Friday 9 May 2014

There's More to Thomas More than meets the Eye.

Who was Richard III’s greatest enemy? The obvious answer might be Henry Tudor, Henry VII, who defeated and killed the last Yorkist King at Bosworth in 1485. Others might cite Shakespeare, whose compelling portrayal placed the image of the hunch-back at the heart of later cultural representations. Some may even follow the Bard’s line by suggesting Richard was his own worst enemy, a classic over-reacher in the Marlovian model. Next on the list, reserved for a particular type of Ricardian derision, is the humanist scholar Sir Thomas More.

There is little doubt that More’s unfinished “history” re-enforces many of the excesses of anti-Richard myth, portraying an archetypal tyrant who removes his innocent nephews in cold blood in order to achieve his long-cherished ambition. And there is no question that More made things up, in order to make his work more vivid and powerful. This has brought the opprobrium of militant Ricardians down upon his severed saintly head, reputed to have been rescued from Tower Bridge and smuggled to Canterbury by his devoted daughter. Some have gone to the lengths of refusing to read him at all, or ridiculing references to his work, making him some sort of literary pariah.

Revered in the Catholic Church for his martyrdom in 1535, More is still being vilified in certain circles as a liar, steeped in bias, a self-serving partisan. Yet to judge his account in purely historical terms is to overlook the conventions and genres of late medieval literature, which determined the author’s methods and intentions. It also fails to recognise the important bridge he provides between classical accounts and modern historiography. And nowhere, does it take account of More the man. Just as it would be anachronistic to judge Richard III according to modern sensibilities, the same mistake must not be made when it comes to his early biographer.

More was born around 1478-80. He was still a small child when Richard III came to the throne and five at the time of the battle of Bosworth, which drew the Yorkist dynasty to a close. The rest of his life was spent in the service of Richard’s dynastic nemeses, Henry VII and his son, Henry VIII. He was the London-born son of lawyer John More, who had won favour and the right to bear arms under Edward IV. In fact, his 1530 will included provision for prayers to be said for the souls of Edward and his family. According to More’s son-in-law, William Roper, John had been treated vindictively by Henry VII, whilst employed as a sergeant at law. This meant that More had little reason to write purely out of subservience to the new regime and may account for the absence of Henry from the work.

According to the custom of the time, the young Thomas was placed in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury and staunch Lancastrian, John Morton. He would describe his tumultuous life as the “violent changes of fortune” from which he had “learned practical wisdom.” Morton was equally pleased with his protégée, nominating him for a place at Oxford University. It is likely that during this time, More absorbed his patron’s opinions and experiences of Richard; perhaps as his clerk, he even wrote up notes Morton had made during the 1480s. The seventeenth century Ricardian George Buck even suggested that Morton was the original author of the work, which More simply copied up. With Bosworth less than a decade away, it is “inconceivable” according to Professor Caroline Barron, that it was not a frequent topic of conversation.

More went on to be an advocate of Renaissance Humanism, of female education, a lawyer and Speaker of the House of Commons, Chancellor, a prolific author, political visionary and devoted family man. In 1512, when Under Sherriff of London, he began work on his “history” of Richard III and tinkered with it for seven years, during which time he also wrote his most famous work Utopia (1516) and was appointed a Privy Councillor to Henry VIII. In 1519, for some reason, he put his account aside, unfinished. It may or may not be significant that the year before, he had moved into Crosby Place, the London house owned and occupied by Richard during many of the dramatic events of his 1483 coup.

More’s depiction of Richard tallies with other early Tudor chronicles, authored by John Rous and Polydore Vergil. More adds to Rous’s horrific picture of Richard’s birth, following a reputed gestation of two years, with the imagined details that he was breech-born, his head covered with hair and a mouth full of teeth. These would prove a gift to Shakespeare eight decades later and enter the literary canon as portentous of the king’s tragic fate. Soon though, sceptical voices were raised. Given the unlikeliness of More’s details, Enlightenment historians began to question why they, and other obvious fabrications, had been included in the account. The answer lies in the question of authorial intention. There is no doubt that More blends fact with fiction but this is exactly what his chosen genre dictated. He would have been remiss not to exaggerate, when his aim was to write within the didactic conventions of instructional literature.

More’s “history” is not history as we would recognise it; the term was synonymous then for “account” or “story”, a vehicle for a narrative in the classical model. True to his education and early Renaissance context, he followed the example set by the “histories” of Tiberius, written by Roman authors Tacitus and Seutonius. According to John Jowett, of the Shakespeare Institute, it “lays the foundations for modern historiography” by rejecting the linear portrayal of events in favour of an “admonitory narrative of people acting out their lives under the eyes of God.” More’s account must be seen within the context of late medieval literary tradition, with its emphasis on hagiography, miracle and morality plays and abstract virtues and vices. Whilst living with Morton, the young More also acted in early dramas by Henry Medwall, one of which, Nature, employed the abstract personification of “Pride”, who disguises himself to the audience as “Worship.” By 1513, More was well versed in the literary abilities of villains to conceal their true motives.

