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The Actor Saint

Thomas More: A Biography

by Richard Marius
Knopf, 562 pp., $22.95

It is nearly fifty years since we last had a serious biography of Thomas More. That was R.W. Chambers’s exercise of pious naiveté, still loudly praised by More worshipers, the work of a man of letters with a limited sense of history and less experience as a biographer. Since 1935 our understanding of Henry VIII’s reign has expanded at an exponential rate, and so has work on Thomas More; in particular, the great edition of his works, initiated by the late and justly lamented Richard Sylvester and published by the Yale University Press, has produced an enormous increase in the sources available for his life as well as extensive investigations into his career and his mind. The More described by Chambers belongs to a prehistoric age and to anyone not bemused by the book’s reputation is altogether unsatisfactory. Thus it is good news that Richard Marius—almost the only one of the Yale editorial team who has shown himself able to look upon More without the distortions produced by canonization—has come to try his hand at the monumental task of assessing the new knowledge and placing a better-understood Thomas More before the 1980s.

The task poses far more difficulties than may be realized. Those who rest content with More the saint and martyr do not admit it exists. Their numbers, which include scholars who should know better, are very large, and they command the services and encouragement of the Church of Rome. I can testify from experience that this entrenched brigade carries quite effective armaments. Thus it takes some courage to venture beyond the hagiographical fiction and write about More as the man he really was. Marius, who does not lack courage, offers one or two perfunctory apologies, but those not familiar with this particular battlefield need to remember that he is engaged in opening some of the most recalcitrant minds ever. He will be much blamed because he manifestly doesn’t like More all that well and most decidedly does not worship him; in the revulsion from such (to me very understandable) attitudes the fact that he enormously respects More and has much sympathy for the man (more, I think, than I can muster) may too easily get overlooked.

In addition, the sources available for the enterprise are full of unsuspected pitfalls. This may surprise. Surely More is one of the best-documented figures of the sixteenth century. Quite apart from the large number of his own writings, we have the biographical notes put together by his son-in-law William Roper, as well as two solid biographies written, by Nicholas Harpsfield and Thomas Stapleton, within some forty years of More’s death, to which personal memories of people who knew him contributed. We have quite a few of his letters, preserved by recipients, and we have detailed information on his character and person supplied by his friend Erasmus. More’s public career left plenty of evidence relevant to a biography in the records of the state, material quite recently at last exploited by John Guy. With so much available, it must appear that More’s biographer is more likely to be embarrassed by abundance than hampered by dark corners.

Yet in fact the evidence available is both inadequate and tricky. Much the greater part of More’s own archive—letters and papers—which unquestionably was large, has disappeared. We know, for instance, that he filed his own correspondence and at least sometimes kept copies of his own letters; thus the letter in which he warned the so-called Nun of Kent to avoid involvement in politics survives only because some years after sending it he transcribed it into a letter to Thomas Cromwell—itself extant because Cromwell’s archive was confiscated at his fall. Marius expresses a hope that since More’s ought to have been treated likewise it might still turn up, but there is no chance of that. If it had in some improbable way been smuggled out of sight before his arrest it would long since have been found by the army of worshipers; if it had been there when he was arrested it would now lie among the English public records, which contain the papers of other people so arrested for treason.

Much the most likely explanation of the enormous gap in the evidence is that More, that ever-cautious man, burned it all when he realized that his days of freedom were about to end. Moreover, some of the most famous letters among those haphazardly preserved are, in a way, suspect. I have in mind the marvelous messages he sent to his daughter Margaret from the Tower. We possess these only because in the reign of Mary I, a decade after the recipient had died, they were put into print by William Rastell; the originals, if they existed, are lost. No doubt they existed, but do we trust Rastell’s printing? I think we must. Even so, the case for the printed letters’ giving us what More actually wrote is not one hundred percent certain.

As for Roper’s biographical notes, the basis of those other sixteenth-century biographies and indeed of all accounts of More since, they have never yet been subjected to proper critical analysis: they are taken for gospel. Yet they were put together about twenty years after More’s death, from several people’s memories and much hearsay. In several particulars they can be shown to be significantly in error. Recognizing this, Marius does something to explode the legends to which Roper has given authority, but even he accepts the dubious story of More’s opposition in the Parliament of 1504 and takes More’s famous speech at his trial on trust. The one thing of which we can be sure about that speech is that it was not delivered exactly in the words written down by a man who had not even been there to hear it. The point does matter because that speech contains the only positive acknowledgement from More that he regarded the papal rule of the Church as divinely ordained.

Thus the only totally reliable evidence we have consists of More’s own writings which traditional hagiography has treated very selectively. Utopia and perhaps the unfinished book on Richard III’s usurpation and reign occupy the foreground, while the vastly more extensive output of controversial treatises against the heretics is passed over in some embarrassment. Moreover, More’s addiction to irony makes even those familiar works uncertain guides to his mind: there are almost as many interpretations of Utopia as there are commentators on the book. The well-documented and fully understood More of tradition is a fiction created out of restricted labors and foregone convictions. Though he may nevertheless, of course, represent a reality as well, doubt must arise from the recognition that the fiction simply reflects the perfectly selfconscious efforts of Roper and his associates to present the material necessary to persuade the pope to canonize More. That purpose implies that these most influential sources must be treated as hagiography (in this case anticipatory), not as history or biography. If history and biography are to be extracted from them, the perfectly well-established canons of the necessary criticism should be applied to them, but this has never been done.

