Hands up out there any of you who have seen Robert Bolt’s play, ‘A Man for All Seasons’? Or more likely the associated film, directed by Fred Zinneman which won all those Oscars – and all those amazing actors – Paul Schofield, Robert Shaw who was the quintessential Henry, Leo Mckern, Vanessa Redgrave, Susannah York, Orson Welles, John Hurt – John Hurt wow he was good. If you haven’t see them then at very least get yourself the film, a large pint or three of good English ale and do yourself a favour. I promise you that you’ll enjoy it. Promise.
Talking about a film is probably a terrible place to start talking about a historical figure. Because isn’t it the primary job of the historical novelist or playwright is to entertain? They might want to inform and enlighten, they might want to be focussed on lightening your purse, whatever, but over all of whatever else they might want to achieve, they need to entertain. And so as I started doing my reading up about Thomas, I realised that I had to do my every best to put Robert Bolt’s Thomas More to one side. Bolt’s character is pretty much the perfect hero, and also a perfect modern hero; a man who died for the liberty of individual conscience against the tyrannical machinations of the totalitarian state; a man so good so clever so pure that he could only be brought down only by the lies and perjury of a weak, venal man, Richard Rich, whose character does not come out well from the play. But in fact, perfect heroes really don’t exist do they. Hate it or loathe it everyone has their wrinkles, their feet of clay. And it turns out that Thomas More didn’t even really die for the rights of individual conscience; he died for something he considered much more noble and important. And although Richard Rich is never going to be canonised as a saint – unlike More, by the way, who was canonised in 1935 – he was never accused even by More of perjury.
My point is that discovering the real Thomas More under all that reputation is like an archaeological dig; clearing away the levels of dirt to find the real skeleton beneath. And if you spent too much time admiring the pretty headstone, you’ll end up being mislead.
Having said all that feet of clay sort of stuff, I also came away from all of this thinking, present company excepted, that he’s not as far away from being a perfect hero as most of us are. One thing that hit me was a comment I read somewhere that his biographers tend to end up liking him, which says something I think. This is a brilliant, brilliant man; and a man recognised as such by his contemporaries. He was a lawyer of glittering skills – a mind like a bacon slicer, but persuasive at the same time; a man so shiny and glittering that king Henry was immediately eager to pick him up and put him in his pocket. Henry VIII liked a bit of sparkle.
He’s a brilliant man; but he also comes across as intensely likeable, which is irritating of him. He’s a bit like those brilliant kids at school we all have to put up with. So as I sat in the corner of the classroom, squeezing blackheads and picking my nose in utter incomprehension with the chain rule, at the back there’d be the kind of David Watts that the Jam sung about. Although as I have been informed, the original credit goes to the Kinks. I had no idea. Anyway, David Watts, you know, the bloke who was top of the class academically, amazing at sport, hung like a baboon, always had a stunning girlfriend, but really nice and good company too. Utterly unbearable. I think Thomas More may have been like that, times 10. But what I’m trying to get across that despite his academic brilliance, his very deep piety, both of which can be a little dry if you don’t mind me saying, More was anything but dry. His wit comes down across the centuries; a deep love of ironic humour, of the incongruous; and quite clearly this was a man who like a bit of banter. Or a bit of bant as my daughter would say with a grin and a dimple. Actually, sometimes he comes across as a bloke who just cannot resist cracking the gag that presents itself, whether or not it is wise to do so, and therefore can get into trouble. This is the only characteristic I share with the man.
So this is a man of very great powers. Some of those powers were so great that they were a little tyrannical. For example, one of the things More is known for is this sort of idyllic family life. Well, I can tell you, I’ll take my folks any day of the week. Not that More’s household wasn’t very impressive, but More was not blind to his talents and was very clear about his beliefs, and he laid down a template which he expected his family to follow. But then times were different then – which is part of the problem with Bolt and his play – Bolt is projecting modern values on a man with one foot in the Middle Ages and one in the Renaissance. It’s like taking Utopia at face value and believing that More was a communist who would have sung the Internationale, worn a small beret and smoked Gauloise. Not really sure where I’m going with the beret to be honest. One more thing; this is not a simple man. This is a subtle, deep, complicated and intensely manipulative man who likes to use his super powers. Whatever More is, that sort of innocent, straightforward honest open man of A man for all Seasons is not More. That famous quote of his for example:
I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith, I long not to live
Is a self serving, shameless piece of propaganda delivered by a man who in the best renaissance tradition is consciously building his story. Make no mistake – you, me, Bolt, the Pope – are all being manipulated from beyond the grave by Thomas More. He is a man who very, very consciously created the image he wanted us all to believe. He wrote his own epitaph for example, which he sent to Erasmus, because he knew Erasmus would immediately circulate it and write about it and so get it out into the public domain. He wrote letters to his beloved daughter Meg that were again meant for public consumption, including said quote for example. He’s a clever bloke, seriously Twilight Zone levels of cleverness.
Anyway, I rabbit, let’s get on with it. Oops just one more thing; the other thing to note is that his career and life are extremely well documented; as a writer and man of the new learning, More was very much in the public and academic eye and left a substantial body of work. Make no mistake about it, he was a Christian humanist scholar of European-wide reputation and fame, who along with Erasmus defined the northern, Christian humanist tradition; But he is many layered, subtle, capable of being read in many different ways. Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that the depth of information we have about him is greater than almost any other figure in England to this point. Including the kings.
Some of this creates difficulties in itself. One of the principle works most biographers have to rely on is a biography by William Roper, the son in law that married More’s daughter Margaret. He drew on his own life and experience of course – he lived in More’s household; but he also drew heavily on a set of letters and works by someone called William Rastell. Now Roper was no evil fibber out to simply create a legend, and his work in many, many cases is corroborated by other sources; but make no mistake, he is not a critical observer out to expose the man warts and all. It’s not quite a hagiography, but it’s close. That’s an impressive compliment to More in itself by the way. Having someone live in the same household who still writes complimentary stuff about you is impressive; it’s difficult to write a hagiography about someone you’ve seen in their knickers. There’s a similar comment about Oliver Cromwell I think isn’t there – his personal manservamt wrote a very complimentary biography of him, and it was again noted that this should weigh heavily ion Cromwell’s favour. Anyway I digress, we’ve not got to that particular great man yet. I can’t wait, I must say. Also, note that these works by Rastell and Roper were published in 1557. That is super significant, because this was the time of the rule by Queen Mary, the Catholic queen who tried to bring England back to the Catholic church and the pope. And Roper wasn’t there at some critical events – most notably at his trial.
Let us talk a little more in very broad outline about the myth of Thomas More then, and how that reputation has changed over the ages. I need to ‘fess up at this point, by the way. I always try, within the time available, to read around the subject. In this case, I found one book just stood out above all the others, though, and I commend it to you – it’s by John Guy, in the Reputations series, called predictably and slightly dully entitles Thomas More. A seriously brilliant book.
Anyway; very broadly, the received history is of a Christian humanist hero but also a hero of the Catholic church. A man who not only defended and espoused those philosophies, but lived them; so in Utopia we appear to have a description of an ideal society based on Christian egalitarian principles to the point of communism, and indeed Marx adopted Utopia as a socialist text. In his family life at Chelsea we have a model of the humanist society – intelligent, enquiring, calm and ordered, the light of education developing personal perfection in both his sons and daughters, a loving and kind family man, husband and father. A brilliant lawyer, who as Chancellor substantially reformed the English legal system; but attractively a reluctant politician, pulled into politics against his will and never the kind of power hungry loony that stalks the boards of Henry VIII’s stage. And of course the man who died for his beliefs at the hands of an uncaring tyrant.
However, there was a dark side; that More was a vicious, blood-soaked heresy hunter; and even the Ropers and catholic writers have struggled with this one, sought to sideline it and minimise it. He appears in the super famous John Foxe’s book of martyrs. So by the later 16th century Thomas More was anything but the hero of later memory – Protestantism during Elizabeth’s reign in the later 16th century became an integral part of who the English were, how they defined themselves; so More was far from considered a hero by the vast majority of Englishmen.
It is worth noting also that More was by no means the top of the Catholic hero list either. Hands up anyone who has heard of Bishop John Fisher? Hum. A good deal fewer than put their hands up for Thomas More – there’s a surprise, not. Hopefully those who have your hands up did actually put them down after the Man for all seasons question earlier? John Fisher was a favourite of Margaret Beaufort, he preached the eulogy at both her and Henry VII’s funerals. He was made Bishop of Rochester – which is what you did to the really pious bishops, rather than the politicos who got Winchester, because at Rochester you were as poor as a church mouse with a gambling problem. So you could be safely pious. John Fisher didn’t feel the need to do all that agonising and messing about with keeping silent, and making complicated legal arguments as to why he shouldn’t take the oath about Henry’s supremacy of the church. He didn’t spend his time creating his own myth. John Fisher just told everyone what he believed, and was executed for it. Simple, genuinely straight forward and principled. Originally, it was John Fisher who was the Catholic hero. When the struggle by the Pope to rally the catholic forces against the evil protestant English gathered pace in the late 16th Century it was Fisher he reached for first – though true enough, More was right behind.