He also knew how the other half had lived. Saints’ lives was a very popular genre for the late medieval literate classes. A thirteenth century collection, The Golden Legend, was a bestseller by More’s day, having been copied into over eight hundred manuscript versions, then printed into every major European language. William Caxton brought out an edition in 1483, which was then reprinted nine times before 1527. As a devout Catholic, who was martyred resisting Henry VIII’s reforms, More was steeped in such tales. The usual hagiographic conventions included a birth attended by symbolic features, fictional episodes including conversations and flights of emotion, as well as historical facts. Saints were born to the fluttering of pure white doves and the ringing of bells. These literary signifiers gave less literate readers or listeners an easy shorthand to delineate the good from the bad, just as the costumes and props did in mystery cycles. Thus Richard’s tale of ignominious defeat required the apparatus of an ill-fated birth and physical deformity. Saints’ lives were important vehicles for the study of the past, intended to inspire the living to greater piety.

Yet More did something different with the genre. In taking Richard as his anti-hero and subjecting him to the rules of hagiography, he was not preaching the usual lesson. Instead he was teaching by negative example, creating a dramatic and sometimes terrifying tale that blended recent memory with the stuff of nightmares in order to show the consequences of misplaced ambition. Richard is his instrument in this, a conveniently memorable figure who served a literary purpose. Like Shakespeare, militant Ricardians may not forgive More for selecting the Yorkist King as his subject matter but for an author writing in the medieval tradition, Richard was a gift of a topic. Hindsight made him the perfect teaching tool.

More’s anti-hagiography can be seen as a partner work to the biography he wrote in 1510, the Life of John Picus. Derived from the life of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, it outlined the virtues of the Italian Renaissance philosopher who was poisoned in 1494, probably on the orders of the Medicis. Thus More co-opts two real historical narratives for the benefit of future generations, in the hope that they would not “decline from the steps of their virtuous living” and that such example would “maketh the dark spot of our vice the more evidently to appear.” This was also within the spectrum of instructional literature of the day, encompassing moral fables and behaviour manuals which enacted learning by example in the same way as parables read in the pulpit. In 1522, More wrote the very specific Four Last Things, warning his readers against pride, envy, sloth, gluttony and covetousness. He also produced a number of animal fables. There was little difference to him between animating abstract vices, creatures, classical Gods and the recent dead. All offered the opportunity to teach the living.

More’s work was also a reflection of evolving political models. He cast Richard as an ambitious villain, plotting to usurp the throne even before the death of Edward IV. This scheming, one dimensional version may have been accomplished by More mapping Richard’s story over the literary model of the Machiavel. In fact, Niccolo Machiavelli’s manuscript of The Prince was being circulated among his correspondents and humanist friends well in advance of its 1532 publication. One of its chapters deals with “conquests by criminal virtue” in which a Prince secures his power through cruel deeds and the execution of his political rivals. Machiavelli’s advice was that all such acts should be carefully planned then executed in one swift blow, to allow his subjects the opportunity to forget them. It was only recently that the extensive correspondence between Machiavelli, Erasmus and Thomas More was discovered in the Palazzo Tuttofare in Florence, exploring questions about methods of governance and the nature of writing. More’s Richard III stands at the interface of these.

Of course, none of this is to deny that there are problems with More’s account. Just as with any historical source, it needs to be considered in context and evaluated according to the light it can shed, if any, on the true story of Richard III. However, that context is very much a literary one as well as a historical one. Calls to reject More’s work out of hand fail to do precisely that which they assert as essential: More must not be simply read and digested, he must be used with caution within a framework of contemporary cultural influences. As a master of his craft, he deserves to be read afresh and placed firmly back within the Ricardian canon.

More was a man with a conscience. Having agreed to enter the service of Henry VIII on the provision that he be allowed to act according to his scruples, he had not banked on the momentous religious reforms that his King was to introduce in the 1530s. Refusing to swear allegiance to Henry according to the Act of Succession, he was convicted of high treason and beheaded in July 1535. On the scaffold, he was reputed to have said that he remained God’s servant first and the king’s second. His unfinished account of Richard’s life and reign was published after his death. Perhaps the key to rejections of his writing is explained by the clash of ideologies: ultimately his use of the hagiographic conventions has little in common with the deluded deification of Richard which takes places in some forums. There really is more to More than may appear.


  1. Interesting article, but IIRC, the Roman Catholic list of saints include large numbers of people who changed over time. There was (I believe) over fifteen years between his writing "RIchard III" and his martyrdom, so (IMO), there is nothing about Thomas More's behavior in 1535 that precludes the idea that he would lie in the earlier work. After all, I can't find anything in the medieval literary conventions to explain why More couldn't tell the truth about Richard's claim to the throne (i.e., that Edward IV was allegedly pre-contracted to Eleanor Talbot, instead of the false claim that the pre-contract was with Elizabeth Lucy) or what happened at the council meeting of June 13, 1483; the recent find showing that Richard never had a withered arm sort of destroys More idea that Richard blamed his withered arm on Elizabeth Woodville's sorcery.

    Esther Sorkin

  2. Brilliant piece, Amy. More was looking forward of course, not back. He was not interested in writing an accurate record, though some of the inconsistencies about Richard III may well stem from giving contemporary hearsay more credit than it warranted.