The first great virtue of Marius’s remarkable achievement lies in his understanding of these dilemmas. Though he has not written the formal analysis of the evidence that we need—and a biography is indeed not the right place for it—he makes his awareness of the problem plain and erects his monument to More out of materials assessed by the right critical standards. As one might expect, this immediately alters some exceedingly familiar features of the landscape. More emerges as a man of constant and often unbridled passion, not as the ever eventempered man of sorrows invented by the tradition. He hates and loves with equal zest. He values possessions and enjoys his rise in standing and income. He likes being important, and likes humbly deprecating such pleasure even more. He wrestles with his own fallen humanity and often loses. He has a very dark view of mankind and its fate; above all, he is much troubled by God’s severe demands and frequent punishments which call the whole purpose of creation in doubt. Since he believes in hell—really believes in a physical place called hell—he has to fight all the time to assure himself of his own chance of salvation, and this struggle looms the larger for him because his understanding of God’s demands upon him clashes with his own passionate desires.

No doubt Marius’s emphasis on More’s sexuality will cause the greatest displeasure among the acolytes, but Marius is right. The evidence that More failed to restrain his sexual drive to such a degree as to force him to give up his youthful ambition to enter the cloister, and that this experience continued to trouble him until he found peace in the Tower, is so strong that only willful blindness has ignored it for so long. Erasmus expressly remarked on this cause of More’s marriage. More’s first wife, dying after bearing four children in as many years, could have testified to it. What purpose does a man serve who wears a hair shirt and whips himself except to “tame the flesh,” as the phrase runs among Christians? More’s writings are full of stories about women who, in the manner popularized by medieval celibates, act as shrews and temptresses: More, that medieval Christian and failed ascetic, feared women because he loved them too well and thought that love of them stood in the way of salvation. And More’s ultimate fate, his martyrdom, also clearly originated in this problem. This man who had for years served his king faithfully as well as pliably, never to our knowledge expressing dissenting views on any of the policies pursued, without hesitation said no when the king came to attack that sacrament of marriage which alone, More held, made “the flesh” acceptable to God.

One other aspect of Marius’s More will cause the sort of offense that the auther should read as proving the correctness of his insight. A comparison with Luther runs through a large part of the book—the Luther of More’s abomination, who like More preferred Augustine among all the Fathers and who also, like More, stood in dread of man’s fate at God’s decree. It makes sense to see More’s hatred of Luther as rooted in a recognition of likeness—of problems shared but so very differently solved. In this difference, as Marius brings out well, the circumstances of More’s ordinary life play a large part. More was no monk or even a scholar capable of living alongside the great world.

Indeed, Marius successfully demolishes yet another legend when he shows how brief the intense phase of More’s friendship with Erasmus was, preceded by years of some strains (More had his doubts about The Praise of Folly and Erasmus was not too sure about Utopia) and succeeded from about 1521 by an unmistakable drifting apart. In Marius’s view, More was a humanist of sorts but always a player at the game, no professional in the mold of Erasmus and Budé and moreover uncomfortably aware of it; in the major crises of his life, his somewhat superficial humanism offered him little aid or guidance. His real role was that of a lawyer, a diplomat, and a politician, a man of public authority and indeed of authoritarian temper.

The word “role” matters. I think Marius is absolutely right in stressing More’s habit of acting his life on a stage, always observing himself and producing the behavior and reactions appropriate to whatever part he was playing, be it husband or father, scholar or judge, servant to his king or servant to his God. We know that he positively liked playacting as a child and young man, and he transferred this liking into the realities of adult life. Marius’s treatment of this side of More’s character is both highly original and highly convincing. Nor is there anything opprobrious in such role-playing. More throughout his life constructed an outward appearance for himself because he could not allow himself to appear as the sinful, driven man he knew himself to be. His success at this game of converting pretense into reality and reality into pretense must impress: even as a prisoner, at his trial and on the scaffold he did exactly those things that a man in such circumstances should do if he is to earn the applause of the audience. His success, of course, came out of the sincerity with which he acted his parts, even as his habit of acting has made his character so difficult to penetrate.

More was never more the actor than when he put pen to paper, a fact which accounts for his addiction to the dialogue form. His best books are written as exchanges among well-realized fictitious persons—Utopia, A Dialogue of Comfort, and A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, by a long chalk the most attractive of his anti-heretical works. Marius is especially good on More the author. If I cannot invariably agree with everything he says, this is because More’s use of ironical veils between author and reader has made sure that disagreement will never end. In all the debate about Utopia it seems never to have been remarked that More’s world traveler, Raphael, bears a surname, Hythlodaeus, which can signify either “enemy to nonsense” or “purveyor of nonsense”: we have been warned! On the subject of this desperately duplicitous book I agree with Marius: More was serious about his ideal society and saw nothing regrettable in the extraordinary degree of control, submission, and absence of individuality with which he endowed it. More knew that after the Fall there could be no society in which men and women could avoid living sinfully; therefore he had to put sin in unbreakable chains. Utopia remains a monument to More the judge as well as More the wit, and its essence recalls medieval monasticism rather than Platonic idealism.

