The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd

Doubleday 1998 448 pp. 30.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Pious and pragmatic, wealthy and parsimonious, a Catholic apologist and a bawdy satirist: England's Thomas More continues to fascinate the world. His enduring appeal lies not only in his complex and vivid personality, but also in how he symbolizes the transition from Medieval to Renaissance thought. Peter Ackroyd's erudite, measured biography brings a fresh analysis to one of Western Europe's most influential figures.

More was born in 1478 into a wealthy family devoted to the legal profession. As a teenager More entered Oxford, completing his legal education at Lincoln's Inn. Like his father, a judge, More soon became an influential figure in English law and politics.

At twenty-six he married the sixteen-year-old Jane Colt, who died in childbirth six years later. Marrying the widow Alice Middleton in 1511, he embarked on a typical Medieval family pattern of forging social and political relationships through marriage of his children to well-connected London families.

More's was a medieval world, "part of a culture which was still oral, communal, spectacular and ritualistic." Within it, "each member of the body politic remained within the appropriate estate, or order, or degree, just as the head, eyes and limbs of the body cannot be interchanged."

Hence, More's world, "was one of status rather than of class, where the inheritance of feudalism and authoritarian religion pre-eminently demanded the virtues of loyalty and duty." It is in this light that we must understand his later actions.

More was both a national and international figure. Friends with Erasmus, he was a brilliant writer, "having the best knack of any man in Europe at calling bad names in good Latin." While Utopia, composed in 1515, granted him a Europe-wide reputation as a writer and a thinker, the most significant event for him occurred in England six years previously: "in April 1509, the seventeen-year-old Prince Henry assumed the throne as Henry VIII."

Although portrayed subsequently as a monster, Henry "was a proficient linguist, an excellent musician and a student of theology who had developed a fine Latin style." More became councilor attendant to the young king. For the next eleven years he was to influence Henry and the course of English politics, becoming speaker of parliament in 1523 and, following the fall of Wolsey, rising to "the most powerful official position in England," Lord Chancellor, a position he retained for thirty-one months.

Henry's desire to end his eighteen year marriage to Catherine to marry the young Anne Boleyn was the rock on which More's career foundered. However, More had fought important other battles a defender of the Catholic faith, particularly in his polemics against Luther. He exemplified the conservative pole of "the opposing tendencies of the period-inner prayer and belief against communal worship and ritual, faith against works, the direct inspiration of scripture against inherited orthodoxy, redemption through Christ rather than the sacramental system."

More's family life was equally remarkable. His household was structured around schooling. His eldest daughter, Margaret- "the most profound and significant passion of his life"-"was undoubtedly the most learned woman of her day." "He was the first Englishman seriously to consider the education of women," arguing that their natural abilities were equal to men's. While traveling on the Continent, he was an active correspondent with his children, using the occasion of their letters to improve their Latin style. While "for most of his life, More was a lawyer and a public administrator; he was not a visionary or a scholarly humanist," yet he was "the first Englishman to employ humanist methods of learning."

As a public figure, More followed Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier: "Service to a king or prince becomes, therefore, the model for all good conduct in the world; to be a courtier, like More, was to occupy an illustrious and at times almost solemn position." Yet, his precise duty to his king was complicated by Henry's bewildering European alliances. "The English king wanted the Pope to grant him an annulment of his marriage; the Pope was imprisoned by the emperor, Charles V; Francis I and Henry VIII had formed an alliance against the emperor."

However, beginning in 1533, Henry promulgated two successive parliamentary Acts, those of Restraint and Succession, both of which were quasi-legal tools in his war with the Pope to justify his divorce and remarriage. In his refusal to countenance these legal maneuvers, More found himself in the Tower of London, where he was to remain until his trial and execution. More's personal qualities-"skillful yet detached, cautious as well as theatrical, persuasive and practical in equal measure,"-as well as Henry's affection for him, would keep him alive after others had been disemboweled and burned alive. However, the king's graciousness extended only to allowing More the dignity of a beheading.

"It has often been surmised that the trial of More represents the defeat of the individual conscience by the forces of the emerging nation-state, but that is profoundly to misunderstand his position. Conscience was not for More simply or necessarily an individual matter; as Lord Chancellor he had been charged with the application of conscience to law, but upon general and traditional principles. At his trial he was affirming the primacy of law itself, as it had always been understood."

In the film A Man For All Seasons, More is presented as a tragic figure. For Ackroyd, there "was nothing tragic about his situation It might even be described as a form of Socratic comedy in which the outcast is the one who remains most faithful to himself and to his principles."

An international figure, More died a mile from his birthplace. Ackroyd's beautifully written, comprehensively researched biography gives us a new look at "one of the few Londoners upon whom sainthood has been conferred and the first English layman to be beatified as a martyr."