The reputation of St Thomas More has for centuries survived the “shafts of falsehood and of folly”, to borrow a phrase of William Cobbett, the 19th-century polemicist. In spite of dying as a traitor, and his defence of the Catholic Church (not always a crowd-pleaser in these islands), the former Lord Chancellor of England retains a place in the popular imagination as a man of tremendous courage and integrity, the “man for all seasons” who was “always the King’s good servant, but God’s first”.
Even in secular Britain, it is not difficult to find roads, buildings and even housing estates named after him. He is held in equally high esteem abroad and more profoundly within the Catholic Church, which honours him as patron saint of politicians, statesmen and lawyers. In a poll conducted by this magazine in 2005,
St Thomas was voted the greatest of all English saints.
The latest serious attempt to traduce his reputation, his “perverse” depiction by Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall, will surely not stand the same test of time. My guess is that her whitewashing of Sir Thomas Cromwell, a thief and murderer, will come to be seen as propaganda nearly as daft as Springtime for Hitler in The Producers, the 1968 Mel Brooks movie.
What the popularity of Mantel’s books points to, however, is our enduring fascination with the Tudor period. For this reason the opening of a new shrine incorporating a “major relic” of St Thomas, never displayed in public until now, is a significant occasion for our country.
The relic is the hair shirt worn by St Thomas as he contemplated martyrdom during his own hour of Gethsemane, in the Bell Tower of the Tower of London. The shrine is appropriately situated in Buckfast Abbey, the Devon monastery dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 – four years after the death of St Thomas – and rebuilt on the same spot a century ago by Benedictine monks from France and Germany.
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