During the course of his visit to Britain next year, the Pope will be addressing the country’s parliamentarians from the spot, reports the Daily Telegraph, where Sir Thomas More was sentenced to death in 1535.
The choice of venue is, I reckon, largely a coincidence (Westminster Hall is the usual venue for addresses of this nature – it’s where Reagan spoke, for example), but it does give me an excuse to post about Thomas More, a brilliant, fascinating individual who ought also to be seen as terrible warning of the danger that one man’s spiritual (or wider philosophical) certainty can pose to others when harnessed to the power of the state. Unfortunately, that’s not how he is seen. The old boy gets a pretty good press these days. Maybe that’s because he was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint in 1935. Maybe.
I suspect that the real key to More’s shiny modern reputation is to be found in Hollywood’s hagiographic A Man For All Seasons, a highly watchable, deeply annoying film. As a mild corrective to Paul Schofield’s fine portrait of doomed nobility, it is perhaps useful to recall that, as Lord Chancellor (England’s top lawyer), More showed himself to be a savage ideological enforcer, quite pleased, for example, to support the burning alive (“the short fyre…[prior to] ye fyre eurlasting”, as he so charmingly put it) of heretics.
Was More sincere in his beliefs? Sure, but then again so was Felix Dzerzhinsky.
Having said that, it’s important not to fall into the the current all-too-common mistake of judging historical figures solely by the standards of our own time. More’s attitudes were hardly uncommon in his era. But having conceded that point, it’s also worth remembering that the fate that ultimately befell him was not so unusual either. He defied the king. He lost. If More was no Dzerzhinsky (although there is this), then Henry VIII was no Stalin…