The Great Dissembler

James Wood

  • The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd
    Chatto, 435 pp, £20.00, March 1998, ISBN 1 85619 711 5

Thomas More, the scrupulous martyr, is the complete English saint. But no man can be a saint in God’s eyes, and no man should be one in ours; and certainly not Thomas More. He is seen as a Catholic martyr because he died opposing Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the King’s robbery from the Pope of the leadership of the English Church. But he is also seen as a lawyer-layman caught in the mesh of presumptuous ecclesiology, an English Cicero of the pre-Reformation who nobly gave his head to forces beyond his control. Most absurdly, because of Robert Bolt’s screenplay, this barrister of Catholic repression is widely envisioned as modernity’s diapason: the clear, strong note of individual conscience, sounding against the authoritarian intolerance of the Early Modern state.

Thomas More died in defence of an authoritarian intolerance much more powerful than a mere king’s, however, for he died believing in God and in the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church. He had not, as Lord Chancellor, imprisoned and interrogated Lutherans and sent six reformers to be burned at the stake, just so that he might die for slender modern scruple. The drained, contemporary view of More, which admires not what he believed but how he believed – his ‘certainty’, only – is necessarily a secular one, and represents nothing more than the religious yearning of a non-religious age.

Peter Ackroyd’s dignified, often eloquent biography offers a picture of More which is a combination of Catholic admiration and scholarly determinism. Ackroyd has soaked himself in late medieval history; happily, he does not pretend to conduct a historical séance, as he has in earlier work. (He does not walk down the Old Kent Road arm in arm with ‘cockney More’.) He gives a reliable, indeed moving, account of ordinary religion in 16th-century England, and synthesises a vast body of material. But his book is partial, merciful and sentimental where it should be total, unforgiving and grave. Ackroyd is evasive about More’s evasions. He invariably gives him the benefit of the doubt in his battle with the Lutheran heretics, and is dreamily naive about More’s Machiavellianism at court. He is gentle with the incoherent and frantic tattoos that More beat out in the anti-Lutheran tracts of the 1520s. At no point does he properly examine the justice of the Protestant case, either doctrinally or politically, preferring to see its progress deterministically, as the inevitable ‘birth of the modern age’. His book is a mild Catholic elegy. This is a pity, not only because it clothes More in stolen righteousness, but because it delays once again a truly secular judgment, in which the zealous legalist might be seen for what he was, in all his itchy finesse of cruelty.

More’s life, in particular its quick, morbid promotion towards martyrdom, is as compelling here as elsewhere: Ackroyd narrates it with royal fatalism. Here is the house in Bucklersbury, where Erasmus, More’s ‘darling’, wrote In Praise of Folly. Or More’s hair-shirt, worn quietly underneath his public vestments so that only his daughter discovered it by chance, and the knotted straps with which he flagellated himself. His extended family, as Holbein’s sketch reveals, existed as a collegium for the new humanism. More taught his children to read Greek and Latin by affixing letters to an archery-board and encouraging his pupils to fire arrows at them. The prosecutor of later years could bear to chastise his children only with a peacock-feather. He and his wife, Alice, played the lute together, like ideal woodcut spouses. More was one of a number of humanists who believed that the liberal arts, especially the study of Greek and Latin literature, needed renovation. With Erasmus, he translated the satirical and highly irreligious writer, Lucian, from Greek into Latin. He wrote, in 1518, that one should ‘build a path to theology’ through the great secular authors. He believed that the Church needed to be reformed, and spoke out against the clerical abuse that was turning the people against the priesthood.

Out of this world came his beautiful lament, Utopia (1516), whose ironies would come to seem self-ironies, and whose playful negatives would curdle into the mean calculations of More’s later years. For in the inverted island world of Utopia, divorce is permissible and the inhabitants can follow any religion they like; these would become the two determinants of More’s later fixity. The founder of Utopia, More writes, could see that religious differences sowed discord; thus he allowed freedom of worship. He himself ‘might do the best he could to bring others to his opinion, so that he did it peaceably, gently, quietly and soberly ... If he could not by fair and gentle speech induce them unto his opinions, yet he should use no kind of violence and refrain from displeasant and seditious words.’ This was not, alas, portable wisdom; More would punish religious dissent with state violence, and come to say that he would rather never have written Utopia than see one heretic prosper.

Utopia is saturnalian. It turns arbitrary custom, in all its pompous altitude, upside down. The inhabitants of Utopia, for instance, make their meanest objects out of gold and silver, and give precious gems to their children as toys. In a nice jest, More writes that ambassadors, unaware of Utopian customs, once arrived at the island finely dressed in gold chains. The islanders took the visitors to be slaves, and assumed that their simply-dressed servants were the emissaries. This kind of inversion is the rocker switch of all moral satire; in Lucian’s Menippus, which More translated, the hero travels to Hades to find that death has undone all the pointless hierarchies of life: Philip of Macedon is stitching rotten sandals to earn money, Xerxes is begging, and so on. But the point is made clear earlier on, when Menippus tells us that, on earth, things have become sadly inverted: ‘On observation I found these same people practising the very opposite of what they preached. I saw those who advocated despising money clinging to it tooth and nail ... and those who would have us reject fame doing and saying everything for just that, and again pretty well all of them speaking out against pleasure, but in private clinging to it alone.’ Hades corrects these inversions by reinverting them, and in the same way, the island of Utopia is the comic inversion of the uncomic inversion of rectitude we practice in life. Accordingly, Utopia is not an ideal society so much as a comic one. More did not intend us to live there, so much as to be mocked by it.

It is difficult to reconcile the author of Utopia with the heretic-hunter of the mid-1520s, who personally broke into Lutherans’ homes and sent men to the stake. It is true that Luther’s challenge, from 1519 onwards, and Henry’s proposed divorce, menaced More with visions of schism, and that the literal defence of the realm became his necessary objective as Lord Chancellor. (He likened the fight against heretics to that against the Ottoman Empire.) Yet the shift from Utopian to prosecutor, in the space of ten years, is a bewildering one. Perhaps we should read Utopia more tragically – as a darkly ironic vision of the impossible. The Utopians are pagans, and thus live without knowledge of Original Sin. It is impossible, so More would have thought, for Christians to get back to this Eden, indeed we should not attempt to, because we have Christ’s plan to save us, not Utopia’s. Yet what would a world without the need of Christ’s rescue look like? Perhaps it would resemble Utopia. The tiniest flickering of a tragic blasphemy, a yearning to be other than we are, is what enriches Utopia and gives it its air of mournful surmise.

Whatever the explanation, the spirit of Utopia, whether comic or tragic, was left behind by More. At times, he seems to have known exactly what lay ahead. In his History of King Richard III (1513), he wrote that ‘kings’ games ... were stage plays, and for the more part played upon scaffolds.’ The ‘More part’, indeed. At other times, only we, in retrospect, can see how the ironies of this life buckle. Who else could have invented, for instance, the irony of a line which blares at the reader from More’s Responsio ad Lutherum, a tract written against Luther and in support of Henry VIII’s own anti-Lutheran treatise, An Assertion of the Seven Sacraments? The sentence issues triumphantly from More as he traps Luther in argument: ‘the King has you cornered.’ The dance of King and subject becomes emblematic, almost stagey, as More and Henry circle around each other, exuding deadly perfumes: on the first day of January 1532, reports Ackroyd, More presented Henry ‘with a walking stick inlaid in gold leaf and in turn he was given a great golden bowl’. (The stick would strike, and the bowl would crack.) And the final months, well told by Ackroyd, are moving as ever; the loyal public servant, confined in the Tower for seven months, now bearded and longhaired, the body dying but also unconstrainedly living, like something natural. More’s last words to his daughter are especially fine: ‘God maketh me a wanton, and setteth me on His lap and dandleth me.’

The darker More eclipses the saint, however. He was drawn into the defence of the Catholic realm early in the 1520s, while still a royal counsellor. He wrote the Responsio ad Lutherum in 1523, and from then until his death in 1535, the battle against reform was his obsession. In 1526, Tyndale published his pocket-sized English translation of the New Testament. Heretical books were being imported from the Continent. An English tendency towards anti-clericalism seemed in danger of fattening into the grossest Lutheranism and rebelliousness. Thomas More struck. A series of vicious arguments and counter-arguments streamed from his pen. Tyndale was ‘the beste’, and Luther and his wife were ‘Friar Tuck and Maid Marion’. Unlike the twilit Utopia, these were written not in Latin but in brazen English: the Dialogue Concerning Heresies in 1528, The Supplication of Souls in 1529, the massive Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer in 1532 and 1533, among whose half-million words can be found More’s promise that if anyone translated into English In Praise of Folly, or works ‘that I have myself written’, he would burn them with his own hands ‘rather than folk would ... take any harm of them, seeing them likely in these days to do’.

