Sir Thomas Wyatt is appreciated today principally for his poetry. In his own time, however, as well as producing some of the best poetry of the sixteenth century, he was active in the King’s service and led a very dangerous life. As foreign emissary for Henry VIII he could be seen as the James Bond of his time. Yet the danger he lived under emanated not so much from his missions abroad as from his membership of King Henry’s court. It was as if Bond had more to fear from ‘M’ than from Dr. No.

Being a member of Henry VIII’s court came with a serious health warning. The King grew increasingly egotistical and paranoid and, in his mind, friends could become foes and loyalty become treachery at the flick of his finger. The court was a place of plotting and intrigue between bitter rival factions, each spreading innuendo and calculated falsehood with the aim of trying to influence the King and gain advantage over the others. The phrase ‘heads will roll’ could have been coined to sum up the ethos of Henry’s court. And Wyatt was right in the middle of it.

Thomas Wyatt was born in or around 1503, the first of three children. His father was Sir Henry Wyatt, a man who had supported Henry Tudor against Richard III and had been tortured and imprisoned by the latter for his pains. He continued to serve Henry Tudor after the latter became Henry VIII, mainly as controller of the King’s finances, and when the King’s son became Henry VIII Sir Henry’s abilities were recognised and retained. Under the new King’s patronage he prospered greatly, becoming a Privy Councillor and Knight of the Bath. He also grew very rich and was one of the principal landowners in Kent. His seat, Allington Castle, near Maidstone, was only one of his several prosperous estates. In 1502, aged forty, he married Anne Skinner of Reigate, Surrey and their son Thomas was born about a year later. The young Thomas was blessed with high intelligence, good looks, social grace and ready wit, qualities which his father recognised would shine at court and could bring more lustre to his family.

The name Thomas Wyatt appears in the records of St John’s College, Cambridge, as one of the new intake of students in 1516. Although he would have been a ridiculously young undergraduate by today’s practice, things were done very differently then and the name is thought genuinely to be that of Sir Henry Wyatt’s eldest son. There is no evidence of his ever having graduated.

Thomas’s father lost no time in getting his son admitted to court. Young Thomas began at a modest level and, no doubt with Sir Henry pulling strings in the background, made rapid progress. Around 1520, while Thomas was still in his mid-teens, his father arranged an early marriage for him with Elizabeth Brooke, daughter of Lord Cobham, a wealthy and influential Kentish neighbour. The young couple’s son, also Thomas, was born about a year later. The marriage turned out to be a failure and around 1525 Wyatt formally separated from his wife, charging her with adultery. It would not be the end of Thomas Wyatt’s problems with the opposite sex.

Henry VII had handed on to Henry VIII not only the unquestioned supremacy of the king over the nobility but also the process of turning the court into an influential artistic as well as administrative centre. As both a poet of the court and a foreign emissary of the King, Thomas Wyatt had a
foot in both camps.

The leading fashion of lyric poetry at the time was very much in the tradition of European courtly love. This had begun in the twelfth century with the songs of the troubadours in southern France. Their poetry represented a change in the relationship between men and women. Women began to be idealised above the status of a mere chattel of the male and, not least in poetry, became an object of veneration and desire. However ardently wooed, the lady remained inviolably – and hence, from the lover’s point of view, cruelly – chaste.

When not engaged in diplomatic duties abroad, there was not much for Wyatt to do at court. It was a small community of probably not more than a hundred or so men and women, with little to engage them except each other’s company. Apart from jousting and other manly pursuits, poetry, music and (inevitably) flirtation were pleasing distractions from an otherwise boring existence. With the possible exception of flirting, Wyatt, it seems, was good at all of them.

It must have been sometime during the 1520s that Wyatt discovered his poetic vocation. As a good example of his early work, here is the beginning (in modernised spelling) of Song XClX in the Penguin Complete Poems edited by R. A. Rebholz (1978).

Heaven and earth and all that hear me plain
Do well perceive what care doth cause me cry,
Save you alone to whom I cry in vain,
‘Mercy, madam, alas, I die, I die!’ . . .

It is the last trouble that ye shall have
Of me, madam, to hear my last complaint.
Pity at least your poor unhappy slave
For in despair, alas, I faint, I faint.

There it all is, the helpless male suitor and the cruel, unyielding lady, stuck forever in the convention like something petrified on Keats’s Grecian Urn. How much of this was simply conforming with the courtly love tradition, and how much was Wyatt’s own real experience, only his poetry can tell us.

Wyatt’s foreign excursions and his gift for languages gave him an entrée to Italian verse, especially that of Petrarch, whose innovative work was making the running in European poetry at the time and with which Wyatt was much impressed. It was largely Wyatt’s translations that introduced the poetry of Petrarch and other Italians into England, notably though not exclusively in the sonnet form, which greatly helped the development of English verse.

