Sir Thomas More, or Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman and noted Renaissance humanist. He bought more than 20 acres of land on the site of what is now Beaufort Street in the 1520s and built a house there. He was the first of several prominent figures to build large properties in the area, including Henry himself, who decided Cheyne Walk Chelsea would be a fitting place for his children to grow up.
He was an important councillor to Henry VIII and Lord Chancellor from October 1529 to 16 May 1532. He initially supported the king’s annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, but when Henry moved to declare himself Supreme Head of the Church in England and dissolve the monasteries, he opposed Henry’s [purportedly bigamous] marriage to Anne Boleyn and he resigned.
More also wrote Utopia, published in 1516, about the political system of an ideal and imaginary island nation. More’s downfall came when he refused to take an oath swearing allegiance to the Act of Succession in 1534, which named Henry’s daughter Elizabeth (by Anne Boleyn) the legitimate heir to the throne and declared Mary, his daughter from his first marriage, illegitimate.
More was arrested, charged with high treason and was executed in 1535.
So why did he become a saint? According to his friend, theologian Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, More once seriously contemplated abandoning his legal career to become a monk. Between 1503 and 1504 More lived near the Carthusian monastery outside the walls of London and joined in the monks’ spiritual exercises. Although he deeply admired their piety, More ultimately decided to remain a layman, standing for election to Parliament in 1504 and marrying the following year. In spite of his choice to pursue a secular career, More continued ascetical practices for the rest of his life, such as wearing a hair shirt next to his skin and occasionally engaging in flagellation.
More was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, along with other English martyrs, and canonized in 1935. So, in effect, he was canonized because of his martyrdom.