Thomas More: a man for all seasons?

Meeting chaired by Dr Donald Cameron

Simon Farrow

BRLSI Member

9 June 2005

A man for all seasons

A man of angel’s wit and singular learning: I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentle-ness, lowliness and affability? And as time requireth a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes: and some-times of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons’.(1)

These lines appear in a Latin and English grammar of 1520 by Robert Whittinton, and but for its familiar final phrase

both the work and its author might have disappeared into obscurity. However, Whittinton wrote these words about Thomas More, and as such is at least a footnote in the biography of the world-famous English Lord Chancellor and martyr. Whittinton had been born around 1480, and might have known Thomas More personally from Henry VIII’s Court, since Whittinton was probably a page at court and by 1520 More was forty-two and was a member of the King’s Privy Council.

That familiar phrase, ‘A Man for all Seasons’ is, in its Latin original, of ancient coinage, and in its Latin form had already been applied to More by his friend Erasmus in a preface to ‘Praise of Folly’ in 1509, the first part of which was written in More’s house when Erasmus visited. But it was Whittinton who first gave it that English rendering so familiar to modern ears. There is a warmth and simplicity in Whittinton’s words, even though we know so little of his actual relationship to More, which makes them seem more natural and spontaneous than many a word addressed by a page to a statesman.

If we jump on four and a half centuries we come to the play named after Whittinton’s English phrase which has done most to popularise the image of More as a homely hero who appeals beyond religious loyalties, Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons. This image is perhaps particularly associated with Paul Scofield, who took the part of More in the stage version first performed at the Globe Theatre in London in 1960, and then in the 1966 film starring alongside Orson Welles as Wolsey, Susannah York as More’s daughter Margaret and Corin Redgrave as her husband William Roper.

A particular scene (2) illustrates the flavour of the play and film: Thomas More has disagreed with Henry VIII over the proposed marriage to Anne Boleyn and the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, has resigned his office of Lord Chancellor, and is now in that limbo period of retirement from public life while the authorities try to pin on him some accusation of treason. Outside Hampton Court, in the dark near the river one evening, after a strained meeting with the King’s henchman Thomas Cromwell, More meets

his old friend the Duke of Norfolk. In the rather witty descriptions of the characters in the play which Bolt prefaced to the text in published editions Norfolk is described as ‘late forties, heavy, active, a sportsman and soldier held together by rigid adherence to the minimal code of conventional duty; attractively aware of his moral and intellectual insignificance, but also a great nobleman, untouchably convinced that his acts and ideas are important because they are his’. Now he meets More and, concerned for him as a friend, wants him to submit, and cannot understand why More should be so stubborn about scholarly quibbles about Royal and Papal authority and marriages. He begs More to give in, and More says that Norfolk might as well ask a man to change the colour of his eyes; and in return asks Norfolk to end their friendship for his own safety. Norfolk, angry and concerned, asks if the one thing in a world of changing friendships is that Thomas More will not give in, and More says ‘To me it has to be, for that’s myself! Affection goes as deep in me as you I think, but only God is love right through Howard, and that’s my self’. There is a curious juxtaposition in this last phrase. Bolt seems to place the self alongside God, or even replacing him. The play, while it is about More’s martyrdom in defence of the authority of the Papacy, does not really explore the ‘theological’ aspects of the question as much as the personal dynamic between Henry VIII and More and the issues of integrity and political conformity. Indeed, one of Thomas More’s Catholic biographers of the 1960s, EE Reynolds, complained of Bolt’s play that it was ‘meaningless to write about a saint and leave out God’.(3)

But Bolt had already, in a preface to published editions of the script, addressed this question directly. He wrote that he was ‘not a Catholic, nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian’, and asked of himself ‘by what right do I appropriate a Christian saint to my purposes?’ He then identified these purposes with his own preferred philosophy of existentialism to display More as ‘a man with an adamantine sense of his own self’. In the 1940s as a young man Bolt had associated with the Communist Party when Stalin was still idolised, but had in his own words started asking a lot of naïve questions about freedom and so broke with the party. Like a lot of ex-communists in the 1940s and 1950s he had come to be impressed by the philosophy of existentialism, and came to believe the main task of thought to be to define ‘a sense of selfhood without resort to magic’. So this is the driving force behind the play.

