This article is from the May issue of Total Politics
Thomas More was one of greatest statesmen of the Tudor era, and was canonised in 1935 as a religious martyr. He served several times as an MP, and as Speaker in one Parliament.
In this period, details of Parliaments’ memberships often could only be gleaned from secondary sources. So it was with More, especially for what is said to be his first Parliament, in 1504, the main source being the biography by his son-in-law, William Roper MP.
There is no record of More’s constituency, variously suggested as Gatton in Surrey (where his new father-in-law, John Colt, had sat in 1492) or the City of London, on the basis of his various legal and religious activities in it.
Roper suggests that 26-year-old More took a leading part in the 1504 Parliament, successfully opposing the financing that Henry VII had summoned it to supply. It was reported to the King “that a beardless boy had disappointed all his purpose”, and Henry took his revenge by sending More’s father to the Tower and fining him £100.
More served in the next Parliament, which sat for a month in early 1510, as one of the four representatives for London, where he was becoming increasingly influential. He had recently been made an honorary member of the Mercers’ Company, and was described as ‘Thomas More, mercer’ in the return for the vacancy that arose when one of the burgesses elected in December 1509 was made an alderman. "Young More", as he was described in one account to differentiate him from his father, was thereby a member in Henry VIII’s first Parliament.
It may have been his accumulation of various official posts – he was made under-sheriff for London in September 1510 – which prevented him in practice from sitting in the 1512 and 1515 Parliaments. However, he seems to have been active in legislative business at Parliament as a lawyer for the City.
He was gradually drawn into royal service, and by the early 1520s had become Henry’s close political counsellor. In 1521 he was knighted and made under-treasurer of the Exchequer, so it was no great surprise that when a Parliament was summoned in 1523, More emerged, probably at the instigation of Lord Chancellor Wolsey, as the Commons Speaker.
While it is not certain which seat More represented, it is generally assumed to be Middlesex. This Parliament met over three sessions between April and August, at Blackfriars and then at Westminster.
More’s Speakership is notable for his statement at the opening of the Parliament, seeking freedom of speech for the Commons. While this was not, as is sometimes claimed, the origin of Commons privilege, it was certainly a constitutional milestone. Instead of merely seeking, as was traditional, the King’s tolerance of his own actions and words as Speaker when acting as the House’s mouthpiece, he also asked for similar protection for the whole House “… to give to all your Commons here assembled your most gracious licence and pardon, freely, without doubt of your dreadful displeasure, every man to discharge his conscience, and boldly in everything incident among us to declare his advice, and whatsoever happen any man to say, that it may like your noble Majesty, or your inestimable goodness, to take all in good part …”
More handled the House skilfully amid the tensions between Parliament and the King, the latter represented by Wolsey. Though Parliament did not deliver all the financing the court wanted, Wolsey was sufficiently satisfied with More’s performance to advise the King to give More the customary ‘bonus’ of £100 in addition to the usual Speaker’s fee of £100 in recognition of his “faithful diligence”.
This was to be the last Parliament in which More served as an MP, but in 1529 he became Lord Chancellor. This meant that he was in the front line of the growing crisis over royal marital and religious affairs, which ultimately led to his downfall, trial and, in 1535, execution.
In October 2000, the Pope made St Thomas More the patron saint of statesmen and politicians, declaring him as someone “acknowledged as a source of inspiration for a political system which has as its supreme goal the service of the human person”.