Books: Between Chelsea and Marrakesh

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THE LIFE OF THOMAS MORE by Peter Ackroyd Chatto pounds 20

IN 1535 Thomas More was eecuted for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Four hundred years later, in 1935, he was canonised by Pope Pius XI. The cult of More the martyr had grown up swiftly after his death, encouraged by the stream of lives and panegyrics which emphasised his holiness at the epense of his political career and humanist accomplishments. "A man of singular virtue, and of a clear, unspotted conscience" was how More's son-in-law, William Roper, described him, in the first biography, The Lyfe of Thomas Moore, Knight, published in 1626.

This view of More has come down, pretty unsullied, to our own times. Of course, Protestant writers through the centuries have pointed to More as the fanatical scourge of heretics who, as Lord Chancellor, enthusiastically ordered burnings at Smithfield. John Foe, the 16th-century divine, in his Book of Martyrs, says that More tied heretics to a tree in his Chelsea garden and had them whipped, but More himself always denied this story "forcefully". And some modern historians, like G R Elton, who placed the altogether more ruthless Thomas Cromwell at the head of a Tudor Revolution in government, were always keen to diminish More's character and achievements.

But our own age's estimate of More has been most largely influenced by Robert Bolt's portrayal of him, personified on stage and screen by Paul Scofield, in A Man For All Seasons (the original phrase was coined by Erasmus at a time when More could still be described in those terms). This fied in the public imagination a towering figure of individualism, a Sities icon, fighting against coercion by the State, and proclaiming the right of individual conscience. Never mind that the More of history would not have recognised himself in this guise. For him, true conscience was simply the correct appreciation and application of God's laws.

Peter Ackroyd's Life is not the first modern biography, nor is it even the first to take advantage of the magnificent Yale edition of More's Complete Works (it's ridiculous for Chatto to try to pass it off as "the first important biography for 60 years" when Richard Marius's perfectly adequate study appeared in 1984). It is, however, the first biography of More that I have read which manages to go some way towards resolving, or at least eplaining, the manifold contradictions in More's character. It does this, to some etent, by refusing to be clouded by dogma, but also by setting More's career in the contet of the last years of Catholic England, and in the wider world of humanist learning and method. More, according to this interpretation, was a traditionalist, one of the last great eemplars of the medieval imagination, fighting, with all the weapons that were to hand, for the survival of the old order.

It's easy to see what attracted Ackroyd to his subject, for the two themes which predominate here, London and the flavour of the English language, in this case the 16th-century vernacular, have been consistent obsessions of Ackroyd's novels and non-fiction. Thomas More was born a Londoner in Milk Street, Cripplegate, and nearly all the important stages of his life's journey fall within easy reach of the City: from St Anthony's in Cheapside where More was sent to school, to Lincoln's Inn where he studied law, and Charterhouse, near Smithfield, where he lodged with the monks. At the Guildhall he presided as under-sheriff of London, and it's only a short journey along the river to Westminster Hall where he sat as Henry VIII's first minister. Then back along the water to Tower Hill where he was beheaded, only a mile from his birthplace.

Ackroyd has a wonderful time evoking the life of pre-Reformation London, and very eotic he makes it sound too. Contemporary Marrakesh, he suggests, might be the nearest parallel to the market-life of Thomas More's Cheapside. And if at times the smells and bells of Ackroyd's 16th-century city threaten to overwhelm the narrative, then one should remember that in More's own Utopia, the principal city, Amaurotum, is, as Ackroyd says, like some reversed image of London: a pristine capital of an ideal commonwealth, drawn by a visionary imagination.

It is in Ackroyd's analysis of Utopia that we are brought closest to the irony and ambivalence that are so central to More's character. The book is revealed as a multi-layered rhetorical eercise in which humorous contradictions co-eist with attempts to resolve practical problems of policy and statecraft. This is the More who, we are told, could make a funny or quick remark while remaining apparently serious.

And the More who wore a hair-shirt and longed for a life of monastic simplicity, while rising to be "The King's Good Servant"? More's duality, according to Ackroyd, stems from his consciousness of the transience of the world. He had been trained as a lawyer and acted out his part in the passing spectacle. But he remained spiritual at heart, aware of the hollowness of the world, and with his eyes fied on eternity. From this persistent doubleness of vision, as Ackroyd calls it, springs More's wit and humanity.

Ackroyd's book may not carry the full weight of scholarship in the way that Diarmaid MacCulloch's recent biography of Thomas Crammer does. But it is full of brilliant insight, and one stands in awe of Ackroyd's learning, confident that this is the life of Thomas More for our times.