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The Life of Thomas More [Hardcover]

Peter Ackroyd
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews 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

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.

From Library Journal

Prizewinning biographer/novelist Ackroyd reconstructs the life of Henry VIII's famed adversary.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The Catholic Church made Thomas More a saint. Ackroyd makes him a man--with all the paradoxes, ironies, and complexities that mortality entails. Not that he impugns More's faith. Far from it. By showing that More was no angel but fully human--tempted by sexual pleasure, amused by earthy jests, moved by political ambitions, and prey to common fears--Ackroyd makes the miracle of More's martyrdom all the more incandescent. Ackroyd unfolds the fabric of More's life, from baptism to beheading, as a Renaissance tapestry, richly colored, intricately woven. First, we see the strictly hierarchal London society into which More was born, close enough to the seats of power to hope for high appointment yet not wholly separated from the thieves, charlatans, and whores he came to know well through his work with the sheriff's court. Nearer the center of the tapestry we see the humanist scholar Erasmus, with whom More shared an enthusiasm for the New Learning; the Protestant iconoclast Martin Luther, against whom More hurled the fiercest invectives; the comic dramatist John Heywood, in whose facetious mirth More delighted; the adroit Cardinal Wolsey, whose fall from grace brought More to office as the lord chancellor; and, finally, the imperious monarch Henry VIII, to whom More pledged everything--except his soul. And it is between Henry and More that Ackroyd slowly tightens the threads of an unequal tug-of-war, as Henry demands and More refuses to give complete submission to the king as the head of a new national church that will grant an expedient divorce. In the harrowing denouement in which More kisses and blesses his executioner, even the jaded cynic will glimpse something rare. An indispensable acquisition for any library. Bryce Christensen

From Kirkus Reviews

A vividly evocative portrait of the lawyer and statesman who was ``the King's good servant, but God's first,'' from award- winning biographer and novelist Ackroyd (Blake, 1996; T.S. Eliot, 1984; etc.) Thomas More was born in 1479 in Milk Street, in what is now the center of Londons financial district, to Agnes and John More, a tradesman-turned-lawyer. Thomas would be one of the great intellects of his time, and Ackroyd gives particular attention to young More's rare and prolonged education: his apprenticeship at the court of the learned Archbishop and Chancellor John Morton of Canterbury, his grounding in the liberal arts at Oxford University, and his legal education at New Inn and Lincoln's Inn. More's upbringing and education, Ackroyd shows, left their permanent imprint upon him: His extensive training in dialectical logic served him well at the bar and on the bench, his time with Archbishop Morton made him familiar with the world of prelates and statecraft, and his Latin and literary training fitted him for his career as a humanist. Ackroyd vibrantly evokes the devout London in which More lived, where even successful lawyers meditated on life's transience and participated in endless rounds of prayer and ritual. He also gives an intimate picture of More's affectionate relations with his family and tells the familiar story of More's rise to favor in the court of Henry VIII, his friendship with Erasmus, his tenure as lord chancellor, and his fall from grace as the crisis of the king's divorce of Catherine of Aragon worsened. Ultimately, More's constancy to his church outweighed his obeisance to the king: Ackroyd gives what amounts to a transcript of the trial in which More refused to endorse Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, and narrates his imprisonment in the Tower of London and execution in 1535. A limpidly written and superbly wrought portrait of a complex hero who was truly, as his friend Erasmus stated, ``omnium horarum homo''a ``man for all seasons.'' (8 pages color, 8 pages black-and-white illustrations) (Book-of-the-Month Club/Quality Paperback Book Club/ History Book Club selection) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.


...a sensitive, well-informed work that will be of value to anyone seeking a deeper knowledge of More's personal history. -- The Wall Street Journal, Perez Zagorin

This is the fist biography of More to have absorbed the small revolution in Reformation scholarship of the last 20 years... -- The New York Times Book Review, Andrew Sullivan

From the Publisher

"Vibrant...inspired...Ackroyd successfully delineates the vast complexity of More's faith...[and] persuasively argues that...More was also more than a saint. He was a believing ironist and a politician who chose death over the splitting of legalisms. Less a man for all seasons, perhaps, than a tonic for ours."
--Andrew Sullivan, New York Times Book Review

From the Inside Flap

Peter Ackroyd's The Life of Thomas More is a magnificent reconstruction of the life and imagination of one of the most remarkable figures of history. Thomas More was a renowned statesman, the author of a political fantasy that gave a name to a genre and a worldview (Utopia), and, most famously, a Catholic martyr, who paid with his life when he refused to follow his sovereign, King Henry VIII, in severing England's ties with the Catholic Church.

Born into the professional classes, Thomas More (1478-1535) rose by dint of formidable intellect and well-placed connections to become the most powerful man in England after the king. An exponent of what was called in his day "the mixed life," More combined medieval piety with worldly mastery of legal argument and the art of negotiation. Ackroyd dramatically shows how the clouds of Lutheran reformation that swarmed over the 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.