Thomas More was the devout Catholic, the martyr for his faith, the lawyer, the scholar, the humanist, the family man, the Londoner. Looking at reactions to him in all these aspects in British culture since the early 16th century is both a study of the rich variety of historical interpretation and a reflection on historiography, showing how that interpretation is so much reflective of the preoccupations of any given period. It also does something to approach the question of to what extent More’s integrity was an ‘existentialist’ phenomenon as Bolt saw it. Is Thomas More a model of being true to oneself, and to what extent would such a concept have made sense to him? Who was the real Thomas More? The same theme of historical interpretation might be applied to More’s enigmatic work Utopia.

The life of Thomas More

Before looking at the different traditions which have existed of interpretation of Thomas More over five centuries in Britain it is useful to set out some of the outstanding points of More’s biography.

He was born in Milk Street in the City of London on 7 February 1478. From about the age of twelve More was placed as a page in the household of Cardinal Morton who had played an active part in the Wars of the Roses with the current King Henry VII. More went to Oxford University in 1492, and after two years there returned to London to study law at the Inns of Court, being called to the bar in 1501. In 1499 he met Erasmus, twelve years his senior and then visiting England, and maintained a friendship with him for the rest of his life, which included Erasmus visiting More when in England and keeping up correspondence after they no longer met in person. There is a striking contrast between Erasmus’ serene and broadminded Christian humanism and More’s rather more complex personality.

As More attained maturity, there was a period of around four years, in about 1497-1501, when he underwent intense self-examination by living at the Charterhouse, the City of London centre for the Carthusians, and practising their monastic discipline. This period was to be very significant in later interpretations of him. In 1501 he took up a legal practice and at some time decided to marry rather than to be a friar or monk, so in 1505 he married Jane Colt and had four children with her by1509: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecily and John. He was also in the House of Commons in the Parliament of 1504.

More’s first wife died in 1511, aged twenty-three, and within a month he married again, a widow six years older than him, Alice Middleton, and after they moved to a large house at Chelsea in 1524, there was that image of happy family life which has been such a significant part of views of More – living there was a large household in extended family style including not just Alice and More’s children but at various times the spouses of his children, personal tutors, various wards of the family as well as all the servants. It was said that when More beat the children, he did so with a peacock’s feather. More was unusual for his age in wanting a thorough education for his daughters, and the eldest, Margaret, was to be an accomplished scholar in her own right and have a strong bond of affection with her father, evident in his long letters to her when they were separated, especially at the end of his life from the Tower of London.

By the 1520s More had also risen high in public life. Henry VIII became king in 1509, and soon More was increasingly involved at Court, and from 1518 a member of the Privy Council. He was present with Henry VIII at the ‘field of the cloth of gold’ in 1521. He was knighted in the same year and then in 1523 was speaker of the House of Commons, and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1526.

On a diplomatic mission to Flanders in 1515, More wrote that for which he is best remembered as well as for his martyrdom: Utopia. More and Erasmus and their friend Peter Giles, in Antwerp, meet the fictional Raphael Hythloday, and in the first book retire to a garden bench and discuss government and society in England. Then in the second book Hythloday tells them of the remote island of Utopia which he has visited in the New World on one of Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages. As well as introducing a new word into the English language the book has tantalised scholars ever since. It was published in Latin in 1516.

In 1529, after the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, More became Lord Chancellor, but resigned in 1532 on disagreeing with Henry over the Royal Marriage question. He was eventually imprisoned for more than a year on his refusal to take the oath to the Act of Succession. When in retirement after resignation More engaged in polemic with the Protestant William Tyndale who was in exile in Europe. More was continuing his dispute with the ‘heretics’, which went back to his polemics against Luther at the time of the king’s composition of a ‘Defence of the seven sacraments’ in 1521. These disputes were to be of great relevance to later debates about More’s character. Then while in prison More also wrote treatises on the passion of Christ and his Dialogue of comfort against tribulation. He was tried at Westminster Hall after his imprisonment, and after being found guilty of high treason he was executed on Tower Hill on 6 July 1535.

