(Review, Copyright, Albert Schorsch, III, 1998)
Recent generations have known St. Thomas More (1477-1535) from the Robert Bolt play and Fred Zinnemann film, A Man for All Seasons. Coming generations will know St. Thomas More from Peter Ackroyd's magisterial biography.
Rarely do scholarship and narrative combine to recreate an age while telling a gripping story. This is one such rare book. Peter Ackroyd, the award winning biographer of T.S. Eliot, Dickens, and Blake, a poet, novelist, and critic in his own right, has set a standard for historic biographies to come.
From the baptism of young More in the first chapter to his martyrdom "ceremony" in the final, Ackroyd illuminates the places, sounds, and smells of the waning Medieval and dawning Renaissance England in rich humanity and complexity. We come to see the places More saw, to step where he stepped. We learn that More was born but sixty feet from the birthplace of Becket, St. Thomas of Canterbury. We hear the English and Latin languages spoken as he heard them. We walk down his boyhood Milk Street, and cross over the bridge nearby to the Tower of London, where he spent his final days. We see the conflict coming with his king, and we join the drama as it draws to its bloody conclusion.
While indexed, amply noted and bibliographed, this book contains no scholar's chronology of More's life and work. Each chapter, however, helps us to step along with More from child to student, from page to lawyer, from husband to father, from sheriff, to councilor, to treasurer, to knight, to steward, to judge, to speaker, to chancellor, to martyr. By avoiding the style of the "life of a saint," Ackroyd draws us slowly through his literary mastery into More's personal terror and suffering.
The Thomas More we come to know in the process is familiar to our age in his use of common sense. He led by action, cleverness, and subtlety, personally championing or originating such innovations as the education of women, contemporary history, scholarship in the original languages, translation of classics, the representation of absent clients by their attorneys, the art of negotiation, and the Utopian genre of literature. His piety was devout, but he made sure that he earned enough to grant security to his children and wards. He then risked all thus earned in following his conscience, a concept which found in him its early and perhaps most eloquent articulation. As a judge, he cleared the docket of cases, but concurred in the burning of heretics. As under-sheriff of London, he put down a riot. He kept a "fool" in his household. In times of scarcity, he fed one hundred persons daily at his manor. He built a chapel therein, wherein he scourged himself. Under his ermine and felt, he wore a hair shirt. He also negotiated a treaty which kept the peace in Europe for fifteen years. By candlelight, as he saw England nearing schism from Christian Europe in his final seven years, he wrote almost a million words, some unbelievably earthy and scatological, refuting Luther and other reformers. We learn that More personally searched the Scriptures, ancient Church fathers and councils for a basis for the primacy of the pope, and once he found it, died for it, even though his friend Erasmus stated that More should have "left theology to the theologians." We watch the world quake from under More, and learn how much was lost to Christendom by the actions of his king, Henry VIII and the ambitious men and women around him. As the greatest practical man of his age, and perhaps of several others, there was little "more" this second English martyr Thomas could do.
Ackroyd courses warm blood back into the veins of our own grey memory of More. Upon his condemnation, More spoke to his judges of how St. Paul consented to the martyrdom of St. Stephen, but repented, and now both were "meerily" in heaven. He then wished the same merriment for his accusers. In this stunning biography, Peter Ackroyd has not only mastered the geography and culture of historic Christian London, but given us an immediate sense of a living world, a world in which we still find ourselves, shaped by the choices of the persons who come alive in these pages.
Copyright, Albert Schorsch, III, 1998.
Albert Schorsch, III serves as president of Friendship House.