Thomas More (2017): John Guy


A Very Brief History

I’ve always wanted to like Thomas More, largely thanks to Hans Holbein’s magnificent portrait. It offers such an appealingly naturalistic image of the man. More is intense, slightly homely with that overlarge nose, his eyes crinkling at the corners and his mouth quirked benevolently at the corner. He hasn’t shaved: his jaw is scattered with soft grey bristles. The red velvet and fur-trimmed cloak look incongruous: you get the impression he’s indifferent to worldly finery, his mind resolutely fixed on higher things. We almost forget the artist’s craft: we treat the portrait as a photograph, a direct record of the man. But art isn’t like that. And nor is history. The problem is that history has left us so many Mores – the principled objector; the humanist; the saint; the idealistic author of Utopia; the burner of heretics. How can we find our way through the mire? Fortunately this short, lucid and lively book offers a crash course in all things More – and our guide is one of the world’s foremost Tudor historians.

I studied history at university and so, for me, John Guy occupies a pedestal shared by few living historians (standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Quentin Skinner). He has spent his whole career working on the Tudor period and has already published two books on More, so you know you’re in safe hands here. More importantly, he writes in a very accessible way: this is not an academic tome but a light, brisk introduction to a major figure in British history. At only 144 pages, the book is further broken down into sections: first a standard biography, giving the details of More’s life, and then chapters exploring More’s afterlife in art and fiction, as well as following the lengthy campaign for his canonisation.

Nowadays, Thomas More comes most readily to mind as the former friend and adviser who dared to stand up against Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. But there was so much more to him than that (no pun intended). He was devoutly religious, but saw his place as an active member of the world rather than as a contemplative in a cloister. He was a trained lawyer, sharp and just and attentive to every detail, which also made him an excellent diplomat. He was passionately interested in the new ‘Greek learning’ which was coming out of Italy, thanks to the researches of Marsilio Ficino and Poggio Bracciolini in Florence. Indeed, he may have seen in the young Henry VIII the potential for a philosopher king of the sort heralded by Plato: a man to herald a new age. More embodied the central debate in Renaissance philosophy: how to blend admiration for pre-Christian writers with a deep loyalty to the Church. And, when it came to the crux, More chose his faith over his Plato. As Europe shattered along the faultlines of the Reformation, More devoted himself to rooting out the new heresy in England, which was not only a personal conviction (Guy notes) but positively required of him in his increasingly senior advisory roles. For those of us who’d like to see More as an English version of his friend Erasmus, it’s unsettling to read More’s assertion that ‘the burning of heretics… is lawful, necessary and well done‘. We don’t want our intellectual hero to have blood on his hands. Nor did Erasmus. But we have to allow More to be in and of his time, and that’s where Guy’s book is particularly good – in introducing us to this complex, conflicted man on his own terms.

Modern culture has given us two versions of More: the conscientious, noble intellectual of Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons and, more recently, the fanatical inquisitor of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. Guy discusses both of these in some depth, looking at how both authors have formed their own More by close reading of the historical sources – but also at how, ultimately, both versions are reductive. Bolt’s More lacks the fierce Catholic conviction of the historical man, while Mantel’s priggish villain gives us More’s actions but not, perhaps, his spirit. Guy indicates that a third way, blending elements of the two, might be more accurate. I wonder what he would make of the way More is depicted in The Tudors? I always found Jeremy Northam’s More rather engaging: devout and unmovable at times, but also rather gentle with his friends and family. Yet perhaps he was too serious, lacking the real More’s exuberant humour (More described himself as a ‘giglet‘, a lovely term meaning ‘someone excessively prone to jesting and merriment‘).

Peter Ackroyd’s longer biography of More has been sitting on my shelf for years and now, I think, I have the impetus to pick it up again. Guy’s book doesn’t pretend to be anything more than an aperitif on the subject: a way to whet the reader’s appetite, not only to learn about More, but also to dip into his Utopia, on which Guy spends several pages (last year was the 500th anniversary of Utopia’s publication, after all). For those who do want to explore further, there are plentiful endnotes, as well as a helpful bibliography, which not only lists books on More but also suggests the most useful places to start with translations and commentaries on his own writings.

Succinct, fair and eminently reliable, this is a great way to encounter More for the first time. I see that the publishers have also released a similar book on Julian of Norwich, which I’m now tempted to track down as well.

Buy the book

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Three modern Mores: Paul Scofield in Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man For All Seasons’; Jeremy Northam in ‘The Tudors’; and Anton Lesser in ‘Wolf Hall’, each offering a different take on the character. My favourite is Northam, mainly because he actually looks quite a lot like More.

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