The historian David Starkey is right to question the factual basis of Wolf Hall’s extremely negative caricature of More. But don’t take my word for it, let alone Starkey’s. Believe the great Renaissance humanist Erasmus, who idolised his friend More. The preface to Erasmus’s book Praise of Folly – a satire on human idiocy – is directly addressed to More. Its title in Greek is a joke on his name, explains Erasmus (“Moria” is Greek for folly). Erasmus is teasing his mate, calling him a fool. It’s a joke you can only make to someone with a sense of humour about himself. More liked a joke so much, in fact, that he had his own fool Henry Patenson included in Holbein’s family portrait.A comparison is made to the masterful portrait of More in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, as follows:
The most compelling proof of Thomas More’s wit, warmth and original way of seeing things is his masterpiece, Utopia. Anyone who dreams of a better world should revere More, because in this 1516 book he created the very idea of utopianism – and named it. Yet his imaginary island somewhere in the Americas is not all it seems. Utopia is simultaneously a serious discussion of the ideal society (which, according to More, would be communist) and a text that mocks itself. More introduces jokes that undercut the book’s apparent message. The result is a complex intellectual balancing of ideas: we need ideals. We need to dream of a better society. We also need to beware of those dreams.
No one can read Utopia, or look at Holbein’s exquisite drawings of the More family, without wondering why Wolf Hall so distorts the image of one of Britain’s intellectual and political giants.
Perhaps it is poetic justice, though. More wrote a life of Richard III that inspired Shakespeare’s play about the Machiavellian king. Nowadays, his demonisation of Richard is widely seen as unjust. More has got the same treatment from Wolf Hall – but at least they didn’t give him a hunchback. (Read more.)
Thomas More (1478-1535), lawyer and moral philosopher, is still regarded by many Catholics as the quintessential good man. He has been held up to schoolchildren for centuries as the most significant English defender of the true Catholic faith. Mantel’s portrait, however, is of a torturer of heretics with a penchant for self-punishment and a misogynist to boot.Share
The Catholic writer Peter Stanford suspects that many Catholics, lapsed or otherwise, will be dismayed when Mantel’s well-researched yet passionately argued slant on the merits of Cromwell versus More reaches a wider TV audience. “As a child I was told that More was a very clever man who defended the pope against a parvenu king and who would not let him fiddle around with the eternal truths so that he could have his way with another woman,” he said. “He is still revered, often alongside John Fisher, the bishop and martyr, who was beheaded by Henry VIII in the same year as More. He is important as a defender of the faith, even though we are not persecuted any more in this country. Wolf Hall is going to be hard for some people to watch because there are lots of churches named after More and several of the old recusant stately homes have relics. They frequently have part of Mary Queen of Scots’ rosary, a bit of the stick that John Fisher used to stagger up to the gallows on and something claimed to have been written by More.”
Mantel, who received a Catholic education at a convent school, uproots More and places Cromwell, the king’s chief adviser, much closer to the moral core of her story – although he is rendered as complex and enigmatic. More, in contrast, cuts a dry and uncompromising figure. “Mantel may portray Thomas More as a callous religious obsessive, but for us growing up he was the exact opposite,” said Stanford. The biographer of Lord Longford adds that a religious education is such a powerful tool that many with a Catholic background will, like him, never have questioned More’s saintly status.
“Once someone has been elevated to the canon of saints, that is it really. They are beyond question for many Catholics. It tends to stop the conversation,” he said. More’s moral quality was underlined for a modern public in 1966 with the release of the hit film version of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. This gave cinemagoers of all faiths, and of none, a reason to look up to More as a bastion of wider humanist values. With its tight and witty screenplay, drawing convincingly on the original words of More, the film established Henry VIII’s disobedient lord chancellor as brave and full of integrity. A man who, out of a sense of personal honour as much as religious conviction, was prepared to stand in opposition to the king’s plan to go against the tenets of Rome to divorce and marry for a second time. It did no harm to More’s historical profile that he was played on screen by the late Paul Scofield in a softly spoken performance that has gone down as one of his finest. Crossing swords with a villainous Cromwell in one scene, More’s is the voice of stylish, unpretentious reason.
