A tale of doctrinal squabble in the ax-happy England of Henry VIII, from which emerges this important life lesson: never piss off a saint.
He wasn’t a saint then, but Thomas More, author of Utopia and sympathetic hero of A Man for All Seasons, had plenty going for him in his day. He was among the richest and most powerful civil servants in 16th-century England, and for a time he had leave from his king to do pretty much whatever he wanted. One of his favorite hobbies was slaughtering Protestants, writes former London Sunday Times correspondent Moynahan; More “reveled in burnings” and was pleased to put his enemies to “ye fyre ever lastynge.” He conceived a special hatred for a minor cleric named William Tyndale, a gifted linguist and prose stylist. Arguing that English “doth correspond with scripture than ever Latin may,” Tyndale worked for years on a vernacular Bible, which put him at odds with the clerical establishment on a number of counts. The priests considered the Bible and its interpretation their exclusive province; the laity had no business opening its pages or pondering alternative readings, and when they did (as when one unfortunate tailor suggested that Christ didn’t offer his literal body at the Last Supper), they were tortured, burned, or drawn and quartered. Tyndale escaped this dispiriting climate and earned More’s renewed hatred by relocating to Germany and the Low Countries, centers of the Lutheran heresy. The author charges that More arranged for Tyndale’s arrest and subsequent martyrdom in Belgium just before being arrested and executed himself in 1635, having crossed King Henry one time too many. But Tyndale’s legacy endures, Moynahan notes, for the King James Bible incorporates much of his English, including some of its most beautiful passages.
A well-crafted outing for fans of early modern English history or of fiction rooted in scholarly detection and religious intrigue (e.g., The Name of the Rose and the Caedfael mysteries).