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November 3, 2000

The pope is to nominate Sir Thomas More, St Thomas More in the Catholic faith, as patron saint of politicians. But is Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor turning in his grave at having such a dubious honour foisted on him?

Perhaps not. The pontiff's honour is, in many ways, justified. More was a shrewd political operator and a man for whom principle outweighed pragmatism - something latter-day politicians may wish to aspire to.

Born in 1477 or '78, More dropped out of Oxford University, trained as a lawyer, contemplated priesthood and was a humanist academic of note, counting Europe's foremost thinker Erasmus among his friends. All this he achieved before he made the ultimately fatal mistake of entering politics as a member of the Royal Council in 1516.

By 1523 he was speaker of Parliament, the last Catholic to hold the post until Michael Martin's appointment last week. Two years later he became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Henry VIII insisted he become Lord Chancellor in 1529, after Cardinal Wolsey was given the boot.

But Henry misjudged the man. More would not support the king's campaign to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Caught between enacting the will of Henry and sticking to his religious guns, More chose the latter. He continued to exercise his academic freedom to oppose the principle of royal supremacy, which Henry was promoting as a counter theory to papal primacy.

More displayed a predilection for persecuting Protestants - a darker aspect of his life that may endear him to modern politicians eager to stamp out political heresy in their parties. By 1532, More's position was untenable and he resigned. But he continued to campaign against Henry's Acts of Succession. Enough proved enough for Henry, and More was beheaded in July 1535, thanks to conveniently perjured evidence of his treason.

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