The anecdotal tradition

Soon after his death the tradition spread of More as an honest judge and a man if integrity, a tradition which led to a body of anecdote, of varying degrees of reliability, repeated through the 16th and 17th centuries. This tradition was the more striking by the Elizabethan Age because of the rise of an aggressively Protestant sense of English nationhood. It is particularly well presented in a play of 1593 about Thomas More, which has rather shadowy origins.(4) The play was written by several hands with additions by several others, and was refused permission for performance by the Master of the Rolls who was government censor of plays, and so fell into neglect and was not published until 1844. It was first publicly performed in 1964 with a young Ian Mckellan as More. It was rather ironic that it was performed nearly four centuries after being written and was then rather overshadowed by Bolt’s recent play. Scholars have given particular attention to 159 lines by Shakespeare about an incident in May 1517 when London apprentices rioted against foreign immigrant traders and More, as under sherrif of London, pacified them with a speech about the evils of rebellion against Royal authority. Here we can see More moulded to suit the needs of subsequent ages, in this case the issue of Elizabethan public order, as there were similar anti-foreign riots in London in 1592.

The main writer was Anthony Munday. Back in 1579, when the Pope proclaimed More a martyr for the Catholic faith and a frescoe of the martyrdom was commissioned by the English College in Rome, Munday was at the college posing as a Catholic priest while in fact being an English government spy gathering evidence against missionary priests – his evidence was central to the case against Edmund Campion who was hung, drawn and quartered in London in 1581. Also Munday was assistant for a while to Richard Topcliffe, the government interrogator and torturer of Catholics. It is not clear why such a man should have produced such a positive image of More, unless it was just the accepted one among audiences.

Anecdotes about More often dealt with his humour, a phenomenon which changes over time, so that to modern ears it can be rather limp. The Jacobean antiquary William Camden in 1605 referred to More’s rather tetchy relationship with his second wife Alice in a story about her complaining to More about his lack of ambition – ‘will you…sit by the fire, and make goslings in the ashes with a stick, as children do? … tis better to rule than to be ruled’, to which More replied, ‘you speak trueth, for I never found you willing to be ruled yet’.(5) The most famous 17th century anecdote collection was John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, collected in the 1670s and 1680s, and in that mildly bawdy tone of the restoration we are told of More taking his prospective son-in-law William Roper into the bedroom where More’s daughters slept and pulling up the sheets to reveal their nakedness. They turned over in their sleep, and Roper said that he had seen both sides ‘and so gave a pat on the buttock he made choice of, saying, thou art mine. Here was all the trouble of the wooing’. Aubrey’s account is all the more implausible as he makes William Roper a Sir, which he wasn’t.

Such anecdotes strike modern readers as rather sexist, but would clearly have indicated to 16th and 17th century minds More’s essential homeliness, and this side of More remained popular, especially with non-Catholic audiences. By the 1850s, when public morality reached a high point of Victorian seriousness, and Aubrey’s anecdote would have been thought highly indecent, More’s relationship with his daughter Margaret remained a popular theme. In 1851 Anne Manning published The Household of Thomas More, a novel in the form of the imagined diary of Margaret from 1522 until her father’s death. This was reprinted several times after with late Victorian sentimental illustrations, and even dramatised in 1905 by one Mona Mora. In one passage ‘Margaret’ records Erasmus visiting Chelsea in 1522 (a piece of novelistic license as Ersamus last visited England in 1518 and the family only lived at Chelsea from 1524), and being given a tour of the house to see the managerie of animals there – a theme which appealed to the Victorian sentimental attachment to household pets. This same sentimental tradition of More and daughter resurfaced in some of Jean Plaidy’s popular historical novels, including a work for children, Meg Roper, daughter of Thomas More in 1961, just before that genre started its slide out of fashion in the 1960s.

The older Catholic tradition

Thomas More was not presented only as a light-hearted and cosy figure in the 17th and 18th centuries, however, since there was a substantial body of Catholic writing about him in the century after his death, which apart from during the reign of Mary Tudor had to be conducted in secret or in exile. In 1588 was published abroad the Tres Thomae, Thomas the Apostle, Thomas A Beckett, and Thomas More, a Latin work by Thomas Stapleton, who was born in the year of More’s death, left England soon after Elizabeth’s accession, and was rector of several Catholic colleges on the continent until his death in 1598. A direct source for the work was Margaret Giggs, a ward of More’s household who married the household physician Dr John Clement, went into exile with him in Catholic Germany and died in 1570. She showed Stapleton the hairshirt which More wore as a penitential act. Stapleton also drew on a now largely lost life of More by More’s nephew William Rastell, a judge under Mary Tudor who also published the first complete English Works of More in 1557. Another, earlier, biography of More was written in 1557 by Nicholas Harpsfield, a friend of the More family and arch- deacon under Mary, who was one of the relatively few Elizabethan Catholics who neither submitted to the Elizabethan settlement nor went into exile, and so was in prison from 1562 to 1574 shortly before his death. A manuscript copy of Harpsfield was seized by Richard Topcliffe during a government raid on the house of More’s grandson, also a Thomas More, in 1582.(6)

