Thorough, sensitive and with a sure touch in conveying to the modern reader the colour and mood of the time, this book is just what we would expect of Ackroyd on top form. So one is left bemused by one stupid and pointless editorial decision. Thomas More wrote obsessively all his life, and we thus have a huge resource of original material to call upon, which Ackroyd quotes very frequently, often at length.
Sixteenth century spelling is not as modern spelling. More was used to Latin, in which 'U' and 'V' were once written both as 'V'. The letter 'J' was commonly written as an 'i', and other spelling variations were common. I can understand that Ackroyd wishes to give the flavour of the original, but it is utterly perverse to transcribe each U as a V, and each V as a U, as he does here. There is no reason moreover why J should not appear as J. The 'y' of 'ye' is not a Y, it is a letter representing the sound 'TH', and was used for abbreviation.
The net result of Ackroyd's perverse transcriptions is that we are unable to read More's words, and instead have to decode the likes of 'conivnccyon' for 'conjunction', 'uiciovs' for 'vicious', 'yt' for 'that', and so on. In a few anomalous cases the original text is written simply with modern spelling, make it vibrate with sense and cogency. The decision not to do this throughout is inexplicable and very much to be regretted.
on 18 November 2002
How Ackroyd has managed to do this I don't know. He has written a wonderful biography on a man who lived 500 years ago as if it were happening today. His descriptions of More's early life really allow you to...well...smell the life in Tudor England. Ackroyd puts across a variety of More's characteristics which are not always evident in a typical history book. More is described as someone devout, but inherently down to earth; he interacts with the people of his time and he seems to play second fiddle almost to his father who commanded his respect. A fascinating insight into the social structure of Tudor London and at times very moving. Well worth buying a copy.
on 26 July 2014
I have read several biographies of Thomas More, of which this is the most accomplished. Peter Ackroyd situates More in the London of the early sixteenth century and devotes learned and fascinating attention to his career. More, contrary to his portrayal in Wolf Hall, was one of the great figures of the European renaissance. His opposition to Henry VIII was not rooted in religious obsession but in what More saw as the legally inseparable relationship between Church and State. So, rightly or wrongly, he saw what Henry was doing as fatal to the stability of English society. His condemnation of heretics which, on the face of it, seems at odds with his cultured nature, was also rooted in the fact that he saw them as representing a fundamentalist attack on the basis of the social order. All this, Ackroyd explores and analyses with erudition and in a way which makes the book compelling reading.
This is a rich and erudite biography, replete with literary and theological references. As would be expected from this author, the theme of More as a Londoner is brought out quite clearly. The overriding theme, however, is of More as essentially a man of his time, the last great representative of late Medieval Catholicism, with a deeply ingrained belief in order, harmony and peaceful uniformity as represented by the collective piety of his religion, still at this early stage shared by the great bulk of the population of London and most of the country. That explains his hatred and violence towards the heretics whom he saw as disturbers of all order and civilisation in the world, not just of the Catholic church; it is the aspect of his life that is most disturbing to the modern reader, seeming to conflict harshly with his great conscience and the heroic nature of his death. But he must be seen in the context of his time when many great educated men on all sides of the religious divide believed in causing the deaths of their opponents to save those opponents' souls. A great, if not easy read, though I felt it lost its way a bit in the middle.
“The Life Of Thomas More” introduces the reader, not only to his life story, but also to the world of the Upper Class Englishman of his day. A life long Londoner, More earned his way into a rarefied world of legends. Henry VIII was his patron turned persecutor, Erasmus was his friend and St. John Fisher was his co-martyr.
In his early life, More lived a life of sanctity, but displayed traits which would not suggest a saintly temperament. Working his way into high office in what was then Catholic England, More was confronted by the early infiltration of the Protestant movement. A strong supporter of the Church of Rome, More aggressively worked to suppress the rising heresy.
More’s religious fervor, which initially put him in good stead, became a handicap when Henry VIII chose to divorce and remarry. His religious consistency then led his patrons to turn on him. His efforts to avoid taking a stand on the issues of the King’s divorce and remarriage and papal supremacy ultimately failed to save his life. Recognizing his fate, More made his last testimonies at his trial and in prison to supplement his prior writings such as “Utopia”.
Although this book does well at relating More’s outstanding life and public career it fails to give the reader a feel for the man. Upon completion of the book, I felt that I knew about Thomas More, but did not feel that I knew him. I am glad that I read it, but I had hoped for more.
This is a particularly interesting read, from the perspective that we get to know much more about Thomas More than we would from reading, say a history of Tudor times, or a history or Henry VIII. This is because it was not until More was in his thirties that he became a councillor of Henry VIII, despite having worked closely with the Tudor government and law enforcement agencies since becoming a lawyer, under-sheriff and diplomat. It felt like it was at this point in the book that Thomas More became somewhat of a different man. Perhaps the pressure of working so closely with the King made him more intransigent, or maybe the circumstances of his role now made his views so much more sharp and clearcut to the observer. Let's face it, no biography of Thomas More is ever really going to explain the mind that worked inside the man's head - he just was never the kind of person that is so easily or readily explained.
It is intriguing to read the life that More led before he became so closely involved with Henry VIII - admittedly much of it is surmised from the circumstances of life in the times, and the little that is known for sure about Thomas' upbringing and career path. But it is clear from the friendships that he had with such people as Erasmus, Linacre, Colet and others that his mind was sharp, he was a `thinker' for the new times; but at some level he never really let himself go from the `old' times - his reverence for duty, the Church, the Catholic religion and to do `what was right' held him bound tightly against the changing tide. And perhaps that's where his downfall was - the right man in the wrong time; the wrong man in the right time; wherever and whenever he was, it seems that he never quite `fitted'. Ultimately his sense of duty and correctness led to his fatal error in challenging the King's authority - More must have known the futility of doing that, given what happened to Wolsey and others, but he remained true to his convictions, even at the cost of his life.
While that may seem admirable (if to us now maybe a little foolish) More does not come across as a particularly likeable man - he used sarcasm in letter and conversation against people (although he saved others from looking foolish); he spent much of his early life arguing for the new `humanism' in study (but much of his later life condeming those who fought against the `system'); he worked for his King yet would not deny the primacy of the Pope. I'm not sure I could describe him as a `man for all seasons' - more a man of a mass of contradictions; someone you can never really get to know because they never really show their true self. Perhaps that was what led to his downfall; Henry VIII appointed More his Lord Chancellor even though More could never endorse the king's `great matter'. It seems that even the King could not read More to his full advantage.
This book is also valuable to an interested reader for analyses of some of More's writings - in particular Utopia and his responses to Luther's writings - More's works show eruditon, wit and a deep and interested mind, yet a scathing wit, brutal humour and a complete inability to see the other side of an argument with which he could not agree. A brilliant book; well worth reading to aid with a rounded view of Tudor life, and of More's life in particular. Ackroyd's descriptions of London life are also vivid and colourful; and add a touch of humanity to what could otherwise be a cold and scholarly/political life. Highly recommended.
on 18 September 2013
As others have said before me: Quotes in Latin and in old English do make this book a challenging read sometimes. However, I could cope with that, better than I would have thought, as a non-native speaker of English. One learns an incredible lot about the humanist age, its divisions, and its situation between the old (medieval) and the new (renaissance) world of Europe. But do I know much more about Thomas More? No, not really. The man stays in the shadows, but for a few, indeed a mere handful of precious little bits of personal information, by far not enough for a biography. The churches where he worshipped (many of them gone by now), the streets he walked (if still there today, completely unrecognisable) - great stuff for a biography of 16th century London or of the Renaissance age, but not for a book about a man that once breathed, loved, hated (I think he did, even if he loathed himself for it) lived and died. Therefore - four stars for the book from a fan of Tudor England, but not five stars from someone who wanted to know more about that man named Thomas More. There is the "pearl" necklace that was really made of peas - the author may find that humorous; I thought of the poor girl, and it didn't show me Thomas Morus in a very endearing light. There are the jokes about Dame Alice's big nose, there's the pompous kneeling before John More when they met in public and many other little pieces I've read about time and again and not one of them sheds some real light on Thomas More the human being. The parts about the six men who've been burned during his chancellorship are painfully apologetic. There are only two chapters that gave me some new information about this man, and in which he lived in front of my mental eyes - the last ones. Imprisonment, trial, his clever defence so that he should not activly SEEK martyrdom (which of course he did), and finally verdict and death. He's never as much alive in the whole book as in the minutes he walks to the scaffold.
But then again, perhaps that just WAS Thomas More. Restrained, self-controlled, rigorously righteous beyond that what human nature allows and, in result, quite self-righteous and recklessly single-minded at times. Altogether an extremely private and introverted person, for all his splendid talent in rhetoric. A closed up inner life behind a splendid public one, like his hair shirt underneath his velvet gowns. The two lifes fell into step with each other only when he died.
For a reader who can labour and puzzle through the highly informative but not very entertaining book, only to find out that Thomas More was and is an enigma that cannot be solved - I recommend this work. For everybody else - hands off.
