisonment was illegal, and he continued to defend himself and his actions. In the end, his enemies had to use a false witness to have him condemned to death.
A Saint’s Legacy
Thomas More was beheaded on July 6, 1535. He was canonized a saint four hundred years later, as humanity faced World War II. At his canonization, Pope Pius XI spoke words which can inspire any married couple: “There is a martyrdom which occurs in the continual preserving fidelity in little things, in those demands for diligence in the divine service, in the daily duty which becomes a daily cross” (as quoted in Wegemer).
His story has been made popular in the play and movie, A Man for All Seasons.
The supreme diplomat and counselor, he did not compromise his own moral values in order to please the king, knowing that true allegiance to authority is not blind acceptance of everything that authority wants. King Henry himself realized this and tried desperately to win his chancellor to his side because he knew More was a man whose approval counted, a man whose personal integrity no one questioned. ~ Franciscan Media