Stapleton’s biography was not translated into English until 1928 and Harpsfield’s was not printed at all until 1932. Other significant ‘lives’ of More were from within he family circle. His son-in-law William Roper wrote one in 1557 from personal recollection and family papers – Roper lived until 1578 and still practised at the bar, keeping the Elizabethan recusancy laws and a low-profile Catholic practice as well. Roper’s work is short, simple and rather homely. Then there is a Life of More from 1599 which was not published until 1810 and was known only as the Ro:Ba manuscript until the editor of a scholarly edition in 1950 produced definitive evidence for its author being a gentleman of Devonshire, Robert Bassett, who was related to Thomas More through his grand-uncle being married to More’s grand-daughter. Bassett was involved in an obscure plot at Elizabeth’s death in 1603 to seize the Isle of Lundy and place on it a Catholic pretender to the throne. The plot was discovered and Bassett fled abroad, being allowed to return when he flattered the authorities on their discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.

What of the content of these Lives? They all tended to build on each other, in so far as copies were available, and their central theme is to present More to the Catholic church as a worthy candidate for sainthood. So it is the last one, by More’s great-grandson Cresacre More, printed in Paris in 1631, which is the most thorough and was to be the most accessible, along with Roper’s shorter work, as the only published English Lives of More until 1810. Cresacre More appears, aged twenty-one, in a painting of about 1593 by Rowland Lockey who was commissioned by Cresacre’s father, called Thomas More, the grandson of Sir Thomas. The painting is modelled on one of More’s family by Holbein which was later destroyed by fire, though a drawing from life by Holbein made as a draught version of the painting remains. The Lockey painting covers five generations because it includes most of the figures from Holbein but also Cresacre and his brother and parents.

Drawing for the original Thomas More family portrait by Hans Holbein the younger c.1527, later destroyed by fire.
Thomas More sits in the centre. The engaged couple Anne Cresacre (1512-1577) and the young John More (c.1509-1547) are either side of him. Sir Thomas’s eldest daughter Margaret is seated second from right.

1593 Painting by Rowland Lockey of the Holbein family portrait adapted to include the figures of Cresacre (second form right), his older brother, and their parents.

The 1593 painting underlines how much reverence for Thomas More and his memory was part of Cresacre’s family, and thus the background to his Life of his great–grandfather. In that Life, More is described in conversation with his son-in-law Roper saying how they are currently able to tread heretics like ants, but that he prays that he will not see the day when heretics will have freedom of worship. Cresacre writes that because religion was turned ‘topsy-turvy’ in Elizabeth’s reign, More had been displaying prophetic insight, a sign of God’s love for him. Cresacre also wrote a long passage about More’s time at the Charterhouse as a young man which celebrates his self-mortifications, saying that More had grasped the true meaning of Christ’s teaching that he that hates his life in this world keeps it for life everlasting, so that he used his body ‘like an ass, with strokes and hard fare’(7) – and this was designed to advertise More’s virtues!

For two centuries Cresacre More’s identity as the author of this work of 1631 was uncertain, as on the title page is only ‘MTM’, and Cresacre did have an older brother, another Thomas More, though he was a priest and so not ‘Master’ More. Cresacre’s authorship was eventually proved in 1828 by the antiquarian the Rev. Joseph Hunter, a minister of Trim Street chapel in Bath and a member of the recently formed BRLSI.(8)

The anti-Catholic tradition

There were always those who did not think so well of More from among the Puritan-Protestant tradition in English life, from More’s own lifetime onwards. In 1529 More wrote a Dialogue concerning heresies, to which William Tyndale wrote an answer in 1531 – the Bible, wrote Tyndale, would banish the ‘penace, purgatory, praying to posts’ of Catholicism. More, after his resignation as Lord Chancellor, went on to write two lengthy confutations of Tyndale’s answer in 1532 and 1533, which are generally recognised not to be to More’s credit either in content or in style – More relied on hearsay miracles to justify articles of Catholic faith and called Tyndale ‘a hell-hound in the kennel of the devil’ who was ‘discharging a filthy foam of blasphemy out of his brutish beastly mouth’. Tyndale had particularly angered More by his accusation that More wrote the Dialogue only for personal advancement.

