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The Man for all Seasons

St. Thomas More

Embodied the Progress and Contradictions

of Henry VIII's England

 

In the turmoil
of the English Reformation, no one cast a shadow quite like that of Thomas More.

 

Possessed with the keenest legal mind of his era, he became not only the most powerful jurist in all of England, but he also changed the law in ways that are still felt today. As Lord Chancellor of the realm, it was More who first allowed clients to be represented by their attorneys in legal proceedings.

 

A gifted and inventive writer, he wrote treatises on religion and statecraft, history and philosophy. He coined the concept of "Utopia," and introduced words such as paradox and pretext, shuffle and taunt into written English.

 

As an active supporter of the new humanism that was sweeping across Europe, he turned his London home into a true center of learning. Scholars from Italy and the Low Countries debated the meanings of ancient texts beneath his roof, while in the yard outside, his children shot arrows at targets shaped like the Greek alphabet. A man of deep religious beliefs, he wore a hair shirt beneath his tunic and built his own private chapel. But he also loved the bawdy tales, the off-color jokes and the rough language of the streets.

 

Lawyer, writer, scholar and churchman -- it's no wonder he was called "a man for all seasons." And when Henry VIII had him beheaded one spring morning in 1535, Thomas More became something else. A martyr for the Catholic Church, he also became a symbol of men who would rather die than renounce their beliefs.

 

First published in England, where it became a rather unlikely best seller, Peter Ackroyd's "The Life of Thomas More" is a richly detailed and well-written biography of this extraordinary Englishman. Not only does Ackroyd do a masterful job of bringing his deeply complex subject to life, but he also paints a vivid portrait of the last days of a Catholic England.

 

Born to a prosperous London family, Thomas More was a precocious and diligent student. He went off to Oxford at age 16 and commenced his legal studies two years later. In time, his mastery of the law would turn him into one of the most powerful men in England. But first, he would make his mark in the world of letters.

Always faithful 

It was a world then being turned upside down. The invention and proliferation of the printing press was having a transforming effect on the spread of ideas, as scholars and writers across Europe published treatises on a wealth of subjects. More, whose rhetorical skills had been honed at the Inns of Court, enthusiastically joined this new humanism, publishing a wide-ranging body of work. Known best for his political satire, "Utopia," he also published histories, translations, philosophical dialogues and religious tracts.

 

The latter proved fateful. For just as the printing press had opened up the world of scholarship, it had also helped spread the cause of the Reformation and its leading exponent, Martin Luther. More, who profoundly believed in the sanctity of the Catholic church, bitterly opposed these "newe men" of Protestantism. Not only did he write treatises against Luther, but once he was appointed Lord Chancellor, he also arranged for heretics to be burned at the stake.

 

For More, the struggle was nothing less than a fight between good and evil. 

Asking for help

Yet it would not be the Protestants, but his own king, who would prove to be the undoing of Thomas More. When Henry VIII annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and married his mistress Anne Boleyn, against the wishes of Rome, More could not acquiesce to this overturning of papal authority. Arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, More was then found guilty in one of the most famous trials in English history. He was beheaded, and his severed head was displayed upon a pole above London Bridge.

 

As serious biography, "The Life of Thomas More" is a clear success. Author Peter Ackroyd, who has previously written biographies of T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens and William Blake, is well up to the task of grappling with a subject as complicated as Thomas More. Both traditional and innovative, pious and profane, More is presented as neither an unblemished hero nor a figure out of step with the times. Admirably, instead of constantly judging More against the standards of our own age, Ackroyd instead concentrates upon giving us a picture of how More lived his life in his own time.

 

Ackroyd also does a commendable job of conjuring up the sights and sounds of late medieval London, with its omens and plagues, its public markets and political intrigues, its priestly rituals and Star Chamber. Particularly helpful for American readers, whose historical sensibilities tend to not precede the 18th century, "The Life of Thomas More" does not require any detailed knowledge of medieval life.

 

Straightforward and even-handed, "The Life of Thomas More" will, deservedly, become the new standard popular biography of one of the great figures of English history. But Ackroyd has also -- undoubtedly unknowingly -- accomplished something else. In these days of political spin and lock step partisanship, he has sent to us from across the Atlantic a timely missive on the enduring power of words, and the price of true belief.

 

  -- SCOTT ELLSWORTH

 is the author of "Death in a Promised Land"

 

Thomas More

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