Saturday, June 12, 2010

But why would 'A Man for All Seasons' hate Tennis?: The private face of Sir Thomas More

The featured document for this month’s blog is taken from the Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, and is an abstract of a letter written by Desiderius Erasmus to Ulrich van Hutten in July 1519.

It is a very rare occurrence in the academic world for historians, especially of the medieval and early modern periods, to feel that they ‘know’, with any degree of certainty, the personal side of public historical figures. Because of the fragmented and piecemeal nature of the source material, the private lives and personae of public figures is quite often a mystery. As a result, educated guesses can only be made as to their personalities, mannerisms, tastes, traits and characteristics – if they can be made at all - unless, of course, one comes across a letter which is in-depth character profile of a noted public figure. In 1519, Erasmus had written such a letter at the behest of Ulrich von Hutten – the outspoken German critic of the Catholic Church, who had just come out in support of Martin Luther. The subject of Hutten’s enquiry was Thomas More.

At the time of writing, Thomas More was just 41 years old and had only recently begun his political career by entering the service of Henry VIII as privy councillor. It had been two years since the publication Utopia, and 18 years since he and Erasmus first met at the University of Oxford. According to Erasmus, More was initially ‘disinclined to a court life through hatred of tyranny and love for equality, and could not be induced to take service at court except after great solicitation from Henry VIII.’ Erasmus’ letter catches Thomas More in the early years of his ascendency – he had still yet to rise and fall. A knighthood, the chancellorship, and his tragic end stemming from his criticism of Henry VIII’s break from Rome, divorce from Catharine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn still awaited him.

So, here is the man Thomas More as seen through the eyes of Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Physical Description

More is somewhat below the middle height, but perfectly symmetrical in all his limbs; of a fair complexion; face inclined rather to fairness than pallor, with very little red, except a slight bloom; hair inclining to black or dark brown; thin beard; gray eyes covered with specks, which, as a mark of genius, is much admired in England, and indicates a generous nature. His inside corresponds to his out. He has a pleasant smiling look; and, to tell you the truth, is more inclined to pleasantry than gravity; though he is entirely free from buffoonery. His right shoulder is a little higher than his left, especially when he walks – not a natural defect, but an acquired ill habit. As compared with the rest of his person his hands are a little clumsy. He has always been careless of his dress.’

His voice is penetrating and clear, but not musical, although he is fond of music; his speech plain and distinct. He wears no silk, purple, or gold chains, except when he cannot avoid it; and dislikes all ceremony.’

Dietary Preferences

More ‘is indifferent in the choice of his food; generally drinks water, and sometimes, to please others, beer, little better than water, out of a tin cup. As it is the fashion to drink healths in England, More has learnt to pledge his guests summo ore [at the top of his voice]. His favourite diet is beef, salt meats and coarse brown bread well fermented; he prefers milk and vegetable diet, and is fond of eggs.’


More’s ‘chief pleasure is in watching animals; he has a variety of them; for instance, an ape, a fox, a ferret, etc. Any rarity or exotic he purchases readily, and his house is well furnished with curiosities. He has always been fond of female society and female friendships.’

He likes liberty and ease, but no one is more active or more patient than he when occasion requires it. He is friendly, accessible and fond of conversation; hating tennis, dice and similar games. He is very much given to jesting; wrote and acted little comedies when a lad, and loves a jest even when made at his own expense ... He is equally at home with the wise and the foolish; and in female society is full of his jokes. No one is less led by the judgment of the vulgar, and yet no man has more common sense.’

Family Life

`[More] married a very young girl, of good family [Jane Colt], quite uneducated , as she had been brought up entirely in the country; had her instructed; made her an accomplished musician; when he unfortunately lost her [d. 1511], after she had given birth to three daughters, Margaret, Louisa and Cicely, and a son named John, and some other children. Unable to live alone, he married a widow [Alice Middleton] some months after, neither young nor handsome (nec bella, nec puella [neither a beauty, nor a girl], as he himself is fond of saying), but a good housekeeper, to look after his family; with whom, however, he lives on very amicable terms. Nothing can show his influence over her more completely than that, though she is advanced in life and is very attentive to housekeeping, More prevailed upon her to learn various musical instruments. He manages his whole household in the same admirable way: there is no noise or contention; no vice, no bad repute; and, perhaps, no family can be found where father and stepmother and son live together on such excellent terms. Moreover, his father [Sir John More] has just married a third wife, and More swears he has never seen a better one’. Earlier in his letter, Erasmus predicts More will live long because he has robust health and ‘his father is a very hale old man’.

Academic Pursuits

As a young man he devoted himself to Greek, for which he was nearly disinherited by his father, who wished to bring him up to the law – a profession which above all others in England leads to honour and emolument, but requires many years of hard study. He lectured on St. Augustine De Civitate Dei, and was fitting himself by a course of study and seclusion for the priesthood; but as he could not give up his wish for a married life, he abandoned this design.’

Legal Career

When he [More] lived entirely by his profession, he gave every man true and faithful advice, urging them to make up their differences, though it was contrary to his own interest. When that was not possible, as some persons take pleasure in litigation, he showed them how to proceed at the smallest cost. He was for some time a judge for civil suits in London, - an easy and an honourable post, as he sits only on Thursday till dinner time.’ Erasmus original manuscript letter elaborates more fully on Thomas More’s career as a judge, until being sent on various embassies by Henry VIII, who takes great pleasure in his company and conversation. ‘Will all this favour he is neither proud nor boastful, nor forgetful of his friends, but always obliging and charitable.’

Thomas More ‘is a good ex tempore speaker; has a ready wit and a well stored memory, so that he speaks without hesitation. [John] Colet was accustomed to say of him, that ‘he was the only genius England.’ In his devotions he prays ex tempore, and he talks with his friends on a future life with perfect sincerity and assured hope.’

Just 16 years later, this funny, optimistic, friendly 'genius' would die on the scaffold for refusing to swear allegiance to the Act of Succession, thus becoming perhaps the most famous casualty of the English Reformation. It is small consolation, perhaps, that More took his sense of humour to the scaffold, where he joked with the lord lieutenant, "I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down, I can shift for myself", while he also protested that, since his beard had committed no crime, it should be spared the axe, and carefully arranged it out of harm's way.

[Image: Study for portrait of the More family, by Hans Holbein the Younger, from public domain image at Wikipedia]