Thomas More : a biography

by Richard Marius

Hardcover, 1984





New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1984.


A biography describing the life, work, and times of the Lord Chancellor and champion of the Catholic Church.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
Sir Thomas More the man for all seasons; saint or sinner? Being a flagellator, hair shirt wearer and devout catholic, he would have called himself a sinner, but history has tended to look back on him as a saint. He is seen to be a man who was martyred for his faith by a tyrannical Henry VIII and his corrupt Tudor court. More was beatified in 1886 and canonized in 1935 and the bandwagon has rolled along since then culminating in at least two blockbuster movies. Richard Marius' long and scholarly biography published in 1985; paints a more ambiguous picture.

King Henry VIII made Thomas More his Lord Chancellor following the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, More had already made a name for himself at court as a lawyer and man of letters and his strong but amiable personality had made him well liked; he had a gift for oratory and had been useful on diplomatic missions, but Wolsey was a hard act to follow. The Cardinal had made his home at Hampton Court into a power base that rivalled Henry's court at Westminster and More was always going to struggle following in the footsteps of the big man. Wolsey's fall was as a result of his disastrous foreign policy adventures and his failure to deliver the Pope's agreement for Henry to divorce his queen Catherine of Aragon. More's ability to do the job was without question, but his faith in the catholic church, his ambivalent position on Henry's divorce which put him in opposition to the Boleyn family meant that he became increasingly side-lined as Henry's government's moved further towards a breach with the Pope. More resigned from the Chancellorship and when Parliament passed the Act of Succession in 1534, Henry insisted that all people associated with the government and the clergy should sign an oath that recognised Henry as Supreme head of the Church in England. This Thomas More could not do. with the full knowledge that failure to do so would lay himself open to charges of treason. He was locked up in the Tower of London and after a number of interrogations he was tried and found guilty of treason.

Richard Marius was part of the team at Yale University that worked towards publishing the complete works of Thomas More and he uses More's, books, essays and letters extensively as a basis for his Biography, often quoting directly from them. Marius says that to understand why More found himself on a collision course with Henry, then one needs to fully comprehend Mores' character and the events that unfolded that led him to choose to die on the scaffold at Tyburn. Darius' own religious background has given him an insight into what it would have meant to be a devout Catholic at a time when protestant reform was beginning to make inroads into the Tudor Court and the theological arguments that were so important for More are fully discussed in the book. In fact Marius does such a good job on this that his explanations of the issues have given me as clear a picture as anything else I have read. He is equally good on how renaissance ideas coming over from Europe affected the Tudors and More in particular. He reminds us that Erasmus; one of the greatest essayists from that era was a good friend of More and dedicated his most popular book "In Praise of Folly" to him. He was also part of a group that batted around ideas and theories that were the basis of More's own early masterpiece "Utopia"

Many apologists for Thomas More have difficulty in squaring his early embracing of renaissance thought with his enthusiastic burning of heretics when he came to power, but Marius' ideas on the psychological make up of the man along with references from all of his published works, including Utopia, provide us with an explanation that can easily be believed. He says that More's inner conflicts and fundamental mystery loom darker than most of his modern admirers care to admit. More wanted to be a monk, a religious scholar perhaps embracing the monastic life, but feared that he would not be able to control his sexual drive; the temptations of the flesh. Chastity for him was an essential part of clerical life, but something he could not attain and so he put his great mind to studying the law. He married and had three children whom he loved dearly and they seem to have worshipped him, but it is Marius contention that the hair shirt and the whipping was a continual castigation. Finally there came a chance for him to enter the kingdom of heaven when he ascended the scaffold at Tyburn and died a martyr's death. More's love for his family is well documented, but Marius wonders if it is overstated, More loved a stage, he wanted to demonstrate what a good man he was, but he was also a calculator. He was a successful lawyer, he did not hesitate to put the boot into Wolsey when he finally got the chance and not only did he relentlessly pursue heretics he took delight in interrogating them and boasted about his joy on seeing them burnt at the stake. Marius's conclusion is that he was a divided man, witty and urbane with his friends, clever and calculating with his enemies, a man who embraced ideas from the renaissance but whose faith was firmly back in the darkness of the middle ages.

Richard Marius says that much of Thomas More's later religious writing is overlong and tediously invective against his enemies, almost unreadable, and while Marius's own biography is long it is by no means unreadable. Marius has much to tell us, but is always conscious that he is writing for a more general audience than the scholars he worked with at Yale University. He writes easily and well, but occasionally he leads his readers down some blind alleys. For example More wrote a history about Richard III and Marius examines this as both a historical record and as literature, but this leads him into a discussion about who killed the two princes in the Tower of London, something that has only the most tenuous links to a biography of Thomas More.

This is an excellent in depth biography for the interested general reader and while you might not fully agree with some of Marius' contentions about the character of Thomas More, there is so much information here that at least you will have the context to enable you to come to your own conclusions. I particularly liked Marius' use of Thomas More's own works, some of which I am tempted to delve into myself. I would rate this at 4.5 stars.
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