Lyric poetry in mid-Tudor England was, of course, a much more enclosed and restricted practice than it is today. These poems were invariably handwritten, considered unsuitable for airing weighty subjects and not written for publication. For the most part they were light, personal ditties circulated among fellow courtiers with an element of open secrecy which added a certain piquancy to their contents. They were usually written on single pieces of paper and passed, often surreptitiously, from hand to hand.

Because the court was a closed and intimate society in which everyone knew everyone else, even if a poem was unsigned the author would almost
certainly be identified from its style and characteristics and, often, so would the lady involved. It was all part of the courtly game; the lady was supposed never to acquiesce and thus her ostensible chastity was preserved. It was a practice in which thwarted desire might, at least outwardly, be relieved. Inevitably these games would, at times, be merely a cover for the real thing.

It would not have taken Wyatt long to discover the many drawbacks of being one of Tudor England’s diplomats. One reason why Henry VIII or his chief minister would have had to pick only wealthy men for the job was that those appointed had to meet their own expenses. Although they were there On His Majesty’s Service, His Majesty was not willing to pick up the tab. After his father’s death in 1537 Wyatt became one of the richest men in England but until then he must often have needed, and presumably received, a hefty family bailout. Even when vastly wealthy in his own right, Wyatt was notoriously poor at handling money and often ran into financial difficulties. One can only suppose that he went on serving the King in order to stay in the latter’s notoriously fickle favour.

In 1526 Wyatt accompanied Sir Thomas Cheyney on a diplomatic mission to France and acquitted himself well. In the following year he joined Sir
John Russell on an important mission to the papal court in Rome. After a few weeks there Russell was injured in a fall, leaving Wyatt to conduct the mission alone. While visiting some of Italy’s major cities Wyatt was taken prisoner by the Imperialist forces of the Emperor Charles V. The huge ransom for his release was eventually paid by Henry VIII who held Wyatt liable for the money. Russell and Wyatt failed in their main mission to prevent Charles V’s conquests in Italy. After his return to England Wyatt probably learned of the King’s serious interest in Anne Boleyn.

It is possible that Wyatt became involved with Anne Boleyn before she married Henry VIII. Wyatt’s service as High Marshal of Calais during 1528
to 1530 could have been his exile from court imposed by the King for his suspected association with Anne Boleyn. What is certain is that in May
1536 Wyatt was arrested and sent to the Tower on suspicion of adultery with Anne at the time she was arraigned on the charge of adultery with
five other men, including her own brother. In that month Queen Anne and her five alleged lovers were beheaded and the King married Jane Seymour. Wyatt, however, was subsequently released without charge. He may have been within a hair’s breadth of losing his head.

Some commentators have drawn attention to a small number of Wyatt’s poems which could be construed as possible evidence of a liaison between him and Anne. But this is to overlook the nature of courtly love poetry. There is no existing documentary evidence that a sexual relationship did occur between Wyatt and Anne Boleyn. Wyatt had several enemies at court and King Henry was capable of believing anything, especially if it suited his purpose. Unless valid proof ultimately comes to light, the question must remain unanswered.

If Wyatt bore a charmed life at this time it probably had a lot to do with Thomas Cromwell, who had become Henry VIII’s chief minister in 1534. Cromwell was a very able lawyer who, under the King, had risen from virtually nothing to the highest position in the land by doing everything possible to achieve what the King wanted. To get round the problem of a uncooperative Pope, he devised the plan to destroy Rome’s power in England by replacing it with the King’s supremacy in the church. His establishment, in the King’s name, of the sovereign national state brought about the English Reformation. Mentally Cromwell was of the highest calibre, a gifted ‘fixer’, a man of wide reading and culture and fluent in four languages. They didn’t come any smarter and he soon recognized that Wyatt was a man of the same ilk. He moved Wyatt into his orbit and
bestowed his protection upon him.

In his role as England’s arch-Protestant reformer, Cromwell inevitably created many enemies, among whom were the Roman Catholic Duke of Norfolk, the Duke of Suffolk, the Earl of Southampton and Thomas Wriothesley, the latter a slimy and embittered functionary who had no compunction in turning against his former master, Cromwell. Henry VIII was notoriously ambivalent about the Protestant Reformation. He supported it politically because it helped him to get round the problem of the Pope’s opposition to his will, but he retained a soft spot for the ‘old religion’ and this could be tapped into and exploited by those intent on doing so. This factor was an important element in the alliances and enmities of the court and, being a Cromwell man, there was no way that Wyatt could be exempt from its effects.

