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THIS DARK WORLD
THE infant was taken, within a week of its birth, to the precincts of the church; the child of wrath must be reformed into the image of God, 'the servant of the fiend' made into 'a son of joy'. At the church-door the priest asked the midwife if the child were male or female, and then made a sign of the cross on the infant's forehead, breast and right hand. He placed some salt in the baby's mouth according to custom; then the priest exorcised the devil from its body with a number of prayers, and pronounced baptism as the sole means 'to obtain eternal grace by spiritual regeneration'. The priest spat in his left hand and touched the ears and nose of the child with his saliva. Let the nose be open to the odour of sweetness. It was time to enter the church itself, the priest taking the right hand of the new-born child who had with the salt and saliva been granted the station of a catechumen.
The litanies of the saints were pronounced over the baptismal font; the priest then divided the water with his right hand and cast it in the four directions of the cross. He breathed three rimes upon it and then spilled wax in a cruciform pattern. He divided the holy water with a candle, before returning the taper to the cleric beside him. Oil and chrism were added, with a long rod or spoon, and the child could now be baptised. Thomas More, what seekest thou? The sponsors replied for the infant, Baptism. Dost thou wish to be baptised? I wish. The child was given to the priest, who immersed him three times in the water. He was then anointed with chrism and wrapped in a chrismal robe. Thomas More, receive a white robe, holy and unstained, which thou must bring before the tribunal of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that thou mayest have eternal life and live for ever and ever. The candle was lit and placed in the child's right hand, thus inaugurating a journey through this dark world which ended when, during the last rites, a candle was placed in the right hand of the dying man with the prayer, 'The Lord is my Light and my Salvation, whom shall I fear?' Whom shall this particular child fear, when it was believed by the Church that the whole truth and meaning of baptism was achieved in the act of martyrdom? 'Baptism and suffering for the sake of Christ', according to a second-century bishop, are the two acts which bring full 'remission of sins'.
It was considered best to baptise the child on the same day as its birth, if such haste were practicable, since an infant unbaptised would be consigned to limbo after its death. To leave this world in a state of original sin was to take a course to that eternal dwelling, Limbus puerorum, suspended between heaven, hell and purgatory. There the little unbaptised souls would dwell in happy ignorance beside the more formidable and haunting Limbus patrum, which contained the souls of Noah, Moses and Isaiah together with (in Dante's epic) Virgil, Aristotle, Socrates and all the good men who lived on earth before the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Adam had already been dragged from this place at the time of Christ's crucifixion, but there was continual debate within the Church about the consequences of denying new-born children the eternal comfort of paradise. Could a child be saved by the desire, the votum, of its parents? Thomas More himself would eventually concede only that 'those infantes be dampned onely to the payne of losse of heauen'.
In various late medieval pictures of baptism, in manuscripts and devotional manuals, the priest stands with his surplice and stole beside the font. Sometimes he seems to be balancing the infant in the palm of his hand, yet the child is so unnaturally large and alert for such an early stage in its life that we can only assume it acquired mental consciousness with its spiritual renovation. A clerk with a surplice stands behind the priest, while two sponsors and the child's father are generally seen beside the font. In some depictions of this first of the seven sacraments, an image of the dying Christ hangs behind the human scene. But the mother was rarely, if ever, present.
In the more pious households, she would have worn a girdle made out of manuscript prayer rolls in the last stages of her pregnancy, and it was customary in labour to invoke the name of St Margaret as well as the Blessed Virgin. She remained secluded after giving birth, and two or three weeks later was led out to be 'churched' or purified. When she was taken to the church, her head was covered by a handkerchief, as a veil, and she was advised not to look up at the sun or the sky. She knelt in the church while the priest blessed her and assured her, in the words of Psalm 121, that 'the sun shall not burn her by day, nor the moon by night. It was a ceremony both to celebrate the birth of the child and to give thanks for the survival of the mother. This is the late fifteenth-century world into which Thomas More was baptised.
