Monday, December 21, 2015

The Two Wives of Sir Thomas More

by Susan Abernethy
Here lies Joanna, dear little wife of Thomas More, who intends this tomb for Alice and me. The first united to me in my youthful days, gave me a boy and three girls to call me father. The second, a rare distinction in a stepmother, was as affectionate as if the children were her own. It is hard to say if the first lived with me more beloved than the second does now. Oh how blessed if fate and religion had permitted all three of us to live together. I pray the tomb and heaven may unite us, thus death could give what life could not give.
Epitaph written by Sir Thomas More for his wives seen to this day in Chelsea Old Church
Aside from many other good qualities, Sir Thomas More, who served as Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII, was known as a dedicated family man. The illustrious Tudor court painter Hans Holbein the Younger painted a famous portrait of the More family. Sadly the original painting is lost but Holbein gave the original, preparatory sketch to Sir Thomas as a gift and it still exists. Thomas had two wives during his married life. Let’s take a look at these two remarkable women.

After attending school at Oxford and legal training, Thomas was living with the Carthusian monks just outside London when he decided to marry and pursue a career as a Member of Parliament. In November of 1504, Thomas was betrothed to Joanna, the eldest daughter of John Colt. John Colt’s father Thomas Colt had married a rich heiress allowing him to obtain Netherhall and all of its estates and to rebuild the manor house. Joanna’s mother’s name was either Jane, Joan or Elizabeth Eldrington. The child may have been named Jane after her mother but family documents show her as Joanna which could have been shortened to Joan. She is most commonly known as Jane so that is what we will call her.

An uncle later attested at a lawsuit hearing that Jane was seventeen at the time of her marriage. She would have received the standard education for a young woman of her class, including domestic management, deportment and religious instruction. The biography of Thomas, written by his son-in-law William Roper says Thomas was attracted to the Colt daughters due to their honest conversation and virtuous education. The connection to the Colt’s was made through Thomas’ father who knew John Colt. Jane never visited London before she was married and the couple probably only met each other no more than a half a dozen times before they were married.

There were economic advantages for the marriage for both parties. Thomas had an up and coming career and Jane’s father settled a dowry on her. The actual amount is unknown but compared to similar dowries of the time, it most likely amounted to £150-200. The best guess for their wedding date is mid-January, 1505. Thomas drew on Jane’s dowry to take out the lease on the Barge at Bucklersbury, furnish the house and landscape the gardens. The house was on the east end of Cheapside, about five hundred yards from the Thames.

Thomas’ humanist friend Erasmus, who spent time with the More’s at the Barge says Thomas arranged to have Jane educated and taught her how to play music. Jane would give birth to four children. Her first child was Thomas’ beloved daughter Margaret who was born in the fall of 1505. Jane’s labor was long and painful. Shortly after the birth, she made a special thank-offering to God at the Church of St. Stephen’s Walbrook where she attended regularly. Margaret may have been named for St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth.

A daughter named Elizabeth was born c. 1506 and another daughter, Cecily was born in 1508. Jane’s final child was a son John who was born in 1509. There was an adopted daughter in the household, an orphan of a neighbor named Margaret Griggs. She was brought up and educated with the More children.

During the Christmas season of 1510, Thomas was fulfilling his duties as “Lord of Misrule” at Lincoln’s Inn and couldn’t be with the family. Jane had welcomed Erasmus to the household for the holiday celebrations and he was allowed to invite his own guests. Erasmus asked an Italian friend and scholar Andrea Ammonio to join him. Six months later Ammonio was still at the Barge and wrote to Erasmus that Lady More was well and never mentioned Erasmus without blessing his name.

By September 1511, Jane had been struck by some fatal illness and was dead. Probable causes of death were influenza, typhus or dysentery. Her funeral was held at St. Stephen’s and she was interred beneath the flagstones of the chancel.

