John Guy, Thomas More: A Very Brief History. London: SPCK, 2018. 116pp.
Will the real Thomas More please step forward?
Since the mid-Twentieth Century there have been at least two “Thomas Mores” vying for supremacy in the mind of the reading public. One is the principled, self-assured philosopher-kind of the A Man for All Seasons (1966). The other is the sneering sadistic zealot of Wolf Hall (2009). One is a saint, the other is very much, so to speak, a sinner.
John Guy–Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge–offers an eminently readable history of the enigmatic Thomas More, perhaps one of the most fascinating individuals in English history. In a quick 116 pages (TOC below) he whisks us through More’s life, death, and then explores his legacy and representation in modern literature.
The book begins, as it ought, by exploring some of the internal tensions that More himself seems to have experienced, beginning with his childhood. His story begins in the conflict between his desire for the cloister and his father’s desire for him, the chambers.
As the story unfolds, these two Thomases appear in conflict.
On the one hand, he is the renaissance man capable of writing the jovial, witty Utopia and carrying on a learned correspondence with his friend–that ultimate of renaissance men–Desiderius Erasmus. He is the capable theologian able to, at Henry VIII’s request, pen refutations of Luther’s doctrines. At the same time he appears to be at least savvy enough a politician to become Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and to advance Henry’s agenda.
Without tracing More’s entire life, it seems (in Guy’s estimation) that there was a tipping point. A moment–not necessarily an instant–in which the theologian and author of Utopia won out over the political More. It would lead to his death.
Guy does a wonderful job of unwinding the threads of More’s self and offering a helpful topography of the religious and civil realities of Tudor England. A particularly unique contribution is his treatment of the reception of More in subsequent generations. He includes More’s successors who engaged in a successful campaign to rehabilitate More for a post-reformation society. I heartily commend it.
Table of Contents
Part 1 – The History
- Shaping a mind
- The king’s servant
- The dissident
Part 2 – The Legacy
- More’s writings
- Thomas More in art
- The lure of fiction