of a man who, 60 years after his death, was still revered by Londoners as a 'special friend' of the causes of the city
St Thomas More was a Londoner to the marrow of his bones. Many of us think of him at his learned and pious household at Chelsea where he scandalised the Duke of Norfolk when he came to dine to find him in church, singing, surpliced, in the choir. "God's body, God's body, my Lord Chancellor," he exclaimed, "a parish clerk, a parish clerk! You dishonour the King and his office." Yet for much of More's life he lived in the middle of London, at the Barge in Bucldersbury, not far from Cheapside, surrounded by the shops of herb-sellers which made Falstaff speak of young gallants as "lisping hawthornbuds, that smell like Bucklersbury in simple-time".
The Elizabethan history play, Sir Thomas More, which has recently been playing at the Trafalgar Studios (formerly the Whitehall Theatre), performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company during their Gunpowder Season, is quintessentially a London play because it powerfully conveys the lasting memory that More left on the people of London 60 years after his execution in 1535.
Written in 1592-4 by five dramatists, including Shakespeare, the play is set during the riots of May 1517 occasioned by antagonism against immigrant French and Flemish wool merchants. The play is informed by London opinion which remembered More as "a special lover and friend in the causes and businesses of this city".
Regarded as aliens, the merchants were accused of pushing up the price of food, of bringing in "strange roots, which is merely to the undoing of pair prentices, for what's a sorry parsnip to a good heart?", and of depriving the native populace of woric. The riots have a present-day ring and show that racial prejudice is an atavistic force that strides the centuries, especially when based upon legitimate grievances.
The play has striking rele vance to our own time and this was emphasised by the production, which was in modern dress.
The early sources for More's life are the personal accounts of William Roper, his son-in-law, written 20 years after his death, and Thomas Stapleton, a priest, scholar and controversialist, who was born in the same year and month of More's execution.
Written in 1588, the year of the Armada, Stapleton records that, among his boyhood friends. More's fame and his martyrdom were the constant, inspiring subject of talk. For contemporary political record there is Edmund Hall's Chronicle, published in 1548, which gives an accurate account of the May riots but also a damning view of More's later life that had enormous influence on the moulding of future historical opinion. Hall had no patience with his conscientious scruples and declared that: "I cannot tell whether I should call him a foolish wise man, or a wise foolish man."
Wen Sir Thomas More was written London had become a predominantly Protestant city. Hall was an uncritical admirer of King Henry VIII and during the two generations that had elapsed since More's death his memory had consistently and vigorously been attacked. John Foxe. in his Book of Martyrs, slandered him and Hall sneered but, although Hall's Chronicle provides the historical basis of the play, the London playwrights did not revere More the less.
He is presented as the just judge, honest and shrewd, with a rapid mind and humour which, as R W Chambers, his best modem biographer, records "made him the ideal man for settling difficult cases in record time".
The play ran into trouble
with Sir Edmund Tilney, the Master of the Revels and the government censor. It might be supposed that this was on religious grounds as More was the most celebrated English Catholic martyr. Tilney's objections were, however, to the first half of the play which provocatively dealt with the riots and his instruction was "to leave out the insurrection wholly".
The reason for this was a return of xenophobia to London in the early 1590s and the potential danger to
civil order that the play might encourage. There is no conclusive evidence that, despite the attention given to it, it was ever staged in the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouse.
Sir Thomas More was written by Anthony Munday and Henry Cliettle, both of whom were associated with Philip Henslowe, the diarist and playhouse owner. The final version was rewritten and had additions by Thomas Heyward,Thomas Dekker and Shakespeare, made to strengthen the play theatrically. Shakespeare's contribution is concerned with the confrontation between More and the crowd. lie calms the people with a homily on the need for order and obedience and makes the pointed reference to the fact that, if they were banished, they would in turn become "straingers" in a foreign city. His entreaties succeeded and the apprentices declare that "Wheel be ruld by you master moor". The manuscript contains the only example of Shakespeare's handwriting other than the six signatures and the words "by me" that survive.
Chambers writes that for biographical detail the play has little value, and that there are no facts that can be held to be authoritative. But this does not devalue it, for we should remember More's persistent memory that inspired Stapleton, and remained alive long after his death. The second half conveys the intimate, personal life of More, the affection that marked his
household, and the devotion of his servants. The old religion is dealt with obliquely, but respectfully, and the conflict between More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rtxthester, and the King is exemplified by the unspecified "articles" which they
refuse to sign, for which they were imprisoned in the
Tower and lost their heads.
I have not enjoyed an old play so much for a long time. It is a brilliant production, well-acted, directed and designed. The theatre was full, the audience was enthusiastic, and I was taken by one of More's descendants through William Roper. That gave it added interest and it did not surprise me that he and his wife were as moved as I was. More's honesty,
sagacity, his humour and quick thinking, his support of the underdog, "the best friend the poor e'er had", was conveyed as freshly as it would have appeared to those for whom it was written.
Sir Thomas More has hardly ever been staged. This is the first major production, revived by the RSC at Stratford in March last year. Unfortunately, it has only been given a short run of a fortnight which seems a wasted opportunity.
I hope that it will be performed elsewhere in. London in the not-too-distant future. The play is one of the most important documents concerning St Thomas More and explains his lasting appeal for those who love him.