St. Thomas More (1478-1535): Patron Saint of Lawyers and University Students
Thomas More enjoyed a thorough legal education even though he had seriously considered entering the monastic life. For four years, he lived with the Carthusian monks at the London Charterhouse. The Carthusian Order, it should be noted, is the most austere in the Church, never needing reform because it was never found to be deformed. Thomas came to see that his vocation lay in the world and not in a monastery. His intellectual rigor and good humor, his diplomacy and keen sense of fairness, his deep Carthusian spirit attracted attention. These attributes contributed to his steady rise through the ranks of his legal profession. Thomas More was a great man. Henry knew it; the people knew it, and Europe knew it.
When he was not yet forty, Thomas’s first wife died leaving him with four children. Soon after, he married Alice Middleton, a woman of means. It was during these years that Thomas firmly established himself as a leader among the humanists in London. Erasmus referred to More as “England’s only genius,” a barb meant to show up England’s dearth of scholars.
Thomas remained at the court for twelve years beginning in 1518. As Parliament began to ponder “the King’s great matter,” Councilor Thomas maintained his silence on the matter—unlike John Fisher. Here is the conversation between Wolsey and More after one Council meeting in which Thomas opposed a devious letter sent to Rome favoring the divorce:
Wolsey: You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.
More: Oh, Your Grace flatters me.
Wolsey: Thomas, are you going to help me?
More: If Your Grace will be more specific.
Wolsey: The King needs a son; what are you going to do about it?
More: I pray for it daily.
Wolsey: That thing out there is at least fertile.
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More: But she’s not his wife.
Wolsey: No, Catherine is his wife, and she’s as barren as a brick. . . . All right, pray, pray by all means. But in addition to prayer, there is effort. My effort is to secure a divorce. Have I your support or have it not?
More: A dispensation was granted so that the King might marry Queen Catherine, for state reasons. Now we are to ask the Pope to dispense with his dispensation, also for state reasons?
Wolsey: I don’t like plodding, Thomas; don’t make me plod longer than I have to—Well?
More: Then clearly all we have to do is approach His Holiness and ask him.
Wolsey: I think we might influence His Holiness’ answer (suggesting that the Pope be pressured.)