Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Margaret More Roper, Translator and Editor

Margaret More Roper (31 December 1525)


Because the exact date of Margaret More's birth and death are unknown, I am writing about her today, as my last post of the year, on the date that her father, Sir Thomas More, was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. This is not one of Thomas More's more notable titles or offices--I am just using it, and him, as a reason for writing about his daughter.*
Margaret More Roper, c. 1535-36,
a miniature by Hans Holbein the Younger

Margaret More was the firstborn child of Thomas More and his first wife, Joanna Colt, who was just eighteen when she gave birth to her first child in 1505, probably between late August and October. Joanna was only twenty-three years old when she died in September 1511, after six years of marriage and the birth of four children.

Within a month, More had remarried. His second wife was a wealthy widow, Alice Harpur Middleton. Alice was the butt of many cruel jokes, insults, and caricatures, not only made by More's friends and associates but by More himself. Perhaps the best assessment of this relationship is historian John Guy's half-hearted (?) claim that "Margaret's father, we must conclude, loved her stepmother in his own way. . . ."

After More's marriage to Alice, who brought her daughter into the household, More began the process of their education, teaching them himself whenever his increasingly demanding duties allowed. In 1518, he carefully selected a tutor for all his children--his three daughters, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Cecily; his son, John; and an adopted daughter, Margaret Giggs. (Alice Middleton was several years older than Thomas More, and by 1518, her seventeen-year-old daughter, also named Alice, was married.) The children were all taught the same curriculum: Greek, Latin, logic, philosophy, theology, astronomy, geometry, and mathematics. Well, almost the same--John studied rhetoric, the art of public speaking, something that the girls would not need. 

While humanist scholars, like More, supported education for women, there was a moral--and gendered--value to it. Many viewed education for women as, in the words of publisher Richard Hyrde, "a bridle" against "vice." The Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives, who traveled to England and devised an educational curriculum for Henry VIII's daughter, Mary, wrote that a "woman is even as man is a reasonable creature," one whose "wit" was capable of "both good and evil." Education was a way her wit "may be altered and turned."

More himself agreed that both men and women were "equally suited for the knowledge of learning by which reason is cultivated," but added that it was especially important for "excellent matrons and honorable girls" as a sure basis for their religious faith.

But in 1521, when she was just sixteen, Margaret More followed the more conventional course for a young woman in the sixteenth century, no matter how intelligent and capable, and no matter what kind of education her father provided for her. She was married to the lawyer William Roper. In the next few years, before her death in 1544, at just thirty-seven years old, she would give birth to five children: Elizabeth, Mary, Thomas, Margaret, and Antony.

A detail of Margaret More,
from a 1593 copy of a lost
More family portrait,
Hans Holbein the Younger
Up to this point, there is nothing remarkable about Margaret More Roper's story, except her exceptional education. But she proved to be an exceptional scholar as well as a dutiful, capable student and a dutiful, capable wife and mother. In addition to producing children, she produced the first published work by a woman who was not a member of the royal family. In 1524, she published her translation of Erasmus's 1523 Precatio dominica, a work on the meaning of the Lord's Prayer. 

Margaret More Roper's book, with a preface by Richard Hyrde, was titled A Devout Treatise upon the Pater Noster, Made First in Latin by the Most Famous Doctor Master Erasmus Roterodamus, and Turned into English by a Young, Virguous and Well-Learned Gentlewoman of Nineteen Years of Age. (Hyrde dates his preface to 1 October 1524, which helps narrow down the date of Margaret's birth.)

Thomas More may have been proud of his daughter's intellectual abilities, but he did not approve of women's publication. A woman was to make no show of her learning, in More's view, and publication was exactly the kind of "show" that was discouraged. Before Margaret had married, when she had expressed something of a desire to write and publish a book, her father had dissuaded her.

Title page of the 1526 reprint
of Margaret More Roper's
Devout Treatise
For a woman "to lay herself out for renown . . . is the sign of someone who is not only arrogant, but ridiculous and miserable." Women must show "appropriate modesty." "Renown for learning," he concluded, "if you take away moral probity, brings nothing else but notorious and noteworthy infamy, especially in a woman."

