Reviewed by Winifred WHELAN, St. Bonaventure University, ST. BONAVENTURE, NY 14778
What is most riveting about Peter Ackroyd's The Life of Thomas Moreis the description of Thomas More (1478-1535) as a man on the cusp of monumental, earth-shaking change, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. More's world was unified and hierarchical, with the pope and the king working harmoniously as one. He believed that the king was "divinely ordained, the proper source of harmony and blessings of the 'commonwealth. Henry represented spiritual, almost magical power" (192).
Martin Luther represented the destruction of More's worldview. As opposed to More's emphasis on filial piety, obedience to the law, and the communion of the faithful, Luther preached individual spirituality and the uniqueness of the individual. "Thomas More was one who needed pillars and the security of an ordered world...[H]e introduces the concept of law as the defence against disorder and chaos" (229). While Luther invoked individualism and subjectivism, "More invoked instead the authority of the apostles and the church fathers, the historical identity and unity of the Catholic Church, as well as the powerful tradition of its teachings..." (229).
Ackroyd details More's life as a child. He describes what streets he would have walked on his way to school, what he wore, and the fact that he would have carried his own candle in the early morning darkness. As More grew older, he debated as to whether to join the clergy, but decided, finally, to marry and follow his father's footsteps in law. He became interested in the "new learning," which included a renewed interest in medicine and natural science, as well as new maps and globes. The new learning meant going back to the classic works. More was not so much concerned with change, as was Martin Luther, but with continuity. The humanists did not see the classical tradition as "only the reenactment of the rituals of eternity" but as a history of change, decay, and possible restoration (90-91).
More continued to be successful in his career as a lawyer, well respected for his ability to bring two sides together in a lawsuit. Partly because of his father's position, he became known to King Henry VIII. Eventually More became Lord Chancellor, and a close confidant to the king. He strongly opposed the heretical ideas of Lutheranism which were seeping into the country illegally, and during this time he worked furiously to confiscate any books or literature that were coming into England in various ways. He often had people burned at the stake, a form of capital punishment that was not unusual for the time.
Now, however, a new element entered the picture. King Henry wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and to marry Ann Boleyn. Catherine had been married briefly to Arthur, Henry's older brother, but Arthur died very soon after. In his eagerness to find ways to divorce Catherine, Henry found some verses in the Bible which said that it is sinful to marry one's brother's wife. He showed these verses to More who listened politely, but said nothing. Henry appealed to Rome, but the Pope did not agree with him, and threatened excommunication if Henry went ahead with his plans to remarry. The only way Henry could get his way was to declare himself the head of the church in England. At the same time, the anti-tradition forces were becoming stronger, and More became increasingly alienated from the king. He tried to stay out of the debate, but he, along with others, was forced to declare his loyalty to Henry as head of the church, which he could not do. After promising to kill him by disembowelment, Henry decided to simply behead him.
The book is so interestingly written that one has the feeling of it being a "good read." But at the same time the reader understands that this is history. More than that, this is a history of one of those cathartic moments in which individualism and personal subjectivity triumphed over tradition and long-held ideas, a moment when religious people revolted against their oppression, and because of that, the history of the world has changed. It is a subject well worthy of reflection for the postmodern world.