But after 1603, and the accession of the protestant James to the English throne, the official catholic church lost interest in More; and it would not be really until the 19th century that he was picked up again. Actually, More’s reputation partly survives because he became adopted by the protestant tradition, unlikely as that might seem for a man who was topped for defending the catholic church. The key thing here that let More into the Protestant hall of fame was that he kept silent for his beliefs. The story goes therefore that he did not defy or resist Henry VIII his king and lord; he just kept silent for his beliefs. After the civil wars of the 17th century this non resistance story becomes critical to non conformist tradition, and allows the heresy hunting to be pushed into the background. And meanwhile, More becomes seen as a kind of ‘Protestant-before-the-fact’; his Utopia and humanist writings and inherent criticism of the church and the need for reform seemed to fit nicely for the protestants. By the late 17th century therefore, More found himself to be a protestant hero too. How he would have laughed. Ha ha haaa. By the 19th century, the mass of writing and debate about More had fully taken off, and so he stands today.
So, Thomas More was born at the age of 0 on 6th February 1478 at Milk Street in the Cheapside ward of London. He was lucky enough to have been born to wealthy parents, otherwise we would of course almost inevitably never heard of him. They were wealthy but not noble; a family used to living as the successful Londoner ought – serving their guild, their city and their king. John More his father held land north of London, was a barrister and Judge; his mother’s family came from well know chandlers. In common with many families, Thomas and his siblings constituted a small village, in that there would be seven of them – Thomas was the eldest son. Much was expected of him, particularly in law, where his father contentedly reckoned he’d set his son up for a good career.
Thomas was sent to a good school in nearby Threadneedle Street; and then at the age of 11 in 1489 be left school and became a page boy in the household of Cardinal John Morton. And young though he was, he appears to have been a hit; and Cardinal Morton picked him out. It is the first reference we get then to More’s character. It’s terribly hard, I find anyway, to get a real sense of a person at the distance of all these years, but Thomas More is an exception. Constantly we hear about intelligence, wit, charm, humour, irony, learning. In Morton’s household, More would join the actors during plays and rather than making an ass of himself like most 11 year olds, he gave impromptu performances and held court with his wit and improvisation. And so Morton delightedly remarked
‘This child here wayting at the table, whosoever shall live to see it, will prove a mervailous man’
In 1492, Morton got the now 15 year old Thomas a place at Oxford; 2 years later he left, now 17 of course, and his father’s hand made sure that he turned to the law, first at New Inn and then Lincoln’s Inn, studying the law until being called to the bar around 1501 or 2. It is apparently the case that Thomas’s father was very insistent indeed that he follow him to the law; none of this modern stuff about not crushing your children’s dreams and all that.
It became a matter of some hot debate between them as More junior appeared to waste his time on what More senior saw as the frippery of the development of modern thought and society through the Christian Humanist tradition.
Because the story of this period was not just about the development of a brilliant lawyer that More certainly appears to have been. It was about the development of a dazzling intellect at the time of enormous, epoch changing development in thinking and scholarship. This is the time of the New Learning, that we have come to call Humanists, of whom More was to be accounted one of the finest; and More hobnobbed with the leading names of Northern Humanism – John Colet, Thomas Linacre, William Grocyn, and William Lily; and of course the most famous of them all, Erasmus. Erasmus was to visit England and live with him, though in his London home at Bucklersbury, not the all famous estate at Chelsea. Now I’m going to try really, really hard to not make this a podcast about humanism and Erasmus, because it’ll go on and on, and I have done that elsewhere on the good ‘ole Shedcasts. But let me pick up a couple of themes that are particularly significant as far as More is concerned. In no particular order.
Humanists essentially believed that through education people could perfect themselves. They did not call themselves humanists which was a 19th century label, but they picked up on the Italian Renaissance which emphasised the importance of studying the great writers of antiquity. Put out of your mind any thought that they were in anyway anti religious – there might be a desire for reform of the church or indeed an edge of anti clericalism, but those are very different things to being anti religious. In the early days, the focus was very much on language and rediscovery of all these works of antiquity; but by the time More was studying it had moved on to what you might call Civic humanism. You might call it that, for that is what it is called. Essentially this denied that there should be a separation between the life of philosophy and political life – anything but, in fact. So there’s one thing about More – his is a practical humanism; More was constantly trying to do something, make things happen not just talk about it. In his mind, thinkers and philosophers had to be involved in practical politics, just as they are in Utopia in fact, not standing aloof having great thoughts which made nothing change.
Number 2 was that the classical scholars such as Cicero taught that the public figure should present himself not as he necessarily was, but as how he wanted to be perceived. This is not fibbing, good lord no, this is a civic duty, to use rhetoric and persuasion to present an image to the world that built the glory of the commonwealth, the res publica. More, as we have said, will take this on board with some enthusiasm, and paint a picture of himself to the world.
Now I know there is much more to humanism than that, but let me just leave those two things with you; the responsibility of the humanist to play his role in public life, and the responsibility to present a positively crafted image to the world.
This period was also critical for forming the religious side of More’s life. Don’t ever forget that More was really, really pious. My mother makes me laugh sometimes when she speaks admiringly of the vicar in her village because he really believes in God. I have to admit I always thought this a requirement of your priest, but apparently not absolutely necessary in the Anglican tradition. Anyway, my mother would be very impressed indeed with Thomas More and his level of piety.
One of the controversies in fact, is whether or not Thomas More had wanted to become a monk as a young man, and following the contemplative life; he might well have spent some time during these early years living in the monastery at Charterhouse as a lay brother, though others say he was just living nearby. The traditional view, promoted indeed by Erasmus is simply that More in the end decided that he was made for the world, had a responsibility to contribute actively to the public good, and so that’s the route he took. The more iconoclastic of his reviewers – a chap called Richard Marius and the famous historian G R Elton made this into a fundamental failure of More to restrain his desire for sex; that he was decided to stay in the monastery, but simply could not control sexual drive, and therefore had to give up and get married; and that this failure to become a monk or priest haunted and drove More for the rest of his life, so that he kind of sought out martyrdom.
There’s really very little way of knowing if this is the case or not. We know that More would wear a hair shirt, and this is built up into the argument on the side of the iconoclasts. Elton famously wrote:
What purpose does a man serve who wears a hair short and whips himself, except to ‘tame the flesh”?
Well, it’s a fair question. Personally, I could see a hair shirt as a stylish fashion accessory, but I may be alone in that. Although we know that More wore a hair shirt, apparently, he didn’t tell anyone, to avoid looking like a weirdo, or more likely to avoijd any impression that he was simply out to attract admiration. Apparently his wife didn’t know for a year after their marriage. But when she found out, she asked a friend to tell him not to wear it because he, quote ‘tamed his flesh til the blood was seen in his clothes’ which is frankly a little gross; grosser still he gave his hair shirt to his daughter Margaret as a pressie. Ewe. Maybe a card or something next time?
But we don’t actually know if he wore one back then when he was contemplating a monastic life – these quotes come later in his life. More certainly never writes of having been tormented by sex, or indeed by not becoming a priest. Wearing a hair shirt can just as easily speak to the ascetic religious tradition. Seriously, there’s no need to paint More as a sex maniac or tormented by a failure to become a priest to explain the hair shirt. It seems to me to be a blind alley.
Essentially, whether he achieved it or not, More aspired to a life of temperance, patience, humility, and hope, taking an active part in the real world rather than withdrawing from it. There’s a quote from him he makes when he translated a work of Mirandola in 1510, saying there was no book better:
neither to teaching of temperance in prosperity, nor to the purchasing of patience in adversity, nor to the despising of worldly vanity, nor to the desiring of heavenly felicity.
So, having chosen the world, in 1505 he was married for the first time to a lady called Jane Colt. They had 4 children – three girls and a boy, but in 1511 Jane died. More almost immediately, within a month, ran out and got married to Alice. It seems to me not enough is really made of this. I mean it’s used for the sex maniac argument, but it really is rather remarkable isn’t it? Maybe he was worried about looking after the children while he wrote his great works.
Anyway, maybe here is the place to introduce the topic of the way he treated women, which in some ways is really rather one of his less attractive characteristics; usually explained away as being par for the course for the times, which is true enough. Though in other ways, particularly in education, his attitude was very much ahead of his time. But essentially he is patronising, dismissive and sometimes cruel about the women in his life – though not about his daughter Meg it has to be said with whom he was very close. With his first wife, Jane, he joked that he’d rather have married her younger sister, but as William Roper, who heard it from More, describes it:
when he considered that it would be both great grief and some shame also to the eldest to see her younger sister in marriage preferred before her, he then of a certain pity framed his fancy towards her, and soon after married her
I think it may be that we are supposed to be pleased with More that he made such a self abnegating decision. And if he’d kept it to himself, well maybe so. But he didn’t of course. He thought it was funny. He wanted people to know. I doubt it made Jane feel like a million dollars, I could be wrong.
