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Hilary Mantel's letter to Thomas More: 'We have to lie about you a little in order to like you'

Hans Holbein the Younger's 1527 portrait of Sir Thomas More 
'A vulpine genius': Hans Holbein the Younger's 1527 portrait of Sir Thomas More  Credit: Michael Bodycomb/The Frick Collection

The Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall author turns her forensic eye on Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor, in a brand new story inspired by Holbein's portrait

My dear More… but here’s the first problem. How do I address you? Sir Thomas? St Thomas? Lord Chancellor? I can’t just call you Thomas. Half the men in England are called that. Anyway, I don’t feel that kind of easy warmth, though one of your modern biographers says that most people who work with you end up liking you. Liking you, disliking you, it shouldn’t matter – not to sober historians. But when we see your portrait we respond to you as a man – sad, distinguished, aging, fiercely clever. It gives us a privileged view, as if we are with you in your chapel or writing closet: a way of looking that pierces the fog of misrepresentation, but allows us to see you with respect and in the light of the mercy we all need. Face to face, we can’t deny your flawed humanity. And if we admit to yours, why not ours?

Objectivity is impossible. The waters were muddied long since, by early accounts contrived with one eye on fast-track sainthood. When your son-in-law Will Roper wrote your story, it was routine to make a Life into what it ought to have been, and it’s notable how some of your opinions firmed up, in the 20 years after your death. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on second-hand reports from another generation. You talk, you write, you sit and look at Hans Holbein: Hans Holbein looks at you.

He sees a vulpine genius. (I like foxes, I mean well.) You are engaged, vital, ready to smile or snap out an impatient remark. Intellect burns through pale indoor skin, like a torch behind a paper screen. Concentration has furrowed your brow, the effort of containing multiple ironies. When you practised as a lawyer, you used to let your gown trail off one shoulder; admirers copied you, making carelessness a cult. You’ve not shaved to meet the painter. No time, and you’d like to be thought above such niceties; you’re not vain, unless such nonchalance is a vanity in itself. Everything is in your lineaments – past and future – a whole eloquent biography.

As a little boy, you carried your books to St Anthony’s School on Threadneedle Street. At six in the morning you sat down to chant your Latin, sharing a bench with other scholars from the City of London: the sons, like you, of lawyers and prosperous tradesmen. Then you joined Archbishop Morton’s household, seeing close up how an astute and powerful churchman governed the realm. It’s there, at Lambeth Palace, that you first emerged as a prodigy, a boy who will go far.

Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies Credit: Andrew Crowley

Oxford next; you’re 14. Then back home to the City, to serve your apprenticeship to the law. Ahead of you, a seat in Parliament, and the friendship of our pleasant and energetic young king: promotion to the royal council, and finally – after you help pull Tom Wolsey down – to the post of Lord Chancellor. You always pretend to fight shy of honours. Nobody’s fooled. Your heart may tell you that you crave homespun. But your hands were always ready to slide into those red velvet sleeves. Your humility is of the kind that bows the neck to receive a chain of office. The Tudor rose sits proudly on a puny chest. One never thinks of you as robust – just as a nimble man at his best fighting weight.

It’s hard to be a politician and a saint. George Orwell (there’s a man who might interest you) said that every life, viewed from the inside, is a series of defeats. I would amplify that, say it is a series of enforced compromises, slippages from our own standard: shabby little sins. In the hope of countering them, you contemplate a life radically different from the one you finally choose. You imagine you could turn away from the world, be a priest. You spend time with the monks of the Charterhouse, praying with them, watching their austere routines. Their lives are isolated, rough. They live in community but contrive hardly to meet. They stink like otters, people say, from their diet of fish. Almost alone among the orders, the Carthusians need no reformation; they have never derogated from their ideal of poverty, of solitude.

Does guilt fret and scratch you?

But you decide, your friend Erasmus tells us, that you cannot sustain that life. You must marry. You have studied enough theology to equip you to give a series of public lectures on St Augustine. You know you are drawn to what the saint calls “stinging carnal pleasure.” You don’t want to be a bad priest. You think you can be a good husband. Does guilt fret and scratch you, like the knots in your penitential jerkin of hair? Better to marry than to burn, as St Paul says. It’s possible to do both.

Yours is not a face that suggests an easy temper. Holbein shows us contained tension, willed constraint, subdued passion about to break out. Perplexed, you ask yourself, what should I do? How can I serve flesh and spirit? The point about our human nature is that we must go to work on it. Why do we live? We live to die: that’s what the church tells us. You are a sharp, capable man of affairs, ready with an anecdote, a joke: worldly, urbane. But we must, as you write in your prayer book, “set the world at nought”. We must be ready to leave the city for our inner desert. You write many books: polemics, histories, self-justifications. You make Utopia, an imaginary island; its chief town, London’s shadow.

