Skip to main content

‘Worthy to be hadde and redde of euerye Englishe man’: the private, public and political contexts of Thomas More’s English Workes

  • Katherine Forsyth (a1)

In 1624 the playwright John Webster lauded Thomas More as a learned and worthy poet, placing him alongside Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate and Philip Sidney. It is clear that More was celebrated by Webster not only for the quality of his literary writing, but also for the wider political, social and historical influence of his literary output. This article uses the production of the 1557 folio of More’s English Workes to explore the literary, political and religious influence of More’s writing in the 1550s and beyond, and situates More’s Workes within the wider context of folio production in Renaissance England. It also explores how the publication of More’s Workes in folio established a distinct literary position for Thomas More in the mid-1550s, and highlights the unusual nature of the folio’s compilation and production within the mid-Tudor book trade.

Hide All

With thanks to Dr. Matthew Woodcock for reading an initial draft and for his helpful suggestions. Thanks also to Gabriela Schmidt and those present at the panel ‘Thomas More and the Art of Publishing II’ at the RSA Conference in Berlin, 2015, for the stimulating ‘Question and Answer’ session which led to several new ideas.

Hide All

1 John Webster quoted in Rev. Dyce, Alex, ed. Appendix to the works of John Webster (London: William Pickering, 1838), 10 .

2 More, Thomas, The workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght, sometyme Lorde Chauncellour of England, wrytten by him in the Englysh tonge (London: John Cawood, John Walley and Richard Tottel, 1557), Zvv. The folio contains: The life of John Picus Erle of Myrandula; The history of king Richard the thirde; A Treatyce (vnfynshed) upon these woordes of holye Scrypture; A Dialogue concernynge heresyes; The supplicacion of soules; The Confutacion of Tyndales Avnswer and The second Boke; A letter of sir Thomas More knight impugning the erroniouse wryting of John Frith; The apology of syr Thomas More knight; The Debellacyon of Salem and Bizance; The answer to the first part of the poysoned booke; A dyalogue of comfort; A treatice to receaue the blessed body of our lorde, sacramentally and virtually; A treatice upon the passion of Chryste (unfinished); Here folowe certaine deuout and vertuouse instruccions, meditacions, and prayers made and collected by syr Thomas More knight; Here folow foure letters which syr Thomas More wrote after he had gyuen ouer the office of lord Chauncellour of England and before he was imprisoned; Here folow certeyn letters and other thynges which syr Thomas More wrote while he was prisoner in the towre of London.

3 In particular see Duffy, Eamon, Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor (London: Yale University Press, 2009); Dillon, Anne, The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, 1535–1603 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2002); Gregory, Brad C., Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (London: Harvard University Press, 1999); and Ahnert, Ruth, The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

4 Cecil H. Clough, ‘Rastell, John (c.1475–1536)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (hereafter ODNB), online edn September 2004 [ Accessed 26 March 2017]; Arthur W. Reed, ‘The Editor of Sir Thomas More’s English Works: William Rastell’, The Library 4 (1923): 25–49, at 26.

5 J. H. Baker, ‘Rastell, William (1508–1565)’, ODNB, online edn September 2004 [ Accessed 27 March 2017].

6 Bush, M.L., The Pilgrims’ Complaint: A Study of Popular Thought in the Early Tudor North (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 104 ; Guy, John, A Daughter’s Love: Thomas and Margaret More (London: Harper Perennial, 2009), 5 .

7 Margaret Bowker, ‘Roper [More], Margaret (1505–1544)’, ODNB, online edn September 2004 [ Accessed 25 March 2017].

8 Guy, A Daughter’s Love, 6.

9 Quoted in Desmond Ford, C., ‘Good Master Bonvisi’, Clergy Review 27 (1947): 228235 , at 228.

10 Baker-Smith, Dominic, ‘Antonio Bonvisi and Florens Wilson’, Moreana, 43 (2006): 82108 , at 83; Ford, ‘Good Master Bonvisi’, 232.

11 C.T. Martin, ‘Antonio Bonvisi’, rev. Basil Morgan, ODNB, online edn September 2004 [ Accessed 26 March 2017].

12 Ibid.

13 Ford, ‘Good Master Bonvisi’, 235.

14 Guy, A Daughter’s Love, 272.

15 Thomas S. Freeman, ‘Harpsfield, Nicholas (1519–1575)’, ODNB, online edn September 2004 [ Accessed 3 April 2017].

16 Taylor, Andrew, ‘How to hold your tongue: John Christopherson’s Plutarch and the Mid-Tudor Politics of Catholic Humanism’, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 41 (2014): 411431 , at 412. For further details of this recusant group on the Continent see McConica, James K., ‘The Recusant Reputation of Thomas More’, CCHA, Report 30 (1963): 4761 .

17 Goodrich, Jaime, ‘The Dedicatory Preface to Mary Roper Clarke Basset’s Translation of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History’, English Literary Renaissance 40 (2010): 301328 , at 311; Olivares-Merino, Eugenio M., ‘Some Notes about Mary Roper Clar(c)ke Bassett and her Translation of Eusebius’, Moreana 46 (2009): 146180 , at 151 and Goodrich, ‘The Dedicatory Preface’, 308.

18 More, Workes, ‘The prynter to the gentle reader’, 2Q7v.

19 Caroline M. K. Bowden, ‘Bassett [Roper], Mary (d. 1572)’, ODNB, online edn September 2004 [ Accessed 28 March 2017].

20 More, Workes, 2Q7v. The plan for separate publication was presumably thwarted by the death of Queen Mary in 1558.

21 Duffy, Fires of Faith, 179.

22 Anna Greening, ‘Tottell , Richard (b. in or before 1528, d. 1593)’, ODNB, online edn, September 2004 [ Accessed 28 March 2017].

23 Byrom, H.J., ‘Richard Tottell – His Life and Work’, The Library VIII (1927): 199232 , at 203–4.

24 Ibid., 202.

25 Ibid., 202–3; Blayney, Peter, The Stationers’ Company and the Printers of London, 1501–1557, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 2: 645646 .

26 Byrom, ‘Richard Tottell’, 206.

27 Alec Ryrie, ‘Cawood, John (1513/14–1572)’, ODNB, online edn 2004 [ Accessed 28 March 2017].

28 Ibid.

29 A point with which Peter Blayney concurs. See Blayney, The Stationers’ Company, 2: 754. Cawood’s son Gabriel, also a Stationer, was known during Elizabeth’s reign to have Catholic sympathies. Raven, See James, The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade, 1450–1850 (London: Yale University Press, 2007), 73 ; Brown, Nancy Pollard, ‘Robert Southwell: The Mission of the Written Word’ in Thomas M. McCoog, ed. The Reckoned Expense: Edmund Campion and the Early English Jesuits: Essays in Celebration of the First Centenary of Campion Hall (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1996), 193215 , at 200; Collinson, Patrick, Hunt, Arnold, and Walsham, Alexandra, ‘Religious Publishing in England, 15571640’, in D.F. McKenzie and John Barnard, eds. The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, 7 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4 : 45.

30 More, Workes, 2Zvv.

31 For further details see Blayney, The Stationers’ Company, 2: 767–8.

32 Ibid., 787–8.

33 Marc’hadour, Germain, ‘Three Tudor Editors of Thomas More’, in R.J Schoeck, ed. Editing Sixteenth Century Texts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966), 5971 , at 61.

34 For more on MoorePaynell, see Paynell, see, ‘Gathering Fruit: The ‘Profitable’ Translations of Thomas Paynell’ in Fred Schurink, ed. Tudor Translations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 3957 ; McConica, James Kelsey, English Humanists and Reformation Politics under Henry VIII and Edward VI (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965),138140 and Geoffrey Eatough, ‘Paynell, Thomas (d. 1564?)’, ODNB, online edn September 2004 [ Accessed 29 March 2017].