Stories circulated among Protestants that More was cruel to

‘heretics’ who were imprisoned at his house in Chelsea while he was Lord Chancellor, stories repeated by John Foxe in his very widely circulated Book of Martyrs which first appeared in English in 1563. Foxe told of a London leatherseller, John Tewkesbury, who was put in the stocks and then whipped in More’s garden. Foxe said of More that though he was ‘accounted a man both witty and learned’, he was ‘a wretched enemy against the truth of the gospel’. This uncompromisingly negative view of More runs like a minority thread through the following centuries as a counterpoint to the positive anecdotal tradition, particularly among many of those of Puritan-nonconformist sympathies. For example, one writer responds to another who called Tyndale ‘fierce’ by asking who was more fierce, Tyndale with his ‘New Testament doctrine of faith’, or More ‘imprisoning, humiliating, repeatedly torturing and finally burning alive men and women?’ (9) In case one thinks that these old sectarian controversies are entirely past in modern Britain, this reaction was from David Daniell, a London University Professor and chairman of the William Tyndale society, in a biography of Tyndale published in 1994.

The ‘two More’s’ tradition

By the early 18th century Britain was emerging from the bitter religious controversies of two centuries into the very different ‘Age of Reason’. Symbolic of this was Addison and Steele’s daily journal The Spectator, of which the number for 10 April 1712 contained reflections on cheerful martyrdom. Thomas More was a man, wrote Addison, who ‘died upon a point of religion’, but ‘did not look upon the severing of his head from his body as a circumstance that ought to produce any change in the disposition of his mind’ – two centuries of religious

passion dismissed with a witty aside.

During the period there developed a tradition of interpretation of More which remained standard into the 20th century and was to be repeated over and over again, of the early youthful, tolerant Renaissance man and the later one corrupted by power and embittered by the rise of heresy. This interpretation was early expressed by Bishop Burnet, who landed with William of Orange in 1688 and is usually regarded as a typically Protestant historian of the Reformation. In fact his view of More was more nuanced than that of Foxe, so that in 1679 he wrote in his history of the Reformation that More ‘was a man of rare virtues and excellent parts’ who had unfortunately moved from tolerance to ‘papist’ fanaticism.(10)

This interpretation of More suited the Liberal Protestantism which was such a feature of Englishness in the 18th and 19th centuries. The one full new biography of More between Cresacre’s in 1631 and the late 19th century, by the Anglican clergyman Ferdinando Warner in 1751, followed this interpretation, and it was still being repeated a century later by Frederic Seebohm, a pioneer of Renaissance studies, in The Oxford Reformers of 1498 in 1867. Seebohm viewed More, Erasmus and John Colet almost as proto-liberal Christians before the disaster of the European wars of religion. In regard to More’s period at the Charterhouse, which does not easily fit with this view, Seebohm wrote that More had turned in disgust from the impurity of the cloister to being married and having a family, thus more truly living a chaste and useful life.(11)

The new Catholic tradition

British Catholics obtained civil equality in 1829, and their ‘second spring’ led to a great revival in their numbers and self-confidence in the 1830s and 1840s, with Irish immigration and a wave of conversions from Anglicanism. One mid-century convert was Thomas Edward Bridgett, who left the Church of England to be received into the Roman Catholic church in 1850 at the recently opened Brompton Oratory in Kensington, a symbol of ‘second spring’ Catholicism with its statue of Mary overlooking the London rooftops. Bridgett then became a priest and a Redemptorist and in 1891 published The Life and Writings of Blessed Thomas More. More had been beatified by the Pope in 1886. Bridgett did extensive research, was aided by his knowledge of Latin to read works such as Stapleton’s of 1588 then un-translated into English, and his book was recognised as the best and most comprehensive biography of More to date.

