His life begins at baptism

The Life of Thomas More
July 10, 1998

It could hardly be said that the life of Sir Thomas More has been neglected. His own voluminous writings have been published in a modern critical edition by Yale University Press. There is a constant flood of monographs and articles on particular aspects of his life and thought. And in the past 60 years or so he has been the subject of several substantial biographies and many shorter accounts. Perhaps no Englishman of the 16th century (with the exception of William Shakespeare) has been studied and written about in such detail and at such length. Yet another biography of the canonised lord chancellor might therefore seem at first glance a clear case of more means less: an addition to the bibliography that adds to the burden of reading without necessarily adding to the sum of knowledge and understanding. Students of the early modern age might have good reasons for looking with some suspicion upon this contribution. Peter Ackroyd is celebrated as a novelist and biographer, but he is not an established authority on the Tudor era, nor is his book the result of original research.

However, to fault The Life of Thomas More on those grounds would be to mistake its purpose. Ackroyd's biography is intended for the general reader rather than the academic. His book is manifestly not a milestone in scholarship, yet it is highly intelligent and remarkably perceptive, the work of a gifted and versatile writer - arguably the ideal qualifications for understanding More. Ackroyd confines his attention to printed primary sources and the ample secondary literature, but in this he differs little from his major predecessors. In any case, the discovery of new source material on More after more than four centuries of uninterrupted endeavour would be little short of miraculous.

Ackroyd's greatest achievement in this book is to establish a convincing and coherent account of More the man. He does so without distorting the evidence or falling into the trap that has ensnared some of his predecessors, which was identified by Sir Geoffrey Elton over a quarter of a century ago - that of arranging "events with an eye to the future". Ackroyd's More is a complex but not a contradictory character: a man who combined "ambition and penitence, success and spirituality, in equal measure"; a man who was both "a master of ambivalence" and a believer of formidable piety. These characteristics were reconciled through More's "sense of transience and recognition of eternity". This, Ackroyd suggests, led to a duality that in turn gave rise to More's "wit, his irony, and the persistent doubleness of his vision". Ackroyd never betrays any hostility to his subject, but he tells us that by staying close "to a grossly secular level we may come nearer to More himself". In dealing with More's use of scatological and sexual humour - and vituperation - Ackroyd is never po-faced. More was a man who could describe Luther as a cacodemon (a "****-devil").

But More was also a man to whom daily attendance at mass "was the single most important aspect of his life, and the source from which much of his earnestness and irony, his gravity and his playfulness, springs". Ackroyd has a telling sense of the religious atmosphere of More's world, which is all the more remarkable in an author who is ni pratiquant ni croyant. His biography begins, unusually but entirely appropriately, not with More's birth or an account of his ancestry, but with the moment of his baptism. Ackroyd also deals skilfully with the problem of More's attitude to heresy. He is concerned more to explain than to censure. He reminds us of More's reverence for authority, arguing that for him there was a profound association between paternal and ecclesiastical authority (here Ackroyd draws an illuminating contrast between More and his bete noire, Luther). For More the lawyer, there was a sense of identity between Church and law. It is scarcely surprising, then, that he came to regard heresy as a threat - in Ackroyd's felicitous words, as "a form of disorder on every level".

For all its merits, this is by no means a flawless book. It is unfortunate that Ackroyd uses the phrase "new learning" as a synonym for Renaissance humanism. In this century three scholars - Cardinal Gasquet, Allan Chester and most recently Richard Rex - have demonstrated that in the 16th century the term "new learning" was current as a pejorative description for Protestant teaching. It would be better, at least in early modern studies, if the term were to be restricted to its early modern sense. More himself associated heresy with novelty, describing heretics as a "new false sect". Ackroyd is right to draw attention to the part More played in the composition of the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (the book against Luther that earned Henry VIII the title Defender of the Faith). But his claim that the king wrote most of that book himself ought to be qualified in the light of Henry's known aversion for prolonged literary composition (the doctrinal treatise issued over his name in 1543 as the King's Book was in fact the work of a committee of six theologians), of widely voiced contemporary suspicions about professional theological assistance, and of Rex's demonstration that a committee of university theologians was busy in London, and even being introduced to the king, at exactly the time that the Assertio was being completed. Again, the supposed meeting place of the early reformers in Cambridge was the White Horse Tavern, and not, as Ackroyd has it, the White Tavern.

Ackroyd is also guilty at times of exaggeration, or at of least slipshod expression. Protestants did understand the eucharist in a very different way from their Catholic contemporaries, but it is a travesty of their position to say that they "denied the eucharist". The Reformation Parliament of 1529-1536 undoubtedly introduced far-reaching alterations in matters of religion, but it can hardly be maintained that it left the English church "wholly changed".

Ackroyd could with some profit have read more widely in the secondary literature on More. One example must suffice. He makes a strong case for his interpretation of Utopia as "a subtle rhetorical and dramatic performance" rather than a sincere depiction of an ideal commonwealth, but it is a pity that he takes no account of Quentin Skinner's essay, "Sir Thomas More's Utopia and the language of Renaissance humanism", which argues strongly for the contrary case, that Utopia may indeed have been intended to represent the best state of the commonwealth.

Finally, Ackroyd's source notes (placed, inconveniently, at the end of the book) are far from impeccable. He makes several references to letters summarised in a calendar of documents edited by G. A. Bergenroth and published in 1862. These references turn out on closer examination to relate to later volumes in the same series edited by Pascual de Gayangos, and published in 1879 and 1882. Somewhat curiously, Ackroyd gives the correct page references for these volumes even though he misleads us as to their editor and date of publication.

Brilliant but flawed, as the cliche has it: perhaps something of a curate's egg, but, if so, a curate's egg embellished by Faberge. But it should not be forgotten that this is a biography intended for the general reader, and as such it can be warmly recommended. It is quite simply the best general account of More that we have: less dated than R. W. Chambers, less Whiggish (and more sympathetic) than Richard Marius, as a work of the literary imagination it is incontestably superior to both.

We can rely on a great deal of scholarly literature for particular aspects of More's life: the pioneering work of Sir Geoffrey Elton and John Guy on More the politician and public servant deserve special mention. But as yet there is no comprehensive academic biography of Sir Thomas More. How long must we wait for such a book?

Colin Armstrong has researched and written on mid-Tudor religious conservatism.

The Life of Thomas More

Author - Peter Ackroyd
ISBN - 1 85619 711 5
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 435

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