PRETTY PLAYS OF CHILDHOOD
THOMAS More's birth was noted by his father upon a blank page at the back of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae; for a lawyer John More was remarkably inexact in his references to that natal year, and the date has been moved from 1477 to 1478 and back again. Although it is of no real consequence to the drama of More's life, the most likely day remains 7 February 1478. He was born between two and three o'clock in the early hours of Saturday morning, in the heart of London. Milk Street is in the ward of Cripplegate Within, bordering upon that of Cheap. It has been supposed that More was baptised either in the church of St Mary-le-Bow or of St Giles, but they are both in other wards; the ritual was probably performed in St Lawrence Jewry or in the parish church of Milk Street, St Mary Magdalen, now long destroyed and forgotten. If you walk down that narrow thoroughfare today, between the banks and the companies which have their home in the 'City', you will see a small statue of the Virgin lodged about thirty feet above the pavement.
Milk Street was part of a fashionable and prosperous ward: in the last quarter of the fifteenth century there were seventeen mercers, or merchants, residing in Cripplegate itself. The great London chronicler and antiquarian John Stow describes the street as 'so called of milk sold there; there be many fair houses for wealthy merchants and other[s]'. More was the scion of a wealthy and influential family; the churches closest to his house showed visible evidence of that urban power. St Lawrence Jewry, a few yards to the north of Milk Street, near the Guildhall, was as ornate and as sumptuous as any parish church in London. Its inventory at the time of its despoliation in the 1540s listed altar cloths of silk and velvet and sarcanet, robes and vestments of damask or linen, chalices and cups, great curtains and candlesticks. It was a church where many merchants were buried: nine are mentioned by name in Stow's Survey. At the other end of Milk Street, just before the corner of Cheapside, stood the little parish church of Mary Magdalen: apart from mayors and other city officials, its graves mentioned by Stow are also those of merchants. More was born within an urban tradition as closely packed and as circuitous as the streets of Cripplegate or Cheap wards. The sponsors who were his witnesses at the baptismal font were the visible tokens of his inheritance, but behind them we can see in emblematic array other figures rising up within the main body of the church--the mercers in their livery of red and violet, the members of other London guilds, the lawyers and the sheriffs, who composed the child's destiny. Beyond them, too, we will recognise the officers of the courts and of the royal Court, and then further still the circles representing the clerks and officials of the Catholic Church, all of them bound together in a complicated network of affiliations and connections, evincing a range of duties, favours, services and obligations which make up their 'affinity'. These are the true sponsors at the baptism of Thomas More.
It was customary to give a single name to the baptised child, and More's parents chose one which was as familiar to them as to every other Londoner. More's maternal grandfather had the same name, but it was also the defining name of an urban cult. Thomas Becket was still the great saint of the city, the martyr and subsequent worker of miracles. He had been born just twenty yards from More's own house in Milk Street, near the corner of Ironmonger Lane find Cheapside, and it is a striking coincidence that these two Catholic Londoners--both martyred and canonised--should have been, some centuries apart, almost nextdoor neighbours.
So the name Thomas was explicable, but the origins of More's surname cannot be so easily discovered. If such names derive from some sense of place, then the great moors or marshes around London might find an echo here. It is also a name upon which a number of puns were constructed. 'More' could be the 'Moor' or black Ethiop and Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist who became his close companion, sometimes called him 'Niger'. On More's family arms, there was the head of a 'blackamoor', and the same device appeared upon his seal when he was under-treasurer of England. On his crest, too, were 'moorcocks'. 'Morus' was also the Latin term for the mulberry tree, and Thomas More would plant one of these 'wise' trees in his garden at Chelsea. He was aware of the power of names, therefore, to create or evoke their own set of circumstances. 'Morus' is fool and 'Mors' is death. Erasmus's title for his most celebrated work Moriae encomium--'In Praise of Folly'--was designed also to praise More, in whose house the book was written. More himself invented puns upon his surname--Memento Mori aeris (Remember More's money) might become Memento morieris (The remembrance of death)--in a transition like that within the contemporaneous music of Lambe or Fayrfax. Yet the suggestivity of the name created effects beyond punning: Mors and Morus were the syllables of More's own destiny. Characteristically he meditated upon death and the passing shadow of the world, while also he 'played' the fool with those who were closest to him. What is in a name? For the sake of authenticity to the period as well as to the man, it ought also to be noted that there were in London eight men with the name of Thomas More in the years from 1400 to 1550.