In Ackroyd's hands, this renowned "man for all seasons" emerges in the fullness of his complex humanity; we see the unexpected side of his character (a preference for bawdy humor) as well as his indisputable moral courage. Acclaimed for his magisterial biographies (T. S. Eliot, Dickens, Blake), Peter Ackroyd has once again scored a triumph.

About the Author

Peter Ackroyd is a bestselling writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His most recent books include the biographies Dickens, Blake, and Thomas More and the novels The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, Milton in America, and The Plato Papers. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature’s William Heinemann Award (jointly), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and The Guardian fiction prize. He lives in London. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

This Dark World

The infant was taken, within a week of its birth, to the precincts of the church; the child of wrath must be reformed into the image of God, 'the servant of the fiend' made into 'a son of joy'. At the church-door the priest asked the midwife if the child were male or female, and then made a sign of the cross on the infant's forehead, breast and right hand. He placed some salt in the baby's mouth according to custom; then the priest exorcised the devil from its body with a number of prayers, and pronounced baptism as the sole means 'to obtain eternal grace by spiritual regeneration'. The priest spat in his left hand and touched the ears and nose of the child with his saliva. Let the nose be open to the odour of sweetness. It was time to enter the church itself, the priest taking the right hand of the new-born child who had with the salt and saliva been granted the station of a catechumen.

The litanies of the saints were pronounced over the baptismal font; the priest then divided the water with his right hand and cast it in the four directions of the cross. He breathed three rimes upon it and then spilled wax in a cruciform pattern. He divided the holy water with a candle, before returning the taper to the cleric beside him. Oil and chrism were added, with a long rod or spoon, and the child could now be baptised. Thomas More, what seekest thou? The sponsors replied for the infant, Baptism. Dost thou wish to be baptised? I wish. The child was given to the priest, who immersed him three times in the water. He was then anointed with chrism and wrapped in a chrismal robe. Thomas More, receive a white robe, holy and unstained, which thou must bring before the tribunal of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that thou mayest have eternal life and live for ever and ever. The candle was lit and placed in the child's right hand, thus inaugurating a journey through this dark world which ended when, during the last rites, a candle was placed in the right hand of the dying man with the prayer, 'The Lord is my Light and my Salvation, whom shall I fear?' Whom shall this particular child fear, when it was believed by the Church that the whole truth and meaning of baptism was achieved in the act of martyrdom? 'Baptism and suffering for the sake of Christ', according to a second-century bishop, are the two acts which bring full 'remission of sins'.

It was considered best to baptise the child on the same day as its birth, if such haste were practicable, since an infant unbaptised would be consigned to limbo after its death. To leave this world in a state of original sin was to take a course to that eternal dwelling, Limbus puerorum, suspended between heaven, hell and purgatory. There the little unbaptised souls would dwell in happy ignorance beside the more formidable and haunting Limbus patrum, which contained the souls of Noah, Moses and Isaiah together with (in Dante's epic) Virgil, Aristotle, Socrates and all the good men who lived on earth before the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Adam had already been dragged from this place at the time of Christ's crucifixion, but there was continual debate within the Church about the consequences of denying new-born children the eternal comfort of paradise. Could a child be saved by the desire, the votum, of its parents? Thomas More himself would eventually concede only that 'those infantes be dampned onely to the payne of losse of heauen'.

In various late medieval pictures of baptism, in manuscripts and devotional manuals, the priest stands with his surplice and stole beside the font. Sometimes he seems to be balancing the infant in the palm of his hand, yet the child is so unnaturally large and alert for such an early stage in its life that we can only assume it acquired mental consciousness with its spiritual renovation. A clerk with a surplice stands behind the priest, while two sponsors and the child's father are generally seen beside the font. In some depictions of this first of the seven sacraments, an image of the dying Christ hangs behind the human scene. But the mother was rarely, if ever, present.

In the more pious households, she would have worn a girdle made out of manuscript prayer rolls in the last stages of her pregnancy, and it was customary in labour to invoke the name of St Margaret as well as the Blessed Virgin. She remained secluded after giving birth, and two or three weeks later was led out to be 'churched' or purified. When she was taken to the church, her head was covered by a handkerchief, as a veil, and she was advised not to look up at the sun or the sky. She knelt in the church while the priest blessed her and assured her, in the words of Psalm 121, that 'the sun shall not burn her by day, nor the moon by night. It was a ceremony both to celebrate the birth of the child and to give thanks for the survival of the mother. This is the late fifteenth-century world into which Thomas More was baptised. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From AudioFile

The esteemed Ackroyd is both novelist (CHATTERTON, THE TRIAL OF ELIZABETH CREE) and literary biographer (of Blake and T.S. Eliot); but those expecting a dramatic retelling of THE MAN FOR ALL SEASONS will need to bide their time here. Before reaching the famous clash between More and Henry VIII, Ackroyd first places More in the rich context of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This "Life and Times," as it would more accurately be titled, was written for the general reader, but not for one whose primary interest is Tudor matrimonial politics. Davidson's donnish reading accentuates Ackroyd's erudition and dry wit, but also serves to convey the underlying tension between intellectual ferment and abiding tradition that is the true drama in this story. D.A.W. (c) AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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