Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Norton, Thomas (1532-1584)
NORTON, THOMAS (1532–1584), lawyer and poet, born in London in 1532, was eldest son by his first wife of Thomas Norton, a wealthy citizen who purchased from the crown the manor of Sharpenhoe in Bedfordshire, and died on 10 March 1582–3. The father married thrice. His first wife was Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Merry of Northall. His second wife, who was brought up in Sir Thomas More's house, is said to have practised necromancy, but, becoming insane, drowned herself in 1582. His third wife, who is frequently described in error as a wife of his son, was Elizabeth Marshall, widow of Ralph Ratcliff of Hitchin, Hertfordshire (cf. Waters, Chesters of Chicheley, ii. 392; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iv. 234; Harl. MSS. 1234 f. 113, 1547 f. 45 b). The Norton family was closely connected with the Grocers' Company in London, to which the son Thomas was in due course admitted; but, although it is probable that he went to Cambridge at the company's expense, nothing is known of his academic career. He is not identical with the Thomas Norton who graduated B.A. from Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1569 (cf. Archæologia, xxxvi 105 sq.) He was, however, created M.A. by the university of Cambridge on 10 June 1570 as a twelve-year student, and on 4 July 1576 he applied to the university of Oxford for incorporation, but there is no record of his admission. A brother Lucas is said to have been admitted to the Inner Temple in 1583.
While a boy Thomas entered the service of Protector Somerset as amanuensis, and quickly proved himself a ripe scholar. He eagerly adopted the views of the religious reformers, and was only eighteen when he published a translation of a Latin ‘Letter which Peter Martyr wrote to the Duke of Somerset’ on his release from the Tower in 1550. The interest of the volume is increased by the fact that Martyr's original letter is not extant [see Vermigli]. In 1555 Norton was admitted a student at the Inner Temple, and soon afterwards he married Margery, the third daughter of Archbishop Cranmer. He worked seriously at his profession, and subsequently achieved success in it; but, while keeping his terms, he devoted much time to literature. Some verses which he wrote in early life attracted public notice. A sonnet by him appears in Dr. Turner's ‘Preservative or Triacle against the Poyson of Pelagius,’ 1551. His poetic ‘Epitaph of Maister Henrie Williams’ was published in ‘Songes and Sonettes’ of Surrey and others, published by Tottel in 1557. This, like another poem which was first printed in Ellis's ‘Specimens,’ 1805, ii. 136, is preserved among the Cottonian MSS., Titus A. xxiv. Latin verses by Norton are appended to Humphrey's ‘Vita Juelli’ (1573). Jasper Heywood, in verses prefixed to his translation of ‘Thyestes,’ 1560, commended ‘Norton's Ditties,’ and described them as worthy rivals of sonnets by Sir Thomas Sackville and Christopher Yelverton.
His wife's stepfather was Edward Whitchurch [q. v.], the Calvinistic printer, and Norton lived for a time under his roof. In November 1552 he sent to Calvin from London an account of the Protector Somerset (Letters relating to the Reformation, Parker Soc. p. 339). In 1559 the Swiss reformer published at Geneva the last corrected edition of his ‘Institutions of the Christian Religion,’ and this work Norton immediately translated into English at Whitchurch's request ‘for the commodity of the church of Christ,’ that ‘so great a jewel might be made most beneficial, that is to say, applied to most common use.’ The translation was published in 1561, and passed through numerous editions (1562, 1574, 1587, 1599).
But Norton had not wholly abandoned lighter studies, and in the same year (1561) he completed, with his friend Sackville, the ‘Tragedie of Gorboduc,’ which was his most ambitious excursion into secular literature [see below]. Very soon afterwards, twenty-eight of the psalms in Sternhold and Hopkins's version of the psalter in English metre, which was also published in 1561, were subscribed with his initials. Between 1567 and 1570 his religious zeal displayed itself in many violently controversial tracts aimed at the pretensions of the Roman church, and in 1570 he published a translation of Nowell's ‘Catechism,’ which became widely popular [see Nowell, Alexander].
As early as 1558 Norton had been elected member of parliament for Gatton, and in 1562 he sat for Berwick. In the latter parliament he was appointed a member of the committee to consider the limitation of the succession, and read to the house the committee's report, which recommended the queen's marriage (26 Jan. 1562–3). He had probably acted as chairman of the committee (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. x. 262).
Meanwhile he was called to the bar, and his practice grew rapidly. On Lady day 1562 he became standing counsel to the Stationers' Company, and on 18 June 1581 solicitor to the Merchant Taylors' Company. On 6 Feb. 1570–1 he was appointed to the newly established office of remembrancer of the city of London, his functions being to keep the lord mayor informed of his public engagements, and to report to him the daily proceedings of parliament while in session. As remembrancer he was elected one of the members for the city of London, and took his seat in the third parliament of Elizabeth, which met 2 April 1571.
Norton spoke frequently during the session, and proved himself, according to D'Ewes, ‘wise, bold, and eloquent.’ He made an enlightened appeal to the house to pass the bill which proposed to relieve members of parliament of the obligation of residence in their constituencies (Hallam, Hist. i. 266). He warmly supported, too, if he did not originate, the abortive demand of the puritans that Cranmer's Calvinistic project of ecclesiastical reform should receive the sanction of parliament. Norton was the owner of the original manuscript of Cranmer's code of ecclesiastical laws, with Cranmer's corrections in his own hand. It had doubtless reached him through his first wife, the archbishop's daughter, and was the only remnant of the archbishop's library which remained in the possession of his family. While the proposal affecting its contents was before parliament, Norton gave the manuscript to his friend John Foxe, the martyrologist, who at once printed it, with the approval of Archbishop Parker, under the title ‘Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (1571);’ the document forms the eleventh volume of Foxe's papers now among the Harleian MSS. in the British Museum. But Norton's views went beyond those of Parker in the direction of Calvinism, and in October 1571 Parker openly rebuked him for urging Whitgift, then master of Trinity College, Cambridge, to abstain from publishing his reply to the Cambridge Calvinists' extravagant attack on episcopacy, which they had issued under the title of ‘An Admonition to Parliament.’
Norton was re-elected M.P. for the city of London in the new parliament which met on 8 March 1572, and again in 1580, when he strongly supported Sir Walter Mildmay's proposal to take active measures against the catholics.
Norton's activity and undoubted legal ability soon recommended him to the favour of the queen's ministers. When, on 16 Jan. 1571–2, the Duke of Norfolk was tried for his life, on account of his negotiations with Queen Mary Stuart, Norton, who had already published in 1569 a ‘Discourse touching the pretended Match betwene the Duke of Norfolk and the Queene of Scottes,’ was officially appointed by the government to take notes of the trial. But he aspired to active employment in the war of persecution on the catholics which Queen Elizabeth's advisers were organising. In order to procure information against the enemy he travelled to Rome in 1579, and his diary, containing an account of his journey until his return to London on 18 March 1579–80, is still extant among Lord Calthorpe's manuscripts (Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. p. 40); it has not been published. After his return from Rome he was sent to Guernsey, with Dr. John Hammond (August 1580), to investigate the islanders' complaints against the governor, Sir Thomas Leighton, and subsequently, in January 1582–3, he was member of a commission to inquire into the condition of Sark. But in January 1581 he realised his ambition of becoming an official censor of the queen's catholic subjects. He was appointed by the Bishop of London licenser of the press, and he was commissioned to draw up the interrogatories to be addressed to Henry Howard [q. v.], afterwards earl of Northampton, then a prisoner in the Tower. The earl was charged with writing a book in support of his brother, the Duke of Norfolk, who had already been executed as a traitor and a catholic. On 28 April following he conducted, under torture, the examination of Alexander Briant, seminary priest, and was credited with the cruel boast that he had stretched him on the rack a foot longer than God had made him. He complained to Walsingham (27 March 1582) that he was consequently nicknamed ‘Rackmaster-General,’ and explained, not very satisfactorily, that it was before, and not after, the rack had been applied to Briant that he had used the remark attributed to him (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1581–90, p. 48). In July Norton subjected to like usage Thomas Myagh, an Irishman, who had already suffered the milder torments of Skevington's irons without admitting his guilt. Edmund Campion [q. v.], the jesuit, and other prisoners in the Tower were handed over to receive similar mercies at Norton's hands later in the year.
But such services did not recommend his extreme religious opinions to the favour of the authorities, and in the spring of 1582 he was confined in his own house in the Guildhall, London, for disrespectful comments on the English bishops, made in a conversation with John Hampton of Trinity College, Cambridge, afterwards archbishop of Armagh. He was soon released, and in 1583 he presided at the examination of more catholic prisoners. He seems to have been engaged in racking Francis Throgmorton. When the Earl of Arundel was examined at Whitehall by the privy council, Norton actively aided the prosecution; but the earl and his countess satisfactorily established their innocence. Norton conducted the prosecution of William Carter, who was executed 2 Jan. 1583–4 for printing the ‘Treatise of Schism.’ But his dissatisfaction with the episcopal establishment grew with his years, and at length involved him in a charge of treason and his own committal to the Tower. While in the Tower he recommended to Walsingham an increased rigour in the treatment of catholics, and his suggestions seem to have prompted the passage through parliament of the sanguinary statute which was adopted in 1584. He soon obtained his liberty by Walsingham's influence; but his health was broken, and he died at his house at Sharpenhoe on 10 March 1583–4. He was buried in the neighbouring church of Streatley. On his death-bed he made a nuncupative will, which was proved on 15 April 1584, directing his wife's brother and executor, Thomas Cranmer, to dispose of his property for the benefit of his wife and children.
After the death of his first wife, Margaret Cranmer, Norton married, before 1568, her cousin Alice, daughter of Edmund Cranmer, archdeacon of Canterbury. Always a bigoted protestant, she at length fell a victim to religious mania. In 1582 she was hopelessly insane, and at the time of her husband's death was living at Cheshunt, under the care of her eldest daughter, Ann, the wife of Sir George Coppin. Mrs. Norton never recovered her reason, and was still at Cheshunt early in 1602. It is doubtfully stated that she was afterwards removed to Bethlehem Hospital. Besides Ann, Norton left a daughter Elizabeth, married to Miles Raynsford, and three sons, Henry, Robert [q. v.], and William.
‘R. N.,’ doubtless Norton's son Robert, the translator of Camden's ‘Annals of Elizabeth,’ interpolated in the third edition of that work (1635, p. 254) a curious eulogy of his father. The panegyrist declares that ‘his surpassing wisedome, remarkable industry and dexterity, singular piety, and approved fidelity to his Prince and country’ were the theme of applause with Lord-keeper Bacon, Lord-treasurer Burghley, and ‘the rest of the Queen's most honourable Privy Councell;’ while ‘the petty bookes he wrote corresponding with the times’ tended ‘to the promoting of religion, the safety of his Prince and good of his country, … and his sundry excellent speeches in Parliament, wherein he expressed himselfe in such sort to be a true and zealous Philopater,’ gained him the title of ‘Master Norton, the Parliament man.’
His relentless persecution of Roman catholics obtained for him a different character among the friends of his victims. In a rare volume published probably at Antwerp in 1586, and entitled ‘Descriptiones quædam illius inhumanæ et multiplicis persecutionis quam in Anglia propter fidem sustinent catholici Christiani,’ the third plate representing ‘Tormenta in carceribus inflicta,’ supplies a caricature of Norton. The descriptive title of the portrait runs: ‘Nortonus archicarnifex cum suis satellitibus, authoritatem suam in Catholicis laniandis immaniter exercet’ (Brydges, Censura, vii. 75–6).
Norton owes his place in literature to his joint authorship with Sackville of the earliest tragedy in English and in blank verse. Sackville's admirers have on no intelligible ground contested Norton's claim to be the author of the greater part of the piece. Of ‘The Tragedie of Gorboduc,’ three acts (according to the published title-page) ‘were written by Thomas Nortone, and the two last by Thomas Sackuyle,’ and it was first performed ‘by the Gentlemen of Thynner Temple’ in their hall on Twelfth Night, 1560–1. The plot is drawn from Geoffrey of Monmouth's ‘History of Britain,’ book ii. chap. xvi., and relates the efforts of Gorboduc, king of Britain, to divide his dominions between his sons Ferrex and Porrex; a fierce quarrel ensues between the princes, which ends in their deaths and in the death of their father, and leaves the land a prey to civil war. The moral of the piece ‘that a state knit in unity doth continue strong against all force, but being divided is easily destroyed,’ commended it to political circles, where great anxiety prevailed at the date of its representation respecting the succession to the throne. Norton had himself called attention to the dangers of leaving the question unsettled in the House of Commons (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. x. 261–3, by Leonard H. Courtney). The play follows the model of Seneca, and the tragic deeds in which the story abounds are mainly related in the speeches of messengers. Each act is preceded by a dumb show portraying the action that is to follow, and a chorus concludes the first four acts. Blank verse had first been introduced into English literature by Henry Howard, earl of Surrey [q. v.] Nicholas Grimoald [q. v.], who, like Norton, contributed to Turner's ‘Prerogative,’ and was doubtless personally known to him, had practised it later. But Norton and Sackville were the first to employ it in the drama. They produced it with mechanical and monotonous regularity, and showed little sense of its adaptability to great artistic purposes.
The play was repeated in the Inner Temple Hall by order of the queen and in her presence, on 18 Jan. 1560–1, and was held in high esteem till the close of her reign. Sir Philip Sidney, in his ‘Apology for Poetry,’ commended its ‘stately speeches and well-sounding phrases climbing to the height of Seneca his style, and as full of notable morality, which it doth most delightfully teach, and so obtain the very end of poesie;’ but Sidney lamented the authors' neglect of the unities of time and place.
The play was first printed, without the writer's consent, as ‘The Tragedie of Gorboduc,’ on 22 Sept. 1565. The printer, William Griffith, obtained a copy ‘at some young man's hand, that lacked a little money and much discretion,’ while Sackville was out of England and Norton was out of London. The text was therefore ‘exceedingly corrupted.’ Five years later an authorised but undated edition was undertaken by John Day, and appeared with the title, ‘The Tragidie of Feerex and Porrex, set forth without Addition or Alteration, but altogether as the same was shewed on Stage before the Queenes Maiestie, about nine Yeares past.’ It was again reprinted in 1590 by Edward Allde, as an appendix to the ‘Serpent of Division’—a prose tract on the wars of Julius Cæsar—attributed to John Lydgate. Separate issues have been edited by R. Dodsley, with a preface by Joseph Spence, in 1736; by W. D. Cooper, for the Shakespeare Society, in 1847; and by Miss Toulmin Smith in Vollmöller's ‘Englische Sprach- und Literaturdenkmale’ in 1883. It also appears in Dodsley's ‘Old Plays’ (1st ed. 1774, 2nd ed. 1780); Hawkins's ‘English Drama,’ 1773; ‘Ancient British Drama’ (Edinburgh), 1810, and in the 1820 and 1859 editions of Sackville's ‘Works.’
