Thomas More
in Making and remaking saints in nineteenth-century Britain
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Although he had not yet been canonized, Thomas More’s sanctity was recognised throughout the English Catholic community and beyond from the late sixteenth century. It was also acknowledged by many significant Protestant writers and, in the decades leading up to the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, his life and the history of the English Reformation became a source of controversy not only between Catholics and Protestants but within Protestant historical writing itself. This chapter examines the ways in which More’s life and character were treated by two contrasting controversialists, the by now conservative Robert Southey and the radical William Cobbett. Each referred to More as a saint, but they drew diametrically opposed lessons from his life. Southey used him to bolster the Church-State compact in his dialogues on the condition of England, Thomas More, while for Cobbett the chief lesson to be drawn from the martyrdom of More and Fisher, ‘two of the best men of their generation’, was the need to grant freedom of worship to their latter-day co-religionists. This chapter reveals how More’s exemplary life transcended denominational boundaries, but how it was also politicised in order to address contemporary debates over emancipation and constitutional reform.

Editor: Gareth Atkins

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