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.

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