There’s a worse one; there’s a hideous story of how More gave his first wife Jane a string of false jewels, and gleefully relates the delight she took even though they were false, and thought himself very funny and superior. I guess he thought it was showing the transitory nature of worldly baubles. But in fact of course it just made him look hideous and his wife feel small. Seriously, it’s not a funny joke. It reminds me in a slightly different way of a radio interview I heard once about a wife who had tricked her husband over the national lottery. She took the numbers from last week, and recorded the show. She bought a ticket with last week’s numbers. She sat her husband down in front of the telly, playing last week’s show with the husband thought was the live this week’s show. Of course the numbers came up. The husband thought he had won £13m and was free for the rest of his life. In fact of course he had won nothing. Share with me the horror of this situation. This is also not a funny joke. Like More’s it was a cruel and thoughtless joke. Although unlike More’s it was not a joke designed to show his superiority of mind and learning.
Towards Alice his second wife, he appears relentlessly patronising, as a lesser intelligence; there’s a famous portrait of the family by Holbein, in which their pet monkey is tugging at Alice’s rosary. The implication is that More put the monkey there, since it was a symbol of lust. When he got married, More joked that he had married her, quote ‘against the advice of his friends’; he joked that she was ‘neither a pearl nor a girl’; he had remarried ‘more to have someone to look after his household than for his own pleasure’ It’s that kind of irony and humour which presumably More thought was funny, but which the object of it would not find quite so fun – a failure of empathy on More’s part.
Having said that, More was radical in his belief that women has as great a right to education as any man, and indeed he was pretty exceptional in this. Women and men, he wrote to his children’s tutor, are
‘equally suited for those studies by which reason is cultivated and becomes fruitful like a ploughed land on which the seed of good lessons has been sown’
If we go back to that picture, you’ll see that many of the women are carrying books; this was an erudite household where women’s education was valued every bit as much as the menfolk, and More’s respect for the potential of Meg shines through. So while on a personal level More’s humour at the expense of his womenfolk sticks in the throat, and seems to me to indicate more than a little arrogance and insensitivity, the courage and of More’s belief in the quality of women’s was potential and rights marks him as exceptional for his time.
More now built a career. Partly from the advantages of his birth but largely from his own talents and abilities, Thomas More became a rich and powerful man. He was a professional lawyer, and a particularly brilliant one at that. He was an increasingly notable figure in the public life of the city; in 1504 for example, at the tender age of 26, he was a member of parliament. He did not pass unnoticed at this parliament. By this stage, Henry VII was well into the later stages of his tyranny, He was proposing to revive a long forgotten feudal aid, which would have allowed his agents to go out and gather information about his subjects, in a way no one wanted a narled old tyrant like Henry to do. So More spoke out against the tax in parliament; the king’s agent William Tyler returned to Henry to tell him that ‘a beardless boy had disappointed all his purpose’. According to Roper, Henry VII marked More’s card; Bishop Richard Fox drew him aside, and pretending to favour him told him to confess his offence against the king; More’s more experienced friends warning him not to confess a darned thing to the king. In fact, his father was to suffer the kind of tactic Henry VII increasingly deployed; accused of some spurious crime, forced to pay £100 for his release, after which the accusations magically disappeared. More was to view Fox with great suspicion from now on; for More, it was Fox not Morton who lay behind the device called Morton’s Fork.
More’s rise was fast and consistent. He became a member of the powerful Mercers’ guild in 1509; a justice of the peace for Middlesex in 1509; he served on commissions of the peace, and then in 1510 More was appointed one of two under-sheriffs for the city of London in 1510. He was just 32, and in a position of considerable power and patronage; his income was probably in the order of £400 a year. In 1515, he was the Lent reader at Lincoln’s Inn. This was the highest honour an Inn of Court could confer on a member. More was at the top of his profession. As a prominent lawyer and member of the city he began to come into contact with the king’s court; in 1515, he was part of a city delegation that met the king’s Council, and subsequently visited Bruges.
But particularly famous and important was his learned handling of a notorious case involving a ship carrying papal alum seized illegally by the duke of Suffolk. Charles Brandon, a particularly barefaced noble villain, seized the cargo, and the Emperor and Pope petitioned Henry VIII to have it returned. Henry must have been tempted to hang on to the valuable cargo, and support his friend Brandon. But More’s case and persuasion on behalf of the Pope won the day in court. This may have brought him to the King’s attention; but it certainly brought him to Wolsey’s attention.
Meanwhile More was making his reputation as a brilliant writer. You might be interested to know that later in his life it became More’s habit to get up early. By early, I mean 2 O’clock in the morning. Now I know that he’d have been going to bed earlier than us moderns but still. The point is that presumably this is what allowed him to develop a budding legal career and at the same time become a brilliant writer. Though lord knows, I’m no use to man or beast at 2 in the morning. More was already a writer and translator of works; and in 1513-1516 he was working on his history of Richard III, a work wherein he explores the nature and effects of tyranny. And then in 1516 after he came back from Bruges, he published Utopia.
People went potty for Utopia – it took off like a rocket and rapidly went through a number of editions. It was set in Antwerp, as a conversation between a fictionalized More and a voyager recently returned from newly discovered lands.
Now I imagine you know this; Utopia the word is a humanist’s joke, the sort of thing humanists found funny as they chuckled over their wine and figs; it comes from the Greek and means nowhere. Sadly, a cleric in 1624 called Rowland Phillips missed the gag and asked for the location of the island so he could go and evangelise about there. I suspect Rowland may have had a hard time down the pub the following week, seriously. Even funnier was the guy who wrote in saying that More deserved no credit for the book, because he just wrote down what Hythlodaeus said. Come on.
Now I am not going to warble on about Utopia because, frankly, I’m not qualified. But a few things to mention.
Utopia presents what might look initially to be More’s idea of a perfect society. The Utopians are pagans who base their society on the application of reason. It’s a very radical society compared to 16th century Europe, ordered by rationality – households are no fewer than 10 and not more than 16; everyone works in agriculture but must learn a trade too; property is held in common, money and private wealth abolished. Utopians don’t dress in fine clothes, there are no irrelevant ceremonies, there are no noble titles. They reject all blood sports, and are pacifists; they delight in education. In short, it’s as dull as ditchwater.
Utopia satirizes European society for its short-sighted love of gain, its lack of true Christian piety and charity, and its unreasonableness. It also criticises the church for some of its failures. But it would be a mistake to suppose that More saw Utopia as his perfect society. It was pagan for a start; and probably pagan because it allowed More to point out that even pagan Utopia could do better than England; think what we could achieve if we could combine Utopia AND Christianity – that sort of message. He openly has the main protagonist Hythladaeus criticise the Utopian’s aim for pleasure and happiness – without God, Utopia is for More an empty pointless place.
Utopia allows More to explore that dynamic we talked about earlier – about whether the philosopher should withdraw from or engage in society. Whether to follow Plato; whose Republic is a benchmark which exists in the mind against which to judge society rather than being something to be physically established; or alternatively to follow Cicero, who expounds the need to get involved. More was much closer to the pragmatic reformer, who might have to accept the best possible solution, rather than the purity of Plato; but in the end, the job of the Ciceronian politician is to pursue Plato’s ideal. Understanding this might help understand why More went into politics. It is also spookily predictive of the very situation he was going to face. More was arguing that men of principle should go into politics; that they should work to knock the edges off the tendency for Princes to act with short sighted greed; to find ways to adapt and work with those princes that allowed them to retain their principles. More’s own art and philosophy was to mirror his own life.
Because soon after the publication of Utopia, More was called to the king’s service. How this happened is also a matter of some controversy, or at least the motivation around it. Remember that one of the very attractive things about the More story is that this is the reluctant politician; it’s a deeply attractive story, the Cincinnatus model, of the man called to do his duty but who does it for duty not for power, and once the job is done, he returns to his plough. And It does indeed seem to accord with the principle More has picked up from his humanist education, and which he’d espoused in Utopia; learned men of conviction and principle needed to work in the real world and improve the lot of the commonwealth.
It was quite probably the Chancellor Wolsey who recruited More into the royal service, rather than the king. Wolsey was in the middle of a power struggle with a group called the minions – swashbuckling young turks of the nobility, who had squeezed out Wolsey’s men from the Royal Council. Wolsey had a man close to the king – called Richard Pace, the king’s secretary, but he didn’t entirely trust him; more and more he began to worry that he’d effectively gone native, turned gamekeeper rather than poacher. By March 1518, Wolsey had recruited More to help Pace out, and More was sworn onto the Royal Council. At some point there was probably an initial meeting between the king and his new servant; More mentions several times that his new royal master told him to ‘first look unto God and after God unto him’. These are once more prophetic words, which will have an echo many years later.
It is really impossible to know whether More was just spinning a line or telling the truth when he wrote to Erasmus that, quote, ‘It was with great unwillingness that I came to court’. On the one hand, More had shown little sign that he was not ambitious when he worked his way on the legal ladder – though interestingly, he hadn’t taken the last step, which was promotion to the position of Sergeant at Law, the highest position below judge. None the less, More was a rich and powerful man, he had not chosen the life of contemplation or the life of the scholar – he accepted very public posts such as under sheriff, the sort of job that is unquestionably anything but other worldly or the thing you’d take on as a shrinking violet.
