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 …

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