How Trustworthy is Thomas More?

In the light of Tim Thornton’s recent claims relating to allegations made by Thomas More, I must start by saying I have never remotely considered taking Thomas More seriously as a historian of King Richard III, and nor would anyone who has read Richard Sylvester’s masterly analysis. But I do take him seriously as a religious fanatic who didn’t stop at condemning respectable people to hideous punishments. I hope the fate of the innocent merchant tailor Richard Hunne will never be forgotten. The rough outline goes like this (but check it for yourself): Hunne brought a lawsuit because his local church was seeking to charge him exorbitant mortuary fees. Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, a friend of More’s, excommunicated Hunne, charged him with heresy and threw him into his (the bishop’s) prison where he was murdered. This is how More’s biographer Richard Marius, bending over backwards to exonerate his subject, explains More’s defence of Tunstall in the face of clear evidence that Hunne was killed (p.140): “In More’s view, heretics were such demonic people that it was fair to believe anything bad about them, no matter how outrageous. More presents us with a Richard Hunne so depressed at being found out that he killed himself, and so depraved that he tried to make his suicide look like murder.” How can you accept the testimony of a man like More who will make up a lie to deny justice to an innocent man? Let us ask ourselves how many other men’s names and reputations were blackened by this man’s connivance … just because he could.

By Annette Carson

Award-winning non-fiction author with a preference for history and biography. Biographical works include prominent figures in music and aviation, plus five books on King Richard III.

14 comments

  1. Firstly, More was a lawyer with a lawyer’s training which says all we need to know about his abilities to distort the ‘truth’ for the purposes of gaining a conviction or assisting a client. Secondly, his devotion to the Catholic faith and the institution of the church meant that he was willing to believe the worst of anyone who appeared to be acting against it. It also suggests a personality that is lead by tribalism and blind faith over the virtues of open mindedness and liberalism. A dangerous combination in a powerful man with the means to use his influence to destroy anyone who he perceived to be a ‘threat’ or an inconvenience.

    In terms of his stance on Richard III, he had no reason to be anything other than critical of his character, pejorative and partial in his account of his life and reign. He was a child when Richard was defeated and grew up in the household of one of Richard’s most bitter enemies. Morton had a personal grudge against Richard and was Henry Tudor’s agent, spy and backer. It’s no surprise that More was educated to loathe the memory of a defeated king and tutored in Morton’s propaganda.

    More wanted to make his way in court and advance his career. He wanted to advance his family interests and gain favour with the king during the early years of a new dynasty. He was hardly going to write a glowing account of the king who they deposed, killed and had spent much effort in smearing with a list of vague crimes.

    Beyond these immediate concerns, More’s unpublished account was also a morality tale – about good and bad kingship in a wider and more philosophical context. In an age where morality was tied to success, it was an obvious choice to paint Richard as physically deformed, thoroughly evil and doomed to defeat and death as a means of establishing divine justice and natural order.

    Finally, More’s stance over Henry’s divorce and willingness to martyr himself are used as evidence of his moral rectitude and credibility as a source. I would argue that the character traits I’ve already described suggest a man who was perfectly happy to look the other way when it suited his belief system but when he was backed into a corner, was prepared to take the path of martyrdom when expediency collided with his most deeply held religious beliefs. This may not have been so much down to goodness of heart and purity of vision as because he knew damned well that he had perverted the course of true justice, used violence, intimidation and his position to destroy lives and was staring at a long time in purgatory and wanted to off-set these stains on his soul with a death that made him a hero and a true son of the church in the eyes of many who would pray for his soul and ease his passage through the afterlife. He would have squared the circle by pleading that his harsh treatment of heretics was for their own good and for the greater good of society, as he would have argued that his duty to his client mitigated his disregard of truth or justice. People are capable of weaving all sorts of justifications for terrible behaviour when they have ‘a righteous cause’ to promote!

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  2. I can’t say I disagree with Giaconda – we all have our opinions, and anyway I’m not a psychoanalyst. Most Ricardians will be more than willing to blacken More’s name to the same extent that he blackened Richard’s. What I think is important is to identify recorded, factual evidence.

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  3. And he had William Tyndale hunted down in the Netherlands for the crime of translating the Bible into English. On the other hand, I wonder if his Richard III was intended to be a caricature and he made things up for effect (which succeeded far better than he can have expected). He wrote the complete version in Latin and didn’t translate it all into English. Robert Bolt and Paul Scofield have a lot to answer for in A Man For All Seasons!

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