Saints can be obstructive, difficult, dogmatic and even inherently unlikeable. In various degrees Thomas More is all of these and more. Yet in Ackroyd's sure hands he is revealed to be both a man of his time and perhaps even a "man for all seasons" with a steadfast focus on his God and what He demands.
Ackroyd patiently and sympathetically portrays More as essentially a medieval man, born into a world of obligation. It is this sense of the overwhelming obligation of the Christian man that is striking about More. He is not a natural saint - but he does have a very clear understanding of what the duties of a Christian man are. What is deeply depressing about his relationship with Henry VIII is that Henry tells him on more than one occasion that his duty to the King is, and has to be second, to his duty to God. Ironically it is this duty to God and its precedence over his earthly allegiance to Henry that becomes his undoing.
The other moving aspect of Ackroyd's vivid portrayal is the clarity with which Ackroyd explains More's notorious attitude to heresy. As he ages, More increasingly senses in the work of Luther and others the prospect of a world falling into decay and disorder - even a world where the Last Things are near. The prevention of that catastrophe and More's fear of its happening are central to his energetic campaign against heresy. Order is everything; chaos to be avoided at all costs. (It is extremely interesting to compare More's vision of what Protestantism might bring with the state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes a century later.)
For many it may appear that More's worst fears were realised and the great fracture in Christendom did indeed herald the end of the medieval world order and the birth of a world of individuals rather than a community united by the common faith of More and millions of our ancestors.
on 31 May 2015
Thomas Moore who there can be little doubt was a complex man, who I believe, having read Ackroyd’s excellent biography, (the details of Thomas Moore’s life and those of his contemporaries are vividly portrayed in a readable and reasonably academic text) was ultimately only fathomable by himself. His beloved daughter Margaret, perhaps the person he was closest to on this earth, of all of his family, was the only one who came anywhere near to developing an understanding of why he took the stance that he did for which he paid with his life.
A review of this book has criticised Ackroyd’s biography on the grounds that they did not learn of the kind of man that Moore was; they were no closer to knowing him than when they started the book because Moore was throughout a distant figure. I beg to differ. Rather, I think that Ackroyd is to be praised for not giving us his own personal conjecture as to the finer details of Moore’s personality. Ackroyd judging from his extensive bibliography has read all there is to read about Thomas Moore, and in addition, Moore’s own extensive writings and quoted conversations, so we hear Moore speaking himself. References from contemporaneous documents are referred to throughout in the language in which they were written. All of this has formed the basis of a highly detailed account of Moore’s life from the cradle to grave. From this the reader can form their own opinion as to just what sort of man Moore was.
Having read Ackroyd’s biography I judge Moore to have certainly been a deep thinker and highly intelligent. Too he was sanguine and witty, religious and deeply pious, arrogant, particular and ambitious.
Moore had three enemies, Martin Luther, Henry VIII via Thomas Cromwell, but the greatest of all I believe this biography makes clear, was Thomas Moore, himself. It is clear that he lived his life entirely under a yoke of having to perform his duty. This sense of duty he felt keenly to his father and to the Catholic church and each defined him. The former led him to high but perilous places, whilst the latter led him to agruably his finest hours, alone in his prison cell in the Tower of London. I believe, that this final largely solitary part of his life, devoting himself to God was what his true inner self had wanted to do all along.
Of those who held to their beliefs in the face of Henry VIII’s megalomania and as a consequence paid the ultimate price, Moore is probably the best known. There has to be something to admire of just such a person, who refuses to compromise their sacred values and beliefs. However, this admiration has to be balanced by Moore’s persecution of those he viewed as heretics, including sending them to their ends by burning to death in Smithfield.
Much pivotal history is to be learned from reading this biography, including the foundation of the Reformation, the Renaissance humanists and the majority of Henry VIII’s life, focusing upon his divorce from Catherine and his courtship and marriage to the fateful Anne Boleyn. I would therefore recommend this book to those with an interest in the Tudor period and in Thomas Moore in particular.
on 8 September 1999
I much enjoyed Peter Ackroyd's biography which I read as background in preparation to directing a production of "A Man For All Seasons". I found the early chapters hard work and skipped on to the period of his life more relevant to the play. Ackroyd presents a man who was not, by present standards, wholly likeable. Though clearly much loved by his family and very human, there is also the bigotry of the zealot in him. He seemed to delight in sending heretics or "newe men" (as he called them) to be burned at the stake. During his long incarceration in the Tower, he became understandably obsessed with his fate and, it must be said, it was a dreadful prospect. Robert Bolt's More in "A Man For All Seasons" is a much more sanitised character than Ackroyd presents to us.