Thomas More: Appearance & Character

Chapter 2 : Character

More’s character presents far more of a mystery than his appearance. It seems full of paradox: he contemplated life as a Carthusian monk, one of the strictest and most isolated orders, yet ended up with an extended family all under one roof; he sought reform and new understanding in religion, yet reacted vehemently when the questioning of others went too far; he wrote in Utopia of a society where divorce was permitted, yet resisted Henry’s annulment; he presented a religion-free society in Utopia without criticism, yet advocated the burning of heretics; he recommended a cheerful attitude to life, yet wore a hair shirt.

We can perhaps say that a deeply consistent characteristic that underlay all his actions was a belief in the authority of the law and hierarchy, yet he was prepared to stand against the very authority of the English law that he had implemented throughout his career, when he believed it contradicted the traditions and values of the Christian community, as embodied in the Catholic Church.

On a positive note, according to one of More’s early biographers, Thomas Stapleton, he was actively charitable – not just giving small change, but visiting the poorer parts of Chelsea, and giving practical help. Stapleton was writing anti-Protestant polemic during the reign of Elizabeth, so some of his praise may be exaggerated, but that does not mean he invented facts.

There are more personal letters from More extant than of most of his contemporaries – those which he exchanged with other scholars are not, perhaps, truly personal, in that they were often written with an eye to publication, but his frequent letters to his family, particularly to his eldest daughter show a warm and loving father, perhaps suffering from what many think of as a modern worry – were the pressures of his job making him neglect his children:

‘I beg you, Margaret, tell me about the progress you are all making in your studies. For I assure you that, rather than allow my children to be idle and slothful, I would make a sacrifice of wealth and bid adieu to other cares and business to attend my children and my family, amongst whom none is more dear to me than yourself, my beloved daughter.’

In 1511, Erasmus described More’s character thus:

‘For I do not think, unless the vehemence of my love leads me astray, that Nature ever formed a mind more present, ready, sharpsighted and subtle, or in a word more absolutely furnished with every kind of faculty than his.  Add to this a power of expression equal to his intellect, a singular cheerfulness of character and an abundance of wit, but only of the candid sort; and you miss nothing that should be found in a perfect advocate.’

That ‘abundance of wit’ seems to have been More’s most obvious trait. This is a difficult thing to see in written records of isolated remarks, the essence of wit being its quickness and its pertinence to circumstance. Erasmus described his wit as gentle, but the chronicler Hall was less positive. He had this to say about More, referring to his appointment as Lord Chancellor:

‘…a man well learned in the tongues, and also in the Common Law, whose wit was fine and full of imaginations (sic), by reason whereof he was much given to mocking, which was to his gravity a great blemish.’

Later, when recording More’s death, Hall added further description:

‘I cannot tell whether I should call him a foolish wise man or a wise foolish man, for undoubtedly he beside his learning had a great wit, but it was so mingled with taunting and mocking that it seemed to him that best knew him that he thought nothing to be well spoken except he had ministered some mock in the communication…and even when he should lay  down his head on the block, he having a great grey beard, striked (sic) out his beard and said to the hangman “I pray you let me lay my beard over the block, lest you should cut it.” Thus with a mock, he ended his life.’

More’s wit may be the secret of Henry VIII’s original attraction to him. Henry himself, although intellectually able, was never described as witty and none of his recorded remarks display the clever malice of François I, but there are hints that he liked witty companions. Certainly that was one of Anne Boleyn’s great attractions, and perhaps More’s as well.

Their wit could not save either Anne or More from Henry’s wrath, and perhaps the very facility that he admired in them came to be the trait that most angered him.

Finally, More was summed up by Robert Whittington, who wrote numerous works of grammar, as well as poetry and translations of classical texts. He was part of More’s circle, and later found favour at Henry VIII’s court.

‘More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.’