Besides ‘Gorboduc’ and the translations from Peter Martyr, Calvin, and Alexander Nowell which have been already noticed, Norton was, according to Tanner, author of the anonymous ‘Orations of Arsanes agaynst Philip, the trecherous king of Macedone, with a notable Example of God's vengeance uppon a faithlesse Kyng, Quene, and her children,’ London, by J. Daye, n.d. , 8vo. He was also responsible for the following tracts: 1. ‘A Bull granted by the Pope to Dr. Harding and other, by reconcilement and assoylying of English Papistes, to undermyne Faith and Allegeance to the Quene, With a true Declaration of the Intention and Frutes thereof, and a Warning of Perils thereby imminent not to be neglected,’ London, 8vo, 1567. 2. ‘A Disclosing of the great Bull and certain Calves that he hath gotten, and specially the Monster Bull that roared at my Lord Byshops Gate,’ London, 8vo, 1567; reprinted in ‘Harleian Miscellany.’ 3. ‘An Addition Declaratorie to the Bulles, with a Searching of the Maze,’ London, 8vo, 1567. 4. ‘A Discourse touching the pretended Match betwene the Duke of Norfolke and the Queene of Scottes,’ 8vo, n.d.; also in Anderson's ‘Collection,’ i. 21. 5. ‘Epistle to the Quenes Majestes poore deceyued Subjects of the North Countrey, drawen into Rebellion by the Earles of Northumberland and Westmerland,’ London, by Henrie Bynneman for Lucas Harrison, 8vo, 1569. 6. ‘A Warnyng agaynst the dangerous Practices of Papistes, and specially the Parteners of the late Rebellion. Gathered out of the common Feare and Speeche of good Subjectes,’ London, 8vo, without date or place, by John Day, 1569 and 1570; ‘newly perused and encreased’ by J. Daye, London, 1575, 12mo. 7. ‘Instructions to the Lord Mayor of London, 1574–5, whereby to govern himself and the City,’ together with a letter from Norton to Walsingham respecting the disorderly dealings of promoters, printed in Collier's ‘Illustrations of Old English Literature,’ 1866, vol. iii. (cf. Archæologia, xxxvi. 97, by Mr. J. P. Collier). Ames doubtfully assigns to him ‘An Aunswere to the Proclamation of the Rebelles’ (London, n.d., by William Seres), in verse; and ‘XVI Bloes at the Pope’ (London, n.d., by William Howe); neither is known to be extant (cf. Typogr. Antiq. p. 1038).
There exist in manuscript several papers by Norton on affairs of state. The chief is a politico-ecclesiastical treatise entitled: ‘Devices (a) touching the Universities; (b) for keeping out the Jesuits and Seminarians from infecting the Realm; (c) Impediments touching the Ministrie of the Church, and for displacing the Unfitte and placing Fitte as yt may be by Lawe and for the Livings of the Church and publishing of Doctrine; (d) touching Simonie and Corrupt Dealings about the Livings of the Church; (e) of the vagabond Ministrie; (f) for the exercise of Ministers; (g) for dispersing of Doctrine throughout the Realm; (h) for Scoles and Scolemaisters; (i) for establishing of true Religion in the Innes of Court and Chancerie; (k) for proceeding upon the Laws of Religion; (l) for Courts and Offices in Lawe; (m) for Justice in the Country touching Religion’ (Lansd. MS. 155, ff. 84 seq.)
Norton's speeches at the trial of William Carter are rendered into Latin in ‘Aquepontani Concertatio Ecclesiæ Catholicæ,’ pp. 127b–132; and he contributed information to his friend Foxe's ‘Actes and Monuments.’
[Chester Waters's Chesters of Chicheley, ii. 388 sq.; C. H. and T. Cooper's Athenæ Cantabr. i. 485 sq.; W. D. Cooper's Memoir in Shakespeare Society's edition of Gorboduc, 1847; Shakespeare Soc. Papers, iv. 123; Archæologia, xxxvi. 106 sq. by W. D. Cooper; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, i. 185, s. v. ‘Sternhold’; Tanner's Bibl. Brit.; Gorham's Gleanings of the Reformation; Cal. State Papers, 1547–80, 1581–90, passim; Hunter's manuscript Chorus Vatum, in Addit. MS. 24488, f. 385 sq.; Strype's Works; Lysons's Bedfordshire.]