Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sir Thomas Wyatt: poet, lover, courtier

Allington Castle from across the River Medway. Photo by Prioryman.
Last of the late medieval court poets, Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503 at the dreamy-looking Allington Castle in Kent. From the first, he was destined to become a courtier like his father, Sir Henry, and to serve royalty at the highest level.

Presented at court at the tender age of thirteen, young Thomas went on to study at Cambridge and married Elizabeth Brooke in 1520; it was a prestigious match, Elizabeth being the daughter of a Baron, Lord Cobham. Quickly made an Esquire and Clerk of the King's Jewels, Thomas Wyatt travelled abroad on diplomatic business and pursued an ambitious career at court whilst continuing his lifelong interest in writing and translating verse.

Francesco Petrarch, whose courtly Italian love sonnets inspired Wyatt - and generations of English poets after him, including William Shakespeare.

A man of European tastes, Wyatt's chief role model among the poets was the Italian poet Petrarch, whose work he translated with great originality and aplomb, introducing the unfamiliar "sonnet" to the English court.

Sadly, Wyatt's early marriage foundered after the birth of his two children, Thomas and Frances. He finally divorced Elizabeth in the mid-1520s, claiming she had been unfaithful. (Her name was later closely linked with Henry VIII's, so this may not have been untrue.) Despite this personal set-back, Wyatt enjoyed increasing status at court. He was made Marshal of Calais twice, Justice of the Peace, and even stood in for his father at the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn in 1533, where he served as Chief Ewer to the royal couple.

Although Thomas Wyatt was suspected of an affair with Queen Anne, Henry VIII was also later suspected of taking Wyatt's estranged wife Elizabeth as his mistress. Tit for tat?

Over the next few years, Wyatt was knighted, granted an estate in Yorkshire, and licensed to command soldiers and keep twenty men in livery. A more glittering career it would be hard to imagine. Yet as one of his poems suggests, life at court could be dangerous too, like a 'slippery' top step where a man might easily lose his footing.

'Stand whoso list upon the slipper top
Of court's estate,'
wrote Wyatt, remarking how he preferred to avoid court's 'brackish joys', where friends could suddenly die 'dazed, with dreadful face.' In another similar poem, Wyatt eschews the courtly life for a quiet home in the country, describing how
'The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.
The phrase 'circa Regna tonat' means 'About the throne, thunder rolls.' In other words, the court is not a safe place to be.

Queen Anne, née Boleyn, was accused of adultery. If true, was one of her lovers the poet Thomas Wyatt?
Many consider such admonitory poems to refer to the execution of Anne Boleyn, with whose name Sir Thomas Wyatt is often romantically linked. His version of Petrarch's poem 'Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind' suggests evidence for such a risky affair, ending with this warning: 'Graven in diamonds with letters plain,/There is written her fair neck round about,/Noli me tangere for Caesar's I am.' (Noli me tangere means 'Do not touch me.')

We have no proof that Wyatt's imprisonment in the grim Tower of London in 1536 was connected to the simultaneous arrest of several other young courtiers. But it is likely that Wyatt too was suspected of being one of the Queen's lovers. Whatever his offence, he was lucky to escape the death sentence meted out soon afterwards to five fellow courtiers and to Anne herself. Many believe Wyatt witnessed the Queen's execution from his window, a terrible sight which left him a changed man, whose letters to his teenage son the following year urged caution and humility above the allure of ambition.

In his later years, Wyatt had another son with his mistress, Elizabeth Darrell, and served as a diplomat on many occasions. He did not follow his own advice, however, continuing to veer between days of glory at court and imprisonment for one offence or other. It is possible that he only escaped execution on one charge of treason by agreeing to return to his estranged wife.

Sent to greet the Spanish envoy at Falmouth in 1542, Sir Thomas Wyatt fell ill with a sudden fever. Resting at a friend's house in Dorset, he died and was buried there a few days later, the poet never having made his poems public but only circulated them in manuscript form.

Sadly, his son - also Sir Thomas Wyatt - did not heed his father's advice either, and later led a rebellion against Mary I which ended in his execution. Even under torture, however, Wyatt the Younger refused to implicate the Lady Elizabeth in his rebellion, and so probably saved the life of Anne Boleyn's daughter.

Victoria Lamb's Tudor court novel THE QUEEN'S SECRET is set at Kenilworth Castle during Elizabeth I's visit in 1575, and is published by Bantam. It is currently on a special promotion at £2.84 for the Kindle edition.

Her paranormal romance WITCHSTRUCK is set during the reign of Mary I, and is published by Corgi Books, the first of a Tudor Witch series.


  1. Thomas Wyatt's poetry stole my heart when first I read it, and has proved a lifelong love.

    But I'm not alone in this. The great Dorothy Dunnett was also so smitten, and used his poem/song, "My Lute, Awake!" in one of her Lymond novels, Queen's Play.

    Taking a leaf from her book, as it were, ha ha, I took the structure and emotional journey for my novel, May 1812, from Wyatt's sonnet which begins, "Unstable dream, according to the place/Be steadfast once, or else at least be true..." (It's quoted at the beginning of the book.)

    Wyatt was a true Renaissance man. Well-educated, a gifted musician (a lutenist) and poet, a highly skilled politician and diplomat and a polyglot. He was indeed the finest of the Tudor Courtier poets.

    Thanks for posting this. Very much enjoyed it.

  2. Lovely post, Victoria. Wyatt deserved a better life than he had.

  3. Indeed he did, Sandra. Many thanks for both your comments. And yes, Wyatt's poetry is beautiful to read, as much for its occasional awkwardness as its honesty. One of my all-time favourites among the English poets.


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