22 April 2021
Sir Thomas More
A man for no seasons.
By Neil Tidmarsh
This week a court in Hong Kong sentenced nine prominent pro-democracy campaigners to terms in prison for taking part in the protest rallies of 2019. One of them, barrister Margaret Ng (aged 73), quoted Sir Thomas More in her defence: “I stand the law’s good servant but the people’s first. For the law must serve the people, not the people the law.”
It was an apt statement, especially after Luo Huining, Beijing’s top man in Hong Kong, had defended the new national security laws a few days earlier (on Hong Kong’s first ‘National Security Education Day’ – how sinister is that?) by saying “For all acts that harm national security and Hong Kong’s prosperity, we must take actions.” Beijing’s priorities in a nut-shell – security of the state (ie the governing party) first, closely followed by material prosperity. And the liberty of its citizens?
Little wonder then that Margaret Ng invoked Sir Thomas More, the ‘man for all seasons’: scholar, renaissance humanist, statesman, loving father, feminist and saint, whose refusal to abandon his principles and his loyalty to Rome cost him his life. He would have stood with her and her fellow pro-democracy campaigners against Luo Huining, wouldn’t he? Well, no, he wouldn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact.
In Henry VIII’s time, the authorities in England found themselves in the same position as the authorities in Hong Kong (ie the authorities in Beijing) today. A popular movement driven by a powerful idea was spreading throughout the country, and they were frightened of it. It was, they thought, a direct threat to their own power.
It was all about democratic access to the Bible. The Bible was God’s word, on which all authority was based; the authority of the Church and the authority of the country’s divinely-ordained kings. But only the educated elite had access to it. It was written in Hebrew and Greek, and translated only into Latin. Dangerous ‘populist’ voices were beginning to call for an English translation, so everybody would be able to read it and discover at first hand exactly what God’s message was. Surely that was only fair? After all, He had meant that message for all mankind, hadn’t He?
These days it’s difficult to imagine just how dangerous this was, just how threatened the authorities felt by it. If everyone had direct access to the word of God, would anyone need popes and bishops and priests anymore? Their power rested on their monopoly of God’s words, and they weren’t about to surrender one jot of it to the multitude. A renegade priest, John Wycliffe, had begun translating the Bible into English a hundred and fifty years earlier but had died before finishing the job. His work was suppressed and forty years after his death he was condemned as a heretic by Pope Martin V’s Council of Constance. His body was dug up and burned at the stake and his ashes thrown into the River Swift.
In Thomas More’s day, another rebellious priest, William Tyndale, was determined to translate the Bible into ordinary, everyday English so that even “the most humble ploughboy” would be able to understand it. The work was forbidden by the authorities, so he went underground to do it. He went to Germany and the Low Countries where he could make best use of a revolutionary new technology – the printing press – which was being developed there. He worked in hiding, incognito, and when his translation of the New Testament was completed it was secretly printed in great numbers and smuggled into England by English merchants who shared his democratic ideals.
The authorities did everything they could to suppress its circulation. Anyone found with a copy was imprisoned. Any copies seized were burnt. One London merchant suspected of smuggling the work into the country was murdered outside his City home – apparently by an assassin hired from Italy and armed with a new-fangled hand-gun, in an operation ordered and financed by the Bishop of London himself![i] The Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, pitted the powers of the state against Tyndale’s ‘heretics’ and their ‘heresy’. Thomas More replaced Wolsey as Lord Chancellor in 1529 and took on the task with the fury and passion of the reactionary and authoritarian fanatic that he was. Where Wolsey had burned the forbidden books and imprisoned their readers, More had the readers themselves burned at the stake and the books thrown into the flames with them. He was so dedicated to his work that he took it home with him, imprisoning and torturing ‘heretics’ in his own gatehouse and garden[i].
But his increasingly violent and repressive measures couldn’t stop the spread of the ‘heresy’. There was a huge appetite among ordinary people for Tyndale’s work, in spite of the danger. Groups of them met in secret to read or hear those stories in which a power higher even than Pope and King promised freedom, truth and equality to even the most humble of mankind. More redoubled his efforts, launching a vitriolic propaganda campaign against Tyndale. The language he used in those publications was blood-curdling in its fury and frustration, not so much philosophical argument as invective – derogatory and crude – aimed at Tyndale himself. And he sent agent after agent out to hunt Tyndale down and apprehend him.
But Tyndale kept on the move with his head down. No one knew where he lived – no one even knew what he looked like. By the time More fell from power and lost his life in 1535, Tyndale was still at large and still working on his translation of the Old Testament. More’s plots, however, succeeded from beyond the grave; the last agent he’d sent out tracked Tyndale down a year after More’s execution. Tyndale was arrested in Antwerp, imprisoned in the Castle of Vilvorde, tried by the authorities in the Low Countries, found guilty of heresy and executed – he was both strangled and burned.
Tyndale’s theological heritage – the Protestant Reformation – probably doesn’t have much significance to Britain or the world today. Neither perhaps does his literary heritage (he more or less invented English prose – his simple and everyday but vivid and lively vocabulary and style set a valuable example for all the writers who followed – and by proving that this hitherto despised language could carry the word of God he proved that it could do anything, and so set the scene for Shakespeare and the extraordinary explosion of literary genius later that century). But his political heritage remains immensely important and relevant; his example insists that authority should always be questioned, should always be made accountable and answerable to the ordinary citizen, that authority should begin with the ordinary citizen and not be imposed on him or her from the top down.
The powers that be were right to be frightened by his work; it was indeed revolutionary. It contributed to the rejection of the Pope’s power in that decade and to the loss of the king’s power in the next century. The ordinary people who took part in the Putney debates to decide what kind of constitution they wanted after the downfall of King Charles I in 1647 had only the English Bible to go on – they had no manual of political philosophy to guide them – but with its help they managed to invent parliamentary democracy more or less from scratch.
As for Sir Thomas More, he was made a saint by Pope John Paul twenty-one years ago. He is the official patron saint of politicians and bureaucrats.
The conflict between More and Tyndale – between authoritarian regimes and their oppressed citizens – is still being played out in many parts of the world: in Russia, China, Myanmar, Belarus and elsewhere. If Thomas More were alive in Hong Kong or Beijing today, no doubt he would be fanatically loyal to the Chinese Communist Party, a high-ranking and uncompromising servant of the regime, willing to defend the Party’s authority and order and ideals with his own life, the ruthless and intransigent enemy of anyone who appeared to threaten them.
His words quoted in the first paragraph above – “the law must serve the people, not the people the law” – can only be an example of the cant and hypocrisy typical of autocratic regimes and their representatives. But does that invalidate those words? No. They are still true, even if their originator was being insincere and hypocritical. Margaret Ng was right and brave to quote them back at More’s heirs in Hong Kong.
[i] See Derek Wilson’s fascinating article ‘The Hunt for the Tudor Hitman’ in BBC History Extra.
[i] See Brian Moynahan’s biography of Tyndale ‘If God Spare My Life’.