Since his death came to define him, his first biographers were happy to provide suitable anecdotes for the origin of a martyr. His mother is supposed to have dreamed of all her children, engraved upon her marriage ring, but the name and likeness of Thomas shone brighter than all the rest. Apparently More was told this by his father, which suggests familial expectations as great as filial obligations. There are more obvious examples of hagiography. He was being carried across a river by his nurse, in his early days, when her horse stumbled; the nurse threw the infant over a hedge in order to save him from falling into the water. When she reached dry ground, 'she found the babe lying unhurt and laughing'. This is all in the tradition of the Golden Legend and the other stories of saints which would have surrounded More as a child. The real circumstances of his early life and inheritance are more interesting, if perhaps less remarkable.
More's paternal grandfather was a baker, the son-in-law of a London brewer, and his maternal grandfather, Thomas Graunger, was a tallow chandler. Both grandfathers were members of their guilds--Graunger was a warden of the Tallow Chandlers' Company--as well as citizens of London. The fact that within four generations they produced judges, landed gentlemen and even a Lord Chancellor is not necessarily surprising. The greatest men in London had been merchants for three centuries; Richard Whittington had been a mercer, and William Caxton still was a member of the fraternity. They were the 'most worshipful' of Londoners, amassing large fortunes, helping to control City government, directing the patterns of commerce, and in time often becoming associated with the king in various financial or advisory capacities. Thomas More would move easily all his life among the most powerful and wealthy citizens; he was, after all, one of them.
It might be tempting to describe him as an integral part of London's 'aristocracy', but that would be anachronistic in a hierarchical society where degree and rank were not applied in a random or metaphorical way. The world of More was one of status rather than of class, where the inheritance of feudalism and authoritarian religion pre-eminently demanded the virtues of loyalty and duty. In later life he described himself (in almost conventional terms for a London citizen) as being born of a family noted for its honour rather than its illustriousness. This is not some token phrase, however, but a true definition of what the London merchants believed to be their proper role and destiny. The most powerful citizens could attain only baronial rank, and were therefore inferior in degree to 'noblemen of thc true noble blood'. Yet for Londoners such as More, true virtue sprang not from high birth but from honesty and piety. In his translation of the life of Pico della Mirandola, More wrote that it was the possession of such virtues which produced honour, 'as a shadow folowith a bodi'. Virtue, in other words, cannot be inherited; it is not a simple attribute of rank. The City merchants also knew that the nobility had no exclusive claim to wealth and influence.
Consider the case of Thomas More's father. John More was sixteen years old when his own father died, but he and his five siblings were not reduced to any state of orphaned wretchedness. William More was a 'baker' on the grandest scale; in his will he noted that the Earl of Northumberland still owed him the very large sum of 87 16s 2d [pounds sterling] 'for bread bought of me'. And, as so often happened, William More had married well--indeed the resources of the bride or the bride's family were the most important aspects of any marriage. His wife, Johanna Joye, was the daughter of a prosperous brewer and the granddaughter of John Leycester, formerly a clerk of Chancery. Leycester was a gentleman, entitled to bear arms, and a man of some wealth with properties both in London and in Hertfordshire. So John More was from his earliest years part of a world in which the merchants and citizens of London were acquiring land and money in equal proportions.
The father of Thomas More moved easily enough, therefore, from trade to law. At the age of twenty-three or twenty-four, at about the time of his marriage, he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn. Social historians of this period have often observed that London lawyers had more opportunities of acquiring land than London merchants, but John More was a landowner by inheritance. His main business seems to have been with various City companies and guilds, and he became known as a lawyer with connections and influences which could expedite the general affairs of London merchants. This is also the milieu to which Thomas More would most easily adapt himself. In later years John More would be raised to the rank of 'serjeant', before joining, as a judge, the Court of Common Pleas and eventually the Court of the King's Bench.
It would be unhelpful to apply some nineteenth-century model of a member of the 'middle class' thrusting forward and upward. Merchants and lawyers could become gentlemen and landed gentry, but the actual nature of the society was not thereby changed. The formulae of rank and hierarchy, based like medieval architectonics upon subordination and symmetry, remained intact. In a closed system, everyone has a determined place. In the Act of Apparel 1483, for example, purple and velvet were forbidden to lawyers; in 1486 it was decreed that the hems of livery gowns were to be 'one foot above the soles' of shoes. The colour and material of dress were also of paramount importance in a society which was established upon display and spectacle. Of course there were exceptions, but generally and characteristically each member of the body politic remained within the appropriate estate, or order, or degree, just as the head, eyes and limbs of the body cannot be interchanged. John More, as judge, was one of the eyes. The image of the human body was of central importance in the political and religious discourse of the period; it might be related to medieval cabbalism, but it also emerges in Thomas More's own epigrams upon the perfect kingdom.
