Thomas More Family Portrait

Below are bibliography and description of the painting.

Don't forget to click on each person in the painting for more details!


Family Monkey Lady Alice John Harris Servant Margaret More Henry Patenson Cecily More John More Sir Thomas More Anne Cresacre Judge John More Elizabeth More Margaret Giggs Two dogs Two dogs

Family Monkey

Lady Alice

57 years old.

She was related to the families of both Henry VII and Henry VIII, and is the grandmother, nine generations removed, of Queen Elizabeth II. She was a widow when she married Sir Thomas in 1511. She had married around 1490 John Middleton, a wealthy London merchant and member of the Mercers Company, which More had served. Their daughter, Alice Alington, writes Letter 205. On the sketch for this painting, Holbein writes: “This one must sit” and indicates that the monkey must be added – now chained to her chair.

Sitting in a richly ornate chair, ready for action and giving a knowing glance in our direction as would be appropriate for the attentive and experienced manager of that busy household and estate, she holds a prayer-book with a beautifully bejeweled, deep-green velvet casing. This small gold-edged book matches the small gold-edged books held by young John and by Margaret Giggs.

John Harris

27 years old.

Another figure ready for secular action is John Harris, More’s secretary, who has been added in the doorway and who holds an official document in hand, a document complete with seals as he looks attentively towards Chancellor More.

John was More’s secretary (“my friend” Letter 201) and a tutor in More’s “school.” He married Dorothy Colly (Margaret’s maid) who cared for More in prison and was among the 3 women who tended to his burial. John and Dorothy were responsible for saving many of More’s writings by bringing them into exile to Louvain and making them available to Stapleton for his important biography published in 1588. They went into exile to Louvain after More’s execution.


Margaret More

22 years old.

“Meg” was the oldest of More’s children and the most intellectually accomplished. She was the first non-royal woman to publish a book in England. She was proficient in Greek, Latin, medicine, and liberal learning. She appears to have championed the printing of her father’s collected works (Guy 2009). She married lawyer William Roper in 1521, was mother of five children (Margaret, Elizabeth, Mary, Thomas, Anthony), and died at the age of 39. Her daughter Mary Basset was also exceptionally learned, translating books from Greek and Latin – including her grandfather’s De Tristitia Christi. Like her two younger sisters, she is pregnant in the family portrait.

Margaret, shown deeply in thought, is pointing to the word “demens” (“mad”) in the famously controversial chorus of the fourth act of Seneca’s Oedipus. Oedipus is the best known tragic character of classical antiquity. He begins being blind in terms of self-knowledge, and then proceeds “madly” to take out his own eyes once he comes to know himself and his actions for what they are. On the left hand side of the book, notice that “fate” is given first place. These parts of lines 882-889 can be read: Were it mine to shape fate at my will, I would trim my sails to gentle winds, lest my yards tremble, bent ’neath a heavy blast. May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along.... On the right-hand page, the words of lines 893-898 not covered by Margaret’s hand are: madly the lad [Icarus] sought the stars, in strange devices trusting, and strove to vanquish true birds in flight; and [demanding too much of his false wings]....) Notice on line 103 Oedipus refers to his own action as “demens.” (112 Moreana Vol.45, 173 (June - Juin 2008) Moreana 173 3/06/08 10:53 Page 112).

The opposite page gives another approach to the troubles that “fate” seems to bring. Using terms from sailing, the Chorus of the play advises: “Were it mine to shape fate at my will, I would trim my sails to gentle winds, lest my yards tremble, bent ’neath a heavy blast.” This formulation by the Chorus raises difficult questions: IS it ours to shape fate at our will? If not, then how can one deal with a “heavy blast” such as bends Oedipus? Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (on the cupboard behind Judge More’s deals with just this issue, both dramatically and philosophically.

Henry Patenson

Family Fool

Dressed like King Henry, he has the red and white Tudor rose on his cap, has a red beard, and wears a play sword.


Cecily More

20 years old.

In Holbein's preparatory sketch, Cecily is holding a rosary; here, she is now wearing a striking ivory medallion with a naked Venus30 leaning on a pillar. This Greek or Roman medallion shows that Cecily has an interest in classical art as do her sisters, even though her book is unlabeled. Like her two elder sisters, she is pregnant in the family portrait.

