The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
Judging by the media coverage, the BBC dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant reimagining of the court of Henry VIII has unleashed a wave of Tudor frenzy. Great fiction based in fact, Wolf Hall seems set to shape a generation’s perception of what really happened in the most formative age in English history.
For admirers of St Thomas More this could be bad news. More’s reputation for humanity and integrity survived his execution for high treason, and even England’s repudiation of the Catholic faith for which he died.
Two generations on, Shakespeare collaborated in Sir Thomas More, a play portraying a man who embodies good humour, good sense, decency and justice. There was a stream of admiring biographies, above all the eyewitness memoir by his son-in-law William Roper, the ultimate source for Robert Bolt’s play and film A Man for All Seasons.
We know More better than almost anyone else in Tudor England. We are familiar with his eloquence, learning and often risqué humour, his legal reforms and judicial integrity, and his sardonic realism about the snake-pit of Tudor politics. Roper’s words and Holbein’s paintings open windows into More’s household at Chelsea, full of laughter, music and exotic pets, where girls were treated as equal to boys and taught Greek and Latin to a standard that would shame any modern undergraduate.
But More’s reputation has fallen on hard times. For centuries, he was an icon of innocent suffering for conscience’s sake; more recently, he has been represented as a hypocrite, a bigot and a persecutor. The More of Wolf Hall is the latest and most powerful example of this reversal. Mantel’s character is More as he was perceived by his enemies – a joyless puritan, a man whose social charm but cruel humour masked a steely religious bigotry. He is a sneering misogynist who enjoys humiliating the women in his household. Above all, he is a religious fanatic, flogging himself in a fear-driven piety, obsessively writing vitriolic and obscene polemical books, implacably hunting down defenceless Protestants, imprisoning and torturing them in his own cellars.
Far from being the innocent victim of a cruel regime, this More is a calculating political schemer, treated better than he deserved. After More’s arrest, Thomas Audley, the contemptible climber who succeeded More as Lord Chancellor and pronounced the death sentence on him, tells him: “We spare you the methods that you used on others.”
One of the avowed motives of Wolf Hall was to correct the idealised picture of A Man for All Seasons. In this unforgettable but misleading portrait, More featured as an icon for twentieth-century liberals, defending the rights of the individual against a coercive society. Bolt projected on to his hero opinions More would have indignantly repudiated; Mantel’s starker portrait has sixteenth-century warrant, and far greater plausibility.
For it is perfectly true that as a Crown agent, and then as Lord Chancellor, More did pursue heretics. He never presided at a heresy trial (no layman could) and he never condemned anyone to death for their religious beliefs. In his autobiographical Apology, he refuted the charges of torture and maltreatment of suspects that Wolf Hall reports, accusations that, through John Foxe’s hostile elaboration in his Elizabethan propaganda work, Actes and Monuments, nevertheless persisted down the centuries.
In an age when all but one of the bishops had perjured themselves by signing up to the Royal Supremacy, More died rather than swear an oath he did not believe. We can therefore trust his solemn insistence that no one in his custody for heresy had ever suffered “so much as a flip on the forehead”, much less been tortured. Yet in the 1520s, he was undoubtedly the most active agent in Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey’s campaign against heresy. In collaboration with the gentle humanist Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, More led a series of nocturnal raids on London houses and warehouses in search of forbidden Lutheran books and, as was routine in that age, he imprisoned and interrogated suspects in his house in Chelsea.
In the early 1530s, he wrote thousands of pages of ferocious polemic against the Reformation, defending the execution of stubborn heretics in language whose violence can make even the most ardent admirer quail. Heretics at the stake, he insisted, were “the devil’s stinking martyrs”, not men of conscience but “mischievous persons” driven by “desire of a large liberty to an unbridled lewdness”. He insisted that unrepentant heretics were “well burnt” and went “straight from the temporal fire to the eternal”.
In the age of Islamic State and al-Qaeda, we are deeply suspicious of anyone who thinks God wants us to kill other people, whatever the motive. But More’s world was not our world. By the standards of his age, he was a compassionate and just man. But he never questioned a legal system that imposed the death penalty not only for heresy or murder, but even for quite minor thefts. And like most of his contemporaries, he believed that heresy was a kind of spiritual murder.
He viewed the preaching of heresy as we do the peddling of hard drugs, a moral cancer that ruined lives, corrupted the young, dissolved the bonds of truth and morality, and undermined the fabric of Christian society. He was horrified by the religious wars tearing Europe apart in the 1520s, shattering the vision of Christian harmony that he and Erasmus had promoted in their writings. Like Erasmus, More blamed those wars on Luther and his followers, and he feared that the spread of Protestantism would wreak the same havoc in England.
He believed he had a duty to persuade, coax and, if necessary, coerce heretics to abandon their beliefs – or at least to stay silent about them. A man must indeed follow his conscience. But if a misguided conscience led him to propagate evil opinions, he must either repudiate those errors when they were pointed out to him, or take the consequences.
Several recent biographers have found the apparent contradiction between the genial humanist and saint of tradition, and the implacable opponent of heresy, impossible to resolve. So they have cut the Gordian knot, rejecting as pious fiction the testimony of Erasmus and of More’s sixteenth-century biographers that he was as attractive as he was brilliant, and substituting instead the portrait of an unreconstructed bigot and sadist, in the words of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, “a blood-soaked hypocrite”.
But the portrait that emerges is too dark. It is impossible to imagine the sour-faced More played by Anton Lesser stepping in among the Christmas players at Cardinal Morton’s court – as the young More did – to improvise his own hilarious role; or writing the 100 “merry tales” that light up even the most serious of his English works; or cracking the last great joke of all, as he climbed the rickety scaffold to his death: “I pray you, Master Lieutenant, see me safely up, and as for my coming down, you may leave me to shift for myself.”
More was neither blood-soaked nor a hypocrite, but he was a man of his times, not of ours. In the spring of 1535, while he languished in the Tower, William Tyndale was arrested in Brussels. A year later, Tyndale was strangled and burned as a heretic.
More and Tyndale were old and bitter enemies. But like More, Tyndale was a man consumed by passion for the truth, and a scholar and translator of transcendent genius. Most of what we admire in the magnificent language of the King James Bible goes back to him. More too believed the Bible should be available in English. But Tyndale taught that the Pope was Antichrist and the Catholic Church a Satanic conspiracy against God’s work. More thought Tyndale’s Bible would poison the wells and corrupt the hearts and minds of innocent Christians.
Yet the two men, so deeply divided in religion, were united in the conviction that truth was worth dying for. Both believed that society must be rooted in truth, and that God’s truth had to be defended against brute power and political expediency – even if it cost the defender their liberty and their lives.
Tyndale’s vitriolic hatred of the papacy now seems unbalanced, just as More’s rejection of Tyndale’s sublime biblical work seems blinkered. They died for opposing understandings of the Gospel. But both died as witnesses that truth mattered, that in a truly human society both law and liberty must be rooted in something deeper, more objective and more enduring than personal preference, political expediency or naked power. Neither would have looked to Cromwell for a soul-mate.
Eamon Duffy is professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge and the author of The Stripping of the Altars.