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Brilliant book about a troubling and troubled man
on 18 September 2011
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.