Thomas Wyatt

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Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) was an English poet, courtier and diplomat.


Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503 at Allington in Kent, the first son of Sir Henry Wyatt, who had gained lucrative positions in Henry VII's court as a result of having supported the Tudor cause in the Wars of the Roses.[1] He married Elizabeth Brooke, whom he separated from in 1525 or 1526 on the grounds of adultery.[2]

Under his father's patronage, he became a courtier at the court of Henry VIII and in 1526 he joined a diplomatic mission to the French court, apparently on his own initiative.[3] In the following year he went to Rome as a companion to John Russell (later Earl of Bedford) on an unsuccessful mission to Pope Clement VII. While there Russell broke his leg, and Wyatt had to continue the mission to Ferrara and Venice. In the same year he produced the only work of his to be published in his lifetime, a prose translation from Plutarch The Quest of Mind, which he presented to Catherine of Aragon. Although he had become one of the king's Esquires of the Body, in the autumn of 1528 he left for Calais where he was appointed to the significant post of High Marshal.[4]

He returned to court in 1530, and it seems likely that he became the lover of Anne Boleyn, though whether this went beyond courtly convention is very doubtful. When she was committed to the Tower in 1536 he was also imprisoned there, along with others alleged to have been involved with her, but unlike the others he was released. At around this time he took Elizabeth Darrell as a mistress.

In 1537 his father died, and Thomas inherited the estate at Allington, but Thomas Cromwell soon after sent him out of the country as ambassador to the Emperor Charles V in Spain, his task being to prevent an alliance of France and Spain against England.[5] Despite trying to suit his diplomatic tactics to events as they unfolded (he could be very undiplomatic}, he could not prevent the Emperor and the King of France arriving at a treaty in which England had no hand. Moreover, to him the financial costs of his embassy were enormous.[6] He returned in 1539 to an estate enlarged by the addition of lands from dissolved monasteries, but later that year was sent to again attend on Charles V as he made his way from Spain through France to the Netherlands part of his empire. He returned in time to see the execution of Cromwell, and was himself arrested and imprisoned soon after.[7] He produced a document which was ably argued, asserting his innocence of the presumed charges; but this seems to have little to do with his release on conditions which included taking his wife back.

He died in 1542 (on a mission for the king) at Sherborne in Dorset.


His son, Sir Thomas Wyatt the younger was executed for a rebellion in the reign of Queen Mary. His grandson George Wyatt wrote the first biography of Anne Boleyn. His great-grandson, Francis Wyatt was the first governor of Virginia.

Poetry and reputation

In poetry, Thomas Wyatt was not continuing an English tradition, he was starting a new one after the great gap which had followed the death of Chaucer.[8][9] He took much from the Italian, but had his own distinctive voice. He wrote lyrics[10], epistolary satires, rondeaux and epigrams, and was the first person to write sonnets in English, though most of his sonnets have met critical disparagement.[11] His verse circulated in manuscript and was only published after his death, along with that of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Consequently some of the attributions are doubtful.

Much of the verse might be regarded as "conventional" courtly love poetry, were it not that Wyatt was helping to establish the convention in England. Other poems were political, dealing with his position amid the conflicts of policy and personality in the Tudor court. In both the lyrics and the satires he showed skill in handling the patterns of the spoken word. Some of his lines show, to a modern ear, apparent failures in metre, but it has been argued that these are mostly intentional, and examples of "pausing lines", and this is to some extent borne out by the revision history where it is known.[12]

His best lyrics have made frequent appearances in anthologies, and his work has been the subject of considerable scholarly study, but overall his reputation has been insecure, though with general applause for the satires and their conversational style.[13] C S Lewis called him the originator of the Drab school, and while he said more than once that the term "drab" was not supposed to be pejorative, he also used it as though it was so intended.[14] The latest biographer of Spenser does not even mention him. A recent review has claimed that "scholars now see him for what he was: the supreme English wordsmith of his age"[15]; but this is devalued by others claiming that the age was one of poor literary quality.

Divers do judge as they do trow,
Some of pleasure and some of woe,
Yet for all that nothing they know,
But I am as I am wheresoever I go ...
Who judgeth well, well God him send;
Who judgeth evil, God them amend;
To judge the best therefore intend,
For I am as I am and so will I end.


  1. Shulman, N. Graven with Diamonds: the many lives of Thomas Wyatt. Short Books. 2011. ch 1
  2. Shulman p 88
  3. Shulman ch 2
  4. Shulman, ch 6
  5. Shulman, ch 14
  6. Shulman ch 15
  7. Shulman, ch 19
  8. Bullett, G ed. Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century. J M Dent & Sons. 1947. Introduction
  9. Shulman ch 1
  10. The term ballet (Ballad) or lyrical ballet is often used in relation to Wyatt's verse, as though it gave a clear idea of the verse form.
  11. Muir, K. Sir Thomas Wyatt: the collected poems. Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1949. Introduction and excerpted criticism by Warton (1778), Nott (1816), and Tillyard (1929),
  12. Harding, D W. The Poetry of Wyatt in Ford, B, ed The Age of Chaucer. Penguin. 1954
  13. Muir. Introduction and excerpts from criticism.
  14. Lewis, C S, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. 1954. Oxford University Press
  15. Thomas Penn in The Guardian (newspaper) 15 December 2012