The Search for the Historical Thomas More

By Guy, John | History Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Search for the Historical Thomas More


Guy, John, History Review


Can a truthful biography of Thomas More be written? Aware that yawning gaps in the evidence have been filled by legend, and that most of us prefer comforting illusion to complex reality, John Guy is sceptical.

`A man for all seasons'? Thomas More is certainly a man for all purposes. Canonised as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI in May 1935, he is also a hero of the former Soviet Union, where an obelisk was sculptured on Lenin's orders after the Revolution and unveiled in Moscow's Alexandrovsky Gardens. Inscribed on it are some 18 names, including those of Marx, Engels and (in Cyrillic script) `T. More'. When the 500th anniversary of More's birth was celebrated in 1978, The Times leader announced, `If the English people were to be set a test to justify their history and civilisation by the example of one man, then it is Sir Thomas More whom they would perhaps choose'. The claims of King Alfred, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Gladstone and Sir Winston Churchill were fleetingly considered, but the laurels went to More.

Most spectacularly, More played the role of moral paragon at the outset of the impeachment trial of President Clinton. Opening the proceedings in the United States Senate on 14 January 1999, Congressman Henry Hyde, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives, told his global audience that Sir Thomas More was `the most brilliant lawyer of his generation, a scholar with an international reputation; the centre of a warm and affectionate family life which he cherished, [who] went to his death rather than take an oath in vain.' More is the most compelling exemplar that even the American constitutional system of government can imagine of a man whose `word is his bond'. As Congressman James Sensenbrenner, who spoke immediately after Hyde, put the point: `the truth is the truth and a lie is a lie'.

Who was the historical More? Which of the many characterisations that have attached to his name, some blatantly incompatible, are upheld by the sources? We think we know who More is. He is the author of Utopia (1516), the most avant-garde work of humanist moral philosophy north of the Alps and one of the crowning achievements of the Renaissance. According to his son-in-law, William Roper, who wrote the Life of Sir Thomas More around the year 1557, More was a man of `singular virtue'. A man `of a clear, unspotted conscience ... more pure and white than the whitest snow'. Other commentators noted that he was ` `a man of an angel's wit and singular learning'. As a writer, his name is inscribed `in the ledgers of Minerva'. His family life at Chelsea was a domestic idyll. As a King's councillor and Lord Chancellor, he was `that worthy and uncorrupt magistrate'. Later, he won international fame as the refusenik who challenged the `tyranny' of Henry VIII. Faced with the King's demands to swear an oath to the Act of Succession and to affirm the validity of the King's title as Supreme Head of the Church of England, More defended the cause of `conscience' against the State. R.W. Chambers concluded his classic Thomas More in 1935 by comparing him with Socrates and Abraham Lincoln.

More's legend

What is it about More that people so admire? One of the best summaries comes at the end of Thomas Stapleton's Life of Thomas More, which was written in 1588 and served as an inspiration for the English recusant tradition until Catholic Emancipation in 1829. More had followed his `conscience' to the death, but had always remained `a man of honour'. He was not a `rebel'. He did not `oppose' or `resist' Henry VIII. He became the victim of a law which he had violated `neither by word or deed'. `This law, moreover, concerned religion and not the policy of the State'. Although More refused to bend, he had not challenged the law or criticised anyone who had accepted it. When Henry VIII's character began to change and `lust' ruled in place of virtue, More had resigned.

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