Bridgett began a ‘new Catholic’ tradition about More which still continues and presents him positively as a whole, and first and foremost always a Catholic. He also took issue vigorously with what he saw as Protestant misconceptions about More, calling Seebohm’s work ‘fantastic and misleading’(12) – for example, it was precisely because More regarded monasticism as too high a calling for him that he married, thought Bridgett. Bridgett argued that Foxe’s stories of More’s cruelty to heretics were invention, and that his intemperate language in debate with heretics might be forgiven as he considered the faith to be in peril. The fact that Bridgett thought it necessary to respond to these accusations shows that the new Catholic tradition, for all its determination to restore More’s sanctity, was separated by three centuries from the old tradition where killing heretics was widely regarded as desirable.

Having been beatified in 1886, More was declared a saint of the Roman Catholic church in front of a crowd of forty thousand in St Peter’s Square in 1935. The canonisation led to a number of new books in Britain about More, of which the most significant was by a Professor of English language and literature at University College, London, RW Chambers, which was to replace Bridgett’s as the definitive biography of More. Chambers had an interest in More for over thirty years, and in that time had written numerous articles, lectures, and scholarly introductions such as that to the 1932 edition of Harpsfield’s biography. He also took an interest in More’s posthumous reputation – in 1937 give a lecture on ‘The place of Thomas More in English literature and history’.

For Chambers, More was ‘a man of whom the whole of England is proud’,(13) but Chambers felt that More had been insufficiently appreciated as a European and world figure. He was the first great vernacular English historian, the first great Utopian writer, a great Latin scholar, and a vital link between middle and modern English. In the index to the 1935 biography Chambers placed under More’s character a list of superlative qualities, the only mild indication of any personal flaw being ‘veracity not unimpeachable’, in regard to More’s admission in a letter to Erasmus that he was not above the occasional ‘fib’.

Chambers died in 1942, and CS Lewis wrote that with him ‘died so much that was sweetest and strongest in English scholarship’.(14) Chambers’ biography of More does have its charm, but it is difficult to always take it seriously, as when Chambers discusses an incident which More himself admitted when a disturbed man who was disrupting mass was flogged against a tree on More’s orders. Chambers pointed out that the man had been assaulting women as they received the sacrament, a detail concealed by later censorship. Nowadays, wrote Chambers, the culprit might have been imprisoned, so More had done him a favour by having ‘a sound thrashing administered’.(15) Overall, the work comes across as the product of a certain type of donnish early 20th century Englishman with a deep nostalgia for an organic England and an admiration for More on the grounds of his belief in authority and tradition – a romantic Toryism in the line of Jonathan Swift, Dr.Johnson, and Edmund Burke. The biography concentrates on the political rather than the theological and this is not surprising when one considers a curious fact about Chambers – he was not a Catholic, yet he reveals an oddly wistful attitude towards Catholicism – in the prologue he wrote that he sought to consider the meaning of More’s life and death to those not of the Catholic fold, and later reflected that though More’s blessing is reserved as of as right to Catholics, ‘the rest ofus can only have such blessings poor Esau claimed, who had lost his birthright’.(16)



The most famous of More’s writings has, since its publication in Latin in 1516, attracted the same diversity of commentary and opinion as More the man. In 1551 the first English translation was made by Ralph Robinson, and the Protestant context is evident in Robinson’s dedication to Lord Cecil, where Robinson regrets that a man of such wit and learning as More should have been blinded to God’s truth and persevered in obstinacy to his very death. The work also gave rise to a strand in the anecdotal tradition, so that, for example, John Aubrey’s implausible story of William Roper’s courtship is almost certainly derived from a passage about the Utopians showing all prospective husbands and wives naked to their intended.

During the sectarian controversies of the 16th and 17th centuries, the work’s enigmatic quality tended to make it be pushed into the background as a youthful prank, though Tyndale wrote that More’s religious arguments had as much truth as his Utopia and other fictions! With the rise of the ‘two More’s’ tradition, the apparently ‘universal natural religion’ of the Utopians became very appealing to the liberal Protestantism of 18th and 19th century Britain – indeed Bishop Burnet produced a new English translation in 1684. Such a view of the work, topical in the light of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, was still being presented by the historian ST Bindoff in his contribution on 16th century England to the Pelican History of England series in the 1950s. The ‘new Catholic’ school of Bridgett and Chambers, dealing with this ‘liberal’ view of More and of Utopian religion, pointed out that the ‘natural religion’ of the Utopians both has a place in Catholic tradition as a natural truth prior to revelation and acted as a motif to cast a critical light on contemporary European failings – the good pagans shaming Christians who do not live up to their ideals.