On the other hand; it’s entirely possible for a man to be at court and hating it, as we know from the pained letters of Peter of Blois under Henry II. And also, it was pretty difficult to decline working for the king; essentially, you were expected to work at the pleasure of the king if he asked. Certainly once you were in, there was no concept of one of his royal servants resigning – that would be a scandal, and insult, maybe even treason. We know that More is writing hard at this time in defence of Humanism; so it is entirely possible that yes, More was reluctant to be at court; that he had little patience with the ways of princes and government which he had already shown in Utopia he distrusted. But that it was difficult, if not impossible, to say no to the king, and anyway, as a learned humanist it was his duty as he had furiously expounded in Utopia, to do his best to make government work for the good of the commonwealth.
So, you pays your takes your choice. Interestingly of course, in decades gone by this sort of question would be a gimme – the vast majority would go for Bolt’s interpretation, the man of duty, the Cincinnatus. But another historical novelist Hilary Mantel has also recently had an impact on the way people view Thomas More – as a scheming politician. How frustrating to be an academic historian and see novelists with all their freedom having such an influence on our view of history. Boo hoo. Anyway, I suspect a historian would say that look, let’s try and lose the false dichotomies. It is perfectly possible to be a scheming politician out to do good for the world, and as an appalling Polyanna, I hold that to apply to more than just Thomas More.
So More was now dancing with the devil, and he knew the risks. In his book on Richard III, he had written of the risks, that politics:
be King’s games, as it were stage players, and for the more part played upon scaffolds. In which poor men are but the lookers on
Into the 1520’s More was constantly in attendance on Wolsey and on the King; from 1521, he became the King’s sole secretary when Richard Pace went to Rome. More not only filled the job spec with his expertise and talents, he also had that wit, humour, power of conversation. And the king liked it, and warmed to More. Roper in his biography described how More
was of a pleasant disposition, it pleased the king and Queen, after the Council had eaten, at the time of their supper, for their pleasure, commonly to call for him to be merry with them. Whom when he perceived so much in his talk to delight, that he could not once in a month get leave to go home to his wife and children (whose company he most desired) and to be absent from the court two days together … he, much mis-liking this restraint of his liberty, began thereupon somewhat to dissemble his nature, and so little and little from his former accustomed mirth to disuse himself, that he was of them from thenceforth at such seasons no more so ordinarily sent for
The quote is obviously part of building that story about More the reluctant councillor. But it’s not difficult to believe. In 1521, More probably helped Henry VIII write the rather remarkable tract refuting Luther’s teachings; and when Luther’s vicious reply came in, it was More who took up the response. A theme emerges here in More’s responses; it’s easy to say that More died defending Papal supremacy over the King’s claim to be head of the English church. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Not that More didn’t recognise papal authority – he did. But More really saw the authority of the church as vested in the accumulated knowledge and tradition of all the church fathers and saints; the Catholic teaching that the Holy Spirit preserved and guided the church both through scripture and through tradition, and that, as a visible institution containing all Christians, the church operated by Spirit-guided consensus, not individual persuasion. It was this battle that More took up against Luther. For More, critical to the struggle was the ‘common corps of Christendom’ against individual or minority conviction; this is pretty ironic, given the Boltish mythology that More died defending individual liberty of conscience. Absolutely the opposite. More died defending the will of the community over the will of the individual. So there’s a thing.
Through the 1520’s then, More was constantly active on the king’s council; he was with the king at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France. In 1521 he was knighted; In 1523, he was speaker of the House in Parliament, and his skill manoeuvred through difficult grants of taxation. In 1525 he became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. This was a man rising fast in the royal service; and not just because he demonstrated his talents to the king, and because the king liked his company; he was also essential to Wolsey, and being essential to Wolsey was good for your career. Wolsey trusted More, and early in their relationship More seems to have also trusted and admired Wolsey – though this was to change by the time of Wolsey’s fall.
By 1525, therefore, More was a very successful man. He was at the centre of government, close to the two most powerful men in the country – the King and Cardinal Wolsey – and all the influence and patronage that suggests. He was not short of a bob or two. In fact, he was rich. In 1524, he built himself a new place to live; a large estate at Chelsea. Which we now think of as a rather posh suburb of London, the area which has given its name to the Chelsea tractor, the vast 4×4 so essential to anyone living on the mean and muddy streets of West London. But then it was a village, 2 miles downstream from Westminster, so quite a trek; certainly More kept within his household a complete team of Bargemen and a grand barge to make sure he was ready for the commute at any time.
More’s place at Chelsea was where his reputation for the perfect domestic life of the Christian Humanist was formed. Actually, there’s not a vast amount of really solid evidence that this life was everything it was cracked up to be; it comes either from a piece of work of Erasmus, who never actually visited the estate at Chelsea, only the London home before 1524; and from Roper’s writings. But essentially from these two we do get a rather idyllic image. There More lived with his extended family in an atmosphere of education, piety and learning. More built a part of the complex just for him, the New Buildings – they contained a chapel, a library and a gallery; this was where More worked, this was More’s shed, and a pretty impressive shed it was, all entirely separate from the main noisy, busy house.
Back to that famous and fascinating picture of More and his family, painted by Hans Holbein. Actually the original exists only as a sketch, but other folk have finished it off and created a finished painting; it’s really interesting, I urge you again to come along and look at it on the website. It immediately communicates a few things. Firstly, there is nothing radical about his group. It is a deeply patriarchal set up, More and his dad slap bang in the middle, women arrayed all around the edges. More gets a good press because of his belief that women are every bit as likely to profit from Education as men, but he is the boss here; and in More’s mind and in indeed in the collective mind of Tudor society that’s the way both God and Classical antiquity set things up anyway, so it’s entirely suitable. Secondly, there are books all over the place; the picture is communicating More’s love of learning, building the story of More’s position as the leading light of humanism. Thirdly, this is not the picture of frugality and modesty More’s reputation might lead us to believe. These folks are all dressed up to the nines, in the very latest clothing. What we are looking at here is the immediate family and household of one of the richest and most powerful men in England, not the household of some ascetic, monk like scholar. This isn’t intended as a criticism, it’s just that More’s material status needs to be remembered among all the idyllic pictures of learning and his later persecution; More was playing at the very top of society. Peter Ackroyd does a rather nice job of going through all these folks and linking them to the most powerful and richest men in England. Finally, it’s worth noting that More’s household was about 100 strong; there were a dozen or so personal servants, around 50 staff in the kitchens, laundry and stables, and the 8 watermen who rowed More’s barge. More would have viewed all of these people, as would any magnate as part of his household, almost family.
In this patriarchal house, More laid down a template for pious, learned, frugal and temperate living. There’s much that’s very attractive about the image as it is meant to be; the image of the brilliant More leading the teaching of his family; the wider family gathered around – his father, his 4 children, his daughter Meg; Margaret Gig whom he’d adopted, Anne Cresacre who, he’d effectively rescued from the clutches of two men who had been convicted of her rape and abduction in the Court of the Star Chamber. But on the other hand who was an heiress that would marry John More, and so bring great benefit to the More family. There is William Roper, Margaret’s husband and Thomas’s biographer. On the estate, More would regularly administer justice, hearing cases in his own great hall, especially when he became lord chancellor. He was clearly a good, upstanding member of his local community, giving to the poor, making sure that what he did was fair to his neighbours. He instructed Alice, for example, in a letter, to
To make good research what my poor neighbours have lost and bid them take no thought therefore, for and I should not leave myself a spoon there shall no poor neighbour of mine bear loss by any chance happened in my house
There’s no real reason not to accept all of this; nor is there any reason to get carried away by it. The point is that there is nothing radical about the set up – More is a very traditional patriarch of his family and local dependants and lesser. There is something of his view about education which is new; for More, education was not, as traditionally placed, simply about preparing men for public office or a career in the church. For him it was the process whereby religious and moral principles were instilled and exemplified – and as such there was no difference between men and women’s education. But it was very much More who laid the template, and expected all to meet its demands. I don’t think there’s any great reason to deny the story that More loved his family; that he led a personal life of moral probity according to his principles; that he had a ‘genius for friendship’. Revisionists claim that this is all show and sham, part of More’s effort to project a model of the perfect Christian Humanist family – and this is a claim it’s not possible to refute. But as long as we don’t get carried away with how lovely it all was there’s no real reason to deny it, it seems to fit perfectly well.
Now then, in 1529, Cardinal Wolsey fell like a large tub of lard, as he failed to resolve the king’s great matter – the divorce. This left a large, round, tubby hole in Henry’s government, smelling slightly of Orange.
In Westminster Hall, therefore, the dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk swore a new man in as the Lord Chancellor to replace Wolsey. It was the day after the King had informed More that he was the man to fill this hole and become Lord Chancellor. Norfolk explained to the assembled men of the Privy Council
‘how much England was beholding to Sir Thomas More for his good service’ and
‘how worthy he was to have the highest room in the land and
‘how dearly’ the king ‘loved and trusted him’
More was now one of the king’s chief advisers, responsible for the delivery of the king’s justice. He had officially arrived – there’s really no further for him to go. Another way of looking at this, of course, is that it’s the beginning of the end.