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The Life of Thomas More Paperback – November 9, 1999

4.6 out of 5 stars 56 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

According to Ackroyd (Blake; Hawksmoor), More "embodied the old order of hierarchy and authority at the very moment when it began to collapse all around him." Symbolizing that collapse was Henry VIII's defiance of the pope in the "great matter" of his much-desired divorce of Catherine of Aragon. Refusing to compromise with the break from Rome, More willed his own death. He dies well in Ackroyd's narrative, but he does not live a life as saintly as he leaves it, piously amassing wealth and power, piously writing philosophical works as ambiguous as Utopia and as scatological as Responsio, piously harassing religious reformers and smugly condemning them to the stake. As a biographer of More (the first since 1984), Ackroyd is also an effective novelist. He evokes late-medieval London in sight and in smell; sends More on his workaholic schedule of legal, political, diplomatic and courtly activities; exploits familial and hagiographic anecdotes for their story values; and repeats unscholarly untruths (as Luther's cloacal epiphanies) because fiction can be more colorful than fact. Only Henry VIII in Ackroyd's large cast fails to be realized in the round, but the king, recognizing More's loyal services, does "graciously" reduce his sentence from disemboweling to beheading. After an awkward, conditional start ("But it might be more fruitful to recognise... "/ "...but it might be worth rehearsing certain of its aspects... "/ "It has in the past been noticed... "), Ackroyd's clotted language metamorphoses into elegant English, and the nobility of More's demise will move readers who persist to the end. 27 b&w illustrations not seen by PW. BOMC, History Book Club and QPB selections.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More from Peter Ackroyd
Peter Ackroyd combines readable narrative and unique observations with a sharp eye for the most fascinating facts of history. Visit Amazon's Peter Ackroyd Page.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (November 9, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385496931
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385496933
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #275,911 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on July 20, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a first-rate biography of the sainted Thomas More. Ackroyd's goals in this biography are to present a non-anachronistic depiction of More, and through his portrait of More, to give readers a sense of the late Medieval world destroyed by the Reformation and the emergence of nation-states. Ackroyd presents More as a man exemplifying the late Medieval ethos. Deeply religous, highly intelligent, and well educated, More existed with a profound sense of human fallibility and saw all aspects of his world as manifestations of a divine order. The world as the body of Christ, a metaphor to which Ackroyd returns repeatedly, is a recurring theme. The temporal world is transient and a necessary preparation for the eternal and in a crucial sense, less real than the eternal world of Christian teachings. This world is bound by custom and inherited legal and religous traditions, hierarchial and paternalistic in its structure of authority, and deeply enmeshed in rituals that mirror the structure of divine authority. More was not, however, a reactionary except when the radicalism of the Lutherans pushed him to stringent and violent acts needed to defend the integrity of his perception of the Christian world. A prominent member of the Northern European Humanist movement, More was dedicated to the recovery of a renovated faith based on a new reading of the Patristic fathers, attention to classical, particularly Greek neoplatonic authors, and disdain for complex scholastic theology. He and his fellow Humanists hoped for reformation of the Church without abandoning the unity of Christendom, the apparatus of ritual and hierarchy that defined so much of their lives, and the primacy of papal authority.
Ackroyd's efforts to present More and the late medieval ethos are very successful.
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Format: Hardcover
Gosh, golly gee, crikey - the superlatives could go on all day. This is a superb, densely textured biography. Ackroyd revels in the complex psychology and sociology of his subject, e.g., his devotion to duty, his father fixation, etc. He also places Thomas More firmly in the London of his time and in his historical moment - the Reformation - especially through More's own writings.

It has been remarked that the chapters amount to a series of vignettes. That's true, and the amount of knowledge retailed in each glimpse of More and his world is staggering.

To give but a few examples:
Chap. 3 - St. Anthony's Pigs: we follow young More through the streets of Tudor London to his school and get insight into the Renaissance education system.

Ch 4 - Cough Not, Nor Spit: Thomas' early career as a page to Archbishop (of Canterbury) Morton, Henry VII's notorious "enforcer". This relationship illuminates More's later dealings with Cardinal Wolsey.

Ch 8 - We Talk Of Letters: sketches of Grocyn, Linacre, Lily, Colet, More - the "London humanists", or More's intellectual circle.

And so on. The book continues in the same fascinating vein. It is a hard slog to read, and I'm sorry that Peter Ackroyd did not give a glossary of A) Latin and Greek expressions, and B) even some of his more obscure English words. I also regret that there's no map to illustrate Ackroyd's loving depiction of the London where More learned, lived, worked and suffered.

More's story is well known and often told. Ackroyd has given a fully-rounded portrayal of the man, his background, career, family and friends.

What a pleasure to read.
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Format: Paperback
My interest in Thomas More began when I learned that he was the Patron Saint of Lawyers, when I as about to graduate from law school. This book seemed to be the most realistic and comprehensive work on the life of Thomas More. Naturally, many of the works devoted to him are much more spiritual or political in nature. Peter Ackroyd, however, covers it all. His discussion of More's childhood and family life provide insights into his political career and spirtuality.
At first glance, the contrast between More's "worldly" political career and his deep, sincere spirituality might seem jarring to contemporary eyes. Ackroyd deftly points out, though, that for More's contemporaries, there really isn't a contrast. Religion, politics, and social hierarchy were all part of the same system -- to a point. The Life of Thomas More shows that, given the right elements (e.g., Henry the Eighth on the throne, the Protestant Reformation in full swing, More's own faith), religion and politics can (and will) clash violently.
Ackroyd's writing is, quite simply, wonderful. While the material can be quite dense, Ackroyd's prose keeps you moving swiftly through the book. Although the book is certainly well-researched and up to anyone's standards of scholarship, Ackroyd's tone is not at all distant.
On a more personal note, I found Thomas More's strength and faith to be very inspiring. While few of us will become martyrs to our faith or wear a hairshirt, Thomas More's life shows that strength of character and strong faith require a lot of work, but are valuable attributes in a complicated world.
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Format: Paperback
Peter Ackroyd has written a superb biography of this great figure Renaissance England, and Catholic history. His depiction of the sheer geogprahy of More's London world is so real that it served as guide for this reviewer on a visit to London who could trace More's steps, copy in hand. Ackroyd puts the humanist scholar, statesman, and saint in his own context and avoids the all too common trap of trying to "read" More against our own post-Christian secular world, where heresy is a "virtue", rather than a threat to the stability of an entire social and spiritual order. The only complaint this reviewer has is that Ackroyd has chosen to quote More's English works in their original spelling and grammar. This at times approximates reading a foreign language. It is this reviewer's opinion that he would have done better to use a more modern English, as his translations of More's Latin works are clear and eminently readable. All in all, however, a superb book !
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