Byline: VAL HENNESSY
seasons? L ET me salute my hero, Peter Ack-royd. I possess every book he has ever written novels, poetry, literary criticism, biography and never cease to admire his original and prodigious talent.
The subject of his new biography is Thomas More, one of the great figures of English history and already familiar to most of us as the saintly martyr in the movie A Man For All Seasons.
But was More as saintly as we believe? Well, yes and no.
Thanks to Ackroyd's skill, scrupulous research and inspired interpretation of historical texts, vital sparks of life have been breathed into the austere icon. Apart from his unquestionably virtuous qualities he had, it transpires, endearingly human failings.
FOR EXAMPLE, he relished the rumbustious 'lavatorial' jokes so popular with the people of his time. He also composed bawdy verses (in Latin) - verses so pithy, in fact, that to one disapproving contemporary they were: 'Too obscene to be lookt upon, and who rubbeth stincking weeds shall have filthy fingers.' Lewd jokes and epigrams apart, More was also a self-flagellator to tame his sexuality, and always wore a hair shirt (what exactly is a hair shirt, incidentally? What hair is it made from?) to chafe his skin beneath his sumptuous robes.
More (1478-1535) lived in the dying days of a unified Catholic England, just before the traditional order was cracked apart by Henry VIII. Ackroyd's knowledge of London, such a brilliant feature of much of his writing, offers us vivid images of the city at this extraordinary turning point.
It is a teeming, vibrant,
self-confident place, home to wealthy, well-educated merchants (such as More's father) and serious scholars.
Public beheadings, whippings and heretics being burned at the stake were everyday sights.
When 17-year-old Henry VIII appeared in public he was cheered by ecstatic crowds. On the day before his coronation the streets were hung with gold drapes and 'virgins in white with braunches of white Waxe', lined the route.
On May Days there were public maypoles, pageants, feasting and dancing.
The King and Queen, riding from Greenwich Palace, were greeted by 'Robin Hood' with 200 green-clad archers. They dined on venison in the woods to sounds of flutes, lutes and organs.
Ackroyd describes the young More, clutching candle and bread and butter, making his way to school in Threadneedle Street, where lessons began at six in the morning. …