The Myth of More

Thomas More: History and Providence

by Alistair Fox
Yale University Press, 271 pp., $19.95

Everybody, surely, knows Thomas More—gentle friend to all right-thinking people and enemy to all wickedness, the fairest of judges, modest, witty, done to death by tyrants. A saint, in fact, and so formally declared by the papacy in 1935. That figure, familiar from the stage and the movies (not to mention the standard biographies), bears as much relation to the real Thomas More as hagiography commonly does to the reality of history. A smaller number of people treasure Utopia as a brilliant analysis of the evils of European society and an exciting description of a community freed from sinful temptation by the abolition of private property. That appraisal rides smoothly over a host of unsolved ambiguities revealed by any half-careful reading of the book. Very few have ventured to become acquainted with the relentless persecutor of religious dissidents, the savage polemicist, the teller of rather nasty tales about invariably shrewish women, the authoritarian servant of a dictatorial Church. Thomas More, so regularly treated as transparently understandable, is in fact one of the most complex and difficult characters in history.

The conventional More was created out of one event, and by two special endeavors designed to exploit that event. His death on the scaffold, a martyr for the Church of Rome and a victim of Henry VIII, has come to dominate the story of his life, and twice self-chosen partisans set about making the most of that martyrdom. During the reign of Mary Tudor, his family preserved his memory by collecting his writings in print and by producing biographies designed to secure his canonization; and during the nineteenth century the Anglo-Catholic reaction against the Reformation chose him for a champion, and worked hard at the completion of the task. Hence the saint. The evidence for this conventional figure consisted essentially of those lives produced in the 1550s, but it found support in much earlier appraisals recorded by his good friends, especially by Erasmus.

Confining themselves carefully to such one-sided testimony, the inventors of St. Thomas then solved all problems and possible contradictions by either ignoring them or by simply assuming More’s unfailing righteousness. Thus, for instance, they always believed all he said even when evidence existed to the contrary: More’s truthfulness became axiomatic. The pointed criticism uttered by John Foxe in the 1560s—that More had “cracked his credit so often and may almost be bankrupt”—was readily forgotten, even though he demonstrably told quite a few lies about the victims of his Church. The More of convention, enshrined in R. W. Chambers’s famous and in retrospect rather awful biography (1935), does little credit to the science of history.

It is only in the last twenty years or so that this unreal (and incidentally not very interesting) image has come under review. By an inadvertent act of restitution, the effort was made much easier by an enterprise originally planned as the ultimate consummation of the myth—the great Yale edition of More’s complete works, which is now nearing completion. Inspired by devotion, the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.