Clearly while she remained at home, Margaret More Roper had to abide by her father's decisions. But in 1524, as a married woman, she could, under the cover of a thinly veiled anonymity, publish her translation. It was only a matter of months, however, before she ran into trouble.

Early in 1526, three books were "called in" on suspicion of heresy--and Margaret's publisher, Thomas Berthelet, found that he could no longer sell the Devout Treatise upon the Pater Noster, "translated by the wife of Master Roper," and that he was ordered to appear before a consistory court. (Berthelet had not acquired the prescribed license before publishing the book.)

Margaret More Roper and Berthelet were "saved" from any further proceedings, however, because, with the help of Hyrde, Sir Thomas Wolsey intervened, and Margaret's book was reprinted with Wolsey's coat of arms included on the back of the title page. 

Margaret did not publish again--until near the end of her father's life. After More's arrest and imprisonment, when he had received a letter from Alice Middleton Alington, his stepdaughter, Margaret and her father, together, composed a long letter in response. This joint composition, the Letter to Alice Alington, though not published until 1557, was nevertheless a crucial composition for both Margaret More and her father. As Marion Wynne-Davies notes, it "accomplishes what would have been impossible for More himself to do, since he had been ordered by the King, 'at your execution you shall not vse many wordes.'" Forbidden to deliver a scaffold speech expressing his views, More "allowed his words to be translated by his daughter into an imaginative tale that could be circulated amongst his family and fellow Catholics."

After her father's death, Margaret More Roper was not content to publish merely by means of circulation. Realizing that publication could define and shape a man's life and reputation (her father's biography of Richard III is a great example!), she hoped to collect and publish all of her father's works, including the letter to Alice Alington, but to embed them in a discussion of her father's life.

To this end, she employed a secretary to collect copies of More's books, to make copies of More's manuscripts, and to collect and sort his letters, but in 1537 she ran into trouble and was called in to be examined by Thomas Cromwell, who discovered that she "meant to set her father's works in print." Declining to prosecute her "because she was a woman," Cromwell threatened her and returned her home, to her husband. 

In 1540, Margaret's brother-in-law Giles Heron, her sister Cecily's husband, was accused of treason and executed at Tyburn. Then, in 1543, her husband William was arrested and spent four months in the Tower. Shortly after his release, Margaret More Roper died. 

The project to publish her father's work did not die with her, however. It was carried on by a number of people, including Margaret Giggs, Margaret's adopted sister, who relocated to the continent after Henry VIII's death and during the reign of his son, the ardently Protestant Edward VI.

But after Mary Tudor came to the throne, the product finally came to fruition, aided by Margaret More Roper's daughter, Mary Roper Clerke Basset (born between 1526 and 1530), a friend of the new queen and one of her gentlewomen of the privy chamber. 

On 30 April 1557, The Works of Sir Thomas More, Knight, Sometime Lord Chancellor of England, Written by Him in the English Tongue was published. It included Mary Basset's translation of her grandfather's De tristitia, tedio, pauore et oratione Christi ante captionem eius, written in in the Tower. Mary's translated and carefully edited text was published as Of the sorowe, werinesse, feare, and prayer of Christ before hys taking.  

I have quoted from John Guy's A Daughter's Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg, This dual biography puts a bit too much attention on More for my taste, but it presents a thoroughly admirable biography and assessment of Margaret More Roper's life and work. I just wish we could have a book about Margaret More that wasn't so much about Thomas More. 

Marion Wynne-Davies's "The Theater," which contains her extended analysis of the Letter to Alice Alington, is in Caroline Bicks and Jennifer Summit's The History of British Women's Writing, 1500-1610. This is the second volume of The History of British Women's Writing (Palgrave-Macmillan), which also contains a discussion of Roper's Devout Treatise and of Mary Roper Basset's translation.


*If that sounds like I'm dissing Thomas More, you're right. Long before Hilary Mantel's depiction of a despicable More in Wolf Hall, I loathed him, influenced in part by the views of the great Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton, but in greater part because I just can't stand him. How's that for reasoned academic argument? I could give you chapter and verse, but in the spirit of New Year's Eve jollity, let's just let it go.