John More married Agnes Graunger in the church of St Giles, Cripplegate; there is no name in late medieval London without its own particular resonance and, according to John Stow, Cripplegate was the site where the lame were healed when the body of St Edmund the martyr was brought into the city. They were married on 24 April 1474, the Vigil of St Mark the Evangelist, John More being described as 'Gent.' Agnes Graunger was the first of More's four wives, but it is likely that she bore all of his six children. Thomas More rarely discussed his siblings, and two of them are never mentioned by him. It is likely that they were part of that infant mortality which had provoked such concern for early baptism. At an appropriate age Thomas More's younger sister, Elizabeth, married a lawyer; his elder sister in turn married another lawyer, who later became a coroner. They had remained, in other words, within the connections of a larger official family. He had a younger brother who also survived: the young John More acted as an occasional secretary to Thomas More, but died at some time in his thirties. Agnes Graunger herself died young, although the cause and circumstances of her death are unknown. Her last child was born in the autumn of 1482, and it is possible that she died in the great epidemic of sweating sickness which visited London three years later. But, in a volume entitled Ancient Funerall Monuments, there is a description of a tomb in St Michael Basings Hall, in the ward of Coleman Street; the Latin epitaph upon it commemorates an Agnes More who died in 1499. This stray token of mortality is inconclusive, but it can be inferred that the mother of Thomas More died at some point in his youth or early manhood. How else would John More have been able to marry on three subsequent occasions? It might also explain one of More's early Latin epigrams, translated from the Greek, which declares that even a loving stepmother brings no good fortune to her stepson. It may even be that the relatively early death of his mother engendered in More that self-protectiveness which was so marked a feature of his temperament.
Upon his own epitaph Thomas More described his father as 'Homo civilis, suavis, innocens, mitis, misericors, aequus, et integer'; the Latin is clear enough hardly to need translation, but it is interesting to note that More emphasises his qualities of sweetness, affability and compassion. The description does not fit later accounts of apparent miserliness and strictness; but the disparity need not yet be resolved. It is typical, in any case, that Thomas More preferred to tell worldly anecdotes about his father in which the element of judgement is suspended. 'I have heard my father merrily say every man is at the choice of his wife, that ye should put your hand into a blind bag of snakes and eels together, seven snakes for one eel, yet would I ween reckon it a perilous choice to take up one at adventure though you had made your special word to speed well.' It is not a sympathetic remark from a man who was married four times, but caustic comments about wives were part of the repertoire of medieval humour. A second anecdote, again retold by Thomas More, has a similar import; his father had said 'that there is but one shrewde wyfe in the worlde, but he sayth in dede that euery man weneth he hath her, & that that one is his owne'. 'Shrewd' here, in one of those obliquities of meaning which render some medieval terms ambiguous, means 'shrewish' rather than perspicacious.
Yet marriage was not supposed to be a matter of 'courtly love', and there is no doubt that John More prospered. The property in Hertfordshire bequeathed to him was substantial enough for anyone who wished to think of himself as 'a landed gentleman' and who had his own coat of arms. Gobions, or Gibions, or Gubynnes, or Gubbeannes (the orthography of the period, before the full impact of the printed word, was not exact) was a 'capital messuage' or main house in the parish of North Mimms, with adjoining orchards and fields as well as lands in neighbouring parishes. Little is known about the More dwelling in Milk Street itself, except that it must have been one of the 'fair houses' mentioned by John Stow. The antiquarian describes London dwellings of stone, but most were of wooden construction; others were of mixed type with stone gateways and cellars, timber-framed walls of lath and plaster, and tiled roofs.
