|Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews|
Random House, 1998 435pp
The infant was taken within a week of its birth, to the precincts of the church; the child of wrath must be reformed into the image of God, 'the servant of the fiend' made into 'a son of joy'.
Peter Ackroyd has a wonderful ability to combine erudite scholarship with fascinating glimpses of the customs and culture of his subject's times. The street markets around Thomas More's home in London; wagon-borne Corpus Christi pageants; the summer-evening entertainment of London schoolboys debating in Latin; dramatic festivals; cock-fights; the rigors of an Oxford scholar (as opposed to the conventional hardships scholars chronicled in letters probably written as grammatical exercises); and details of the thorough legal training afforded by the Inns of Chancery: Ackroyd describes all these and, in so doing, throws a great deal of light on the sort of world in which More lived and the beliefs and practices which would have helped to shape his character.
Ackroyd's More emerges from these pages as a complex, clever, humorous, determined and honest man. A man whose success in life grew more from a sense of duty, to God and his fellow Englishmen, than from personal ambition. A man who fought to subdue his personal desires to the extent that from quite a young age he customarily wore a hair shirt, and who flagellated himself even when imprisoned in the Tower. This More is formidable but not forbidding. He cared deeply for his family and he delighted in dramatic debate and role-playing. He wrote Latin poetry which, as Ackroyd succinctly comments, should not be read as self-expression but as "a particularly affecting form of grammar". But he also wrote verse full of sexual and scatological humour, and raged at Martin Luther (in Latin) as "an ape, an arse, a drunken, lousy little friar, a piece of scurf, a pestilential buffoon...".
Appropriately, Ackroyd's book begins and ends with the Church. Thomas More was "the first English layman to be beatified as a martyr". But, whilst More's faith was unflinching, Ackroyd makes a compelling case for believing that More died not just for his religious principles, but for his faith in the primacy of the law - "the laws of God and of reason" - by which England had been governed for a thousand years, and by which he had lived his whole life.
From his earliest schooldays, More was trained in grammar, rhetoric and logic. He spoke Latin and Law French (a sort of hybrid French in which all English common law cases were conducted), and all of these skills were natural to him by the time he was in his early twenties. When, at the age of thirty-eight, he was first appointed to the King's Council, he was already a member of the house of Commons, an under-sheriff of the City of London, judicial representative of the sheriff at the Sheriffs' Court, and a skilful negotiator in foreign affairs. His duties remained those of a lawyer expert at debating and interpreting the law, even when he later became Lord Chancellor of England.
Ackroyd is skilful in describing a society in which rules of hierarchy and conformity under-pinned every aspect of daily life. For More the overthrow of such order by new and, in his eyes, heretical faith in the 'free mind' and an individual's ability to know and judge religious truth (without recourse to "the tenets of 'law courts and judges'") threatened not just the individual's soul, but the very foundations of society. "More's single and most bitter accusation against Luther and his followers was that the incited disorder". So, Ackroyd argues, More's refusal to acknowledge the King's rejection of Papal authority was based on the primacy of establishedlaw and order.
Ackroyd makes his case strongly, drawing on a wide range of original sources and, particularly, on More's own writings, his training and his experience. His discussion of Utopia is especially interesting. So, too, is his introduction of the case of Richard Hunne, whose challenge to the authority of the church was the subject of debate for thirty years, and presaged the later struggles of the Reformation.
Biography is by nature a subjective art, and each biographer interprets the available facts in the light of their own discoveries, knowledge and interests. Ackroyd's presentation of Thomas More's life will no doubt be challenged by others, but it is a very readable, interesting and plausible account of a remarkable man.
NOTE: A statue of Sir Thomas More, 1478-1537, Statesman, sits close to the Thames near Battersea Bridge. It is in an area which was once the orchard of More's Chelsea estate, and behind it is Chelsea Old Church in which More's Chapel still houses the More Monument on which is the epitaph composed by him. Close by, is Crosby Hall, the house he built for his daughter, Margaret, and his son-in-law, Will Roper. It was moved from Bishopsgate and re-erected here in 1910. For many years it has been occupied by the British Federation of University Women, and its recent renovation, re-building and extension has been the subject of much controversy. Ironically, since Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn was so closely linked with More's downfall, More's Old Church is reputed to have been the place where Henry secretly married Jane Seymore just a few days after Anne was beheaded. Henry later acquired Chelsea Manor and built a palace there in which his daughter Elizabeth lived as a child, and which later became part of Queen Katherine Parr's jointure property. No trace of this palace now remains.