an interview with Peter Ackroyd      
photo of peter ackroyd

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  Bold Type: How did you become interested in Thomas More in the first place?

Peter Ackroyd: Well, I was brought up as a Catholic, and so was naturally intrigued by this great historical figure. But perhaps more importantly, he was a Londoner, and a London visionary at that. So, after writing of other great Cockney visionaries such as William Blake and Charles Dickens, he seems naturally to follow the contours of my interests and preoccupations. He was also the most significant Londoner of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, which was a period in the city's history which I had never before confronted; so through More I wished to recover a lost civilisation.

BT: Why do you call it lost?

PA: It was a Catholic culture before the Reformation extirpated it--indeed More spent much of his life fighting that Reformation and attempting to maintain the Catholic identity of London. London, and England, were then part of a great European civilisation both spiritual and intellectual. In fact London, in the early years of the sixteenth century, was the intellectual center of the new humanist learning. So in many respects that city has become a quite foreign and alien one.

BT: Why do you think Thomas More continues to fascinate us.

PA: Well he fascinates me because he was perhaps the last principled upholder of medieval civilisation and medieval Catholicism. He was also a very practical figure in the life of the world--he was one of the first to uphold the right of female education, for example, and put his principles into practice at his school in Chelsea.

BT: Quite a different picture from that provided by A Man For All Seasons.

PA: Yes. That brilliant film portrayed More almost as a modern hero, as a man of individual conscience. Now in my interpretation that particular portrait is anachronistic. He was a man who believed in tradition, in order and in authority. He was a lawyer who spent all his life maintaining the orthodox world of law which, as far as he was concerned, represented the spirit of God upon earth. He was not speaking for himself alone, but for an entire civilisation which was at risk.

BT: Is that why More continues to fascinate us?

PA: Yes. Here was an incredibly intelligent and witty man with a deep sense of spiritual awareness. He was a man for all seasons precisely because he was so vivid and complex a human being that he effortlessly took on all the games of the world at the same time as he knew them to be empty--at least in comparison with the next world. Such a formidable and resourceful human being will always exert a kind of mystery or fascination. That is also why I wanted to write the biography--to try to understand the mystery and, in understanding the man, bringing him and his world immediately present to the reader.

BT: You say that he was a lawyer by trade. What does that mean?

PA: He was a lawyer by instinct as well as trade. You have to recall that he was educated within a society and a culture which was obsessed by the law and by legal relationships. Every part of life was conceived within a traditional network of duties and obligations which, for More himself, represented the law of God. He spoke about the law in precisely the same way he spoke about his Church, and the attitude which he adopted towards the primacy and authority of the law governed all his subsequent actions.

BT: Sen. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, recently cited Thomas More and called on his colleagues to follow the example of the 16th century saint, quoting More, "When you take an oath, you hold your soul in your hands." How do you think More would react to the current situation with President Clinton?

PA: It is an interesting parallel. When Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was declared valid, More said to his son-in-law, "God give grace that these matters within a while be not confirmed with oaths." By which he meant that the taking of an oath before God was the most solemn and sacred transaction--you must not break your oath, even if that would lead to certain death and disgrace. In a world of law it is the ultimate test of faith and conscience--that is why More eventually refused to pledge his oath to the king's divorce, because he knew that he would be disavowing the rule of the Church and thus of God upon the earth. He could not do it. He was asked to swear because "everyone else" had sworn but he could not nullify his conscience in that matter. He was a lawyer but in the end he could not rely upon legal niceties and differences of interpretation--the law was the soul of the world, and guided his soul also. Nothing could affect that.

BT: Did you like him in the end?

PA: That is not really a question I can answer. I try and understand him, thus making him live again for the reader. But it is as if you were asking me if I like one of the characters in my novels--you neither like nor dislike them. You have to bring them alive. That is all.

BT: And bring the city alive? It seems that all of your novels and biographies are preoccupied with London itself.

PA: Yes in a sense that is true. London has always provided the landscape for my imagination, if that does not sound too pretentious, and I suppose becomes a character--a living being--within each of my books. Perhaps I am writing its history, or biography, by indirection--certainly I think, all of my books, biography and fiction alike, are single chapters in the book which will only be completed at the time of my death. Then I hope the city itself will be seen as a metaphor for the nature of time and the presence of the past in human affairs.

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