Thomas more sample

Page 1

b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 1

THOMAS MORE by Alvaro de Silva

All booklets are published thanks to the generous support of the members of the Catholic Truth Society

CATHOLIC TRUTH SOCIETY PUBLISHERS TO THE HOLY SEE


b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 2

2

CONTENTS Introduction ........................................................................... 3 “In the Shadow of Piety” ...................................................... 11 More’s early life ................................................................. 11 Education ............................................................................ 12 More’s vocation ................................................................. 13 Against pride ...................................................................... 15 Common sanctity ............................................................... 18 In the service of the King ................................................... 20 The Home of Humanity ........................................................ 23 Marriage and remarriage .................................................... 23 Children’s education .......................................................... 24 Educating daughters ........................................................... 25 Ambition ............................................................................ 26 A Reformer’s Dream ............................................................. 29 Christian humanism ........................................................... 30 Utopia ................................................................................. 31 An island of intelligent imagination ................................... 34 More after Luther ................................................................. 37 From Lord Chancellor to Prisoner ...................................... 45 The “Great Matter” ............................................................ 46 Dead man walking .............................................................. 49 “Everlasting Liberty” ........................................................... 51 ‘The Sadness of Christ’ ...................................................... 52 Final letters ......................................................................... 55 The trial .............................................................................. 56 Execution ............................................................................ 58 The Teeth of the Church ....................................................... 59 More on More - Further Reading ........................................ 62 A Godly Meditation ............................................................... 64


b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 3

3

INTRODUCTION The lives of More A modern biography is certainly not what medieval Christians enjoyed as “lives of the saints.” Authorial intentions being quite different, so were the reader’s expectations. In the history of the genre, the life of Thomas More (1478 -1535) seems to have particular relevance. First, because no other figure in the landscape of his time, much less a layman, knew of such an intense biographical interest so soon after death. Once the conspiracy of silence around someone who had been executed as a traitor to crown and country was lifted, half a dozen writers took up their pens to record his life and martyrdom. These were William Roper, Nicholas Harpsfield, Thomas Stapleton, an anonymous writer known as “Ro. Ba.”, and two more whose works have not come down to us. The first, Roper, was More’s son-in-law. Having lived intimately with the Mores “sixteen years and more”, he could produce an eye-witness source for Harpsfield’s biography and later biographers. Roper painted an admiring portrait of a man of “singular virtue” who gave his life for the faith and unity of the Catholic Church rather than bow to the wishes of King Henry VIII.


b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 4

4

THOMAS MORE

Interest in Thomas More has not diminished down the centuries, for as a modern biographer has put it, he was “a magnificent individual whose life summarised an age in a way that few lives have been able to do” (R Marius) and that age is itself one of the most crucial in English and European history. More’s life has also special relevance for the biographical genre because a new way of writing “lives” was then emerging, away somehow from the medieval hagiography, which belongs more to devotional than to properly historical literature, and already into the long process that will culminate in the kind of accurate and critical biography modern readers expect. More’s English version of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Vita, has been called the first English biography. While this may not be exact, the book is nevertheless the narrative of a secular life, not the praise of a legendary Christian saint. More’s life is the life of a man in the streets and courts of London, the life of a married man at home and with friends, with children and grandchildren, in the turbulence of political intrigue and Tudor power games. Its very secular landscape, far away from gloomy cells in monasteries and lonely places in the wilderness, helped the new way of writing lives of saints. A writer can, of course, turn anything into sentimentality, religious or otherwise, but More’s life had the advantage, if I may so call it, of showing a complete absence of heavenly


b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 5

INTRODUCTION

5

apparitions and miraculous events usually associated with heroic holiness. His was the life of a husband, father and grandfather, lawyer and judge, a member of Parliament, a lover of language and a Renaissance humanist, a famous author, a well-known public figure in London, and after his appointment as Lord Chancellor, in all England and beyond. Along with his friend John Fisher, bishop of Rochester and likewise a Christian humanist and martyr, Thomas More was canonised at long last in Rome in 1935. Twenty-five years later More enjoyed perhaps an even more popular sort of canonisation, thanks to Robert Bolt’s play and its masterful screen adaptation by Fred Zinnemann. Whether or not the play and the movie accurately reflect historical reality, the story of “a man for all seasons” made such a compelling impression that it is difficult not to have Paul Scofield’s inspiring interpretation in mind when thinking about Saint Thomas More. (Another screenplay about the martyr by Jean Anouilh, author of Becket, remains unproduced.) Meanwhile, the prestigious Yale University Press was producing a multi-volume critical edition of The Complete Works of Saint Thomas More (1963-1997) and there have been dozens of secondary studies. Recent research makes possible a better understanding of the man in his Reformation context, and of the Reformation itself. As a result, the latest portrayals of More in the political and


b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 6

6

THOMAS MORE

ecclesial turmoil of his time present a more complex picture than his earlier biographers were able to see. Today’s biographies tend to be huge books, and a very small one like this, a mere sketch, might seem rather pointless. But the very idea of biography is not to tell everything about a person (impossible, in any case, to write or to read) but to disclose the reasons and causes - the bios, or vital force behind that person’s actions and words. It may be more than a nice touch to learn, for instance, that More liked eggs (which he did), for medieval hagiographers would not have wasted time on dietary likes and dislikes, their idea of holiness demanding abstinence and fast. Yet such details are irrelevant to our understanding of More’s life and death; he may as well have disliked eggs. To know, however, that there is nothing in his written work against Jews is, I think, not merely an interesting detail but relevant to More’s inner life and deeper attitudes. Details, however do not suffice if we are to know a human life’s purpose. Often what should be essential in biography is lost in a jungle of information fuelled by that curiositas which the ancient and medieval minds judged to be sinful. On the other hand, when you like (or dislike) someone you want to know all about him or her. And so it is with More. It takes long stretches of time to know someone, and like good portrait artists, biographers spend large amounts of time with their subjects. A Christian would


