The Life of Thomas More: a protest

When Peter Ackroyd's scholarly work The Life of Thomas More appeared early in 1998 it seemed likely that it would provide, for a wide variety of readers, an easily accessible source of detailed thoroughly researched information to complement, what was already available concerning the English whose lives were actively bound up in the events of those momentous times. In this Ackroyd's work has not been a disappointment; More's life, learning motives and driving force are clearly expounded. We see and begin to understand the lawyer, skilled in classical methods of constructing a case, or as convincingly demolishing it; fluent in Latin and, Greek but also at home with, and prone to use with facility, sarcasm, bawdiness, "the poetry of the streets", the common forms of speech as well as the subject matter of everyday Londoners. Thus we are given More warts, hair shirt and all; Ackroyd's biography is a clear and refreshing insight into this learned, charming, repressed and altogether contradictory man.

Thus it is saddening to see that, whon it becomes necessary, as any detailed discussion of More's life must, to consider his dealings with William Tyndale, this even-handed treatment falters, to be replaced by unsupported perjoratives and dubious claims presented with all the dignity of scholarly objectvity. The people of sixteenth century England are carelessly patronized in a manner in total opposition to Tyndale's expressed certainty that the common man could understand, reason on and even dispute the scriptures at least as well as the respected clerics of the day. Such evident bias cannot bias cannot be allowed to pass without comment.

Ackroyd's chapter XXV is headed Foolish Frantic Books, a title drawn from More's own writings although precisely where is curiously unspecified. [1] But not only are More's own opinions of those whose thoughts differ from his own used as a chapter heading where they must affect the reader's reaction before the presentation of a single fact; from the opening paragraph of this chapter, rather than a straight-forward exposition of Tyndale's work, the words used to describe it seem chosen with the object of subtle denigration. Tyndale's New Testament is referred to as his "English version of the New Testament" [2], as if any New Testament in English were somehow inherently inferior, and not a little repugnant to boot. Describing this translation as a "version" suggests, entirely without evidence, that this New Testament is a mere Tyndale construct, at least in large part his own composition. There is no hint that it is an honest translation into living contemporary English, using what was then the latest understanding of the original languages. It is hard to imagine why an experienced historian such as Peter Ackroyd should make such an omission, or why he does not introduce Tyndale's work in a simple, factual manner.

Almost immediately, Ackroyd goes on to dismiss "Tyndale's tendentious translation of such key terms as 'presbyter' and 'ecclesia"' [3] without any attempt to explain or justify this peremptory judgement, let alone to suggest why Tyndale's translation, the work which itself is the object of this scornful approach, may have been inaccurate or in any way inappropriate. It seems unlikely that Thomas More himself would have been overly impressed by the total lack of evidence or reasoned argument here. Both phrases, "English version" and "tendentious translation", clearly seem designed to suggest an attitude of mind that readily dismisses Tyndale as a trouble-maker whose works and writings should not be taken seriously. All this without the presentation of a single factual statement or argument of any kind. Tyndale's translation of the two words that Ackroyd rightly calls "key terms" (given in other sources as presbyteros and ekklesia) [4] arouses little controversy today; both are in fact used consistently throughout the Greek scriptures in precisely the way that Tyndale has translated them. flow then is their use "tendentious"? Does it not seem strange that such "key terms" should be subject to summary dismissal in so few words, as things of no importance? It begs the question: "who is being tendentious here; Tyndale or Ackroyd?"

The same sentence goes on to claim that Tyndale's translation of these key terms "was too abstract a matter for most to understand". [5] Ackroyd thus succeeds at a stroke in patronizing any audience Tyndale may have had in 1528 and is equally dismissive of his own readers four hundred and seventy years later. We are nowhere given so much as a hint of why these disputed words are "too abstract" for most to understand, just as we were given no opportunity to consider evidence and decide for ourselves whether Tyndale's translation was in fact tendentious. What has happened to the clear, objective portrayal of people and events we enjoy and appreciate in other parts of Ackroyd's book?

This derogatory treatment of Tyndale gives every impression of being part of a deliberate plan. He is in fact first introduced by Ackroyd as "the 'heretic' Tyndale." [6] The condemnatory "heretic" is disingenuously enclosed in quotation marks but the damage has already been done; everyone knows that Tyndale was burned at the stake. But not everyone knows that Tyndale was single-handedly responsible for much of the Authorized as well as later Bible versions and Ackroyd gives him no credit for this. Neither is mention made of the part played by Tyndale, through his translation and publication of the scriptures, in the development of present-day English, of telling words and phrases still in common use today. This criticism is relevant since More's own contribution to this development, though relatively modest, is given proper mention. [7]

Why then has Peter Ackroyd chosen the translation and writing of William Tyndale as the one area where he throws aside his fair, reasoned approach and resorts to unsubstantiated claims, to prejudice, the supression of evidence and patronizing of his readers? Whatever his reasons, the resulting treatment of Tyndale is unbalanced and unfair. Not only unfair but unreasonable and wholly unconvincing. The author does himself as well as William Tyndale a gross disservice.

Not all readers of Ackroyd's book will readily appreciate the misleading nature of his writing about Tyndale or will be aware of his sudden, unexplained change of direction. Even among the many experienced reviewers of his book, none seems to have picked up the change of tack or the consequent unfairness. Perhaps it is that Williarn Tyndale's burden of bringing scriptural enlightenment, as distinct from religious tradition, to his fellowcountrymen is not quite complete and there is yet work to do for the Society that carries on his name.

J. Harry Robinson


  1. Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, p 273. hardbackpaperback, other editions available
  2. Ibid, p 270, line 4.
  3. Ibid, p 270, line 7.
  4. David Daniell, William Tyndale, A Biography, p 148. hardbackpaperback
  5. Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, p 270, line 8.
  6. Ibid, p 39.
  7. Ibid, p 276.