Alice More
Within a month, Thomas had convinced a wealthy widow of a family friend to marry him. Her name was Alice Middleton. Her husband John Middleton was a wool exporter, silk merchant and mercer who had been born in Beverly in Yorkshire. He was a Citizen of London, member of the Mercers’ Company and a Merchant of the Staple of Calais and he lived and worked in Fenchurch Street. Thomas was made a member of the Mercers’ Company so he could represent some of their members in negotiations. Whether he met Middleton or Alice here is speculation but the Middleton and More families certainly knew each other.

Middleton had become ill in October of 1509 and died a few weeks later. He made Alice a co-executor of his will and she inherited all of his goods in London and Calais, and his lands and rents in Hertfordshire and London. Alice was pregnant at the time of his death but unfortunately miscarried the child. At the time, she had a nine year old daughter named Alice and a younger daughter named Helen. The will included dowries for the two girls. Helen died shortly after her father.

Alice came from a notable and well-off lawyer family. She was born Alice Harpur c. 1474 probably at Epping, Essex. She was the daughter of Elizabeth née Ardern and Elizabeth’s second husband Sir Richard Harpur. Elizabeth was known for her sharp tongue and snappy wits. When Alice was ten, her father bought the manor of Latton as his main home. Alice loved this home and the countryside very much and was loathe to leave. Her father arranged her marriage to her cousin John Middleton when she was sixteen and she moved to London.

After her father died, the family home came to be sold and Alice made it her mission in life to recover Latton. She spent the next twenty years following the fortunes of the estate. She may have considered by marrying Thomas, she would have a stellar lawyer on her side in any future litigation.

Thomas may have known Alice was experienced in raising children and managing a household as well as managing the wealth and assets she had inherited. He also probably knew she was a godly woman. Thomas talked Alice into marrying him as soon as possible. He acquired a special license that allowed him to avoid the announcement of the wedding banns in church for three consecutive Sundays.

John Bouge was the acting rector of St. Stephen’s and he wrote a description of the events leading up to the marriage. He says that within a month after burying Jane, Thomas came to him with the special license late on a Sunday night. The marriage was performed on Monday. Alice lost no time in taking over management of the household at the Barge. She moved the household ledgers and the iron chest containing the ready cash to her bedroom. Ammonio was asked to leave.

Erasmus says Thomas loved Alice dearly. He treated her with kindness and good humor persuading her to do his will with his wit. He called her “a stout master woman”. He taught her to play the virginals, recorder and lute. Alice’s wealth came in very handy and allowed Thomas to renew his lease on the house at the Barge. Both Alice and Thomas shared a love of animals and there were many pets, including a monkey, weasels and dogs among others. They enjoyed exchanging jokes between themselves and teased each other mercilessly. Thomas worried about enjoying himself too much. He kept his private and his public life separate, rarely sharing aspects of his work with this family.

Alice was wise, the epitome of common sense, forthright in her speech and exercised practical efficiency. She demonstrated courage, sensibility and frugalness. She could also be generous and warm-hearted. She was just what Thomas needed at the time. She encouraged him to further his career. She took loving care of his four children plus Margaret Griggs and her own daughter Alice. She carefully supervised the children’s education, assigning lessons and making sure they were completed. She is remembered as being fun loving by her grandchildren.

Within a year or two of Jane’s death, Thomas made plans to build a tomb to honor Jane with an inscription written by himself. He then changed the plan to include himself and Alice in the tomb. He asked Alice if she preferred to be buried with him or John Middleton, whose tomb included a space for her. She chose to be buried with Thomas and he was exceedingly pleased with her choice. As Thomas’ career advanced, he was away from home more often and Alice was left in charge.

In 1524, Thomas acquired assorted parcels of land in Chelsea and began construction of a new house. The family moved into a smaller house nearby until it was finished. The new home had ample space, gardens and an orchard. Just after moving in, Thomas had Jane’s remains exhumed and buried in the vault in Chelsea Old Church. There is only one surviving letter between Thomas and Alice and it concerns the matter of their barn burning down in Chelsea in 1529. In 1530, Alice and Thomas joined the Fraternity of Christ Church, Canterbury, professing their devotion to St. Thomas Becket and the cathedral.