'Three generations clustered around you': Holbein's drawing, c1526, of More (centre) with his family Credit: Alamy

You marry twice. Proud of your family, you have Hans paint them, three generations clustered around you. You offer open house to wandering scholars. Friendship is one of your talents. You look like a man keen and merciless in argument, one who takes a deep and knowing pleasure in discomfiting his opponents. When Hans takes your likeness, in 1527, it’s hard to see the “lowliness and affability” a contemporary noticed seven years back. Is a dialogue always a contest that it is urgent to win? As letters from Europe bring news of splits and feuds among the faithful, you begin to think so. But when the portrait is made, you are still the “man for all seasons”. Your friends must envy your domestic comfort: your music, your garden, your household pets. Do they know you whip yourself? Admittedly, the church approves such practices. You’re not alone in them. But is it a little extreme? Old-fashioned? Unnecessary? Your years of “sad gravity” are coming. Life will afflict you soon enough.

I expect that when Hans came in to make his sketches, you knew what you wanted. You were a man attentive to your own image. Holbein is not the kind of painter who goes fishing for a man’s soul. His eye is meticulous, his technique formidable, and his concentration fixes on the telling details of the surface his subject chooses to show the world. A painter knows the art of concealment, and why one might choose to practise it. If Thomas Cromwell, sitting across the fireplace from you, wishes to be shown as a thickset plebeian with the intellectual curiosity of a boiled pudding, then Hans will give him the satisfaction. Only later you will know, and the world will witness, the lethal speed at which that man can move.

'The curiosity of a boiled pudding': Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Thomas Cromwell (c1533)

Hans has placed a curtain behind you. It hints at what is still undisclosed. When I remember you – and I am sure I do – as our swift-talking host at our after-supper debates in the 1520s – you were the first to laugh, the first to be angry, about the absurdities and exactions of the clergy. We thought of you as reform-minded, even irreverent. But now you are growing frightened, even by your own past work, and fear corrupts and coarsens you. You attack your enemies – Martin Luther most especially – in the language of the gutter. You have admired intellectual daring, but chiefly in yourself; you fear other people’s ideas are wild beasts, marauding in the streets and savaging the souls of simple people.

By 1530 – by which time you are ensconced as Lord Chancellor – the terms of the debate have hardened. You no longer rely on witty persuasions, but on more brutal methods. The king wants to cast off the queen. He says he is head of the church in England – he, not the man in Rome. And the words of the scriptures (in what you think are false translations) are debated not from pulpits but in ale houses, in the street. The Englishman wants to talk to his God directly. The honey of discourse has turned to the poison of heresy. Satan is under the supper table and he is about to kick it over.

Satan is under the supper table

Six people died, burned as heretics, during your two and a half years as chancellor. A modest death toll for such ferocious times? But you must also answer for the wider destruction: the dubiously legal detentions, the household raids. Suspects had their businesses ruined, their health wrecked, their families ripped apart. You were proud of your part in this. You thought you were saving Christendom. You thought diversity in opinion would lead to fatal weakness. You closed your eyes in prayer, and you heard the Turks and the heathens at the gate.

This causes posterity a problem. Something else is concealed by the curtain: your reputation. Sir Thomas, I advise not turning around: do not scoop that curtain aside, because you won’t like what we have made of you. Your own partisans, after you were safely dead, made you more papalist than the pope. They were using you, but at least they understood your worldview. Your later admirers have made you a liberal icon, a martyr for freedom of conscience. They see in you certain secular virtues that you would have despised as vices. You were not tolerant and would have thought it shameful to be so. You did not believe that a man’s own conscience should act as his chief moral guide. His guide should be the church, her traditions, her practices, her authority: the consensus that holds Christian souls together. It is for this cause you die.

By and large, we do not understand this appeal to authority, to the majority opinion. We have to lie about you a little in order to like you, and some people treat any criticism of you as if it were heresy in itself. They are touchingly loyal to the simplifications of their schoolmasters, and they don’t want their certainties disturbed. “Burn heretics?” they say. “More was not alone. Surely, that’s just what they did in those days?”

But we can’t simply say that the practices of your contemporaries absolve you. Thomas Cromwell has blood on his hands, but then he doesn’t set himself up as a saint. And Henry does what rulers do: he kills to keep the state safe, to maintain his power. You were his good councillor once. When you resigned, he said he would be your good lord still. Two years on, he finds you have been ungrateful. That dangling rope in your portrait is a memento mori.

What the artist put behind the curtain – in 1527 we still can’t see it – is what will destroy you, before a decade is out: circumstances and will. Your will, your slippery and subtle intellect, against Henry’s will. Surely, from the inception, you know Henry will win? Not the moral game, perhaps. But you said it yourself, in your book on Richard III – kings’ games are “for the most part played on scaffolds”. Henry wants you to swear an oath to say he is supreme head of the church in England. Every public person must take it. It is a commitment to the new order, to a nation independent of Rome. Your old companions, your fellow councillors, advise you to swear. The clergy conform, the members of Parliament too. Why should you be the naysayer? The king is patient, but in the end your lodging is the Tower.