We know of another successful merchant in the parish of St Mary Magdalen, Milk Street: James Olney, who had eight rooms 'for bedrooms and parlours'. Imagine, then, a gateway on Milk Street which led into a square courtyard roughly twenty-five feet by twenty-five feet. On the left side was a single-storeyed hall, which was the principal room of the house. It was the chamber for dining and entertaining, with its long table and chairs, with its screens and tapestries and candles for both decoration and comfort; it would have been heated by a fireplace, or by a brazier, and the fire would have lit up the 'steyned cloths' hanging upon the walls. In this room, too, was placed the cupboard of plate; these were the most expensive and important items in any household, and in the hall of John More we would expect to see goblets, basins, ewers, patens and great spoons glowing in the light. Furniture was of a plain sort, with chairs and stools, small tables and chests, placed upon the rushes which acted as a covering for the floor. Here, too, would be sensed all the odours of timber and stone and smoke, of dried herbs and roasted meats.
Beyond the hall were the kitchen, pantry and butlery--even, sometimes, a parlour, where the family might dine together. But the other rooms were in the adjoining wing of the house. Earlier in the century it had been customary for families to share one bedroom, with a canopied and curtained bed for the master and the mistress, and trestle beds or mattresses for everyone else. But by the late fifteenth century two bedrooms were often used by the family (the servants slept in the attic spaces), and the surviving inventories of featherbeds, blankets, sheets, pillows and counterpanes suggest that they were designed to be as luxurious as possible; there were also various 'chambres', 'orioles' (small rooms or bays) and 'solars' (upper rooms). Such wealthy late medieval households lived in comfort. Their rooms were decorated with tapestries or stained cloths, while woodwork and wooden panelling were painted in delicate shades; halls and parlours were wainscoted, and sometimes depicted figures out of the Bible or classical legend. In the courtyard there was space for bright flowers and herbs, vines and figs and laurel trees; geese and chicken were kept here and, in one account, there is mention of 'six water potts of tyn for byrds to drynke of'.
The young Thomas More, then, was raised in a prosperous and comfortable household. The prose of his maturity contains allusions to infant games and childhood ballads. Even in the anxious and bitter period of his polemical writing, he invokes a 'good chylde' playing such 'prety playes ... as chyrystone mary bone, bokyll pyt, spurme poynt, cobnutte or quaytyng'. 'Cobnutte' remains as the children's game of 'conkers', and the game of quoits or 'quaytyng' still flourishes. It is clear that little children also played with cherrystones and used marrow bones as bats or markers. In another place he writes of children shooting arrows high into the air and in fact quite young boys were given bows and arrows with which to practise their skills. There are metaphors of archery throughout More's writings, with his references to 'a full shotte', the 'but' and the 'prycke'. It is hard to imagine his ever being a good archer, however, let alone an enthusiastic player of 'foteball', with an inflated pig's bladder used as a ball, or of 'cokesteel' with a cock buried up to its neck in the ground and used as a target for missiles. It is easier to see him playing less ferocious games in the courtyard, 'as chyldren make castelles of tyle shardes'.
There is a charming reminiscence of a late fifteenth-century childhood written by a twelve-year-old schoolboy, in which he recalls how 'I was wont to lye styll abedde tyll it was forth dais, delitynge myselfe in slepe and ease. The sone sent in his beamys at the wyndowes that gave me lyght instede of a candle.' And what did the young boy see around him, on these mornings five hundred years ago? He used 'to beholde the rofe, the beamys, and the rafters of my chambre, and loke on the clothes that the chambre was hanged with!' Then he 'callede whom me list to lay my gere redy to me' and 'my brekefaste was brought to my beddys side'. This pampered childhood is enough to dispel quaint illusions about the necessary hardship of fifteenth-century life. There are other memories, too. John Colet, who became More's religious mentor, remembered the painted dolls and rocking-horses of his infancy. In John Heywood's interlude Wytty and Wyttles, a child remarks that 'All my pleasure is in catchynge of byrdes/And makynge of snowballys and throwyng the same'; he failed to mention skating, using the bones of sheep for skates, which was another popular winter pastime.