The youngest and most beautiful of More’s three daughters, she married in 1525 Giles Heron, wealthy heir of Sir John Heron, Treasurer of the Chamber of Henry VIII. Giles was a member of Parliament, but was later attainted by Parliament for treason in 1540, then drawn, hung, and quartered -- his lands going to Cromwell and Rich. Giles had brought to More the message about the fire at Chelsea. Giles was More’s ward from 1522-25; later More gave a judgment against him in court.

John More

19 years old.
Engaged to marry Anne Cresacre, who is standing to the other side of Thomas More
Holds a prayer book matching that of his mother and Margaret Giggs
More’s youngest child and only son, John receives special praise in Letter 107. He married Anne Cresacre in 1529 and was imprisoned in 1543 but subsequently pardoned and released. He died young, at the same age as Margaret: 39.

Sir Thomas More

50 years old.

Sir Thomas was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when this portrait was made in 1527. The More family moved from London to Chelsea in 1524. In December 1526 Holbein arrived from Antwerp to the More home and stayed through early 1527. The great fire at Chelsea occurred in early September 1529 and More became Lord Chancellor of England October 25, 1529.

Anne Cresacre

15 years old.

She became a ward of Sir Thomas More in 1512 and married John in 1529. They had 8 children. Son Thomas More II was born in 1531; his son Cresacre wrote a biography of More. Anne moved to her estate in Yorkshire after John’s death in 1547 and later married a neighbor, George West. Thomas More II inherited that estate in 1572.

Judge John More

76 years old.

Sir John was a barrister, serjeant at law, judge of Common Pleas and of the King’s Bench. He married four times. Thomas was the second child of six from John’s marriage with Joanna Graunger.

IS it ours to shape fate at our will? If not, then how can one deal with a “heavy blast” such as bends Oedipus? (This question arises based on the book in Margaret's hand. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (on the cupboard behind Judge More’s head) deals with just this issue, both dramatically and philosophically: Boethius, imprisoned and awaiting execution by the king he has loyally served, weeps and wails in misery until Lady Philosophy in torn dress enters and commands him to stop. She then leads Boethius to remember what he had earlier seen about the nature of happiness; eventually, Boethius – unlike Oedipus – is able to face the cruelties of life with calm and resignation, and perhaps even happiness. Seneca deals with these same issues in his letters, a copy of which Elizabeth has under her arm; he too ended his life in service to a ruler he faithfully served, with Stoic resignation for which he became famous – unlike mad Oedipus. Thomas More refers to Boethius as “that great wise and well learned man” (CW8 939/1) and he commends to his children “that beautiful and holy poem of Boethius” (SL 146, Corr. 250/21, TMSB 202). That More knew Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy very well is shown in these other passages: Corr 519, CW 11 84/33n, CW 12 258/13n. The parallels between Boethius and More are striking: both were philosophers, poets, and political leaders; both wrote works of consolation while in prison; both lost favor with their rulers and were subsequently executed leaving behind wives and children.

Both Boethius and Seneca deal with the possibility of happiness in the midst of fate’s powerful workings, a topic that More treated throughout his life, a topic so central and so difficult and yet so practical and so fitting – even for a king – that it may well have been the issue he chose for the disputation which his three daughters held at Chelsea for King Henry VIII shortly before the Basel drawing was done. In fact, Holbein’s revised Basel drawing may seek to suggest this event which showcased the learning of More’s daughters. If so, this would explain why the family is so well dressed and why all that is needed for entertainment and hospitality is still in full view. In this reading of the painting, the King has just left; he and Sir Thomas may have posed questions that explain why Margaret and Elizabeth remain deeply engrossed in thought about the books of Seneca they still carry. Seneca is, of course, an author whom More praises and one More quoted from his first to his last works.

Elizabeth More

More’s second daughter, Elizabeth, has a prominent place in More’s Letter to Gonell and in the last letter More wrote. She married William Dauncey, son of Sir John Dauncey, Knight of the Body to Henry VIII, and would be parents to seven children. Cecily’s husband was imprisoned for “treasonable words” & goods confiscated but restored in April 1544.

Margaret Giggs

22 years old.

