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Heywood, John (c. 1496–1578) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Because of John Heywood’s intimate forty-year affiliation with the Tudor court and the Sir Thomas More* Circle and because of his sophisticated literary and musical creativity and wit, he is a highly important figure in the history of Tudor drama. Named “the father of English comedy” by the Renaissance scholar Alfred W. Pollard, John Heywood, dramatist, entertainer, and faithful Catholic, lived over eighty years during the central years of the Tudor monarchy. His skill as an entertainer brought him favor in the courts of King Henry VIII and his son King Edward VI, true friendship with Catholic Queen Mary, and even success in the court of Protestant Queen Elizabeth.* But his loyalty to Roman Catholicism led to intermittent persecution, arrest, near-execution, and finally exile and poverty in Belgium.

He was born sometime between 19 April 1496 and 18 April 1497 and died probably during the summer of 1578. His birthplace seems to have been outside London, possibly in Coventry in Warwickshire. As a child he may have served as a chorister for Cardinal Wolsey, and between the ages of eleven and fourteen he was matriculated at Broadgate’s (now Pembroke College) at Oxford, although he did not graduate.

By 1519 he was serving as a musician in the court of Henry VIII, possibly as a result of the influence of his friends and neighbors, the Rastells and the Mores. Court records and accounts show that he was paid quarterly as a singer and player of the virginals until 1528, when he was named steward of the Royal Chamber and received a regular income of ten pounds while he continued to perform at court. He held this position for thirty years, and by the time of Queen Mary’s death, the income had risen to fifty pounds.

Possibly because of earlier alliances during his youth or obvious shared interests, Heywood became a popular member of the Sir Thomas More Circle, a group of creative and influential individuals in King Henry’s court, almost all of whom were Catholic and who were led by More and highly influenced by the Flemish writer and philosopher Desiderius Erasmus.* Sir Thomas More himself became the king’s chancellor but was executed in 1535 because he refused to sign the Act of Supremacy. Other members of the circle include Margaret More Roper, More’s scholarly daughter; William Roper, her husband; Margaret Giggs, the artistic adopted daughter of More; Dr. John Clement, her husband; Elizabeth More Rastell, More’s sister; her husband, John Rastell, an attorney and dramatist and the only member of the group who converted to Protestantism; their son John; their other son, William, an attorney and printer of Heywood’s works; and finally, their daughter Eliza Rastell, who married John Heywood in 1529. This marriage ensured Heywood an intimate position in this brilliant and politically vocal group.

Heywood’s entertainments won him great favor. In 1533 William Rastell published four of Heywood’s plays, which were reprinted several times during the sixteenth century and were often performed both at court and at entertainments at private houses. During his early career, however, Heywood was more respected for his skill as a musician. He survived difficult political situations such as Archbishop Cranmer’s* pronouncement of divorce between Henry and Katherine and the execution of Sir Thomas More in 1535 while still maintaining and nurturing a friendship with Katherine’s officially disdained daughter Mary. When Anne Boleyn was executed in 1536, however, Mary was gradually able to regain her father’s favor, clearly a beneficial circumstance for Heywood. While Heywood’s dramatic career is considered to have been at its peak between 1523 and 1533, records show court payments for a number of his entertainments during the following years, 1534 to 1558, especially from Queen Mary. Heywood amassed a considerable income from the court and from several properties during these years.

Yet Heywood’s was not a smooth career. He apparently was plagued by a court rivalry with Will Somer, the highly favored court fool to Henry. Much more serious were the consequences of his active participation in plots to halt the spread of Protestantism. In 1543 he was involved in a plot against the Protestant archbishop Cranmer, which, when discovered, resulted in an indictment against Heywood and others, including the son of Sir Thomas More, John More. After a public recantation and confession in 1544, however, Heywood received a general pardon and even lived to see Cranmer fall from favor and suffer execution.

The next twenty-five years were more peaceful and clearly successful for Heywood, especially the years of the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary from 1553 to 1558. Heywood had become her friend, even attending her faithfully during her final illness. Her half-sister Queen Elizabeth’s ascendance to the throne did not terminate Heywood’s entertainments at court. But during her reign, his Catholicism grew troublesome, and he was forced into exile in Belgium with his son sometime after 1562. This exile was made more painful by the removal of his incomes from properties in England granted by Queen Mary and her predecessors. Heywood was comforted, however, by the loyalty of his children both to him and to the Roman Catholic faith. His daughter, Elizabeth Donne, had married John Donne, an ironmonger, in 1563 and for the ninety-two years of her life, remained a faithful Catholic in England. She survived three husbands and was the mother of six children, including John Donne the poet. Heywood had two other daughters for whom few records exist; but his two sons, Jasper and Ellis, are known as the most notable Jesuits during the Elizabethan period. Both were themselves finally exiled, and Ellis, living at the Jesuit College in Antwerp, was allowed to have his father live nearby. Here in 1578 John Heywood died in poverty but with the love and respect of his family and friends.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

John Heywood’s reputation as an early Tudor dramatist has been solid throughout the twentieth century. He is not forgotten as a significant step on the road to Shakespearean grandeur; he is called “the father of modern comedy”; and he may be remembered by some as the first dramatist to introduce a character called the Vice. John Heywood has, however, a more important literary legacy.

First, his work reveals the political, social, and philosophical atmosphere of the Sir Thomas More Circle and the Tudor court during its middle years. It was energetic, volatile, often brilliant, but divided so powerfully that Heywood’s intimacy with the court combined with his survival for more than eighty years is remarkable. Heywood’s life and works provide a close view of those times.

Second, Heywood’s works show a sophistication and breadth of vision that are often overlooked. Rather, he is often superficially assessed almost as if he were a Cro-Magnon man—an extinct link—the fascination of whom lies only in those elements that he connects. Heywood’s works raise questions of social order, the possibility of objective, rational thought, the nature of love, and the manifestation of religion. But most of all, Heywood examines the nature of language, displaying its strengths in maintaining social order and its weaknesses in representing the so-called actual world. In this, Heywood’s timeless sophistication must be recognized.

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