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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
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

    Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

    £26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

    Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

    £24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

    £22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions