Malice! Malice!

Stephen Sedley

Beatification, which finally came to Thomas More in 1886, and canonisation, which had to wait until 1935, were only the icing on the commemorative cake. He had had, both during his life and since, a deserved measure of admiration as a scholar, a lawyer, a writer and a politician; for there is much in Robert Bolt’s adulatory A Man for All Seasons which reflects what we know of More. But More was not simply a principled Catholic; he was also something of a fanatic. The Victorian historian J.A. Froude described him as a merciless bigot. He described himself in his own epitaph as hereticis molestus. In ironic contrast to the religious toleration he described in Utopia, he advocated the execution of unrepentant heretics. ‘When all allowances are made for the rancour of his Protestant critics,’ the DNB says, ‘it must be admitted that he caused suspected heretics to be carried to his house at Chelsea on slender pretences, to be imprisoned in the porter’s lodge, and, when they failed to recant, to be racked in the Tower.’ He searched his friend John Petit’s house for heretical literature and left him in prison, untried. He applauded the burning of a harmless leather seller called John Tewkesbury, noting: ‘There never was a wretch, I wene, better worthy.’

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