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Wyatt, Thomas, The Elder (1503–1542) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

wyatt’s henry anne surrey

Sir Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503 at Allington Castle, the Wyatt family estate in Kent. His father, Sir Henry Wyatt, was a member of the Privy Council of Henry VII and later of Henry VIII. Henry, a man fabled for his loyalty, had been imprisoned and tortured by Richard III for his fidelity to the exiled earl of Richmond (later Henry VII). Wyatt’s father was a dominant influence in his life, both as a model for what he valued and a measure of his own inability to match his father’s rectitude and sternness of character, and Wyatt’s poetry is haunted by the themes of loyalty and betrayal.

In 1515, Wyatt entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, which was, in the words of Thomas Nashe,* “an university within itself, shining so far above all other houses… that no college in the town was able to compare.” Wyatt was only twelve, but that was not an unusually early age of entrance for a young man of the upper gentry who was being prepared for a life at court. He would have been expected to learn some law and history and perfect his knowledge of languages. At St. John’s, Wyatt clearly found all he needed, for in later life he showed himself proficient in Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, with a fine humanistic sense of the interaction of history, literature, politics, and diplomacy. He also made and kept the acquaintance of learned men, such as the great historian John Leland.

By 1516 Wyatt was also making his first appearances at court, under the wing of his father. He was appointed Ewer extraordinary and later clerk of the king’s jewels (both ceremonial posts) and became part of the retinue of gallants who surrounded the young and fun-loving Henry VIII. In 1520 Wyatt was married to Elizabeth Brooke, daughter of Thomas, Lord Cobham, who was also a member of the Privy Council and near neighbor to the Wyatt family in Kent. This was politically and socially an extremely advantageous marriage, but it was also a bitterly unhappy one. Both partners were continuously unfaithful to one another. In a letter to his son written in 1537, Wyatt acknowledges that the fault for the lack of “good agreement between the wife and husband…is both in your mother and me” and adds somewhat ungraciously, “but chiefly in her.’’

The central problem of Wyatt’s biography is whether the number of his infidelities includes Anne Boleyn. A few years younger than Wyatt, Anne had been brought up at the courts of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, and François I er of France. She returned to England in 1521 as a polished and sophisticated young lady, already being shopped on the marriage market as a suitable bride for an earl. By 1529 she was openly marked out for Henry VIII himself. What happened in the eight-year interval is a subject for conjecture and surmise but not for proof, with the current evidence. Some of Wyatt’s most important poems do not make much sense unless they allude to an attachment to Anne. In dismissing these allusions, historian Retha Warnicke admonishes that “caution must be used in reading historical facts into his poetry” and that “there is no surviving evidence except for his arrest in 1536 that his name was ever linked to hers.” This view, of course, excludes literature as “evidence” and begs the fact that a liaison between Wyatt and Anne before 1527 would have been unremarkable, and reference to such a liaison between 1527 and 1536 would have been extremely dangerous. After her execution, stories of a connection between them were rife. They mostly emanate from sources friendly to the memory of Katharine of Aragon and hence are designed to defame Anne, but that does not mean they are untrue. Indeed, they may well originate in a campaign of slander against Anne in 1529–33, designed to scare off Henry from proceeding with the divorce.

It seems wisest to accept the allusions of the poems, to accept that a significant number of people who knew them both were prepared to believe they were linked, and to acknowledge that at the time of Anne’s execution Wyatt was among those arrested, though not among those accused of committing adultery with her and executed. What they actually did or did not do does not really matter. What matters is that such passionate and dangerous possibilities float under, around, and through the poetry.

From the moment he came to the attention of Henry VIII, Wyatt—like Anne or like anyone else at the court—was launched on a perilous course between favor and mortal danger. In 1526 and 1527 he was member of ambassadorial parties sent to the king of France and the pope. In 1528 he held the office of Marshal of Calais, and in 1533 he served as chief ewer at the coronation of Anne Boleyn. In 1536 he was in prison and facing death; no reason, except his connection to Anne, has ever been alleged as the cause. He witnessed the execution of Anne and the others from the window of his cell in the Tower of London. Only the influence of his father and of Thomas Cromwell—or perhaps some whim of Henry’s—preserved his life.

Wyatt wrote that “these bloody days have broken my heart,” and his near escape indeed seems to have changed him. He turned away from what he called his “folly and unthriftness” and turned increasingly toward the guidance of Cromwell, whom Wyatt’s aging father had appointed as a sort of substitute parent. Under Cromwell’s sponsorship, Wyatt was appointed ambassador to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. He distinguished himself in this office, winning the confidence of the emperor and serving as a valuable negotiator on Henry’s behalf for the rest of his life.

Shortly after the fall of Cromwell in 1540, however, Wyatt found himself back in prison, along with others of Cromwell’s party. His principal accuser was Edmund Bonner, bishop of London, who resented Wyatt’s success and his own failure at the imperial court. Wyatt was accused of consorting with traitors. In the two surviving versions of Wyatt’s defense to the council, Wyatt pleaded guilty to whatever the king chose to suspect him of but explained how he was only seeking intelligence about the king’s enemies—that is, doing exactly what an ambassador should do. To the added accusation of favoring Catholicism, Wyatt acknowledged that he was actually more inclined toward Lutheranism. This time it took the intercession of Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, and his young cousin, Queen Catherine Howard, to win from Henry VIII a pardon for Wyatt.

