Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Birthday to Thomas More

Thomas More was born in London on February 7, 1478; he was educated at St. Anthony's School and then lived in the household of John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England from 1490-1492. Archbishop Morton arranged for his admittance to Canterbury College at the University of Oxford, where More studied classicial literature. He was a pupil of Linacre and Grocyn, but left Oxford after only two years in 1494 because his father, successful lawyer Sir John More wanted him to study law and become a lawyer.

He studied law at the Inns of Chancery and the Inns of Court and was called to the bar in 1502. From 1503 to 1504 More lived near the Carthusian Charterhouse outside the walls of London. According to Erasmus, he even thought of becoming a monk.

In 1505, Thomas More married Jane Colt and again, Erasmus is our source for the detail that More began to teach his young wife about music and literature. They had four children--three girls and one boy: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecily, and John. Just as he cared for his wife's education, More made sure that his daughters were well-educated. John Guy wrote a great study of Thomas More's special relationship with his daughter Margaret (Meg), A Daughter's Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg, which I reviewed in 2009 on amazon.com:

There have been attempts to besmirch the reputation of Sir (Saint) Thomas More--unsubstantiated and denied rumors of torture, inflated numbers of executions for heresy under this administration as Chancellor, and emphasis on the more colorful language in his polemics against Luther and Tyndale. All are cited as unworthy of a canonized saint, either reflecting confusion about historical accuracy or what it means to be a saint.

In this book, John Guy describes the relationship between Thomas More and his dearest daughter, Margaret Roper. It is a loving relationship, demonstrating the richness of character and integrity of both father and daughter. Guy highlights Thomas More's progressive educational program for all his children, including his daughters, uncommon at the time, with the highest standards of contemporary humanism. Erasmus of Rotterdam found in Margaret More Roper a critical and discerning reader who could appreciate his efforts and correct his Latin.

Crucially, John Guy emphasizes that Thomas More had completely integrated the sacred and the secular in his way of life and yet steadfastly kept the public and the private aspects of his life separate. When he was with his family, or when he wrote to them when he was away from them, he did not discuss the efforts, burdens or issues of his working life, as lawyer, member of Parliament, ambassador, or Chancellor. It was only when he knew that public life was going to intrude violently and with deadly force on his private life that he gave his family a sign of what was to come: a brutal knock at the door, interrupting the family gathered at meal and a preemptory summons to answer charges of treason.

Also crucially, Guy highlights the ferocious will to power of Henry VIII once he knew what he wanted and experienced the satisfaction of obtaining it. Henry was then insatiable and only those who bowed utterly to his desire could hope to survive, and even they faced the danger of his changing mood and will. Thomas More tried to warn Thomas Cromwell (as depicted in the film "Anne of the Thousand Days") never to let the king focus on what he could do, but only on what he should do. More followed his own advice and was executed; Cromwell did not follow that advice and was still executed.

Margaret was one of the few who knew her father wore a hair shirt; she would thus be the only one who knew how to sustain him during his imprisonment in the Tower, engaging him with both intellectual diversion and prayer. She would be his champion after his execution, rescuing his head from its place in the row of traitors and preserving all his works, including the letters and treatises he wrote in the Tower, so that they could be published during the reign of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon's surviving child and the first Queen Regnant of England, Ireland and Wales.

A sad and final irony I gained from the story of this relationship was an inkling of what might have been: if Henry VIII could have had the same respect and love for his daughter Mary, he could have fulfilled his early promise as a Renaissance prince. If Henry had seen Mary as the gift she was, with her intellect, her musical talent, and the same desire that Margaret had to please her father, what might have been? But then, we might not have the works Thomas More wrote in the Tower, when he put polemics aside and contemplated Jesus in His Passion, the soul facing comfort and tribulation, and that loving last letter to Margaret, praising her for her demonstration of love as he returned to the Tower of London after his trial.

John Guy has given us the great gift of this book, clarifying many aspects of Thomas More's life, including his relationships with his second wife Alice and his great friend Erasmus, who both sadly abandoned him when he faced the trials of the Tower. The supporting materials (illustrations, family trees, and bibliography) are great.

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