So Utopia has, over the centuries, been presented as a blueprint for conservative order, liberal tolerance, and socialist communitarianism, while modern scholarship has emphasised its complex and multi-layered quality as a constructive satire of More’s own society. In the end, one should remember that the title contains a word-play that Eutopia (‘Good place’, with Greek ‘Eu’ prefixed) is also ‘Utopia’ (‘No place’, with Latin ‘U’ prefixed), and that ‘Hythloday’, in Greek, may be rendered as ‘he who is expert in nonsense’.

Recent More scholarship

Thomas More was named as Patron Saint of Politicians in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. Many Catholic institutions and schools in modern Britain are named after him, and the ‘new Catholic’ tradition of interpretation of him is thus part of that high regard in which he is held by many British Catholics.

Since the 1970s, however, there has arisen a genre of new scholarship which looks again at More in a more critical light, but not just out of the old British Protestant prejudices. In 1982 appeared a rather shrill book by Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More, which tried to rehabilitate Wolsey as a great statesman and presented More as a fanatic who might have been a modern apologist for a Hitler or a Stalin. In North America, Richard Marius’ authoritative 1984 biography was more measured but still critical of the whole tradition represented by Chambers. A British work of 1982 by Alistair Fox suggests, plausibly in my view, that More’s feeling of deep personal guilt over passing up his true vocation as a religious as a young man might have lain at the root of later fury at heretics for further unsettling his world, but that he finally attained peace and serenity through what was in effect the penance of his imprisonment and martyrdom.

Whether or not More himself attained peace and serenity, what is clear is that no sympathetic study of him can avoid the fact that his single-minded devotion to Catholic truth as he saw it led in his case to a strain of unbalanced and at times vicious reaction to ‘unbelievers’, both in word and deed. More, for all his human qualities, stands as a warning of the dangers of trying to encapsulate the meaning of the world in a jealously guarded and compulsory single dogmatic system, a man-made ‘revelation’ seeking, as it were, to storm heaven and have God pinned down in the understanding.

The question remains of why there was a positive anecdotal tradition about More in a country with such a history of anti-Catholic feeling, given that he was not in any sense a ‘liberal’ Catholic, but an uncompromising absolutist of the faith? Maybe its origin is in a deep-rooted strand of English guilt and repressed trauma about the violent rupture in English history made by the Reformation? But that would be another talk.

Simon Farrow


Quoted in A Man for all Seasons: A Play of Sir Thomas More. notes by ERWood. (Heinemann Educational, 1960): facing 1.
Ibid. Act 2:71. Also Preface: vii-xix, and ‘People in the play’: xxiii-xxiv
Preface to EE Reynolds. The Field is won. The life & death of Saint Thomas More. (Burns & Oates, 1968).
Anthony Munday & others. Sir Thomas More (1593). [Vittorio Gabrieli & Giorgio Melchiori (eds.) The Revels Plays (Manchester UP, 1990). Introduction: 1-53].
William Camden, Remaines of a greater work, concerning Britain (1605): 222-223.
Introduction. Sir Thomas More (Gabrieli & Melchiori, eds.): 8.
Cresacre More. The life of Thomas More, by MTM (1631). (1642 edn. at Downside Abbey): 27.
The Life of Sir Thomas More; sometime Lord Chancellor of England by ‘Ro:Ba’ (1599). Prof. AW Reed (ed.) (Early English Text Society 1950) Appendix 1: 309.
David Daniell. William Tyndale: A Biography (Yale UP, 1994): 173.
Gilbert Burnet. History of the Reformation (1679). 1829 edn. book III. part I: 570.
Frederic Seebohm. The Oxford Reformers (1867). (Everyman edn. J.M Dent & Sons (n.d):92.
TE Bridgett. Life & Writings of Blessed Thomas More (1891). (Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd, London,1935) ed. preface: xii.
RW Chambers. Thomas More (Jonathan Cape, London 1935): 351.
CS Lewis. ‘English Literature in the 16th century: excluding drama.’ Oxford History of English Literature. (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1954, 1968 edn.). vol. III. note: 168.
Chambers: 276.
16. Chambers: 15, 374.