He was born in Beverley, in Yorkshire, in 1469. He studied theology at the University of Cambridge, and had a successful career there, finally becoming chancellor of the University and bishop of Rochester: unusually for the time, he paid a great deal of attention to the welfare of his diocese.
He wrote much against the errors and corruption into which the Church had fallen, and was a friend and supporter of great humanists such as Erasmus of Rotterdam; but he was greatly opposed to Lutheranism, both in its doctrine and in its ideas of reform.
He supported the validity of King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and for this he was briefly imprisoned. When the King had divorced Catherine, married Anne Boleyn, and constituted himself the supreme Head of the Church in England, John Fisher refused to assent. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of treason, and on 22 June 1535, a month after having been made a Cardinal by the Pope, he was executed. He was so ill and weak that he had to be carried in a chair to the place of execution.
He was the only bishop to oppose Henry VIII’s actions, on the grounds that they were a repudiation of papal authority, but even so he avoided direct confrontation with the other bishops, not holding himself up as a hero or boasting of his coming martyrdom: I condemn no other man’s conscience: their conscience may save them, and mine must save me. We should remember, in all the controversies in which we engage, to treat our opponents as if they were acting in good faith, even if they seem to us to be acting out of spite or self-interest.
He was born in London, the son of a judge, and himself became an eminent lawyer. He married twice, and had four children. He was a humanist and a reformer, and his book, Utopia, depicting a society regulated by the natural virtues, is still read today.
Thomas More was a close friend of King Henry VIII. As a judge, he was famous for his incorruptibility and impartiality, and he was made Lord Chancellor – the highest legal position in England – in 1529.
When Henry VIII demanded a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Thomas More opposed him. He resigned the chancellorship in 1532 and retired from public life; but he could not retire from his reputation, and so it was demanded that he take an oath to support the Act of Succession, which effectively repudiated papal religious authority. He refused, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. After the execution of John Fisher, he was tried on the charge of high treason for denying the King’s supreme headship of the Church, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He went to his execution, on 6 July 1535, with a clear conscience and a light heart; he told the spectators that he was still “the king’s good servant – but God’s first,” and carefully adjusted his beard before he was beheaded.
He wrote a number of devotional works, some of the best of them while in prison awaiting trial. He fought his fight without acrimony, telling his judges that he wished that “we may yet hereafter in Heaven merrily all meet together to everlasting salvation.”
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