Magazine article The Spectator

Adjusting the Martyr's Crown

Magazine article The Spectator

Adjusting the Martyr's Crown

Article excerpt

'Erasmus belonged to no country; More was always a Londoner and an Englishman.' Peter Ackroyd's description of the historic humanist friendship is just; although we all know Erasmus was a Dutchman, he really belongs to Latin Europe, while More, the lawyer, remains deeply embedded in the customs and culture of his native land and city. The familiar story of ascent to the lord chancellorship, followed by the crisis of conscience and then ruin and death, is well told, though it would be hard indeed to make such a story boring. At the same time the word 'Londoner' betrays Ackroyd's own fundamental cast of mind. We all know that he is brilliant on London. In his book on Blake he amazed readers by pointing out that every time the poet walked into the City he would have passed the blackened shell of a burnt-out mechanised factory, Albion Mill, so that the `dark Satanic Mills' of the lyric may really mean, at one level, what the unliterary have always supposed them to mean: factories. So here Ackroyd observes tellingly that the young More would have often passed, at the corner of Ironmonger Lane and Cheapside, the memorial to the martyr Becket, whose manner of death would in due course be mirrored by his own. Before the book ends we are told how this monument was defaced at the time of More's disgrace.

Ackroyd begins his book with a lovingly 'Gothic' account of More's baptism: the old religion, the old England. This proves to be the keynote. Ackroyd sees More as the last representative of English Roman Catholic Christianity and a festive/devout worldview, rich in imagery, with which the biographer is plainly half in love. He writes feelingly of the reformers' despoliation of St Stephen Walbrook, the church where More worshipped for many years. All of this leads Ackroyd to rehabilitate More, to rescue him from the historians. In recent years much stress has been laid on the fact that More, the martyr, himself authorised the burning of heretics. Ackroyd argues strenuously that More was moved to this by a fear that heresy, if allowed to grow unchecked, would effectively destroy the Christian England he loved. I will not say that Ackroyd thinks More was right to order the burnings. After all Ackroyd knows, as More did not know, that history was against him, that he could not win. But the thought is not, so to speak, very far away.

Historical nostalgia is a great simplifier. The More we are given in this book is a strangely flattened version. When near the end, More was living in fear of interrogation, a sudden knock at the door threw his family into terrified confusion. …

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