It was exactly 500 years ago that Thomas More set off on the journey which would result in his most well-known work, and one of the most influential books of the last five centuries, Utopia. The book was an instant hit. First published in Leuven in 1516, 3 more Latin editions followed in the following 2 years. By the 17th century it had been translated into German, Italian, French, English, Dutch and Spanish and inspired a series of imitations - the beginnings of the literary genre which would bear its name. In the 19th century, Utopia became a foundational text in the socialist and communist movements, and utopian settlements were established around the world.
On the 12 May 1515, Thomas More rode from London to the coast, and boarded a small merchant ship. It was the first time he had ever left the country and he was leaving a lot behind. At the age of 37, More was already very accomplished, and was an extremely busy man. He was under-sheriff of London, an MP for Westminster and a lecturer at Lincoln's Inn. He had published his Life of Pico in 1510, and was in the process of writing his History of King Richard III. He had worked with Europe's leading humanist, Desiderius Erasmus on translations of the dialogues of Lucian, and Erasmus's popular though controversial Praise of Folly was dedicated to him.
Importantly, More was a freeman of the Mercers' Company, one of London's most powerful guilds, and had acted on their behalf in diplomatic negotations in the past. Their connections to the Merchant Adventurers was at least half of the reason that More was on this embassage. The other was that by 1515, More may have attracted the interest of certain members of Henry VIII's court, if not caught the eye of the king himself. This was unsurprising; the two had met when Henry was a boy and More knew many members of Henry's scholarly circle. It is possible that More had already been approached about joining the king's council, leaving his city business behind for courtly, but this more likely awaited him on his return.
More had prepared quickly for this trip, leaving his many responsibilities behind, along with his wife and his four children, all under the age of ten. Why he chose to go is unclear, it was not to be a lucrative trip, financially at least, but he may have been optimistic about its prospects, or been reassured that it would be short. It was not.
On the 18 May, they arrived in Bruges. However, it was two weeks before the ambassadors from Charles V would arrive. The Low Countries were England's biggest trading partners, and terms continually needed renegotiating, especially when Charles began siding with the French, as he did in the spring of 1515.
But More's first fortnight on the continent was not unoccupied . By the end of May, Erasmus arrived to visit More. He probably introduced More to his latest work, The Education of a Christian Prince, dedicated to Charles V. He also asked a favour of More. Like many scholars both then and now, Erasmus was often short of funds. He needed the canonry of Tournai, which had recently come into the possession of Cardinal Wolsey. More rode to Tournai and was informed that Wolsey had given the position to someone else. Not deterred, More wrote to Wolsey, informing him (inaccurately) that the post had already been given to Erasmus. Erasmus would step down, saving Wolsey embarrassment, but only if greater compensation was offered. It was a sneaky move, but it worked. As it was Erasmus who secured the publication of Utopia the following year, More's intervention with Wolsey may have played an important role in the success of this yet-unwritten text.
The ambassadors finally arrived at the beginning of June, but negotiations were painfully slow. The Dutch were stalling. By July More and his companions were running out of money, and had to write to the Council for more funds to be sent. More was earning a quarter of what he had earned in London, still supporting his family back home and financing an expensive lifestyle in Bruges, whether he wanted to or not.
At the end of July, the Dutch ambassadors returned to Brussels for "further instructions" - diplomatic code for yet more stalling. More found himself in an odd and unfamiliar position - he had nothing to do. He took advantage of the rare opportunity and travelled to Antwerp. He knew many of the merchants there from previous negotiations on behalf of the Mercers, and Erasmus had put him in touch with a fellow humanist, Peter Gilles. In the next 6 or 7 weeks, from the beginning of August to the middle of September, More conceived of and began to write his Utopia...
For more More
Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, especially pp. 161-165
Terence Cave (ed), Thomas More's Utopia in Early Modern Europe: Paratexts and Contexts, especially the introduction.