The price that Henry VIII set for Wyatt’s freedom was that he go back to his wife, from whom he had long been separated. The king’s hypocrisy on the matter of wives must have cost Wyatt what chance he had left for personal happiness. In 1537 he had begun an affair with a gentlewoman named Elizabeth Darrell, and subsequently they lived together and had a son out of wedlock. Their forced separation in 1541 did not prevent Wyatt from providing for her and the child in his will.

Though Wyatt was a free man, restored to Henry’s favor, and still only in his late thirties, his health and perhaps his spirit were broken by the nightmarish tensions of the court. On 3 October 1542 his diplomatic talents were again called upon when he was sent to escort the Spanish ambassador from Dorset to London. Wyatt rode post for several days on his mission but upon his arrival in Sherborne was overcome with exhaustion and fever. After an illness of three days, he died, and was buried there on 11 October.

Wyatt’s likeness is preserved in a number of works by Hans Holbein the younger, who was commissioned around 1535 to produce portraits of several members of the Wyatt family. Holbein’s painting of the poet’s father, Sir Henry Wyatt, is now in the Louvre. Two nearly identical drawings of Wyatt, showing him with full beard, jaunty cap, and penetrating eyes, were probably done in preparation for a full-scale portrait, but no such painting survives. A woodcut likeness in profile, bareheaded, and with classical garb adorns the title page of Surrey’s Epitaph and John Leland’s Naeniae (both 1542) and is also attributed to Holbein. Finally, paintings of Wyatt’s sister Margaret Lee (Metropolitan Museum, New York) and his son Sir Thomas Wyatt the younger (private collection), both done c. 1543, probably derive from Holbein’s workshop or from a follower.


Wyatt’s reputation was secured immediately after his death in 1542 by his young admirer Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, who took the unusual step of printing An excellent Epitaffe of syr Thomas Wyat and supporting the publication of a book of elegies by Wyatt’s old friend John Leland under the title Naeniae in mortem Thomae Viati equitis incomparabilis(Little poetic laments on the death of the incomparable Sir Thomas Wyatt). In these verses, Wyatt is celebrated as a bold thinker and person of strong moral character who “reft Chaucer the glory of his wit” and turned his eloquence to Britain’s glory. Surrey’s epitaphs give a twist to this portrait: Wyatt’s honesty—especially in his translation of thePenitential Psalms—stands as a rebuke to the hypocrisy of the adulterous King Henry. In hisMiscellanyof 1557, Richard Tottel echoes the core of Surrey’s and Leland’s assessment when he invokes “the weightiness of the deepwitted Sir Thomas Wyatt the elder’s verse.” Characteristically, though, he overlooks any particular topical reference in Wyatt’s verse and so pulls the fangs of any criticism of the late monarch that might still prove offensive to a daughter on the throne.

By the late sixteenth century, Wyatt was still celebrated by George Puttenham as a leader of “a new company of courtly makers” who sprang up toward the end of the reign of Henry VIII, but his roughness of meter made him less attractive than Surrey. The assessment of Wyatt as Surrey’s forerunner held sway through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, so long as the primary focus was on their Petrarchan translations. In his History of English Poetry (1781), Thomas Warton wrote that “Wyatt, although sufficiently distinguished from the common versifiers of his age, is confessedly inferior to Surrey in harmony of numbers, perspicuity of expression, and facility of phraseology. Nor is he equal to Surrey in elegance of sentiment, in nature and sensibility…. He has too much art as a lover, and too little as a poet.’’

In the twentieth century, proponents of modernist aesthetics reversed this assessment of Wyatt. E.M.W. Tillyard reedited Wyatt’s poetry in 1929, stressing his connection to Chaucer and medieval lyric. This freed Wyatt from the suspicion of being a mere imitator of foreign affectation and shifted the emphasis to those qualities that Surrey and Leland had praised: honesty, directness, and incisive wit. This native and plainspoken Wyatt thus seemed a better representative of the British national character than the affected and refined Surrey. Likewise, C. S. Lewis (1954) and H. A. Mason (1959) stressed Wyatt’s ability to achieve a manly sincerity. The work of Mason, Kenneth Muir (1963), and Patricia Thomson (1964) restored the biographical and political context of Wyatt’s verse, separating out likelihood from romantic legend and again underscoring the ways in which his poetic voice can be understood as a personal one. Wyatt’s satires and non-Petrarchan lyrics became the locus of a dramatic and at times confessional poetic voice, a fit if distant precursor to Eliot, Yeats, and Auden.

The historicizing of Wyatt also opened the door to a new historicizing of the poet. Wyatt has a crucial place in Stephen Greenblatt’s pivotal book Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), where he is linked to Thomas More and William Tyndale* as one of a trio of early Tudor writers negotiating a place for the self between the absolute power of God and the absolute power of the monarch. Of the three, Wyatt becomes the avatar of modernity—though of a rather different modernity than Tillyard’s. Unlike Tyndale or More, Wyatt projects little sense of a being or identity derived from God. He is the creature and, at times, the prisoner of state power. Ironically, this analysis turns attention even more away from Wyatt’s Petrarchan poetry and focuses on his translation of the Penitential Psalms as the site of the voice speaking in terror de profundis . Greenblatt’s political reading of Wyatt hence returns to the very poems that Surrey had seen as most political 450 years earlier.

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