The decade beginning in 1511 can well be regarded as the high point of the Renaissance. In the Vatican Raphael was frescoing the walls of the papal apartments, while Michelangelo covered the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with his paintings. In Florence the Medici family, exiled since the time of the reformer Savonarola, returned to power and patronage. One of the officers of the former republic, Niccolò Machiavelli, now under house arrest, used his enforced leisure to produce a classic text of political philosophy, The Prince, which offered rulers frank advice on the acquisition and retention of power. Renaissance art and Renaissance ideas travelled northward as far as Germany and England. A colleague of Michelangelo's designed Henry VII's tomb in Westminster Abbey and the foremost scholar of the age, the Dutchman Desiderius Erasmus, lectured at Cambridge early in the reign of his son Henry VIII. Erasmus was a frequent guest at the house of Thomas More, a lawyer about to begin a political career that would make him, briefly, the most powerful man in England after the king.
Erasmus and More and their friends propounded in Northern Europe the humanist ideas that had taken root in Italy in the previous century. 'Humanism' at that time did not mean a desire to replace religious values with secular human ones: Erasmus was a priest who wrote best-selling works of piety, and More was later martyred for his religious beliefs. Humanists, rather, were people who believed in the educational value of the 'humane letters' (literae humaniores) of the Greek and Latin classics. They studied and imitated the style of classical authors, many of whose texts had been recently rediscovered and were being published thanks to the newly