More had his own reminiscences, which are expressed by a protagonist in his Dialogue of Comfort: 'My mother had whan I was a litell boye, a good old woman that toke hede to her children, they callid her mother mawd.' One can imagine her in close cap and stuff gown. 'She was wont whan she sat by the fier with vs, to tell vs that were children many childish tales.' He then recounts one of the fireside stories in which a fox, Father Raynard, hears the confessions of a wolf and an ass. The moral is concerned with the problems of an over-scrupulous conscience, but includes the recognisable details of city life--the pigs sleeping in 'new straw' and the goose in 'the powlters shop' with its feathers 'redy pluckyd'. It is not a tale out of Aesop, since the Greek fabulist could hardly have anticipated priests or rosary beads 'almost as bigg as bolles', but it is an animal narrative of the same stable. Mother Mawd was clearly devout, also, and the devotion of More's own nature may have first sprung from such close childhood influence.
During More's childhood, in 1479 and again in 1485, there was 'an hugh mortalyte & deth of people' in London; it was the 'sweating sickness' or 'English sweat', which, in the autumn of the latter year, may have claimed the lives of his mother and of two siblings. Two years later the plague visited Westminster and caused 'grete deth'. Certainly his abiding and central preoccupation with death was shared by his contemporaries. The reports of these epidemics come from the London chronicles of the period, and in the pages of these long forgotten memorials the customary life of the city around the young More is also restored--men hanged and then burned for robbing a church and despoiling the blessed sacrament, bills fastened upon church doors, the gates being shut against riotous assemblies outside the walls, new towers and conduits and weathercocks being erected, a world of portents and providential signs, lavish spectacle and continual urban improvement. It was also the period that witnessed the short reign of the supposed 'crippleback', Richard III, who is presumed to have murdered the young heirs of Edward IV in Thomas More's own fifth year.
Henry Tudor was in turn the victor on Bosworth Field in 1485, More's seventh year, but those dynastic struggles or 'Wars of the Roses' did not necessarily play any formative role in City trade and politics. It has been variously estimated that the amount of actual warfare in the years between 1455 and 1487 was twelve or fourteen months, and fifteenth-century London was a relatively peaceful and increasingly prosperous city. The authorities generally ensured that they were seen to be on the 'right side' on the appropriate occasions, and supported whichever monarch emerged from the processes of fate, time and faction. John More himself is an interesting example of the alliance which might be formed between the City and the royal court; it is clear, from his will and other evidence, that he had an especial loyalty towards Edward IV, in whose reign the young lawyer rose to prominence. It was in Edward's reign, too, that the heralds bestowed on More a coat of arms. It is also clear that he had a particular connection with Archbishop Morton, who served Edward IV and, subsequently, Henry VII. The precise nature of their relationship cannot now be uncovered, and might well have resisted analysis at the time; it remained a matter of mutual services and obligations, the filaments of which over the years created a network of amity and trust. Indeed, it is much easier to chart John More's legal career in the years of Thomas More's childhood. He was involved for some years on a City body concerned with the maintenance and development of London Bridge but, while specialising in London affairs, he was also ascending the hierarchy of Lincoln's Inn. He was in turn master of the revels, butler and marshal; these posts may sound absurd or servile, but they were of paramount importance in the good administration and reputation of the Inn. The 'master of the revels', for example, was not some figure out of Rabelais but an official in charge of its most elaborate and prestigious annual ceremonies. Thomas More himself accepted the post even when he was serving as Lord Chancellor of England.
There is an account of England in this period, written by a Venetian diplomat, which is of particular interest for its depiction of London manners during Thomas More's earlier years; certainly it helps to put in context More's own distinctive and developing temperament. The English are 'handsome and well-proportioned' but are also 'great lovers of themselves . . . whenever they see a handsome foreigner they say that he looks like an Englishman . . . they all from time immemorial wear very fine clothes.' We will find More to be lacking in personal vanity of that kind, and indeed sometimes emphasising the carelessness of his dress and deportment. 'They take great pleasure in having a quantity of excellent victuals . . . when they mean to drink a great deal, they go to the tavern, and this is done not only by the men but by ladies of distinction.' In later life, More was notoriously abstemious with his food and drink. But it is appropriate to end a chapter concerning More's childhood in London with the description of an encounter in a hall or street: 'they have the incredible courtesy of remaining with their heads uncovered, with an admirable grace, whilst they talk to each other'? He mentions Cheapside, too, where 'there are fifty-two goldsmiths' shops, so rich and full of silver vessels'? This, as we shall see, is the street down which the young Thomas More made his way to school.