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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

The Life and Legacy of St Thomas More

Until 31 March next year, the St John Paul II National Shrine in Washington is hosting a unique exhibition, God’s Servant First: The Life and Legacy of Thomas More, which will showcase over 60 artefacts, most of which come from Stonyhurst College. The objects on display include a first folio by William Shakespeare, a hat owned by More, a chasuble embroidered by Katherine of Aragon, and relics of More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who was executed for treason two weeks before More.

Thomas More was a lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman and noted Renaissance humanist. He was at one time one of Henry VIII's most trusted civil servants, becoming Chancellor of England in 1529. His famous work, Utopia, was published in 1516. The book, which was modelled on Plato’s Republic, imagined a perfect society in which national health, state education, universal adult suffrage, and religious toleration were supported.

Today he is remembered and revered for being a fierce defender of the Catholic Faith. Between 1529 and 1534 he wrote several books in answer to the Protestant literature that was flowing into England from the continent. Among the Antiquarian book collection, we hold three volumes of his complete works. The following image shows the title page of a 1689 edition:

When Henry established the Anglican Church with himself at its head, allowing him to divorce Catherine of Aragon, More resigned his chancellorship. He continued to argue against the king's divorce, the Reformation and the split with the Catholic Church. After refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, he was tried for treason and executed on July 6th 1535.

Today, More’s legacy lives on. He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and canonised alongside John Fisher in 1935 by Pope Pius XI. Most recently, Pope John Paul II in 2000 declared him the patron of Statesmen and Politicians, saying that his life and martyrdom offered a testimony that "spans the centuries" and "speaks to people everywhere of the inalienable dignity of the human conscience."

Official documentation

Demonstrating that legacy, the Archives holds copies of official documentation sent to Rome in the process of his beatification and canonisation as well as this folded piece of paper, which contains a piece of More’s cap (ex pileo).

Cap relic

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