More: “You threaten like a dockside bully.
Cromwell: “How should I threaten?”
More: “Like a minister of state. With justice.”
Cromwell: “Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with.”
More: “Then I am not threatened.”
The other piece of influential writing that has helped emphasise More’s superior character is his own book, Utopia. A philosophical argument couched in the tale of a traveller who returns from an unknown land, it has furnished English literature with many enduring ideas – not least that of a Utopia itself; a perfect, unattainable society. Published in Latin in 1516, Utopia still intrigues and amuses readers despite having been around for half a millennium. In More’s imagined Utopia, property, goods and food are all shared among the households in each city and there is a heavy emphasis on agriculture, although some weight is given to academic learning as well. When it comes to government: “Anyone who campaigns for public office becomes disqualified for holding any office at all,” he suggests. Religious tolerance is advocated, as is legal divorce, euthanasia and the adorning of male and female married priests. On the other hand, and less palatable to current taste, atheists are regarded as despicable, and most households keep slaves drawn from a ready supply of foreigners and criminals.
The book, though widely studied, has always puzzled readers because many of the notions it toys with appear to run directly against More’s own Catholic convictions, not least about divorce. It also seems odd that the role of lawyers in Utopia should be held up for contempt by the man who was at one point, as lord chancellor, the leading legal authority in the land.
For Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of church history at Oxford University and a great fan of Cromwell over More, there is no denying the appeal of More’s mind. “I have seen some of the new series and More comes across as a desiccated fanatic. Well, that would be one take. It is true he has always been a controversial character partly because he became such a plaster saint, seen as unassailable in the Catholic church,” said MacCulloch. “But like Cromwell he was a complicated humanist, as well as a great stylist and the author of the wonderful Utopia. For More, I think, the whole of the late 1520s became resolved into a life and death struggle for his world. We all have our priorities and for him a united Christendom overrode his concern with mercy or with pity.”
MacCulloch admits he takes much of his understanding of the relationship between More and Cromwell from the late eminent Tudor scholar Sir Geoffrey Elton, once his doctoral supervisor at Cambridge. Elton, who wrote about Cromwell had a low opinion of More. “Elton was a little partisan perhaps, but I do find Hilary’s version compelling.”
The professor, who is working on his own biography of Cromwell, is happy for popular historical fiction to engage with Tudor history. “It is not a battle between fiction and history. It is a conversation. I regard Hilary as an ally, not a threat. She has created a powerful parallel universe and historians and novelists each bring their own perspective.”
The screen image of More as played by Scofield has “ruled the roost for 30 or 40 years now,” MacCulloch adds, and it is time for a different view. “The problem is that anyone looks quite good when they are compared with the monstrous Henry VIII, and More did show great nobility in squaring up to him. There was also a lot of fancy footwork though, which does distract you from the fact that, in the end, More died for something he believed in.”
More, first called “a man for all seasons” by his contemporary Robert Whittington, always had a good argument to hand, and would probably have pointed out that men who are prepared to put their head on the block for an idea are not likely to be self-interested. As More once said: “If honour were profitable, everybody would be honourable.” Today, however, proofs of strong conviction and acts of religious martyrdom are no longer recognised as a fair way to win.
MORE’S LIFE AND TIMES1478 Born to a London lawyer. Goes on to Oxford, qualifies as a lawyer.
1510 Becomes an under-sheriff of London, then enters Henry VIII’s service as speechwriter, interpreter and adviser.
1515 Shapes tyrannical reputation of Richard III with a biography and a year later publishes Utopia.
1521 Knighted. Becomes Speaker of the House of Commons two years later.
1529 As Henry decides to divorce and break with Rome, More takes the lord chancellor’s great seal from Cardinal Wolsey.
1534 Arrested for refusing to repudiate the pope. Tried for treason and executed on Tower Hill the following July.
1935 Canonised, along with John Fisher, by Pope Pius XI.