They only lived in Chelsea for seven years before their situation began to deteriorate. After Thomas’ resigned as Lord Chancellor in 1532, he called a family meeting to say they could no longer afford to live as they were accustomed. They were unable to support their children. He and Alice would have to live frugally and economically. Thomas and Alice lived with Margaret and William Roper in genteel poverty. Thomas was forced to sell his silver plate, and they lived on a £100 pension that Henry VIII had given him for life when he joined the King’s Council.

The Act of Succession was passed in 1534 and Thomas refused to swear the oath of succession recognizing Anne Boleyn’s children as Henry’s heirs. The king's council had Thomas imprisoned in the Tower in April. Anticipating he would be arrested, Thomas set up a trust giving property to his daughter-in-law Anne Cresacre, the Ropers and Alice. Only the property of the Ropers was actually transferred to them.

Alice never did understand the reasons for Thomas’ downfall. She only visited him once in the Tower during his fifteen month stay, probably at the behest of Thomas Cromwell in a desperate last ditch effort to get Thomas to change his mind. Alice was completely flummoxed on how her husband came to be locked up in the Tower. She didn’t think moral principles paid the bills. She strongly rebuked her husband during the visit. Thomas was unfazed.

After Alice’s visit to the Tower, she was left at the house in Chelsea with her furniture but the loss of her husband’s pension was a serious financial blow. She had £30 of rents from her own estates and she let out two farms but she was forced to rely on charity from a family friend. Thomas had spent all the cash she had inherited from her first marriage. She petitioned King Henry to pardon and release Thomas into her custody. The petition was ignored. She was forced to sell some of her clothes to pay off Thomas’ debts and the bills for board and lodging in the Tower. She petitioned Cromwell for help to no avail.

In late 1534, the Act of Supremacy passed in Parliament and Thomas was asked to swear an oath recognizing King Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England. He did not swear. It was treason to deny the king’s new title and Thomas was tried, convicted and executed on July 6, 1535.

King Henry passed a special Act of Parliament dissolving the family trust Thomas had set up for Alice. The two small farms escaped the Act leaving Alice £20 per year. William Roper tried to evict Alice to take the rents. There was a lawsuit that lasted for five years but Alice won and Roper was forced to pay her compensation. She also finally won a backdated pension from King Henry and was now more solvent than she had been since Thomas’ downfall. She moved into a smaller property along the river and established her independence. She lived there the rest of her days. She died on or before 1551 and is most likely buried in Chelsea.

Jane was self-effacing, obedient and quiet, taking care of the household and giving Thomas four children. Alice and Thomas had a comfortable relationship that they both enjoyed. She had a deep affection for Thomas. She managed his household and brought up his children, teaching his daughters the requisite modest and appropriate behavior for a gentlewoman and the domestic skills need to run their own households. She was dutiful, pious and kind, endeavoring to save her husband’s life. They enjoyed a good life until his troubles began. It seems Sir Thomas was lucky with his two wives.


A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg by John Guy, Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners by Retha Warnicke, entry on Alice More in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Retha Warnicke. I would also like to thank my friend Meg McGath for her help in writing this article.


Susan has had a lifelong interest in history since watching “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” on TV as a teenager and earned a degree history. She has been blogging about her favorite topic for several years now with a specialty in Tudor, women’s, medieval, English, French, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon history. You can read her blog at The Freelance History Writer.


  1. A friend's brother's wife is a direct relation of Alice Middleton. I understand that the Queen Mother was a descendant, so making Elizabeth II related. Am I correct?

  2. I love that Alice and Thomas could play together like people who love and respect each other do. I think Thomas was such a great thinker and that he was loyal and successful in his private life shows just how wise he was.

  3. Excellent post! I have learnt a lot! Congrats!

  4. Very interesting and informative post! Thank you

  5. Very interesting and informative post! Thank you

  6. I am descendant of Sir Thomas More.
    This post was beautifully written and I found extremely accurate and interesting. Thank you


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