As Lord Chancellor, which he became in October 1529, More, though a layman, was soon the Church’s most eager agent. With the help of John Stokesley, the Bishop of London, he broke into the houses of suspected heretics, arresting them on the spot and sometimes interrogating them in his own home. He imprisoned one man in the porter’s lodge of his house, and had him put in the stocks. He raided the home of a businessman called John Petyt who was suspected of financing Tyndale; Petyt died in the Tower. Six rebellious Oxford students were kept for months in a fish cellar; three of them died in prison. More had become a spiritual detective, a policeman in a hairshirt, engaged in ‘what would now be called surveillance and entrapment among the leather-sellers, tailors, fishmongers and drapers of London’. Six protesters were burned under his Chancellorship, and perhaps forty were imprisoned.

Ackroyd is admirably detailed about these activities. But he persists in the sympathetic assumption that ‘it might be argued that his severe stance was a reaction to the menaces of the period,’ and so barely examines the compromised intellectual foundations of More’s defence, and too often treats the anti-heretical tracts as just the heady grapes of pugnacious 16th-century rhetoric.

Luther wanted to reorient theological certainty so that it could be grounded in Scripture. He regarded many of the practices of the Church as no more than human inventions, now subject to gross abuse by clergy and lay people alike. For example, Luther felt that the Eucharist, which commemorates Christ’s Last Supper, had become a superstition. Early 16th-century worshippers consumed the Host (the communion bread) only once or twice a year. For the rest of the time, it was sufficient simply to gaze on the Host as the priest elevated it above his head, at daily or weekly Masses. To look on the Host sufficed because the bread had become a visual proof of Christ’s existence; diligent worshippers might boast that ‘I see my Maker once a day.’ This was one of the sacraments that Luther attacked. He felt that a partial Biblical truth had been corrupted. He could find no evidence in the New Testament for the doctrine of the transubstantiation. He concluded that people only believed such a thing because the Church told them to. Instead, Luther saw this sacrament as a divine promise, a symbol rather than a proof. Elsewhere in the Church, Luther found similar reifications of the spiritual.

As a young man, More had been in favor of reform. But time was now drawing in; reform was not the same in the age of Luther as in the age of Erasmus. More truly believed that Luther presaged the arrival of the Antichrist; Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ottoman hordes were grazing the edges of Europe. The King’s divorce threatened the unity of the Church. The heretics had to be crushed. More’s essential defence was traditional. In the Responsio, he used Augustine’s argument that the Church, and not only Scripture, has authority. We accept the Gospels only because the Church tells us to; why then, he complained to Luther, is it not ‘reasonable to believe certain truths only on the authority of the Church’? More’s idea of the Church was like his idea of customary law, a body of continuous and exercised truths. Like the early Church Fathers, he appealed to ‘what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all’. He trusted in the accumulated wisdom of ‘the whole corps of Christendom’, and it can be fairly said that he died not in blind defence of the sovereignty of the Pope, but in reasoned defence of the primacy of the Church and its ancient head.

Yet into this traditional argument he squeezed tinctures of rage and untruth. Ackroyd largely ignores this, providing extracts from More’s works that are too short to allow proper judgment. In fact, More was unscrupulous, greasy, quibblingly legalistic. In the Dialogue Concerning Heresies he blamed the sack of Rome, and the attendant atrocities, on Luther’s followers. Ackroyd repeats this, forgetting to mention that Rome was in fact taken by mercenaries of the Catholic Emperor Charles V. More was astonishingly disingenuous. Throughout the late 1520s, he claimed that anti-clericalism was identical with heresy, when he, an early anti-clerical, knew this to be untrue. In reply to one Simon Fish, who had argued that England’s travails had to do with the greed and idleness of the clergy, More claimed that things were much the same as they had always been, and then appealed to Henry VIII’s vanity as Defender of the Faith to stamp out the unpatriotic, anti-clerical heretics.

When More was not lying, he was dissembling. Two examples will be sufficient. (Neither is quoted by Ackroyd.) In the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, he attempted to answer the charge of the reformers that it was not Christian for the Church to burn heretics. The Church did not burn people, replied More: the state burned them. This was strictly true, because the ecclesiastical courts tried heretics and the state courts sentenced them. But More’s language is disingenuous. The Church, he writes, would never want to kill anyone. ‘It is not the clergy that laboreth to have them punished to death.’ The ‘spiritual law’ is ‘good, reasonable, piteous, and charitable, and nothing desiring the death of any therein’. The Church asks the heretic to repent; if he does not, it excommunicates him, at which point, ‘the clergy giveth knowledge to the temporalty, not exhorting the prince, or any man else, either, to kill him or to punish him.’ The Church does not urge anyone to punish the heretic: it ‘leaveth him to the secular hand, and forsaketh him’.

Ackroyd remarks at one point, fairly perhaps, that More was ‘no different from most of his contemporaries’ in supporting burning. More’s wriggling in this passage is unseemly, however. First, if he is so keen to absolve the Church of this punishment, then he cannot hold the practice in very high moral esteem, and it is simply legalistic to argue that it ceases to be repulsive once the state performs it. More knew perfectly well that though formally Church and state dealt separately with the heretic, practically both sides worked together. He knew this because it was his own experience. The Church, More said, never ‘exhorted’ a king to burn anyone. Perhaps not in so many words, but it performed the equivalent of exhortation every time it excommunicated and ‘forsook’ heretics.

It should be remembered also that the defender of the Church in this passage was not a clergyman but a politician – a representative of the very ‘temporalty’ to which he transfers the blame of burning. This is More the lawyer, truthful only in letter. It is the same More who told Thomas Cromwell in 1534 that he had ‘written nothing’ since 1527 against the King’s divorce; precisely true perhaps, except that he was one of the leaders, behind the scenes, of Catherine of Aragon’s faction. Ackroyd rather meaninglessly comments, on More’s duplicity at court, that it was ‘a difficult as well as an ambiguous role and More was the only man in the kingdom who could have played it’. But a more cold-eyed scholar, Alistair Fox, has written that it ‘gives evidence of a political endeavour in More so subtle and devious as to set not only Machiavelli, but also Richard III and Iago to school’.

When More could not win an argument, he slid into puerility. In The Supplication of Souls, he tries to beat the reformers (‘this lewd sect’) with a flurry of numbers (‘if ye consider how late this lewd sect began ... and how few always’ they have been, ‘and then if ye consider on the other side how full and whole the great corps of all Christian countries’). It is not only numbers that are on our side, the tract continues, but quality: ‘match them man for man, then have we ... Saint Austin against Friar Luther, Saint Jerome against Friar Lambert, Saint Ambrose against Friar Huskin, Saint Gregory against priest Pomerane, Saint Chrysostom against Tyndale.’ If these heretics include their wives in the battle, then they might seem to have an advantage; but we have ‘blessed women against these friars’ wives’. For we have ‘Saint Anastasia against Friar Luther’s wife, Saint Hildergaarde against Friar Huskin’s wife’, and so on.

Ackroyd reads the tracts as rhetorical dressage rather than as doctrinal ordinance. For him, More is a Londoner, a man of the people defending popular tradition, who used vernacular English and earthy taunts to defeat his opponents. Of one tract, he writes warmly: ‘he uses the language of London as a way of refuting the more impersonal objections of his opponent.’ Of the Dialogue, he comments: ‘The whole theme and purpose of his Dialogue Concerning Heresies had been to celebrate that common culture which was under threat.’ And near the end of his book, he provides us with a mournful reminder of that ‘common culture’ which was about to pass: ‘a time, soon to come, when there would be no more lights and images, no more pilgrimages and processions, no guild plays and no ringing for the dead, no maypoles or Masses or holy water, no birch at midsummer and no roses at Corpus Christi’.

This is very hazy. To begin with, in what sense was More a man of the people? His very defence of Catholicism rested on the rejection, in part, of the politics of the people. The so-called new humanism had always espoused a somewhat stoppered radicalism, in which élites reformed élites. Luther, by contrast, wanted to aerate the élite. Erasmus complained to Justus Joanus in 1521 that Luther ‘is making even cobblers aware of things which used to be discussed only amongst the learned, as mysteries and forbidden knowledge ... above all I would urge that one avoid disorder.’ Like Erasmus, the More of the 1520s and 1530s was against disorder. In 1533, in his Apology, he wrote that it would be better to have no reform at all – even ‘though the change might be to the better’ – if it involved public complaint against the law. Although, in 1528, he wrote in favor of translating the Bible into English, by 1530 he had decided against it. And even in 1528, in the Dialogue, he warned that an English Bible must not get into the wrong hands. It is especially dangerous when ‘men unlearned ... ensearch and dispute the secret mysteries of Scripture.’ Things should be as they were in the book of Exodus, writes More, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and talked to God. The people, unlike Moses, ‘ought to be content to tarry beneath, and meddle none higher than is meet for them’. The priest on the hill, privy to mysteries, and the people beneath, coddled in obscurity – there could be no better image of the old Catholic curtain, the antique scholastic protectorate which the Lutherans were tearing down.

