A Daughter's Love, by John Guy

The woman behind a saint

Reviewed,Eamon Duffy
Friday 18 July 2008 00:00 BST

Thomas More rivals Churchill as the most loved but also the most controversial English statesman. Most of those who have studied him have seen in him both a genius and a hero. In Utopia, published in 1516, More the Christian Humanist created one of the great fables of Western culture. More the politician was that rarity among lawyers, a man of iron integrity, who went to the block rather than acquiesce in a false oath imposed by a tyrannical king. For Catholics he was a resolute martyr for the unity of the Church. For secular liberals, like Robert Bolt, he was "a man for all seasons", the advocate of the individual conscience against ideology.

But there was another and apparently contradictory More. This was the polemical writer who between 1529 and 1533 poured out a million and a half words of sometimes vitriolic argument against the rising tide of Protestantism, and who vehemently justified the pursuit and execution of heretics. Even before he became Lord Chancellor, More led raids to search out banned books. He was involved in the interrogation of Protestant suspects, and he personally signed the writs for the execution of three of the six men burned for heresy while he was Lord Chancellor. This More has always troubled his admirers. His Catholic Tudor biographers chose to ignore this aspect of his career, while Protestant writers from John Foxe onwards denounced him as a torturer and fanatic.

John Guy has done more towards the scholarly reappraisal of More's greatness than most other English historians of the last 50 years. His 1980 study of More's public career was the most original book on him for decades. Guy used a mass of previously neglected documentation to tease out More's role in the tangle of early Tudor politics, and to reveal Sir Thomas's stature as an enlightened and innovatory Lord Chancellor. His survey of More's life and reputation, in 2000, remains the best introduction.

Guy's new book incorporates much of the substance of these works, but is very different in appeal. A Daughter's Love is a double biography of More and his eldest daughter, Margaret. More was far in advance of his times in believing that girls were as well worth educating as boys. He had his daughters taught the same arts syllabus as his sons.

Margaret was a prodigy, whose skill in Latin and Greek enabled her to emend texts edited by the greatest scholar of the age, her father's friend Erasmus. In 1524, in defiance of the censorship laws which her father would come to enforce, she published a fine translation of Erasmus's Meditations on the Lord's Prayer. In the last ten years of More's life, she became her father's closest friend and confidante, sharing his thoughts, secretly washing the harsh penitential hair-shirt he wore.

She was his last and best comforter as he awaited execution. The most intimate and revealing of the magnificent series of letters he wrote from his cell, some with fragments of charcoal filched from the fire, were addressed to her. After her father's execution, she would bribe officials to rescue his head from a spike on London bridge: she would eventually share a grave with it. In her most precious act of conservation, she was responsible for gathering all her father's English writings in preparation for the great folio edition finally printed in Queen Mary's reign, to which the Tower Letters formed a moving climax.

Guy rates Margaret very highly, seeing in her the indispensable source of most of our knowledge of More the man, and as his rival in talent and greatness. With pardonable exaggeration, he claims that without Margaret her father would have become "just another footnote in history".

Less plausibly, he sees her, on the strength of her Greek learning and her translation, as the one orthodox Catholic in early Tudor England who could have produced a version of the New Testament to rival that of Tyndale. Guy berates the Henrician bishops for failing to see this: "but of course she was a woman, so it never entered their heads".

He denigrates William Roper, Margaret's husband, whose reminiscences provided More's early biographers with their best material. Guy sees him as a time-server who got the credit for his wife's achievements. He blames More's first biographer, the priest Nicholas Harpsfield, for a blind patriarchy which "airbrushed" Margaret out of More's political life. This is not altogether fair: Harpsfield was working from limited sources, yet he devotes rhapsodic pages to praise of Margaret's learning, goodness and her role as Thomas's "chiefest and almost the only worldlye comfort". Nevertheless, it is salutary to have a sympathetic life of More which brings his most important relationship into proper focus.

Guy's sympathy for More is in some ways surprising. His earlier work shared the lack of enthusiasm for More's religious views which was one of the hallmarks of Guy's great teacher, Sir Geoffrey Elton. Here, however, Guy writes about More with warmth and admiration, and seems willing to entertain the notion that he was certainly a hero, perhaps even a saint. Nevertheless, he retains some reservations. He is bored by More's controversial writings, and repelled by their vehemence. He pays lip-service to the "far-reaching importance" of More's Dialogue Concerning Heresies, widely recognised as one of the masterpieces of Tudor polemic. But his enthusiasm for even this witty and formidably argued book lacks conviction, and he focuses on the work's justification of violence against heretics. For this aspect of More's complex character Guy has little time, seeing it as a betrayal of earlier ideals.

Guy's book is based on fresh work in the archives as well as unrivalled knowledge of the printed sources. It carries its learning lightly – there are no footnotes, and the scholarship is buried in bibliographical essays at the back. But this warm and vivid portrait of the most attractive father and daughter relationship in English history will reward the specialist as well as the general reader.

Eamon Duffy is Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University

Thomas More

Sir Thomas More (1478 –1535) started his political life as an under-sheriff of the city of London, rising to become Speaker of the House of Commons and then Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532. His 1516 book, Utopia, coined the term. He was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935, 400 years after he was executed for treason by King Henry VIII. As he stood on the scaffold he said that he died "the king's good servant, but God's first".

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