The Life of Thomas More
Peter Ackroyd’s The Life of Thomas More is a reconstruction of the life and imagination of one of the most remarkable figures of history—and arguably the most brilliant lawyer the English-speaking world has ever known. Thomas More was a renowned statesman, the author of a political fantasy that gave a name to a literary genre and a worldview (Utopia), and, most famously, a Catholic martyr and saint, who was beheaded when he refused to follow his sovereign, King Henry VIII, in severing England’s ties from the Catholic Church. Ackroyd shows dramatically how the clouds of Reformation that swarmed over the European continent unleashed the storm of the early modern period that swept away More’s world and took his life. He clarifies the whirl of dynastic, religious, and mercantile politics that brought the autocratic Henry VIII and the devout More into their fateful conflict. And he narrates the unrelenting drama of More’s final days—his detention, trial, and execution—with a novelist’s mastery of suspense.
The Life of Thomas More is Peter Ackroyd’s biography—from baptism to beheading—of the lawyer who became a saint. More, a noted humanist whose friendship with Erasmus and authorship of Utopia earned him great fame in Europe, succeeded Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor of London at the time of the English Reformation. In 1535, More was martyred for his refusal to support Henry VIII’s divorce and break with Rome. Ackroyd’s biography is a masterpiece in several senses. Perhaps most importantly, he corrects the mistaken impression that Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons has given two generations of theater and film audiences: More was not, as Bolt’s drama would have us believe, a civil disobedient who put his conscience above the law. Ackroyd explains that “conscience was not for More an individual matter.” Instead, it was derived from “the laws of God and of reason.” If the greatest justice in this book is analytic, however, its greatest joys are descriptive. Ackroyd brings 16th-century London to life for his readers—an exotic world where all of life is enveloped by the church: “As the young More made his way along the lanes and thoroughfares, there was the continual sound of bells.”—Michael Joseph Gross
Peter Ackroyd is the quintessential London writer. His wonderful biography of Dickens was lit not only by his love and understanding of the writer, but also of the city which Dickens made his own. Recent novels such as The House of Doctor Dee and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem may have taken liberties with historical fact, but their London is a fascinating, pulsating place, more their true protagonist than their eponymous heroes.
Thomas More is a prime candidate for the London treatment. Born in the city, with a life of official city duties at a time when London was highly distinct from Westminster and the court, he imbued his writings (especially Richard III and his print debate with Tyndale) with a real sense of London’s uniqueness. Ackroyd’s treatment is thus both apposite and, of course, highly readable. He possesses a real gift for making dry history come alive with telling detail and vivid swathes of local colour. But while the new angle might imply a new understanding of the man, ultimately, the picture is overly familiar. Ackroyd’s More comes out looking very much like Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons More—a hinge between dark medievalism and modern secular conscience. Only this time he has an inner London postcode.—Alan Stewart
Barnes and Noble
In The Life of Thomas More, acclaimed author Peter Ackroyd tackles the familiar story of the man for all seasons and manages to shed new light on a life that has been the focus of scholars and historians for more than four centuries.