A More for All Seasons

Scholar or zealot, every generation gets the Thomas More it needs.

Joanne Paul | Published in 06 Dec 2016

Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527

2016 is the year of Utopia, marking 500 years since the publication of Thomas More’s influential text. Central to the celebrations is a timely re-evaluation of the man who stands behind the enigmatic masterpiece. More’s reputation has ranged from saintly scholar to sex-crazed zealot, with Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall bringing each of these visions to life, albeit almost 60 years apart. 

It is 500 years since the publication of Utopia, but it is also 50 years since the release of the Oscar-winning film based on Bolt’s play (first performed in London in 1950). Of course, neither Bolt nor Mantel is entirely accurate; that is what makes their work fiction. What is interesting is what the deviations from historical record in A Man for All Seasons  tell us about Bolt’s time. This raises the question: if Bolt’s 1950s needed More the defender of individual conscience, why do we need More the zealous persecutor of heretics? 

Bolt’s More is a champion for individual conscience. He is the ‘little guy’ fighting against the imposing state. This is made clear in the setting used. Unless called into court, More is usually at his family home in Chelsea, which is more of a cottage than a Tudor manor. 

This would appear to be a choice made by the filmmaker, Fred Zinnemann, rather than a nod to historical accuracy. Though Chelsea was certainly out of London in the 1520s, it was more of a suburb for those who served the court than it was the countryside. In a real letter, More reports that 100 people were fed in his home alone, a far cry from the small gathering of family and servants he assembles in the film. We know, too, that it had at least two courtyards, suggesting it was probably at least moderately grand. Hampton Court, on the other hand, is shot from below, so that the audience feels small in the face of its imposing grandeur. The contrast is clear: More represents idyllic private life, threatened by the state. 

This theme is clear in the actions of More himself. The issue for More throughout in the film is his ‘own private conscience’ – the fact that he believes that the pope is the head of the Church, not the king. This concern runs through his conversations with Tudor nobles and is the issue again at his trial, as he tells Norfolk: ‘What matters is that I believe it, or rather no, not that I believe it, but that I believe it.’ More’s right to hold an individual belief against the state is central.

This is the More of the mid-20th century, not the More of the 16th. The actual More’s entire intellectual enterprise was aimed at opposing the concept of individual conscience, which he took to be a sign of pride. To advance one’s own ideas against the Church, the community of Christian believers both alive and dead, threatened to rip Christendom apart. God spoke through consensus and this led to unity in the Church. For the historical More, what matters is not that he believes something, but that the Church does. 

In opposing Henry’s break with Rome, More saw himself not in the minority, but rather in a resounding majority; More and the entire body of the Church across time and space, against Henry’s little Parliament. More was the establishment, Henry the radical. 

So it is interesting to wonder why Bolt’s More is so drastically different from the historical one. What can this version of More tell us about the ‘season’ from which it comes? 

The 1950s and 1960s were periods in which there was a growing resistance to state demands. Bolt, had spent time as a member of the Communist Party and dallied with various forms of mysticism. He was arrested in 1961 for his involvement with an anti-nuclear weapons group during a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Unlike More, Bolt signed a document in order to get himself out of prison, an agreement to keep the peace, an act which his friends and family said had a profound effect on him. A Man for All Seasons certainly spoke to the spirit of the age; Bolt was not the only one to find himself on the losing side of a conscience-driven fight against the state in the age of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. 

If this was the More born of the mid-20th century – a hero of individual conscience – what does our More say about our ‘season’? Certainly, we are aware of the dark side of zealous religious belief; Mantel herself has spoken of her childhood rejection of religion and the profoundly negative effect of religious policing. 

Of course, to know precisely how More reflects the concerns of our own time, we might need the hindsight of another 50 years, the sort of hindsight that helps us to understand Bolt’s More. It will be interesting to see what More becomes next.

Joanne Paul is Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex.