Thomas More's Christian faith was inseparable from all other aspects of his life. All of his public achievements a brilliant career as a lawyer, administrator, diplomat, and writer as well as his exemplary private life were linked with his understanding of the authority of the Church and the primacy of the pope. Early in the 16th century, More was part of the larger European community of scholars, associated with the new humanism, and a close friend of Erasmus. But with the writings and actions of Martin Luther and others much closer to him in England, the secure foundations of the world More had know began to collapse around him. Among other actions, he ordered heretics to be burned at the stake. In the face of Henry VIII's challenge tot he authority of the established religious order, More remained steadfast and died a martyr, a man of conscience.
But the complex life of More, one of the most sophisticated and powerful men in the England of his time, remains enigmatic in many respects. In The Life of Thomas More, acclaimed novelist (Chatterton, Hawksmoor, Milton in America) and biographer (William Blake, Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot) Peter Ackroyd gives us a fresh and compelling recreation of More and his times. Ackroyd has the rare ability to not only vividly explore the sights, sounds, and personalities of the late 14th- and early 15th-century England, but to also illuminate More's intellectual development. He shows us how More's emotional as well as reasoned commitment to religious faith developed naturally within the comfortable and prosperous household of his childhood. And later, as he studied law, it is made clear, as Ackroyd writes, that religion and law were not to be considered separately; they implied one another. Ackroyd notes that More's death came to define him. The biographer explores the religious controversies of the time and notes the stories of cruelty and death for both Catholics and Protestants, in which More was involved. The fiery polemics, the intolerance, the unyielding positions of figures on all sides. Ackroyd writes that after his resignation as Lord Chancellor, the highest post next to the King, More's attention was focused on heretics. It remained the greatest battle of his life and, deprived of the chance to imprison or to burn, he returned to angry and elaborate polemic. The biographer's novelistic skills are much in evidence as he deeps events and personalities moving steadily along. He is also careful about his use of sources. Although he relates anecdotes of questionable authenticity, he is careful to give the reader warning.
A biography of More is unlikely to please everyone. Ackroyd has been judicious, and as balanced as an open-minded reader could wish. The last 100 pages or so as More awaits his fate wanting his death to be for the right reason, as he views it, and not treason are beautifully done.