Marius is equally successful with all the rest of More’s writings because he accepts More’s purposes in producing them and has no desire to accommodate that activity to some saintly and otherworldly temperament that More never possessed. Thus he does justice to those rather tedious academic exercises written as letters to critics of himself and Erasmus. The discussion of Richard III, in many ways More’s most original work, excellently brings out More’s sheer skill in composition, his inventive use of the language, and his striking ability to convey a whole view of life in the course of telling a story. Marius follows A.F. Pollard in thinking that the book remained unfinished because More began to fear Henry VIII’s reactions to this denunciation of tyranny, but I do not believe this was so. For one thing, the dates do not fit well, and for another More had started drafting the second half when he became frustratingly involved in public life. As for the violent, foulmouthed, and embarrassingly sincere intolerance of his polemical writings, Marius deals with it fairly, glossing over nothing but faithfully giving such credit as can be bestowed.

Another virtue of this book lies in the ever-present ambiance of More’s real world upon which Marius concentrates with care and skill. Where earlier writers felt happy only when settled in the idealized household at Chelsea, looking over Margaret’s shoulder as the practiced her Latin, accompanying Sir Thomas on a visit to his marmosets, or joining him in sniggering about Dame Alice behind her back, Marius places the emphasis where it belongs. London, the Court and Parliament, Wolsey and the king, the threat of heretical literature surreptitiously smuggled in or of real live heretics escaping the fire of the stake, visits of ambassadors, the constant pressure of litigants—these things constituted the world within which More moved and whose affairs preoccupied his attention. It was to be his misfortune that he stood across one of the great chasms in the history of Europe. The world with which he grew up and felt familiar, a world in which he played the statesman with conviction and success, collapsed under the impact of the Reformation; what began to emerge from the ruins would be, as More realized at once with terrifying acuteness and lack of self-deception, unfit for him to live in.

Here Marius is absolutely at his best. More’s inmost convictions have never been better expounded or more firmly linked to what happened to him. More’s private and public worlds rested in the bosom of the living Universal Church, God’s witness to his promise to sinful men of a chance of heaven hereafter. Against his fellow Augustinian’s sola scriptura More put forward his sola ecclesia outside of which there can be no salvation. All his polemical writings revolve around the nature and role of a Church which no one must sunder. Here More preserved free will in man, whereas Luther, conscious only of God’s sovereign grace, discarded it: to More heresy was not predestined but merely willful, and it menaced man’s sole hope of salvation, namely the Church. Even those who find the human (and real) Thomas More of this book hard to stomach must surely recognize the splendid way in which the theme of the one and indivisible Church of God’s creation is made to hold the story of his life together.

Marius’s achievement is not perfect; with a writer so deeply involved in everything he says it could hardly be. (Perhaps I may venture the suggestion that Marius succeeds with More because he shares an inclination to act his roles. As he says several times, he wishes to play the biographer’s part, and to him that is something much more intensely personal than merely writing biography.) The book is rather too long and for some tastes its author probably puts in too many personal appearances. Avowed conjecture abounds, especially in the early and least well-documented part, and not all of that conjecture carries conviction. Marius conducts a superfluous campaign against Henry VII, whose faults he exaggerates and whose problems he underrates. Genuine mistakes are very few, though not quite as few as printing errors, of which I found only one. Marius, at home in the world of learning and religion, is not quite so sure-footed in the law, a matter of some importance because when he has to deal with More the lawyer one gets a sense of the biographer for once looking on from outside. The Roman law is called “civil,” not “civilian”; the Court of Chancery heard original pleas, not appeals from the common-law courts; the offenses excepted from the 1531 Pardon of the Clergy carry no significant overtones, being standard exceptions in royal general pardons. One conjecture is certainly wrong: the histories referred to in the 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome are not the romances of King Arthur but (as Graham Nicholson showed some time ago in an unpublished dissertation) a collection from a wide range of historians and pamphleteers made during several years by way of finding support for “imperial” claims.

These things matter very little. Richard Marius has written a very remarkable book, full of knowledge and understanding. He has written a very personal book, full of wrestling with intractable material and the overwhelming problem of comprehending a man, 450 years dead, who lived in a world and by rules that the present day finds it hard even to contemplate. He has written an iconoclastic book which yet recognizes the ultimate greatness of Thomas More. He has written a book that tells powerful truths about a scene hitherto obscured in the mists of saint-worship. He has written an exciting book. The debate about More will now continue because Marius has helped to reopen it after More threatened to get embalmed, and that debate will be different through this book. And it should please Marius particularly that he replaces Chambers not only because he knows much more and thinks far more deeply, but also because he writes infinitely better.

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