The Magazine


Peter Ackroyd's New Biography of Thomas More

Dec 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 15 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
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Over the years, I have read at least four biographies of the sixteenth-century politician, scholar, lawyer, writer, diplomat, and saint, Sir Thomas More. But Peter Ackroyd's new biography, The Life of Thomas More, is the first that I wanted to start again as soon as I finished. It may be, quite simply, the most satisfying biography I have ever read.

The secret to Ackroyd's success lies in his power to recreate, chapter by chapter, the surroundings of his subject -- the smells, sights, sounds, tempo, hardships, disciplines: from the scene of More's birth to the street where he grew up, his house, his school, his daily service for Wolsey, his studies at Oxford, his typical day in the Inns of Court, and all the other settings of his life.

Almost effortlessly, Ackroyd manages to put in place the things upon which More's attention fell, year by year. And somehow, along the way, he manages to put his readers in place as well. In the midst of all the lavish details of sixteenth-century daily life, our senses and our sensibilities are lifted back into a radically different time and place -- until at last the biographer convinces us that we can share More's own way of seeing his world. Ackroyd makes us smell the sewage on the roads, hear the bustle and shouts, wend our way through the street life. He forces us through the early grammar books, the prayers, the principles of rhetoric, even the sound and feel of Latin poetry.

Ackroyd also brings to life the finely wrought, tough-minded, and highly personal Catholic faith of his subject, despite the fact that (it appears) he doesn't share that faith. At More's christening, he makes us taste the salt, receive the cold shock of the baptismal water, start at the ritual slap.

Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478, the son of a successful London lawyer. Taken up and favored by powerful men -- Archbishop Morton, and later Cardinal Wolsey -- the precocious More was sent to Oxford in the autumn of 1492 at the age of fourteen. His ability to read, write, and frame an argument was already far advanced, and he was soon studying Greek as well as Latin and composing Latin poetry and dramatic passages. (It is likely that during his life More heard, spoke, read, and wrote more Latin than English, and his reputation as a Latin stylist allowed only one or two rivals in all of Europe.)

In the dangerous political world in which he lived, More quickly rose to the heights. Practicing as a lawyer in London, he attracted the attention of Henry VIII, who initially used him as a diplomat. Then -- in 1529, when Cardinal Wolsey failed to secure the pope's approval of the king's divorce from Catherine of Aragon -- Henry named More to succeed Wolsey as lord chancellor, the highest political position in the realm. But in 1532, More himself was replaced, and his fate was sealed when he refused to subscribe to the 1534 Act of Supremacy by which Henry VIII declared himself protector and supreme head of an independent, anti-papal Church of England. After months of imprisonment, More was beheaded on July 6, 1535, at age fifty-seven -- declaring himself "the King's good servant, but God's first."

Together with such companions as the English scholar John Colet and the Dutch priest Erasmus (who stayed with More on his visits to England), More championed a perennially new movement in the West: the renewal of Christian humanism, the call to a new beginning in a higher, fresher wave of learning. Holding that the gospels are best understood with a grasp of language, history, and a variety of methods of thought, these Christian humanists worked diligently at establishing critical texts and accurate translations. They sought a new mastery of the ancient biblical languages, and they struggled to bring back into common knowledge the commentaries and reflections of the Fathers of the Church, especially the Greeks. (This preference is a little surprising, since the Latin Fathers, with their Roman love for law and practicality and common sense, seem more "English" than the Greek Fathers, with their cosmological speculations and poetic forms. But then, More went to Oxford, and there has always been at the English universities an insistent tug toward Platonic metaphysics and mysticism.)

More has been called the greatest of all Englishmen, an amazing encomium for a papist of his time -- and ours, given the antipathy to Roman Catholicism that exists even today in England. A talent for witty extemporaneous retort, a self-contained countenance, and an ability to write with an elegant brevity of language have always been prized by the English, and More is said in all these to have had no equal. And he went to his death for a quiet, understated principle, having sought by all means to spare the King the disgrace of killing him. The English also admire bravery.