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My history hero: Rory Stewart chooses Thomas More (1478–1535)

Soldier, politician, diplomat and writer Rory Stewart chooses Thomas More as a history hero

Published: July 12, 2022 at 8:05 am
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Thomas More: in profile

Thomas More was a lawyer, judge, statesman, author and Renaissance humanist, who served King Henry VIII as lord chancellor from 1529 to 1532.

An opponent of the Protestant Reformation, he refused to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church of England and the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

After refusing to take the oath of supremacy, More was convicted of treason and executed. He was subsequently declared a saint by the Catholic church.

When did you first hear about Thomas More?

As a teenager watching the film A Man for All Seasons (1966), which tells the story of his final years. But I really became interested in Thomas More as an MP after reading the plaque in Westminster Hall – where he and his father practised as judges – commemorating the place where he was condemned to death. The more I read about him the more I realised how central that building, which I walked through every day, was to his life.

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What kind of person was he?

He was a scholar and spent a lot of time praying, but was also incredibly charming and funny in some respects. He clearly had a playful side – his letters to his friend Erasmus [the Dutch philosopher and scholar] are full of jokes. He combined that lightness of touch with some pretty tough political manoeuvrings to get where he did, and to retain the confidence of the king. There was also a disturbing side to him because he was said to have tortured heretics to defend his version of the Catholic faith.

What made him a hero?

His ability to say “no”. Politicians are encouraged to always say “yes” and compromise to stay in power. More may have started like that – he’d been a successful politician to end up as lord chancellor – but, ultimately, when asked to compromise around Henry VIII and his wife Anne Boleyn, he wouldn’t do it. He was prepared to be hanged, drawn and quartered. That is, to put it mildly, unusual in a politician.

What was his finest hour?

More’s trial in July 1535. He remained resolute knowing that he could be killed. The ethical value of his life lies less in what he achieved, said or did, and more in what he refused to do. Ultimately for More, and other humanists, politics is an activity that requires not the perpetual campaign for power, but the possibility of refusing power. It is a vocation whose value can only be judged at its ending.

Can you see any parallels between More’s life and your own?

I’m obviously not remotely a hero or a saint, but I felt that the most important thing I did in politics lay in what I refused to do: refusing to serve in Boris Johnson’s government because I disagreed with his stance on Brexit. It was the end of my political career, but it gave it some sort of meaning.

What would you ask More if you could meet him?

I’d ask him why he served Henry VIII for as long as he did, given the horror of his personality and governing style, and to convince me that there was something positive to be said about that monster.

Rory Stewart is presenting a new BBC Radio 4 series, The Long History of Argument.

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This content first appeared in the August 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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