30 Oct /13


Utopia entered the English language in the book of the same name by Sir Thomas More, published in 1516. As a senior statesman during the reign of King Henry VIII, More was well placed to comment on the positives and negatives of 16th century life. The book paints a picture of the flaws in European society, and then speculates on Utopia, a perfect island where these ills have been cast out. The classical origins of the word make it clear that this is idyll will remain beyond our grasp: from a combination of the Greek “good place” and “no place”, Utopia is not to be found on any map.  However, the fact that the book was written in Latin shows that it was not directed at the 3 million or so English-speakers alive at the time, but for the political elite.  And the translation of the book about a new island where everything is perfect only appeared in English in 1551 after More’s death. It was translated by Ralph Robinson whose claim to fame is this translation.

In life, More was a true Renaissance man but in death his reputation grew far more. A friend of humanists including Erasmus, who published Utopia in Antwerp, he famously sat for a portrait by Hans Holbein in 1527. More served as a diplomat, speaker of the House of Commons and Lord Chancellor before his devout Catholicism compelled him to oppose the King’s move away from the Papacy. This would lead to his execution and martyrdom, and his status in the Catholic church was underlined when Pope John Paul II pronounced him the “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians”. Robert Bolt’s acclaimed drama A Man for All Seasons would remind new generations of More’s life and his sacrifice, firstly on stage and then adapted into an Oscar-winning movie.

Sir Thomas More’s last words prior to execution restated the principles which cost him his life. “The King’s good servant but God’s first”. A fine epitaph, and perhaps a final reflection that Utopia was not to be found in this lifetime.

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