"The Life of Thomas More," by Peter Ackroyd. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 435 pages. $30. Bringing together a wealth of primary and secondary sources with a gift for describing what it all looked and felt like, Peter Ackroyd has written a frank and masterful biography of Sir Thomas More, visionary author of "Utopia" and one of the noble figures of English history.
In Ackroyd's account, Thomas More, having resigned as Lord Chancellor of England in 1532, experienced fearsome nightmares of painful death, including his heart being ripped out and shown to him while he was still alive. When More's actual sentence was commuted from disembowelment to beheading, the decision "may have afforded some natural human relief to More."
Certainly More had been preparing himself for the worst. His final work, "De Tristitia Christi," was a meditation on Christ's suffering from Gethsemane through the crucifixion. More was killed with one stroke of the ax. The executioner picked up his head, showed it to the crowd and shouted, "Behold the head of a traitor!" Earlier More had written, "Now to this greate glory, can there no man come hedlesse. Our hed is Christ!"
What kind of man was this who had such a strong faith? More was a scholar, lawyer and administrator who wielded extraordinary power in the court of Henry VIII. When forced to choose between the will of God and that of his King, he chose God, a most treacherous path. He was unable to deny papal authority and support the King's divorce.
Ackroyd brilliantly leads the reader through the tumultuous period that marks the close of late medieval Catholicism and the rise of the English Reformation, presenting More's legal, political and literary achievements within the context of his theology and personal piety.
This does not mean it is easy reading. The author presupposes knowledge of his subject, and is continually sifting a broad spectrum of factual information not all of equal interest to the more casual reader. The work unfolds slowly, More's flickering presence only gradually revealing itself.
However, one is soon captivated by this fascinating tale of medieval family life, courtly intrigue and religious uproar.
Thomas More was not always saintly, we discover. In one of Ackroyd's more insightful and distressing chapters, "I am like ripe shit" (to quote Martin Luther), we are witness to More's offensively scatological diatribe against Luther, written pseudonymously.
One wonders at the ferocity of his response despite the fact that he was defending Henry VIII against Luther's equally vitriolic attack. Fear of the destruction of the Catholic Church finally appears to have fueled his enemies more than protected his Church.
He truly believed that Lutherans were "agents of the demons" and must be burned, if necessary. In this balanced account, Ackroyd is quick to point out More's complicity in routing out treason, and his material gain. He feared the Antichrist, and saw the breakdown of the belief system and the social order as leading to "the collapse of the entire structure of the world." Others saw all of this as "the emergence of the modern world."
Thomas More was a man who willingly died for his belief in the unity of the Catholic Church. Almost five hundred years later we are still puzzling that kind of faith.
Victoria R. Sirota, an Episcopal priest, is vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Baltimore and National Chaplain of the American Guild of Organists, as well as Visiting Adjunct Professor of Sacred Music at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary's Seminary and University.
Pub Date: 12/20/98