Monday, June 25, 2012

St. Thomas More and Torture

Wolf Hall, the first volume in Hilary Mantel's trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell casts St. Thomas More in an unflattering light, one that reviewers might be relishing. The Mirror of Justice blog posted this discussion on whether Chancellor More, in the process of enforcing England's heresy laws, used torture:

This past Sunday's NY Times Book Review includes a review of Bring Up the Bodies, the much-anticipated sequel to Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall about Henry VIII and his court. The hero, of sorts, in Mantel's novels about the period is Thomas Cromwell, whom Mantel sets off against Thomas More (depicted in Wolf Hall as an eager torturer of Protestants). The reviewer, Charles McGrath (former editor of the Book Review), writes: "In Mantel’s version, More is no saint, as he almost certainly was not in real life: he’s fussily pious, stiff-­necked and unnaturally fond of torturing heretics."

Let me be clear: Thomas More generally shared in the prejudices of his age and was complicit in practices (most especially the use of state coercion with regard to religious belief) that we would today regard as morally odious. That's just to say that he lived in the early sixteenth century and not the early twenty-first century, and we could have a lively discussion about how the Catholic Church should assess the sanctity of people with the benefit of historical and moral hindsight.

And Michael Moreland, the author of the post, goes on:

But a couple of further observations about the review:

1. McGrath's statement (characterizing Mantel's view) that More was "fussily pious" and "stiff-necked" is open to debate based on the contemporaneous accounts of More, though I'd simply make the point for now that More's canonization in 1935 was largely based on the manner of his death--the fact that More (alongside John Fisher and later joined by the 1970 canonization of 40 martyrs and the 1987 beatification of 85 martyrs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England) suffered martyrdom for the Catholic faith rather than acquiescing to Henry VIII's assertion of power over the Church in England.

2. It's another thing altogether to make the slanderous claim that More was "unnaturally fond of torturing heretics," for the scholarly consensus is that there is no historical evidence that More engaged in torture. As summarized by John Guy in The Public Career of Sir Thomas More (Yale, 1980), "Serious analysis precludes the repetition of protestant stories that Sir Thomas flogged heretics against a tree in his garden at Chelsea. It must exclude, too, the accusations of illegal imprisonment made against More by John Field and Thomas Phillips. Much vaunted by J.A. Froude, such charges are unsupported by independent proof. More indeed answered them in his Apology with emphatic denial. None has ever been substantiated, and we may hope that they were all untrue" (165-66). See also G.R. Elton, Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government, Papers and Reviews 1946-1972, Volume 1, 158 ("It is necessary to be very clear about More's reaction to the changes in religion which he saw all around him. No doubt, the more scurrilous stories of his personal ill-treatment of accused heretics have been properly buried, but that is not to make him into a tolerant liberal.").

I posted the following comment about the charge that St. Thomas More was "fussily pious" and "stiff-necked", which I find ridiculous, given the "contemporaneous accounts of More's life" with the examples of his humor, charity, and friendship that even detractors have to acknowledge. I'd also have to say that the comments about St. Thomas More in a review about a book in which he does not appear are rather gratuitous. The reviewer just wants to attack More since More is the patron saint of conscience, politicians and statesmen:

Beyond the issue of St. Thomas More and the persecution of heretics, how can a man be called "fussily pious" and "stiff-necked" who expresses the hope that he and his judges will meet merrily in Heaven?--"More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation."

Desiderius Erasmus, who could not abide fussy piety, would certainly disagree with Mantel's characterization of "More"--"Friendship he seems born and designed for; no one is more open-hearted in making friends or more tenacious in keeping them, nor has he any fear of that plethora of friendships against which Hesiod warns us.... Nobody is less swayed by public opinion, and yet nobody is closer to the feelings of ordinary men."


  1. Thank you--and thanks for the link @ Tea at Trianon!

  2. I was struck by how the Beebs recent dramatising of Mores objection the schism focused on Real and Sex Politik. O tempora, o mores.