In 1539 there were fears, encouraged by a renegade English cleric, Cardinal Reginald Pole, that the emperor Charles V and Francis I of France were intending to form an alliance in preparation for a joint invasion of England. Wyatt was required to sound out the situation and report back. Meanwhile, after the death of Henry’s Queen, Jane Seymour, Cromwell devised a scheme for securing the support of German Protestant princes by inducing Henry VIII to marry Anne of Cleves. But when King Henry met Anne he was displeased, not only by her appearance but even more by her lack of grace, wit and sophistication. Political considerations aside, he didn’t want a homely girl, he wanted a captivating lover.

As a matter of political expediency, Cromwell persuaded the King to press on with his marriage to Anne of Cleves, which Henry reluctantly did in
January 1540. Small wonder, then, that when it became clear that Charles V and Francis I had no intention of invading England, and therefore that German support was not needed, Henry realised that he had been lumbered with a wife he despised for no good reason. As always with Henry VIII, somebody had to pay, and who else but Cromwell? Where Henry VIII was concerned, failure on his behalf was tantamount to treason. The King had Cromwell arrested; the royal marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled on 12th July 1540 and on 28th July Cromwell was executed without trial. On that same day the King married Catherine Howard.

With Cromwell gone, Wyatt had lost his protector. Wyatt’s enemies, flushed with anti-Reformation fever and personal animosity, closed in
for what they expected would be another kill. In January 1541 Wyatt was arrested, handcuffed, bound and thrown into the Tower. His treatment this time was far harsher than his previous incarceration. Edmund Bonner, soon to be Bishop of London and a merciless scourge of Protestants and the Reformation, had in 1538 testified that Wyatt was not only gravely immoral in his personal conduct and scornful in his attitude to colleagues (i.e. Bonner) but had undertaken unauthorized dealings with the traitor Cardinal Pole and valued his relationship with the emperor Charles V more than his service to Henry VIII. These charges were now resurrected, all of which, with further embellishment, amounted to treason. Wyatt’s enemies must have felt they had a watertight case.

Wyatt’s situation was now dire. In response to the ‘indictment and evidence’ based on Bonner’s accusations, Wyatt produced a defence document, the articulate comprehension and thoroughness of which would have made his late master Thomas Cromwell proud. He began by appealing to the judges to bear in mind what the law was and, in examining it, to ‘listen to the words’. Here he was speaking as a poet as well as a man of learning. He challenged the issues raised in the indictment point by point and made out a case for dismissing those issues, not only on the grounds of false testimony but also of its having been inspired by nothing more than spiteful personal malice on the part of his accusers, particularly Edmund Bonner.

It was a document obviously prepared for a trial but there is no evidence that a trial ever took place. Whether the King, or even the Queen, had read
it is not known. On 26th March 1541 the Privy Council issued a statement that the King, out of his own mercy, and at the express plea of the Queen, Catherine Howard, had pardoned Wyatt. His life had again hung by a thread and again the thread had held. He was released in March 1541 with all his confiscated possessions restored and soon resumed duties in the King’s service as if nothing had happened. In February 1542 Queen Catherine and four of her associates were executed on a charge of adultery and high treason. Five years later King Henry was dead.

On 3rd October 1542 Wyatt was ordered by the King to make haste to Falmouth to meet the Emperor Charles’s envoy and escort him to London. The autumn weather was unusually warm and the hard ride caused Wyatt to become overheated. His health had been troubling him for some time and, feeling ill, he stopped at Clifton Maubank, the home of his friend Sir John Horsey at Sherborne in Dorset, where he lapsed into a worsening fever. Unable to continue his journey he died, aged only thirty-nine, in his host’s care on 11th October and is believed to be buried in the Horsey family tomb at Sherborne.


We owe our possession of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s lyric poems today partly to their merit and partly to chance. They were clearly a cut very much above the run-of-the-mill verses circulated at court, which explains why many of them were copied into the commonplace books of courtiers, some of which have survived to this day. In 1557 a publisher, Richard Tottel, produced a book entitled Songs and Sonnetts containing many of Wyatt’s poems along with some by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and others. This book, known as Tottel’s Miscellany, was republished many times in Elizabeth’s reign and became widely popular, ensuring that Wyatt’s work would not be forgotten.

But Tottel, like others since, assumed that Wyatt’s ‘rough’ texture and scansion was due to lack of skill and ventured to ‘improve’ and regularise
many of his lines. Some scholars and critics, however, by examining Wyatt’s own corrections, have demonstrated that he could have written his
lines in regular metre if he’d wanted to, and indeed originally did so, but preferred to express himself in less-regular rhythm the better to re-present
his experience. It is not difficult to see that the irregular rhythm of the verse, just as Wyatt wrote it, contributes significantly to the overall effect.

Two poems by Wyatt should make clear the qualities that have elevated his work above the average level of early Tudor verse. The first is Song XCVl in the Rebholz Complete Poems.

Madam, withouten many words
Once I am sure ye will or no.
And if ye will then leave your bourds
And use your wit and show it s0

And with a beck ye shall me call.
And if of one that burneth alway
Ye have any pity at all
Answer him fair with yea or nay.

If it be yea I shall be fain.
If it be nay friends as before.
Ye shall another man obtain
And I mine own and yours no more.

What should strike the reader, even at first reading, is the direct, nononsense attitude of the language. Can this really be a courtly love poem?
True, in the second stanza he confesses to being always burning with love for the lady and asks if she has any pity for him in that condition. But of the ‘plaining’ and dejection of the helpless lover there is no sign. He is determined to be rid of all play-acting and pretence and, in their courtship,
to give as good as he gets.

In the first stanza he makes clear that neither he nor the lady should fob each other off with unnecessary words. To hell with courtly love – he
wants a plain answer, yes or no. To that end, will she please give up her jokes and amusing prevarications (bourds) and make such intelligence as
she has (wit) manifest (show it so). If she wants him (yea) she only has to beckon and he’ll be hers. But if she doesn’t (nay), for heaven’s sake let her say so plainly and let neither of them bear any umbrage in reverting to being ‘just good friends.’

This second poem is Ballade LXXX in the Rebholz Complete Poems.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better, but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, ‘Dear heart, how like you this?’

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking.
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

This is Wyatt’s best-known poem and turns up almost unfailingly in anthologies of English verse. It is also, by common consent, the best thing
he ever wrote and is therefore worth considering in detail. Despite its conversational flow, it is not a poem written spontaneously in the heat of the
moment. It is a scrupulously crafted piece of work using the stanza known as rhyme royal, a strict verse form first employed by Chaucer, consisting of seven five-stressed lines with the line-end rhyme scheme ababbcc. Wyatt, however, handles the pentameter line with some flexibility. All these qualities would have been well-appreciated by Wyatt’s readers at court.

Subtle though its threads of thought are, its main rational import is not hard to grasp. Although the poem begins with the word ‘They’, the emphasis in the poem is unmistakably on one woman and Wyatt may have used the plural to help disguise the woman’s identity. She is represented in terms of a number of birds or other creatures who in the past amorously sought his company but who now shun him. At that time they came compliantly to do his bidding but have since grown uncontrollable and hostile. They have seemingly forgotten how they once even took risks to receive his favours. Now they are off in all directions in search of ever-new liaisons.

With a touch of defensive boastfulness, he is grateful to have known amorous relationships ‘Twenty times better’ than this one. He remembers one particular occasion when his then mistress (no doubt ‘With naked foot stalking in my chamber’) wearing very little, probably after a court game of dressing up (‘a pleasant guise’), and behaving very amorously, letting her gown fall from her shoulders, taking him in her ‘arms long and small’ (slender), kissing him tenderly and asking how he liked her erotic approaches. This is startlingly modern and hardly fits the courtly love image in which the initiative was the male prerogative.

So unresponsive is she now, he or anyone reading his poem might think that he had dreamed it all. He is, however, adamant that he was not dreaming; he ‘lay broad waking’. He thinks it likely that she was turned off him ‘thorough my gentleness’, that being because he lacked macho aggression (apropos Sylvia Plath’s comment in her poem ‘Daddy’ ‘Every woman adores a fascist’). As a gentleman of the court he has to abide by the rules of the game and, though not without a touch of bitter sarcasm, accept her rejection of him and leave her free ‘to use newfangleness’, that is, to pursue her promiscuous ways. But he is smarting at what he believes has been her selfish and unfeeling treatment of him and wonders what her just deserts might be. It is not known when the poem was written but it is tempting to think that he might have had Anne Boleyn in mind.

When one considers the amount of experience Wyatt has managed to re-present in these twenty-one lines within the demanding and highly  wrought verse structure, which in itself contributes to the tension in its rhythm and movement, one realizes what a high quality achievement it is. What Wyatt’s poem really laments is the lack of interest among women of his acquaintance in a loving and lasting partnership in life, preferring the thrill of the chase in short-term flirtatious liaisons typical of superficial life at court.

It has been shown that some of Wyatt’s poems express themselves differently from his standard courtly love pieces. In the former, though he is still rejected, Wyatt had abandoned the courtly love tradition because he had found a truer and better way of re-presenting his experience without it. In this he was reaching forward to the seventeenth century and the greater achievements of Shakespeare and the Metaphysical poets.

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