The Saint Of The Civil Service
Thomas More — Our Greatest Englishman
A Portrait of Thomas More—Scholar, Statesman, Saint, by Algernon Cecil. (Eyre and SpoUiswood. 16s.) Reviewed by the REVEREND SIR JOHN R. O'CONNELL, M.A., LL.D.
Mr. Algernon Cecil, in this new portrait of Thomas More, has achieved the improbable, if not the impossible. He has added another to the many lives of Saint Thomas More, bath old and recent, and in doing so has added something more to our understanding of that great scholar, statesman
and saint. He has produced a work which, so wide is its outlook and so balanced is its judgment that it may well rank among the most important studies of Thomas More and his age which have yet appeared. The author justifies this latest edition to More literature in his preface: " I make no apology then for adding this hook to those already existing, and with the more confidence that I cannot quite satisfy myself that More's life and mind have yet been fully appropriated to our uses. In the case of a nature so finely integrated as his and so little patient of any eclectic treatment, there seems room for something further in the way of detailed analysis, commentary and criticism of his works. and perhaps too, for some closer interweaving of his inner with his outer life. if his figure is to stand out in its full distinction upon the large tapestry of his time . . . We have to see More not merely as a man of his time, but of all time, and to hang his portrait not only in his local, but in our eternal habitations."
This hook is described as a portrait of Thomas More, but it would appear more true to describe it as a painting in which indeed More appears in the centre of a large canvas, but there is a brilliant background of many figures; Erasmus, Vivcs, Ralph Hythloday, Peter Giles, Wolsey, Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, William Roper, " his darling Meg," and many another, both of England and abroad, and on this broad canvas also, the author, with supreme artistry, paints in the background in which More lived and moved—Cheapsidc, Canterbury Hall, Oxford, Lincoln's Inn, Bucklersbury, Crosby Place, Chelsea, Whitehall, Westminster, Lambeth, The Tower, and finally the scaffold on Tower Hill.
He moves with ease and with a most assured knowledge among these august personages, and among these scenes, not only with complete familiarity, but also with_a vivid perception of their relations to each other and to the central figure as the greatest living Englishman of his day, and perhaps the greatest Englishman in the history of the English people.
There are many problems in the manysided career of Thomas More which remain still unsolved. The circumstances, and indeed the very nature, of his trial were long misunderstood, even as lately as by Fr. Bridgett until a few years ago, when the bag containing the indictment and other documents connected with the trial were accidentally discovered among the public records.
More's close connection with the Corporation of London was never fully brought to light until a few years ago, when, thanks to the persistent industry of a youthful student of history, the interesting story of his employment by the Corporation of London, which throws such a light upon his earlier years and early struggles, was discovered and made public.
Mr. Cecil does not attempt to disclose any new facts in More's career. It is at once the character and the charm of his masterly study that he is content to shed a brilliant and illuminating light on that career, the incidents of which have been already made known by previous biographers.
There are still many points in More's career on which his admirers would desire more light. We might well hope for the discovery of other letters to Erasmus; for some considered reports from his own hand on his Embassies and Trade nego tiations abroad. We might still cherish the hope that the lectures on Saint Augustine's City of God, delivered by him at Saint Laurence Jewry, may yet come to light; that perhaps we may know with more definite certainty whether, for how long, and under what conditions, he occupied Crosby Place.
These and many other tantalising obscurities await the efforts of some persistent explorer. One is encouraged in the hope of fuller information and more light on these problems when one thankfully recalls that after a silence of five hundred years the wife of a burgess of Lynne—one Margery Kempe---emerging from five centuries of obscurity, has recently revealed to us the fascinating story of her three pilgrimages and of her life, both spiritual and worldly, in the England of the first half of the fifteenth century, just a hundred years before the career of Thomas More.
In his interesting and suggestive examination of the character and career of Wolsey, Mr. Cecil makes an interesting comparison between the Legatus a latere, Archbishop, and the late Lord Curzon of Kedleston.
" In both men the love of what Bacon calls great place amounted to a dominant passion; and both pursued it with more assiduity than any statesman of their respective generations. sacrificing for it not a little in the way of dignity and losing what better men prefer to keep. . . . Their industry was untiring, their activity prodigious, their habit of mind imperious, their thought imperial. They wanted England greater that they might themselves seem great. A Roman pride of Empire entered into a Roman purpose of Dominion and it was with no mean conception of their country's destiny that their minds were filled."
To this view of Wolsey it would, however, appear that something further should be added. The overmastering ambition of the churchman was to attain the supreme dignity of the Papal Throne, and to this aim there is reason to believe that he would have sacrificed every other duty and even the interests national, dynastic, financial of England itself — Wolsey's loyalty to England stopped at the first step of the Papal Throne.
It is true that Curzon of Kedleston liked, pomp, but that pomp was consistent with and indeed essential to that great Office when he held "the gorgeous East in fee" as Viceroy of India. But the pomp, extravagant and unmeasured, with which Wolsey, the priest, surrounded himself was the undoing of the Catholic Church in England and, so far as England is concerned, was the beginning of the Reformation.
Wolsey as a churchman debased the moral currency by his manner of living; he lowered the standard of the spiritual life to such an extent that saintly men like Dean Colet, Archbishop Warham, Saint John Fisher, and many another, could not re-dress the balance, and, by his spoliation of the smaller monasteries and his annexations of their lands, he pointed a way and opened up a road which, within a few years, his Sovereign Lord. Henry VIII and Henry's grasping followers were only too glad to follow.
There were many other interesting topics suggested by this delightful and stimulating book, but space does not permit of dis cussion. One cannot close this review without saying that it would be impossible to praise too highly this learned, accurate, thoughtful restrained study of one who is more and more coming to be regarded as the greatest Englishman of all time, and of the age, so interesting and so inspiring in its phases of glory and of tragedy, of splendour and of squalour, of hope and of black despair, in which he lived.