Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wyatt, Thomas (1503?-1542)
WYATT, Sir THOMAS (1503?–1542), poet, only son of Sir Henry Wyatt and Anne, daughter of John Skinner of Reigate, Surrey, was born about 1503, at his father's residence, Allington Castle, Kent. The ‘inquisitio post mortem’ of his father, dated 1537, inaccurately describes him as then aged ‘twenty-eight years and upwards.’
Sir Henry Wyatt (d. 1537), the father of the poet, resisted the pretensions of Richard III to the throne, and was in consequence arrested and imprisoned in the Tower for two years. According to his son's statement he was racked in Richard's presence, and vinegar and mustard were forced down his throat. There is an old tradition in the family that while in the Tower a cat brought him a pigeon every day from a neighbouring dovecot and thus saved him from starvation. There is no contemporary confirmation of the legend. The Earl of Romney, who is directly descended in the female line from the Wyatts, possesses a curious half-length portrait of Sir Henry seated in a prison cell with a cat drawing towards him a pigeon through the grating of a window. Lord Romney also possesses a second picture of ‘The cat that fed Sir Henry Wyatt,’ besides a small bust portrait of Sir Henry. The pictures, illustrating the tradition of the cat (now at Lord Romney's house, 4 Upper Belgrave Street, London), represent Sir Henry Wyatt in advanced years, and were obviously painted on hearsay evidence very long after the date of the alleged events they claim to depict. The Wyatt papers, drawn up in 1727, relate that Sir Henry on his release from the Tower ‘would ever make much of cats, as other men will of their spaniels or hounds.’ On the accession of Henry VII Wyatt was not merely liberated but was admitted to the privy council, and remained high in the royal favour. He was one of Henry VII's executors, and one of Henry VIII's guardians. Henry VIII treated him with no less consideration than his father had shown him. He was admitted to the privy council of the new king in April 1509, and became a knight of the Bath on 23 July following. In 1511 he was made jointly with Sir Thomas Boleyn [q. v.] constable of Norwich castle (Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, i. No. 3008), and on 29 July of the same year was granted an estate called Maidencote, at Estgarstone in Berkshire. At the battle of the Spurs he served in the vanguard (16 Aug. 1513). He became treasurer to the king's chamber in 1524, but resigned that office to Sir Brian Tuke on 23 April 1528. He had purchased in 1492 the castle and estate of Allington near Maidstone in Kent, and made the place his principal residence. Henry VIII visited him there in 1527 to meet Wolsey on his return from the continent. Wyatt remained friendly with Sir Thomas Boleyn (the father of Queen Anne Boleyn), who had been his colleague at Norwich, and resided at Hever Castle in Kent. Sir Henry died on 10 Nov. 1537 (Inq. post mort. 28 Hen. VIII, m. 5), and, in accordance with the directions in his will, which was proved on 21 Feb. 1537–8 (Cromwell, f. 7), was buried at Milton, near Gravesend.
At twelve years of age the son Thomas was admitted of St. John's College, Cambridge. He graduated there B.A. in 1518, and M.A. in 1520. There is a vague tradition that he also studied at Oxford. He married early—in 1520, when not more than seventeen—but as a boy he had made the acquaintance of Anne Boleyn, and long after the date of his marriage Wyatt was regarded as her lover. He soon sought official employment, and became esquire of the body to the king. In 1524 he was appointed clerk of the king's jewels, but the statement that he succeeded his father as treasurer to the king's chamber is an invention of J. P. Collier, who forged entries in official papers in support of it (Trevelyan Papers, Camd. Soc.; Simonds, Sir Thomas Wyatt and his Poems). At Christmas 1525 he distinguished himself at a court tournament. Next year he accompanied Sir Thomas Cheney on a diplomatic mission to France.
In January 1526–7 he accompanied Sir John Russell, the ambassador, to the papal court. The story is told that Russell in his journey down the Thames encountered Wyatt, and, ‘after salutations, was demanded of him whither he went, and had answer, “To Italy, sent by the king.” “And I,” said Wyatt, “will, if you please, ask leave, get money, and go with you.” “No man more welcome,” answered the ambassador. So, this accordingly done, they passed in post together’ (Wyatt MSS.) While abroad at this time, Wyatt visited Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence, and Rome. Russell broke his leg at Rome, and Wyatt undertook to negotiate on his behalf with the Venetian republic. On his return journey towards Rome he was taken captive by the imperial forces under the constable Bourbon, and a ransom of three thousand ducats was demanded. Wyatt, however, escaped to Bologna.
On settling again in England Wyatt rejoined the court, but in 1529 and 1530 he chiefly spent his time at Calais, where he accepted the post of high-marshal. His relations with Anne Boleyn continued close until her favours were sought by Henry VIII. Then it is said that he frankly confessed to Henry the character of his intimacy with her (cf. Harpsfield, Pretended Divorce), and warned him against marrying a woman of blemished character. In 1533 he was sworn of the privy council, and at Anne's coronation on Whit Sunday of that year he acted as chief ‘ewerer’ in place of his father, and poured scented water over the queen's hands. The story of the Spanish chronicler that Henry afterwards banished Wyatt from court for two years is uncorroborated. In the spring of 1535 he was engaged in a heated controversy with Elizabeth Rede, abbess of West Malling, who declined to obey the orders of the government to admit Wyatt to confiscated property of the abbey. He was in attendance on the king early in 1536, but soon afterwards the discovery of Anne's post-nuptial infidelities created at court an atmosphere of suspicion, which threatened to overwhelm Wyatt. On 5 May 1536 he was committed to the Tower, but it was only intended to employ him as a witness against the queen. Cromwell wrote to Wyatt's father on 11 May that his life was to be spared. No legal proceedings were taken against him, and he was released on 14 June. His sister Mary attended Queen Anne on the scaffold. A miniature manuscript book of prayers on vellum bound in gold (enamelled black), which now belongs to Lord Romney, is said to have been given by the queen to a lady of Wyatt's family. (A very similar volume and binding is among the Ashburnham MSS. at the British Museum; cf. Archæologia, xliv. 259–70.)
Wyatt made allusion to the fatal month of May in one of his sonnets; but he had not forfeited the king's favour, and the minister Cromwell thenceforth treated him with marked confidence. In October 1536 he was given a command against the rebels in Lincolnshire, and he was knighted on 18 March 1536–7. In 1537 he became sheriff of Kent. In April of the same year he was appointed ambassador to the emperor, in succession to Richard Pate, and he remained abroad, mostly in Spain, till April 1539. The negotiations in which he was engaged were aimed at securing friendly relations between the emperor and Henry VIII. The diplomacy proved intricate, and although Wyatt displayed in its conduct sagacity and foresight, he achieved no substantial success. He found time in 1537 to send interesting letters of moral advice to his son (printed by Nott). In May 1538 Edmund Bonner [q. v.] and Simon Heynes [q. v.] were ordered under a special commission to Nice, where the emperor was staying, to join Wyatt in dissuading him from taking part in a general council convened by the pope at Vicenza. Wyatt entertained Bonner and his companion at Villa Franca, where the English embassy had secured apartments remote from the heat and crowd of Nice; but Wyatt resented the presence of coadjutors and treated them with apparent contempt. Bonner retaliated by writing to Cromwell (from Blois, 2 Sept. 1538) that Wyatt was engaged in traitorous correspondence with Reginald Pole, lived loosely, and used disrespectful language to the king (cf. Inner Temple Petyt MS. No. 47, f. 9; printed in Gent. Mag. 1850, i. 563–70). Cromwell, a staunch friend of Wyatt, ignored the accusation, and on 27 Nov. 1538 wrote to him in terms of confidence. Wyatt was recalled to England in April 1539.
In the following December he was despatched to Flanders to interview the emperor, who was on the point of paying a visit to the king of France in Paris. Thither Wyatt followed the emperor. In January 1540 Wyatt was especially requested to procure from the French court the arrest of a Welshman named Brancetor, an ally of Cardinal Pole, who had taken service in the household of the emperor, and was with him in Paris. Wyatt failed to secure the arrest of the man, who appealed to the emperor and to the French government for protection. Wyatt pressed the matter in an audience of the emperor, but he proved unconciliatory. Henry VIII, on hearing from Wyatt of his difficulties, instructed him to remain firm. Wyatt followed the emperor to Brussels and boldly renewed his entreaties without result. Wyatt's inability to improve the relations between Henry VIII and the emperor were in part responsible for Cromwell's fall. In 1540 he returned from the Low Countries.
After Cromwell's execution Bonner and Heynes renewed their old attack upon Wyatt. Their charges were now treated seriously, and Wyatt was sent to the Tower at the same time as another innocent ally of Cromwell, Sir John Wallop [q. v.] Wyatt was privately informed of the accusation, and sent an elaborate paper of explanations, denying with much spirit that any treasonable intent could be deduced from any reports of his conversation (cf. Harl. MS. 78, arts. 6, 7; first printed by Horace Walpole in Miscellaneous Antiquities, 1772, ii. 21–54, from a transcript made by the poet Gray). But according to a letter sent by the lords of the council to Sir William Howard on 26 March 1541, Wyatt ‘confessed uppon his examination, all the thinges objected unto him, in a like lamentable and pitifull sorte as Wallop did, whiche surely were grevous, delyvering his submission in writing, declaring thole history of his offences, but with a like protestation, that the same proceeded from him in his rage and folishe vaynglorios fantazie without spott of malice; yelding himself only to his majesties marcy, without the whiche he sawe he might and must needes be justely condempned. And the contemplation of which submission, and at the greate and contynual sute of the Quenes Majestie, His Highnes, being of his owne most godly nature enclyned to pitie and mercy, hathe given him his pardon in as large and ample sorte as his grace gave thother to Sir John Wallop, whiche pardons be delyvered, and they sent for to come hither to Highnes at Dover.’ Thenceforth the king's favour was secure. He had added the estate of Boxley to his large Kentish property, and now received grants of land at Lambeth and elsewhere, exchanging some of his land in Kent for other estates in Dorset and Somerset. He was made high steward of the manor of Maidstone, and early in 1542 he was returned to parliament as knight of the shire for Kent. In the summer of 1542 he was sent to Falmouth to conduct the imperial ambassador to London. The heat of the weather and the fatigue of the journey brought on a violent fever, which compelled him to halt at Sherborne in Dorset. There Wyatt died, and on 11 Oct. 1542 he was buried in the great church of Sherborne. The register describes him as ‘vir venerabilis.’ The ‘inquisitio post mortem,’ dated 8 Jan. 1542–3, enumerates vast estates in Kent (34 Hen. VIII, Kent, m. 90).
Sir Thomas Wyatt's (bust) portrait (with flowing black beard and bald head) on panel is in the picture gallery at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The Earl of Romney (at his London residence) owns a portrait (small bust) on panel by Lucas Cornelisz. Two other similar portraits were exhibited at South Kensington in 1866. Two drawings by Holbein are in the Royal Library at Windsor; one was engraved for Leland's tract in 1542, and is said to have been drawn on wood by Holbein. A painting after one of Holbein's sketches is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. According to Vertue, a full-length portrait was at Ditchley, the present seat of Viscount Dillon; it has long been missing. The Bodleian portrait has often been engraved (cf. Dr. Nott's edition of Wyatt's ‘Works,’ frontispiece).
Wyatt's unexpected death was widely mourned. John Leland, the antiquary, published in 1542 a Latin elegy of much merit, ‘Nænia in mortem Thomæ Viati equitis incomparabilis,’ which was dedicated to the Earl of Surrey (with woodcut of Wyatt). There followed an interesting anonymous effort: ‘The Excellent Epitaffe of Syr Thomas Wyat, with two other compendious dytties, wherin are touchyd, and set furth the state of mannes lyfe. (Imprynted at London by John Herforde for Roberte Toye ,’ 4to, 4 leaves); the portrait of Wyatt, in a circle, is reproduced from Leland's ‘Nænia;’ a partial reissue was entitled ‘A compendious dittie, wherein the state of mans lyfe is briefely touched,’ London, by Thomas Berthelet, 3 Jan. 1547–8. But the most interesting poetic tributes to Wyatt were paid by Surrey in two poems—one a sonnet and the other an elegy in forty-eight lines which were first published by Tottel in ‘Songes and Sonettes’ (1557).
Wyatt belonged to the cultivated circle of Henry VIII's court. He closely studied foreign literature, and acquired a high reputation as a writer of English verse. He ordinarily shares with Henry Howard, earl of Surrey [q. v.], the honour of having introduced the sonnet from Italy into this country. He is better entitled to be treated as the pioneer. Wyatt was Surrey's senior by fifteen years. At Wyatt's death Surrey was only twenty-four. When Wyatt first studied Petrarch's sonnets in Italy, Surrey was barely nine. Surrey may be fairly regarded as Wyatt's disciple. Wyatt wrote both sacred and secular verse, but none of his compositions were published in his lifetime. His sacred poems, in which he shows the influence of Dante and Alamanni, appeared in 1549 as ‘Certayne Psalmes chosen out of the Psalter of Dauid commonly called the vij penytentiall Psalmes, drawen into Englyshe meter by Sir Thomas Wyat, knyght, whereunto is added a prologe of the auctore before every Psalma very pleasant and profettable to the godly reader. Imprinted at London by Thomas Raynald and John Harryngton, mdxlix, 4to.’ A sonnet in praise of the book by Surrey is prefixed, and is reprinted in Tottel's ‘Songes and Sonettes’ (ed. Arber, p. 28). The work is dedicated by the printer Harryngton to William Parr, marquis of Northampton.
Many of Wyatt's secular poems were first printed in 1557, with those of Surrey and some anonymous contemporaries, by Richard Tottel, in the volume called ‘Songes and Sonettes,’ which is commonly quoted as ‘Tottel's Miscellany.’ Ninety-six poems are there assigned to Wyatt out of a total of 310. In Nott's edition of the works of Surrey and Wyatt (1815–16) important additions to the collection of Tottel were made from manuscript sources. The most historically interesting of Wyatt's surviving poems are thirty-one regular sonnets; of these ten are direct translations of Petrarch, and many others betray his influence. The metre is simplified from the Italian model, and the two concluding lines usually form a rhymed couplet. The rest of Wyatt's poems consist of rondeaus, epigrams, lyrics in various short metres, and satires in heroic couplets. His muse was largely imitative, and French and Spanish verse was laid under contribution as well as Italian. His epigrams often imitate the strambotti of Serafino dell' Aquila. His satires are inspired by a study of Horace or Persius. Wyatt's poetic efforts often lack grace, his versification is at times curiously uncouth, his sonnets are strained and artificial in style as well as in sentiment; but he knew the value of metrical rules and musical rhythm, as the ‘Address to his Lute’ amply attests. Despite his persistent imitation of foreign models, too, he displays at all points an individual energy of thought, which his disciple Surrey never attained. As a whole his work evinces a robuster taste and intellect than Surrey's.
‘Tottel's Miscellany’ was constantly reprinted [see Howard, Henry, Earl of Surrey; Tottel, Richard]. Wyatt's poems were separately reprinted from ‘Tottel's Miscellany’ twice in 1717, in Bell's ‘Annotated Edition of English Poets’ in 1854; by the Rev. George Gilfillan, Edinburgh, in 1858; and by James Yeowell in the ‘Aldine Poets,’ 1863.
The poetical works of Wyatt and Surrey have often been edited together, notably in 1815–16, by George Frederick Nott [q. v.], who printed many new poems by Wyatt for the first time from the Harington MSS. and the Duke of Devonshire's manuscript collections (2 vols. 4to), and again in 1831 by Sir Harris Nicolas.