Books: A stake in the past

The man for all seasons would burn a heretic as happily as crack a Latin gag. Lisa Jardine explores the saint's two sides

The Life of Thomas More

by Peter Ackroyd

Chatto & Windus, pounds 20

During one of his visits to England in the heady early years of Henry VIII's reign, Thomas More's good friend Erasmus wrote a little textbook on Latin composition for the boys of St Paul's school (recently founded by More's mentor, John Colet). The manual was the fruit of many happy hours of discussion between the two friends about theories of education, and their shared pleasure and good humour showed in the end product. De copia (as it was called) went on to become a Renaissance bestseller.

The De copia contains one particularly dazzling example of virtuoso inventiveness with the Latin language: 200 variants of the single sentence "As long as I live, I will preserve your memory". Inserted among those variations, as a kind of triumphant high-point, was one which was intensely personal. "As long as Erasmus lives, the name of More will never perish."

Erasmus was as good as his word. For 30 years he incorporated approving observations and anecdotes about More in his many publications, embroidering them appropriately where necessary to fit the context. Ever since, Thomas More has stood as the exemplary "man for all seasons": an erudite wit, a man of honour, a loyal friend, a dedicated servant to his country.

The problem for More's biographer is how to square the humane, benevolent More of Erasmus's highly partial tributes with the surviving documentary evidence. That evidence reveals an unbending man raised in the old Catholic faith, ruthless in his pursuit of heretics, an uncompromising lawyer, a severe judge of others, a punctilious public servant, and - to the end - a man utterly unable to compromise.

In his new Life, Peter Ackroyd takes up the challenge of reconciling the two Thomas Mores. The first thing to be said is that he fails. suffers from extreme mood swings. One minute we are thrilling to the life and colour of an exotic 15th-century London, enjoying the often saucy, sometimes scatological witticisms More jovially exchanges with his circle of humanist friends. The next we are scrutinising court transcripts which record More's determined and punitive grillings of poor unfortunates judged to have expressed sympathy for the Lutheran cause.

We hear how More took explicit pleasure in the ghastly executions of those he had found guilty of heretical beliefs, revelling in the idea that they would continue to burn in hell for all eternity. It is simply impossible to make the two versions of the man match up.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the available archival material is so patchy. Between the literary tributes and the documents, there is very little material from which to reconstruct entire periods of More's life. Where evidence is not available, Ackroyd resorts to a time-honoured but nonetheless fudging, biographical strategy. He invents More's day- to-day life on the basis of the recorded lives of others.

The cautious hypothesis, "Thomas More entered Oxford University as a scholarship boy, most probably as one of the collegii pueri" becomes a certainty, two pages later: "More's role as one of Morton's collegii pueri was that of a monastic oblate; he was required to assist during the services in the chapel and to wait upon the fellows in the hall." Some of the most enjoyable sections of this biography owe little to the surviving facts about More's life, and a lot more to astute trawling of a wide range of histories of London, church rituals, the universities and the law courts during the period.

Ironically, Ackroyd is almost at his best where he has least to go on. He is, of course, an accomplished author of fiction, whose successes include Hawksmoor, Chatterton, and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, as well as of highly regarded biographies of Dickens and Blake. comes alive at moments of high drama: the audience with Henry VIII when More hands back the Great Seal of England and resigns as Lord Chancellor; the staged knock at the door, by which More tests his family's resolve in preparation for his inevitable arrest.

Ackroyd's narrative is most compelling when More is inwardly racked with doubt, or tormented by dreams and "demons" in his damp cell in the Tower - moments when the author's imaginative skill can be brought most fully into play. Indeed, the question I asked by the end was: why did Ackroyd choose to write a biography of More, rather than a fictional "life"? My suspicion is that the difficulty at the heart of More's personality - the kind of schizophrenia apparently produced in a man struggling between humaneness and religious conviction - is one which Ackroyd particularly wants to explore.

In his last novel, Milton in America, Ackroyd imagined the blind Puritan poet fleeing the Restoration in 1660, and arriving in New England guided by a London street urchin, Goosequill. With characteristic obstinacy and determination, Milton sets about rebuilding his shattered life, physically and spiritually. Milton is the ruthlessly tenacious spokesman for righteousness; Goosequill the cheerfully compromising member of the dispossessed in search of a better life. Goosequill's strategy is to adapt. Milton sticks doggedly to his old beliefs, punishing himself and others whenever they succumb to the lure of the exotic and new, until he has all but destroyed their earthly paradise.

In More, Ackroyd believes he has found a real-life figure to match his fictionalised Milton. His biography appears to offer him a real, rather than imagined opportunity to explore the contradictions inside the personality of a highly educated, cultivated man who combines his urbanity with an utterly dogmatic set of beliefs. What Ackroyd wants to know is: how does such a man find it in himself to reject the balanced, considered side of himself (art, literature, music, companionship, love) to adhere to his beliefs to the point of self-destruction?

Unhappily, Ackroyd's sources, almost without exception, see to it that that question cannot be answered. Each of them already has its own agenda, and each offers the "evidence" concerning More only in order to confirm him as the man they have already decided he is - the man for their purpose.

For Erasmus, he is "sweetest Thomas" who shares his amusement at the subtleties of Latin puns. For the Protestant hagiographer Foxe he is the interrogator, whose name is on the lips of the Protestant martyr as the fire is lit: "God forgive thee, and show thee more mercy than thou showest to me; the Lord forgive Sir Thomas More, my accuser and my judge; and pray for me, all good people." For both he is a towering figure, a vivid emotional presence.

It is pointless to ask such witnesses whether theirs is the true Thomas More. In the world of international politics, those less bound up with More tended to represent him as somewhat less imposing. In July 1529, in the midst of Henry VIII's divorce discussions, More was one of the scholar-diplomats representing English interests when the Habsburg Emperor Charles V and the Valois king Francois I of France met at Cambrai to negotiate the release of Francois's sons, held as hostages in Spain since 1526, and to terminate the long hostilities between the two power blocs.

English interests were peripheral. The English negotiators were there to renegotiate a commercial treaty between themselves and the Low Countries, and secure repayment of large sums owed by the Habsburgs to the English Crown.

More got his trade treaty, but otherwise his diplomatic team was outmanoeuvred by the formidable Habsburg and Valois ambassadors. They did not get the much-needed repayment on their loans. At home, however, the robustly jingoistic "press" portrayed More as a major force in the "perpetual peace between Christian Kings" of the Treaty of Cambrai.

Holbein's portraits and Erasmus's anecdotes have seen to it that those, like Ackroyd, who want humanism and civility to triumph over dogma can take More as their emblem. The biography we really need now is one that explores further the alternative, deeply disturbing story that in our own time we have seen acted out in the collapse of the old Yugoslavia. That story tells us that it is always possible for poets and men of letters to become - calamitously, under duress - the betrayers of human values.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

    £30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

    C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

    Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

    Law Costs

    Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

    Day In a Page

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution