Biography of Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)
Thomas Wyatt was born at Allington Castle in Kent to Henry and Anne Wyatt. His father was well established in the court of King Henry VII. He was on the Privy Council, and secured a place for his son at court in 1516, five years after the young Henry VIII ascended to the throne. Henry Wyatt continued in office as one of the advisers to the young king.
Thomas Wyatt was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge. He married Elizabeth Brooke in 1520, but it was not a happy union, and the young Wyatt separated from his wife a few years later, citing her adultery as just cause. It is likely that it is at this time he began a liaison with Anne Boleyn; a relationship which was to cause him much political and private angst.
Thomas Wyatt was a witty, handsome, educated and diplomatic young man. He was part of the 1524 Greeenwich tournament in which many leading men, including Henry VIII himself, took part in jousting and tilting events. At six feet tall, Wyatt was striking and popular with the ladies at court. Although younger than the king, he was his physical and intellectual match, if not his superior.
Wyatt traveled extensively as a diplomat for the English monarchy. His first mission was to France in 1526, and it is likely that as well as his political work, Wyatt also studied the works of French contemporary writers.
In 1527 he went on a mission to Rome. Although politically his efforts were not a success, Wyatt was able to tour Italy and again immerse himself in the contemporary literature of the host nation. It is believed that while he was in Italy, Henry VIII began to assert his interest in Anne Boleyn. What is certain is that Wyatt’s next position was a three-year posting based in Calais, which conveniently took him from court and thus out of the proximity of Anne Boleyn and her royal suitor.
By 1532 Anne was granted a title as Marchioness of Pembroke. She was the king’s mistress by this time, and secretly married Henry VIII in 1533, five months before the birth of their daughter.
Wyatt began a liaison with Elizabeth Darrell in 1536, which lasted until his death in 1542. As Henry VIII became more obsessed with obtaining a male heir, so Queen Anne grew to be a burden as, like Queen Catherine before her, she did not produce a son. When Catherine died, Anne's days were numbered; if both wives were dead, a third wife and her children would be viewed as wholly legitimate, unlike the secretly wed Anne. Henry seized the opportunity to take up with another woman in Anne's court, Jane Seymour. Anne and five alleged lovers were imprisoned in the Tower of London for adultery. It is likely that the charges on all men by that time were false (one of the accused was Anne’s brother, Viscount Rochford) and this was simply a bid to discredit Anne. Wyatt was one of those imprisoned, and he was most perturbed that he was not the only man accused. He had, however, long ended his liaison with Anne, and had warned the king before the marriage that she was not a suitable Queen.
Wyatt was the only prisoner to escape these charges with his life. The other men, and Queen Anne herself, were executed. Wyatt likely witnessed her beheading, which took place 21 days before Henry VIII married Jane Seymour. Henry VIII visited Wyatt at his home in Allington two months later. Wyatt’s diplomatic skill had enabled him to survive the king’s wrath and violent actions.
Wyatt witnessed another execution of someone close to him at the mercy of Henry’s cruel whim. His patron and mentor, Thomas Cromwell was executed in July 1840. Henry’s brutality becomes most evident here as it was also the day he chose to marry Catherine Howard. (Jane Seymour died following the difficult labor of Prince Edward and Henry's subsequent marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled shortly after her arrival in England.)
Wyatt was again arrested in 1541 and charged with treason. He admitted the charges, using his passion and anger as the excuse for his outbursts against the king. He faced his sentence at the mercy of the king, but his punishment was still a malicious one: on the orders of Queen Catherine Howard, Wyatt was ordered to resume his union with his wife from whom he had separated sixteen years earlier, and to abandon his long-time partner Elizabeth Darrell. This seems a cruel and unusual punishment meted out by a monarchy that was riddled with infidelity and immorality.
Despite the challenging and violent times of the Tudor reign, Wyatt was able to survive three terms of imprisonment and avoid execution. Although there were points where he caused displeasure to his King, he was knighted in 1535 and died of fever at a time when the executioner’s axe was frequently the end for many at court.
As well as his diplomatic, sporting and social prowess, Wyatt was a great thinker and academic. He studied languages, philosophy, poetry and music. This versatility was a great asset at court, as Henry VIII himself was an educated and sporting figure. As the third child, Henry had not been expected to become king and had therefore received the education that would support him with a central role within the clergy. Henry himself wrote poetry and songs, including a famous ballad ‘Pastime With Good Company’, which became known as ‘The King’s Ballad’. It was therefore customary in Henry VIII’s court to be well versed in languages, music and literature, and many courtiers would have written songs and poems to entertain each other and the King.
What, then, was unique about Wyatt? There were other ambassadors at court, other sportsmen adept at hunting and jousting and doubtless other courtiers who wrote lute songs and poetry. Wyatt’s skill was in taking the elevated and artistic form of vaunted Italian scholar Petrarch’s sonnets and creating a uniquely individual interpretation redolent with the despair, tension and bitterness of the Tudor court. Wyatt was not merely translating Petrarch, he was fashioning a new approach to poetry in English and utilizing the elevated structures of an earlier time to develop and highlight the drama and tensions of his era.
Wyatt’s influence on the development of English Literature has been unquestioned for many years. He is credited with bringing the Petrarchan sonnet form into English with his translations of the Italian’s works. However, in recent years, critics have begun to appreciate that Wyatt’s contribution is more than as just a translator of the works of an already great writer. Wyatt took Petrarch’s form and words as a basis to represent his own culture and his own world. Wyatt did not want to mold Italian ideas, forms and sentiments into English. He wanted to produce writings in a form that was as respected as the writers of the past, but which encompassed the issues of the time and expressed the emotions, fears and challenges of the Tudor court. Wyatt sought to elevate the English language, and English sentiments, to the level of respect which Petrarch’s work achieved. Wyatt was a scholar across the history of philosophy and writing. He was as familiar with the works of ancient Seneca and Plutarch as well as the more contemporary (to Wyatt) Chaucer and Petrarch. As earlier critics have suggested, he was not merely a poor translator of lyrical works into a still-jarring tongue. Wyatt highlighted the beauty and cruelty of the Tudor age; its complexity, disorder and mystery. His work is sometimes bleak, sometimes desolate but always evocative of the time and situation in which he found himself.