The life of Elizabethan poet John Heywood
Who is being described here? A provincial lad from Warwickshire in England, this poet and dramatist left the sticks for London, where he performed at the royal court, writing and acting in his own plays, including at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. No, not Shakespeare of course, but … John Heywood.
1. John Heywood entertained the courts of four English monarchs. Born in around 1497 and dying in around 1580, John Heywood entertained members of the royal court under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. However, he would flee England just six years into Elizabeth’s reign, in 1564, when the Act of Uniformity against Catholics was passed. He died in exile in Mechelen, Belgium, sixteen years later.
2. He was related to both Sir Thomas More and John Donne. More was a distant relative, while Donne was Heywood’s grandson. Heywood’s son Jasper was also a noted poet and translator.
3. Heywood was nearly hanged for conspiring against the Archbishop of Canterbury. Heywood, a staunch Catholic, fell foul of Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop, when he accused Cranmer of heresy in 1543. He was lucky to escape with his life: Sir John Harington recorded that Heywood ‘escaped hanging with his mirth’, though whether he was actually reprieved on his way to the gallows is doubtful.
4. He wrote one of the finest poems about neighbours ever written. Heywood’s verse ‘The Quiet Neighbour’ is a paean to good neighbours who, though they live next to you, ‘wall to wall’, are never heard.
5. Heywood was also a pioneer of the English stage. Heywood wrote plays for the court from the early 1530s onwards, some sixty years before William Shakespeare made his way in the Elizabethan theatre. His plays include The Play of the Wether; The Mery Play betwene Johan Johan, the Husbande, Tyb, his Wyf, and Syr Johan, the Preest; and The Play called the foure PP; a newe and a very mery interlude of a palmer, a pardoner, a potycary, a pedler. Heywood’s father-in-law, John Rastell, was also the first printer to publish plays in England. But Heywood was also a composer and musician, much praised during his own lifetime (though sadly none of his compositions have survived). As if all that wasn’t enough, John Heywood also wrote a book of proverbs, including the now well-known sayings ‘out of sight, out of mind’, ‘two heads are better than one’, and – to complete the Shakespeare connection – ‘All’s well that ends well’.
Image: Portrait of John Heywood (frontispiece of his Proverbs, 1556 ed.); Wikimedia Commons.