One in an occasional series in which History Girls talk about their historical blind spots. Sir Thomas More seems a particularly suitable choice in the month of our interview with Hilary Mantel.
Even before I listened to the whole of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on a long car journey, I had been suspicious of Thomas More (1478-1535). At my convent school, he was Saint Thomas More, a brave man, an important man, but above
everything, a man who was, at all times and in all circumstances, right.
Thomas More was brave: the times demanded bravery and he stepped up to the plate. He was important: he rose to be Lord Chancellor of England. I’m not sure he was, at all times, right. Certainly, he believed in righteousness, but that’s not quite the same thing. In Utopia, he advocated freedom of religion, yet he sent people to be burned when they exercised this freedom. So whilst not decrying his many virtues – he was a keen proponent of free speech – I’m not sure I get the uncritical reverence with which his name is usually uttered.
More was a man of his times, not a man too good for his times. His duties to God and king included extracting confessions, doling out punishments and generally harassing the heretics undermining what he believed to be the one true path to salvation. Even given the fashionable overblown rhetoric, we’ve been far too ready to buy into the adulation expressed by Will Roper, his son-in-law:
FO R A S M VC H, as Syr Thomas More, Knight, sometymes Lord Chancellour of England, a Man of singular Vertue, and of an vnspotted Conscience; & (as witnesseth Erasmus) more pure, and white then snowe: of so Angelicall a Wit (sayth he) that England neuer had the like before, nor euer shall againe:
However, let’s not get carried away. I've no truck with those who accuse More of misogyny because, when asked why he liked short women, he answered ‘best to choose the lesser of two evils’. It was a joke! A veritable joke! More was a wit. I like that. Yet I can still understand why Simon Slater, the narrator of the Wolf Hall unabridged audio-book, reads More’s words in a snooty drawl. I think More was more the snooty drawler than the mild-mannered charmer depicted by Paul Schofield in Fred Zinneman’s film A Man for All Seasons (a perennial favourite at my convent school). He was a man who knew his own worth and was confident of heavenly approval. I imagine him taking his place at God's right hand without bothering to defer to St. Peter.
In short, though More was without doubt a man of courage and dignity in adversity, he was too human and too much a man of his time to be a saint of unimpeachable sanctity. He may have been one of England's great and glorious, but was he really a great and glorious goody? I’m not saying he was wicked. I'm not saying I wouldn’t have liked him. I just wonder whether any man who scrambled up the greasy pole of Tudor politics, even if eventually falling off it, is quite worthy of the halo that has been plonked so very firmly upon Sir Thomas More's handsome head.
Would Thomas More would have liked my blog, the year of playing the piano? I think he'd have been very gracious, and I'd probably have wanted to wallop him.