She was an adopted daughter and kinswoman; a scholar in Greek, Latin, mathematics, and medicine. She married John Clement (present in Utopia) in 1526, who became Court physician in 1528 and later president of the London College of Physicians.” She was the only family member at the execution. She died 6 July 1570, 35 years to the day of More’s death. She served as a co-editor of More’s English Works.

Two dogs

added several generations later!

Two dogs

added several generations later!

This painting hangs at Nostell Priory in Wakefield, England.

Although the painting has the signature of Rowland Lockey (1565/7-1616), it is dated 1530 and the linen canvas dates back to the 1520s. Recent studies indicate that Holbein probably began but never finished this more permanent oil version of the water-based painting that he had completed c. 1527. The water-based ("distempered") original perished in a fire in 1752.

The painting includes strong elements of Renaissance humanism combined with elements of Christian piety. The classical books in the hands of the children and on the buffet behind More's head are a number of classical books; those identified in the painting suggest a common theme, the theme of happiness: its nature and its possibility in this troubled and stormy world. In unity with the books of classical learning are religious elements: In addition to Lady Alice’s ornate crucifix, Henry Pattenson is wearing a simple one around his neck, and he has the red cross of London on his cap. Elizabeth also has a beautiful cross surrounded by pearls hanging from her neck. and that two rosary cases are in the cupboard behind Margaret Giggs and that out of one of these, white beads are hanging.. The scene captured in the painting is the family about to pray rather than a formal painting in the cold formal hall of the home..

The worldly fruitfulness of this family is stressed in this painting. Margaret and Elizabeth and Cecily are pregnant with the next generation. This fruitfulness is emphasized by the presence of the fruit dish and ripe apple on the window sill on the right, and by the abundance of flowers in the room.The flowers, along with the musical instruments and crowded intimacy of elegant “family-togetherness,” connote a sense of worldly beauty, harmony, and happiness. The room is marked by warmth of color, including the carpet of green rushes. The other books identified in this painting are: (1) Boethius’ Consolationis Philosophiae and, (2) under Elizabeth’s arm, Seneca’s Epistulae, which comprises 124 letters addressed to young Lucilius and expresses “ardent concern for the journey to wisdom” (Motto 1973, p. 54).

But with this emphasis on worldly wisdom and engagement, what has happened to the famed devotional life of the More family? Close inspection of the Nostell Priory painting shows the family’s piety to be still present, but in more subtle ways. Although Cecily and Elizabeth no longer have rosaries and although no family member’s piety is ostentatiously on display, we discover that piety is an integral part of this icon of Christian Renaissance humanism. One must look closely to see that the beads hanging from the purse on Margaret Giggs’ belt are a rosary, that Henry Pattenson has one around his left hand, and that two rosary cases are in the cupboard behind Margaret Giggs and that out of one of these, white beads are hanging. In the Nostell Priory painting, there is not one cross, but four. Although Lady Alice is no longer kneeling, she holds a prayer-book with a beautifully bejeweled, deep-green velvet casing. This small gold-edged book matches the small gold-edged books held by young John and by Margaret Giggs, indicating that the moment captured is indeed the same as in the revised Basel sketch, but without drawing obvious attention to the piety of any one family member. That these books all have blank pages is most easily explained by the fact that the prayer-books depicted with print in Holbein’s painting were now outlawed, thus posing a serious danger for their recusant owners. Significantly, the seventeenth-century unprofessional copy now at Chelsea Old Town Hall has lines in at least one of these prayer books, as does the Basel drawing. These details indicate that the moment captured in the Nostell Priory painting remains the same as the one represented in the revised Basel drawing, but in a fuller and more true-to-life manner. The inclusion of the devotional elements suggest a response to fate and to the question of happiness markedly different than the responses given by Seneca and Boethius. Taken as a whole, this portrait – like the revised Basel drawing – presents a family well “furnished for the whole scope of human life.”

Source: 102 Moreana Vol.45, 173 (June - Juin 2008)

Also see: Lesley Lewis's The Thomas More Family Group Portraits After Holbein (Gracewing, 1998), p. 13 esp. Angela Lewi's The Thomas More Family Group (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1974), pp. 5-7, and Ruth Norrington's The Household of Sir Thomas More (Buckinghamshire, Eng: The Kylin Press, 1985).