b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 7

INTRODUCTION

7

say that only God can tell what is truly in a person. But there is more. Shouldn’t a Christian believer approach biography with added expectations and even greater responsibility? Mere curiosity about someone doesn’t seem fair if the central tenet of Christianity is that all human beings are God’s children and their lives precious in His sight. Thus, the believer adds something to the act of reading lives, whether of saints or sinners. Without in any way diminishing the expectation of learning the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, such a reader would throw into it a good measure of understanding and even charity. Reading about someone’s life makes that person literally our neighbour and therefore we should read with humility and compassion, not to judge but always to learn. I hope this does not sound like pious sentimentality. The biographer of saints should not use holy water as ink, but at the end, every human life remains a mystery. More himself criticised writers who thought it necessary to make up stories about saints just for effect. He had a true devotion to saints and considered such procedures unnecessary and contrary to the religion of Christ. “You should not be surprised therefore,” he wrote to Thomas Ruthall in 1506, “if the common herd are taken in by the fictions of those who think they’ve done a great work, and put Christ in their debt forever, if they’ve feigned a story about a saint or a horrendous tale of hell


b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 8

8

THOMAS MORE

to drive some old woman to tears or make her tremble with fear. And so there is scarcely a martyr’s or a virgin’s life which they have passed over without inserting some falsehoods of this kind - with pious intent, to be sure - for otherwise there was danger lest truth could not stand by its own strength but had to be bolstered with lies! They have not shrunk from defiling with their tales that religion which Truth itself established and which it intended to consist of truth unadorned; and they have not considered that fables of this kind, so far from helping at all, do more deadly harm than anything else” (Rogers edition, n. 5). Jonathan Swift thought that Thomas More was “the person of greatest virtue these islands ever produced”, and we can understand G. K. Chesterton’s saying that he “may come to be counted the greatest Englishman, or at least the greatest historical character in English history”. More recently, John Guy, a Tudor historian, has reminded us both of the world’s need for men and women like More and of the impossibility of knowing the real More. “Everyone who has seen the film wants to know more about More, but not to know too much (...) The world will need More as much as ever in the third millennium, but not in an historical guise.” More, this historian says, is an “enigma” that “defies objective analysis.” Of course, every person is a mystery, yet we can know much about More. His last letters, for instance, far from defying objective analysis, touch us deeply as documents of the


b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 9

INTRODUCTION

9

highest relevance since they manifest the heroism of his final decision “of pure necessity for respect unto mine own soul,” as he wrote to his oldest daughter, Margaret, in his first letter from prison. This is a very short biography, and there is literally no room for sentimental adornment or needless speculation. More is legendary rather than a mere legend, and I want to present the truth of the man, warts and all, in so far as I can ascertain it with the help of the latest scholarship. More would have liked nothing less, as this beautiful passage from his “Letter to a Monk” shows: “Those who admire us and praise what we do, those who hail us as blessed and saintly, in other words those who seduce us and turn us from fools into madmen, these are obviously candid, benevolent fellows, and these we call good, pious men in return. But those who work to do something much more useful for us, to make us see ourselves as we really are [vt quales vere sumus, tales vere nos nobis indicent], those men are barking dogs, snappish, malicious, and envious, and those words are used against them even when they never attack the vices of anybody by name and when those who describe them this way openly smear their own filth upon others.” Unless all my reading, editing, translating, and learning from Thomas More has been a waste, I am certain that he would have wanted nothing but the truth about him, to make us see him “as he really was.”


b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 10

10

THOMAS MORE

Embraced now in the unconditional love of the Trinity in heaven, he knows himself in the best possible way, perhaps the only way, and at least those who share his Creed read about him also to learn more of the splendid and merciful light of Christ. Thus, as I embark in this biographical sketch, I wish to make mine Richard Rolle’s intention when he would not offer his book (Incendium amoris) to philosophers or the worldly-wise, not even great theologians, but to those “who are trying to love God rather than to know many things.”


b. Thomas More_b. Thomas More 15/07/2013 11:32 Page 11

11

“IN THE SHADOW OF PIETY” More’s early life Thomas More was born in London the sixth or seventh day of February 1478, there is no certainty about the exact date, and he was executed on Tower Hill on the sixth day of July 1535. His father, John More, also a lawyer, enjoyed an honourable reputation in the city; his mother, Agnes Graunger, died probably in 1499. His respect and affection for his father never wavered, and even as Lord Chancellor of England, More acknowledged in public his filial duty. One of his early biographers, Harpsfield, says that “[W]henever he passed through Westminster Hall to his place in the Chancery, if his father (one of the judges of the King’s Bench) was there, he would go into the same Court, and there reverently kneeling down in the sight of them all, duly ask his father’s blessing.” More came “from money,” not at all his fault, but this circumstance played a role in his life and ideas about the world and how to best live in it. In a famous laudatory portrait of his friend, Erasmus said that More “loved equality” and, years later, in a letter to a monk, More wrote that “it is my custom to honour the poorest man commended by virtue more than anyone distinguished for his riches or admired for an illustrious birth”.


Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.