35 Paynell, Thomas, Regimen sanitatis Salerni: This boke techynge all people to gouerne them in helthe, is translated out of the Latyne tounge into englishe by Thomas Paynell. Which boke is amended, augmented, and diligently imprinted (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1530), Aiiir; Eatough, ‘Thomas Paynell’, ODNB.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Paynell, Regimen sanitatis Salerni, Aiiiv.

39 Questier, Michael, ‘Catholicism, Kinship and the Public Memory of Sir Thomas More’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 3 (2002): 476509 , at 483.

40 Goodrich, ‘The Dedicatory Preface’, 309.

41 Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘Roper, William (1495×8–1578)’, ODNB, online edn, September 2004 [ Accessed 3 April 2017]. Roper – More’s son-in-law, husband of Margaret More and father of Mary Bassett – provided the oral and written source material for Harpsfield’s biography. It is believed, though, that Roper’s text was written for Harpsfield’s personal use and was never intended for publication.

42 Galbraith, Steven K., ‘English literary folios 1593–1623: studying shifts in format’, in John N. King, ed. Tudor books and readers: materiality and the construction of meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 4667 , at 48–9.

43 The workes of Geffray Chaucer newly printed with dyuers workes whiche were neuer in print before: As in the table more playnly dothe appere (London: Thomas Godfray, 1532).

44 More, Workes, Ciiv.

45 Ibid., Ciir. Emphases in this passage are the author’s own.

46 Collected editions of More’s Latin works did not appear until the 1560s, and were printed on the continent (1563 in Basle and 1565 in Louvain). In the 1550s, therefore, it seems the priority was the publication of More’s works in the English language for an English readership, to assist in the re-Catholicization of England.

47 More, Workes, Ciiv.

48 Rastell’s enthusiasm to emphasize the beneficial combination of eloquence and religious utility to be found in More’s Workes may also have been due to a need to repair More’s reputation in the 1550s, when it had been damaged by attacks from Protestant reformers. Indeed, there was also a lack of enthusiasm for his writings, by this time, due to their often abstruse nature.

49 Various academics have explored Chaucer’s influence on More’s writing. In particular, see Betteridge, Thomas, Writing Faith and Telling Tales: Literature, Politics, and Religion in the Work of Thomas More (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013); Fox, Alistair, ‘Chaucer, More, and English Humanism’, Parergon 6 (1988): 6375 ; Marc’hadour, Germain, ‘Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas More’, Moreana Vol.41, 159 (September 2004): 37–63; Ryan, S.J, Francis X., ‘Sir Thomas More’s Use of Chaucer’, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 35, No.1 (1995): 117 .

50 Bishop, Louise M., ‘Father Chaucer and the Vivification of Print’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106 (2007): 336363 , at 339.

51 Cannon, Christopher, ‘The Myth of Origin and the Making of Chaucer’s English’, Speculum 71 (1996): 646675 , at 646; For a brief overview of Renaissance views on Chaucer see Cooper, Helen, ‘Poetic Fame’ in James Simpson and Brian Cummings, eds. Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in Literary History (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 361378 , at 364.

52 Fox, ‘Chaucer, More, and English Humanism’, 65.

53 Cooper, ‘Poetic Fame’, 361.

54 Wizeman, William, The Theology and Spirituality of Mary Tudor’s Church (Farnham: Ashgate, 2006), 154 .

55 Duffy, Fires of Faith, 181.

56 For further discussion of More’s understanding of ‘true martyrdom’ see Dillon, The Construction of Martyrdom, 24.

57 Ibid., 23.

58 Ibid., 23.

59 Wizeman, William, ‘Martyrs and Anti-Martyrs and Mary Tudor’s Church’, in Thomas S. Freeman and Thomas F. Mayer, eds. Martyrs and Martyrdom in England c.1400–1700 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007), 166180 , at 167.

60 For example, Julins Palmer had been a staunch Catholic and outspoken critic of Edward VI’s Protestant reforms during his time at Magdalen College, Oxford, but after witnessing the executions of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, embraced Protestantism. Ridley, Jasper, Bloody Mary’s Martyrs: The Story of England’s Terror (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001),150152 .

61 Ahnert, The Rise of Prison Literature, 162; Duffy, Fires of Faith, 179–80.

62 Billingsley, Dale B., ‘The Editorial Design of the 1557 English Works’, Moreana 89 (Feb. 1986): 3948 , at 46, 41.

63 More, Thomas, ‘Utopia’ in Stephen Greenblatt et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume B: The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012): 636.

64 More, Workes, 2dviiv-2dviiir.

65 Ibid., 2Xiiir.

66 Billingsley, ‘The Editorial Design of the 1557 English Works’, 42.

67 Duffy, Fires of Faith, 180.

68 Greg Walker has found a number of sources suggesting that Sir Brian Tuke composed the Preface to Thynne’s Workes, writing in the first person as if he were William Thynne. For simplicity, this article will refer to the author of the preface as Thynne. For further details on the relationship between Thynne and Tuke see Walker, Greg, Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press), ch. 4.

69 Chaucer, Workes, Aiiir.

70 Ibid., Aiiv.

71 More, Workes, Ciiv.

72 Chaucer, Workes, Aiiv.

73 Ibid., Aiiv.

74 Ibid., Aiiir.

75 More, Workes, Ciir.

76 Ibid., Ciiv.

77 Walker, Writing Under Tyranny, 30.

78 Bishop, ‘Father Chaucer’, 345.

79 Todd Knight, Jeffrey, Bound to Read: Compilations, Collections and the Making of Renaissance Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013),163 .

80 Walker, Writing Under Tyranny, 33.

81 Ibid., 56.

82 Cooper, ‘Poetic Fame’, 370.

83 Ibid., 370.

84 Foxe, John, Ecclesiasticall History Contaynyng the Actes and Monumentes of Thynges Passed in Euery Kynges Tyme in This Realme, 2nd ed. (London: Iohn Daye, 1570), 2 : 965.

85 Simpson, James, ‘Chaucer’s presence and absence, 1400–1550’ in Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 251263 , at 263.

86 More, Workes, Ciiv.

87 Webster, Appendix, 10.

88 Knight, Bound to Read, 161–2.

89 Ibid., 167.

90 Ibid., 168.

91 Ibid., 168–69.

92 More, Workes, Ciiir, Ciiiir.

93 Ibid., Ciiv.

94 Ibid., Ciiv.

95 More, Workes, 2Q7v.

96 Ibid., 2Q7v.

97 A.W. Reed noted the importance of the inclusion of More’s four youthful works, arguing that ‘it takes us back to the days of More’s youth and helps us in the very necessary duty of seeing him as he really was, unchanged at heart, whatever his fortunes, always the same witty, grave and humorous figure, facing, clear-sighted, the facts and fun of life.’ See A.W. Reed, ‘William Rastell and More’s English Works’ in Sylvester, R.S. and Marc’hadour, G.P., eds. Essential Articles for the Study of Thomas More (Hamden: Archdon Books, 1977): 436446 , at 443.

* With thanks to Dr. Matthew Woodcock for reading an initial draft and for his helpful suggestions. Thanks also to Gabriela Schmidt and those present at the panel ‘Thomas More and the Art of Publishing II’ at the RSA Conference in Berlin, 2015, for the stimulating ‘Question and Answer’ session which led to several new ideas.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

British Catholic History
  • ISSN: 2055-7973
  • EISSN: 2055-7981
  • URL: /core/journals/british-catholic-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed