The interesting life of the Renaissance poet
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) was one of the most accomplished English poets of the Renaissance. Writing over half a century before Shakespeare, Wyatt helped to popularise Italian verse forms, most notably the sonnet, in Tudor England. In this post we offer a very brief introduction to Sir Thomas Wyatt’s life, paying particular attention to the most interesting aspects of his career.
Born at Allingham Castle in Kent, England in 1503, Wyatt first joined the court of King Henry VIII as ‘Sewer Extraordinary’ – this, disappointingly, had nothing to do with lavatories and was instead the title for a servant who waited at table. Wyatt was only a teenager when he gained this position at court. His life at court would be a chequered one. In 1534 he was imprisoned for brawling and, it has been alleged, for sexual misconduct; he would be locked up again two years later.
He had several brushes with death. The old curse, ‘May you live in interesting times’, seems to have been particularly true of Sir Thomas Wyatt. He was among a group of ambassadors who travelled to Rome to petition Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and during the trip, Wyatt may have been captured by the armies of Emperor Charles V who had seized Rome and imprisoned the Pope. Wyatt managed to escape and returned to England, bringing detailed knowledge of new poetic forms – chiefly, the sonnet – back with him to the English court. Then, after Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace in 1536, Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower of London but was spared the chopping block. Sir Thomas Wyatt’s life seems to exemplify that old phrase, ‘never a dull moment’.
Wyatt wrote some of the first sonnets in the English language. Thanks to his travels in Italy, Sir Thomas Wyatt picked up knowledge of all sorts of new poetic forms and styles, including the sonnet, ottava rima and terza rima, and the rondeau, which he experimented with in his poetry, putting a peculiarly ‘English’ stamp on them. In doing so, Wyatt was helping to forge a living language for English poetry, using the iambic pentameter verse line which William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe would later bring to the English stage. Along with his contemporary Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt was the most important English poet of the mid-sixteenth century.
One of Wyatt’s greatest talents – and as a poet he had many – was in taking Italian literary forms, and even whole poems, and loosely reworking or translating these for an English courtly audience. His poem ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ is a prime example, a sonnet modelled on one of Petrarch’s and carrying the same sentiment; yet Wyatt manages to combine his literary borrowing with personal allegorical reference to Anne Boleyn, with whom he may have been romantically involved before she became Henry’s queen. At least, so a hundred biographical readings of the poem suggest: we cannot know for sure.
Wyatt was tall and handsome – and may even have been romantically involved with Anne Boleyn. Standing at over six feet tall and dashing and handsome to boot, Wyatt married Elizabeth Brooke in 1520, and in 1521 they had a son, also named Thomas Wyatt, who would later lead a rebellion against ‘Bloody Mary’, Mary I, in 1554, over Mary’s marriage to King Philip II of Spain. When Wyatt’s poems were published for the first time, alongside the Earl of Surrey’s, in an anthology compiled by Richard Tottel (known as Tottel’s Miscellany, 1557), his name was left off the title-page; because of his son’s treasonous rebellion, the name ‘Thomas Wyatt’ was a dirty word.
Wyatt later separated from his wife, supposedly because she was unfaithful to him; Wyatt and Boleyn may have been lovers before she came to the court of King Henry VIII (whom she would marry in 1533). From the window of his prison cell in the Tower of London, Wyatt watched the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536, writing a poem that contains the haunting refrain ‘Circa regna tonat’ (‘It thunders through the realm’) about the events that led up to Anne’s downfall. Six years later, Wyatt himself died, though of natural causes. His estranged wife was reportedly in the running to become King Henry VIII’s sixth wife, following the downfall of Catherine Howard in 1542.
Robert E. Lee was a descendant of the Wyatt family. Thomas Wyatt’s sister Margaret was the mother of Henry Lee of Ditchley, from whom descend the Lees of Virginia, including Robert E. Lee. But Sir Thomas Wyatt’s real legacy was his contribution to English poetry, and, whether we choose to read his poems biographically or not, his influence is undeniable.
We hope you found this short biography of Sir Thomas Wyatt useful; if you’d like to discover more about his life, we recommend this site.
Image: Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein, published by J. Chamberlain in 1812, Wikimedia Commons.