On All Hallows Eve, 31 October, 1516, almost precisely 500 years ago today, Thomas More, as was his custom, woke at about 2am, in order to pray and write in silence. He lit a candle, and, after his prayers, walked to his desk in his home in Bucklersbury, Cheapside, careful not to wake his four sleeping children, the youngest of whom was not yet 6. These early morning hours were the only ones he could find for his scholarship, the rest were taken up by business and family commitments. As he wrote in a letter to his friend Peter Gillis, 'My own time is only what I steal from sleeping and eating. It isn’t very much (hence my slow pace), but it’s something.'
On this morning, he faced a pile of correspondence to answer. At the top was a letter from one of his dearest friends, Erasmus, a fellow humanist, who had not chosen the life of public service and family, and thus had more time for scholarly concerns. More was late with his response to his friend, and the composition of this letter would take some time. Time that More did not have in abundance.
He began by chasing up some business matters between the two of them, a horse, some money to be delivered to their mutual friend, Gillis, with whom More had stayed the previous summer. More ends on the item most personal to him, the matter of a book which More had begun writing the previous summer with Gillis, and which he had sent to Erasmus to have published a few months before. He was delighted, he writes, to hear that Gillis had enjoyed the book, and hopes that others will as well. When he had sent the book, in September, he had been late with it. Now, he is rushed in his request that Erasmus find endorsers for it. If he cannot, More ends, he will still be content with Erasmus’s approval for 'we are "together, you and I, a crowd", and I think I could live happily with you in any wilderness'. He signs off 'Farewell, dearest Erasmus, as dear as the apple of my eye'… 'From London, in haste before daybreak, all Saints Eve.'
Yesterday I had the launch for my own book, which explores More's life and thought. I found myself, as I was reflecting on what I wanted to say at this event, in sympathy with More's own sentiments. Certainly, most of us can relate to the feeling of having little time to pursue those tasks which we enjoy - whether that's writing or some other task - and having to steal time away from sleep or food in order to do them (though I won't claim that I wake up at 2am!). I found myself also drawn to the sentiments which More expresses to Erasmus. If people do not like his book, he will be content that friends such as Erasmus and Gillis do, for they are enough of a crowd.
So to all those who have supported me in writing this book - whether by reading draft chapters, talking me through tough sections, asking me penetrating questions, or coming to one of my events on the topic - thank you. We are our own little crowd and I am grateful for it.
I'll sign off - From London, in haste before midday, all Saints Eve.
Portraits of Erasmus and Gillis by Quentin Matsys, probably originally a diptych. These were painted in 1517, and given to Thomas More in celebration of their friendship. Gillis holds a letter from More, ready to present it to Erasmus. From http://www.erasmus.org/index.cfm?itm_name=portraits-EN
Diptych painted by Quentin