Thomas More: A Very Brief History

by John Guy, SPCK, £12.99

This a lively and learned little book, but I do not quite understand what it is trying to do. It consists of a 40-odd page potted biography of More, which is very well done but covers mostly familiar ground, and a further 40-odd pages of essays (four of them) on various ways in which More and his writings have been treated down the centuries since his martyrdom. But the two halves really do not cohere. And placing eight pages of full-colour illustrations between them only increases the incoherence.

Those four essays include an intriguing account of how the famous wall-hanging by Holbein depicting More and his family was copied and “edited” over the ages. Another tells the inside story of how the canonisation of More and Fisher was eventually achieved in 1935 – even though neither had certified miracles to their credit (as a wit observed, they were “excused their practicals”).

And then there is a piece on how More’s reputation, at its height thanks to Robert Bolt’s play and then film, A Man for all Seasons, has recently been savaged by Hilary Mantel’s bitter Wolf Hall – though it was surely RW Chambers’s life of More, first published in 1935, which truly made him a national figure, and Geoffrey Elton in the 1960s who first tried to debunk him (attributing his hair shirt, etc and persecution of heretics to repressed sexuality).

More was a complex, sophisticated person. Nothing shows this better than his most famous work, Utopia, about which Guy has many interesting things to say. But we cannot fully understand that extraordinary book unless we grasp what was fundamental to its author: a profound belief in human sinfulness. Like Fisher, but so unlike their cheerful friend Erasmus, More was an Augustinian through and through.

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