On one issue, More was right: Luther’s belief that faith alone, without good works, justified one in the eyes of God, was a cruelty that not only demanded an inhuman mental loyalty, but which, brought to its logical end, abolished the purpose of Christian conduct on earth. Yet because More had so sternly set himself against the essential plea of Lutheranism, he could never see that Luther’s brand of fideism did not arrive out of nothing, but owed its extremity to the Church’s own superstitions of corporeality. Luther was opposing grey with white, in overreaction. For although the Reformation did indeed end a common calendar of feast-days and processions, as Ackroyd charges, the religious share of that calendar had become an almanac of rote and rite, the codification of mass ignorance. The evil lay not just in the pagan animism of certain corruptions – of believing that a pardon from the Pope might speed a soul from Purgatory to Heaven, or that the sprinkling of holy water, like that of salt, banished demons. It lay in the systematic withdrawal of Scripture from the people: psalms had been reduced to one or two verse extracts, at the Eucharist, the canticles to only one; priests were preaching fewer sermons; the amount of Scripture read publicly was in decline.

More would not admit this. He refused to examine the proposition that if the Church acts merely humanly, then its authority is merely human, not divine. Despite the thousands of nuncupatory words he wrote against Luther, he turned his eyes from Luther’s awful challenge, which was to move God back from the visible while simultaneously expanding our invisible encounter with him. It was this challenge of absence which received its formal English statement when Latimer, in 1536, ordained that religious images were ‘only to represent things absent’. But More also turned his eyes from the political petition of the reformers, which was that the Church, again in Latimer’s words, had ‘deluded the people’. (The 1549 Book of Common Prayer cited, as one of its expressed aims, the edification of the people.)

The Protestant case against More is perhaps too easily made in the late 20th century, and represents a rather blank triumph. There is a danger of making Protestantism sound like a modern secret that More was simply too old to catch, and thus of turning him into a doomed villain – or hero, if one is approaching this inevitability from the side of Ackroyd’s velvet reaction. In arguing for an inevitable ‘birth of the modern’, one would seem to have to absolve More because he could not have acted any other way. This idea of his entrapment by history represents the point at which Catholic admiration joins hands with both Protestant excoriation and modern, secular admiration. For if More is doomed, then he is always a hero. But of course, he could have acted differently, and it is on this presumption that a proper case against him should be made. It should be made for three reasons. First, because it is right. Second, if the Catholic claim for More as a saint is transhistorical and universal, then the same must be true of the secular argument against him. Third, More is now most widely admired, or pardoned, only for secular reasons: either admired as a man who believed fervently in belief, or pardoned because it is thought foolish to scorn him for failing to be something he could not historically become.

But ‘secular’ admiration should be overcome by secular scepticism, which must point out, with Nietzsche, that only a ‘slave-morality’ could produce More’s famous ‘obedience’, promising to pray for Henry’s soul in Heaven as that monarch was transporting him to the gallows. A secularist is bound to remark that it was the circularity of Catholic teaching about the authority of the Church, not More’s ‘integrity’, that imprisoned him, just as, three hundred years later, that same circularity imprisoned Cardinal Newman, when he argued in his Apologia that a man who might seem ‘a bold champion for the truth and a martyr to free opinion’ is in fact ‘just one of those persons whom the competent authority ought to silence’. Newman meant people like Luther, of course; but those who believe in the silencing of dissent, as More did, may well be silenced themselves, and we should shed no tears if their own unpleasant beliefs have had their revenge on them.

And could More really not have been different? Other men have believed quite as strongly in God or gods without sending people of differing opinions to the stake. More was nothing like his supposed influence, the gently latitudinarian Cicero, for instance: Cicero’s philosophical and religious dialogues – as opposed, of course, to his legal and political speeches – often read as if he delighted in being contradicted, while More’s are spittingly conclusive. And in More’s own period, medieval Jewry, for instance, did not burn heretics; no Jew had been put to death for heresy since the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. Closer still to More, Erasmus, though slippery and haughty and decidedly anti-Lutheran, was not touched with More’s love of power, and shrank from his legalistic bombardments. Erasmus’s ‘humane middle ground’, Euan Cameron writes in The European Reformation, ‘opposed alike to scholastic obscurities, vulgar superstitions, protestant dogmatics, and popular disorder, was steadily deserted by both sides’. On one of those sides was Sir Thomas More, cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, avid for power, and repressive in politics. He betrayed Christianity when he led it so violently into court politics, and he betrayed politics when he surrendered it so meekly to the defence of Catholicism. Above all, he betrayed his humanity when he surrendered it to the defence of God.