‘Thomas More’s London could be the city of God’

I thought there would be nothing left. The depredations of the Great Fire of London, and the Blitz three centuries after that, would have destroyed the London whose streets St Thomas More had walked.

In the 15th century, when More was born, Fleet Street was a flowing river; in the 16th century, when he died, another hundred years would pass before the birth of Sir Christopher Wren, whose architecture shaped what today seems the ancient city. Now, from Aldwych to Charterhouse Square to Cheapside to the Tower, there are canyons of steel and glass that seem to allow no memory of the past.

Unless you are privileged to walk those streets in the company of Peter Ackroyd, as I did retracing the steps of More, the subject of Ackroyd’s latest biography. Then the layers of London’s history are exposed as if fire and bombs had never buried them. By Ludgate Circus a young man walks towards us wearing the striped jacket of the floor of the London Stock Exchange and recalling the “party-coloured” barrister’s gown which More would have worn at the bar.

With affection in his voice Ackroyd calls London an uncivilised city, “built upon money and not upon the needs of its citizens, a marketplace from Roman times”. A merger between the investment bank UBS and the Swiss Bank Corporation, set to cost 200 staff their jobs, seems to bear out his theory. “I walked the old perimeter of the London wall the other day,” he says, as we dodge the traffic. A few shards of the wall, Roman and medieval, are still scattered about the City. “I noticed that the wall is now covered with security cameras – so it’s retained its defensive purpose.”

Ackroyd’s biography of More is the latest chapter in the author’s one great book – his decades-long exploration of the city which he loves best in the world. More, like Ackroyd – and like Blake and Dickens, subjects of his past books – was a born Londoner and wished to be remembered as such. He composed his own epitaph in the late spring of 1532: “Thomas More, a Londoner borne, of no noble famely,” he began, before enumerating the official posts he had held in the service of the King and omitting any mention of his Utopia , for which he is perhaps best remembered.

His thoughts had turned to his own mortality. On New Year’s Day of that year the King and his Lord Chancellor exchanged gifts: Henry VIII gave Sir Thomas More an opulent golden bowl; More gave his monarch a walking stick decorated with gold leaf. But less than six months later More had made another presentation to the King – his great seal, and with it his resignation from his lofty post. Sovereign and lawyer were locked in opposition over Henry’s intended divorce from his Queen of 18 years, Catherine of Aragon, and his proposed marriage to Anne Boleyn.

More was an unlikely saint but he stuck to his belief that the King had no right to dissolve his first marriage and in 1535 laid his head on the block at Tower Green for the executioner’s axe. Courteous to the last, he gave the axeman a gold coin.

It was London that made More. His legal career was a stepping-stone to his role as courtier and King’s ill-fated adviser and it was London that drew Peter Ackroyd farther back into London’s history than he has ever ventured. More was born on February 7, 1478, in his father’s house on Milk Street, off Cheapside, and went to school in Threadneedle Street. He lived for much of his life in this crowded heart of the City, raising his growing family in a grand stone house in Bucklersbury. On a grey February morning half a millennium later, we have to shout above the din of traffic.

“It probably wouldn’t have been any less noisy 500 years ago than it is now,” Ackroyd reflects at high volume. “Just a different kind of noise.” We are striding down Cheapside at a good clip and Ackroyd, dapper in silk tie and swinging coat-tails, conjures a vanished city out of the air. At the age of seven More made his way to St Anthony’s School through a street just as commercial as it is now – but commercial in a fashion more familiar to the denizens of Marrakesh than those of J. P. Morgan. “You have to imagine a huge market, open-air stalls, ramshackle sheds. Cheapside was much wider than it now, much muddier.” The hustle and bustle of his youth stayed with More for life, says Ackroyd. “His polemics are full of the language of the streets. Throughout his writing you find all kinds of cockneyisms, and he was quite capable of being obscene – in that sense he was a model Londoner.”

We turn into Bucklersbury and stand outside St Stephen Walbrook, one of Wren’s fairest creations. In its earlier incarnation it was More’s parish church, and his first wife was buried within its walls. Ackroyd dismisses the firm ground upon which we stand, indicating where the river Walbrook would have run, just past the church. “His house was called the Old Barge, and barges would come and dock just outside. It’s funny to think of it now. The river was the main means of communication. It wasn’t exactly like Venice, but closer to Venice than it is now.” Bucklersbury is now home to forbidding cliffs of offices, but More’s residence would have been as intimidating, in its way. He was a successful lawyer, close to the courts of two kings, and from 1510 under-sheriff of London. “It was a big house,” Ackroyd says. A surviving inventory details “a gret cage fir birds”, “a gret mapp of all the world” and “a table (picture) of Sir Thomas More’s face” (he was knighted by Henry VIII in 1520). “People forget that he was a wealthy, powerful, influential man – he was never unworldly as saints are presumed to be, but ambitious and successful.” The perfect inhabitant, then, of a commercial hub of enormous power. “Even then the City was powerful: there were times in More’s childhood where the city was more powerful than any monarch.”

The power of the modern City clearly thrills Ackroyd as much as its past glories: he is no nostalgia-monger, admiring Peter Palumbo’s pink-and-green periscope at No 1 Poultry as much as his imagined Old Barge. “London’s always been rebuilt, always been vandalised, always been ugly,” he says. “That’s part of its character. I don’t see any reason why it should have to change artificially to suit people’s demands for some kind of heritage.”

Despite his wealth, More lodged with the Carthusian monks in Charterhouse, near Smithfield Market, while he trained as a lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn at the end of the 15th century. We pass through what was once a “smooth field” for horseracing, past the 12th-century church of Bartholomew the Great, past the hospital which was already old in More’s day.

More revisited the area as Lord Chancellor, when his duties included overseeing the burning of heretics. In the 19th century, workmen found charred wooden stumps and chips of human bone where the market now stands. “Interesting,” Ackroyd says with a grin, “having a meat market and a hospital and a place for burning people alive all in the same place. There’s a kind of unity about it.”

But the unity of More’s life led him to his martyrdom, and we finish our tour at the Tower of London. We stand before Traitor’s Gate, where More was brought after refusing to sign the 1534 Act of Supremacy proclaiming Henry VIII head of the Church of England. Across from the Tower, over a modern river of rushing cars, is a plaque on the green where More was beheaded. It states that Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and one of the commissioners inquiring into More’s treason, did not long survive Henry’s whim: he was sent to the block in 1540.

A brisk breeze blows from the river, as it might have the day More died; we can see a square of Roman wall, just as More did before he saw no more. “The material world around him was the single most important network of More’s life,” Ackroyd says. “The very presence of London’s churches was an emblem of the divine community on earth; the nature of his society was heralded in ritualistic and symbolic forms down the streets in which he walked. His Catholicism was imbued with the spirituality of the material world – each was a token of the other. For him, the streets of London could become, on one level, the City of God.” Thomas More based the physical description of Amaurotum, the idealised city on the island of Utopia, on London; in London, one senses, Ackroyd has found his own Utopia.

The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd (Vintage)