Your wife, Lady Alice, doesn’t understand why you’re destroying yourself. Come home to Chelsea, she urges you. To the warm house, the library, the orchard “where you might in the company of me your wife, your children and household be merry”. Thomas Cromwell, the king’s new right-hand man, wants you to be merry too. No advantage accrues to him from your death. Your change of mind would be a coup for him: it would make the king happy.

Ben Miles and Lydio Leonard as Thomas Cromwell and Anne Bolyn in the RSC production of Wolf Hall Credit: Alastair Muir

He wants you to sign a piece of paper, that’s all. But he can’t wear you down. You’ve been in the Tower for a year, and you’re so lonely you might as well be a Carthusian. You tell your family to take the oath; do as I say, not as I do. The man of “angel’s wit and singular learning” is getting shabbier by the week. You are afraid they might hurt you, put pressure on you in that way. July 1535: the weather is closing in. So wet, typical of these cheerless summers. Thomas Cromwell somehow managed to arrange for the sun to come out for the coronation of Anne Boleyn, but two years have passed since then, the king still has no male heir, God is not looking England’s way: the climate of opinion has darkened.

You will not die silent. That’s another of posterity’s misperceptions. In your months of detention you have been careful not to incriminate yourself, not to give your reasons for refusing the oath – at least, you will not give them in any official context. But after the court’s verdict, you’ll speak out. You’ll say why you’re dying: for what has always been believed, and always understood. For obedience to the church, for self-surrender. If we don’t follow the logic of your beliefs, we can see you were sincere in holding them. (To your discredit, you never conceded that to your opponents.) You have steeled yourself to face the worst the state can do. You don’t know how you will die. Dishonourably, slowly, at the hangman’s chosen speed? Or the honourable, and allegedly quicker, death by the axe? You hope Henry will be merciful. He used to be merciful. You used to think you knew him. You counted on too much.

One more thing, and then we must part. In the days before your trial, you’ll have visitors in your room at the Tower. Your fate is still not sure, and so they’ve come to take your books away; it’s a last turn of the screw, a nasty, well-calculated piece of psychological pressure. But still, your heart leaps at the prospect of company. Admittedly, it’s not the company you’d choose. The party is led by Richard Rich, the Solicitor General, a man about whom you’re persistently rude. And with him is Richard Southwell, one of Cromwell’s cronies, with his weak disdainful features. Still, as Hans would tell you, he can’t entirely help his face.

'He can't help his face': Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Sir Richard Southwell (c1536)

Rich is polite, even friendly. He draws you into talk, to dispute. It’s as if you were student debaters. You warm to it; Rich stands and takes it patiently, while you score points off him. But please note that Southwell is edging away. What doesn’t he want to hear? When you’re done, Rich will bustle off, and Southwell and the rest will follow more sedately with the books tied up in string. It doesn’t seem as if much has happened. Except the books have gone: your first friends, your last. Silence falls. Only your persistent cough in the gathering twilight.

At your trial, Rich will perjure himself, some say. Southwell will claim he was too far off to hear the conversation, but Rich will allege certain treasonable statements. I look at the portrait, I see you looking alive – intent, about to speak. I want to lean into history, put my hand on your dusty sleeve and stop you – before Rich reaches for his pen, with the content of your conversation brimming and swilling in his brain.

Just write it down, Cromwell has told him, bring it to me. Write down anything he says, then we’ll see. We can’t be sure that Rich’s evidence was crucial. There was never any chance that the king wouldn’t get his verdict; you’ve defied him for too long. Still, it makes you angry, when you hear your words come buzzing back in the courtroom, stinging like demon flies. Richard Rich will die in his bed, wealthy, honoured, a serial betrayer. What he does to you, he’ll do to Thomas Cromwell when his time comes, and more blame attaches to that: Cromwell was good to him. You’re brought down, like most great men, by a man who is your inferior. No one wants it to end in that undignified way – you splashing to the scaffold, your heart’s blood diluted by London rainwater.

History is always stranger than we imagine or can imagine. It’s never black/white, it’s never either/or, it’s never “if a, therefore b.” The chains of causation snap when you breathe on them. Some iron assumptions are cobweb-thin. History is never tidy or shapely. It doesn’t have a dramatic arc. It’s 
full of cul-de-sacs and anti-climaxes, cloudy mysteries reshaping themselves. The paper that Rich wrote for Cromwell is still extant. Thanks to Holbein we can see you clear as yesterday, your chain of office still bright, a gleam in your eye. But Richard Rich’s paper is readable only under ultraviolet light. Spotted by damp and nibbled by rats, his words are passing away.

© 2018 The Frick Collection. "Letter to Thomas More, Night" by Hilary Mantel © 2018 Tertius Enterprises Limited. Reprinted with permission from Holbein's Sir Thomas More by Hilary Pantel and Xavier F Salomon, published by The Frick Collection, New York, in association with D Giles Ltd (gilesltd.com) at £11.95. To order for £9.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk