writes about St. Thomas More and a new biography, which I've mentioned before, The One Thomas More and takes issue with Hilary Mantel's view of the saint in her Wolf Hall:
Critics of More are not new. His detractors had a voice well before his beheading. As Henry VIII’s chancellor, he earned a reputation as a hammer of heretics and a fierce opponent of Martin Luther and William Tyndale. Yet Erasmus of Rotterdam revered More as a scholar and friend. Jonathan Swift, the great Anglo-Irish writer, described him as “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom [of England] ever produced.” When Pope John Paul II named Thomas More as patron saint of statesmen in 2000, he cited More’s witness to the “primacy of truth over power” at the cost of his life. He noted that even outside the Church, More “is acknowledged as a source of inspiration for a political system which has as its supreme goal the service of the human person.”
Ten years later, speaking to leaders of British society in Westminster Hall, Pope Benedict XVI returned to the same theme. Benedict noted that More “is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first.”
So which is it: More the saint or More the sinner? Was he the ruthless, sexually repressed rage addict suggested by historians like G.R. Elton, fearful of change and driven by helpless fury? Or was he the humble and generous “man for all seasons” praised by his friend Robert Whittinton and so many others among his contemporaries? Were there really two Thomas Mores: the young, open-minded humanist, and the older royal courtier, gripped by religious fanaticism?
The moral integrity of More’s life has been argued with persuasive skill in the various works of Gerard Wegemer, among many others. And Peter Ackroyd’s fine biography, The Life of Thomas More, vividly captures the whole extraordinary man—his virtues, his flaws, and the decisive nature of his moment in history. Travis Curtright has now added to the luster of the real More’s legacy with his excellent new book The One Thomas More.
Bickering over the “real” Thomas More has importance beyond the scholarly community. Why? Because just as the nutty premises of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code confused millions by reinventing the backstory of Christian belief, so too the novel Wolf Hall offers a revisionist Thomas More wrapped in popular melodrama. The author, Hilary Mantel, a lapsed Catholic whose disgust for the Church is a matter of public record*, drew her portrait of More in part from the work of Elton. The “hero” of her novel is Thomas Cromwell—More’s tormentor, and in reality, a man widely loathed by his contemporaries as an administratively gifted but scheming and vindictive bully. Unlike the widespread European shock that greeted More’s judicial murder, few wept for Cromwell when he finally followed More to the scaffold.
The One Thomas More is not a book for beachside browsing. While it’s well-written, modest in size and rich in content, it is a scholarly effort. Some casual readers may find it heavier than they bargained for. But as a resource on Thomas More, it’s invaluable. Curtright’s final chapter, “Iconic Mores on Trial,” has special importance. It directly challenges Mantel’s loose treatment of facts, for which it deserves wide circulation.
*In May 2012, Ms. Mantel proclaimed, "I think that nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people." When has it ever been for respectable people? It's for sinners and saints, now and through the ages--she should remember who Jesus ate with and who thought it wasn't "respectable"--ridiculously ignorant statement.