Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder: The Unfinished Story by Libby Schofield
Thomas was born to Sir Henry Wyatt and Anne Skinner in 1503 at Allington Castle, Kent. Being the son of a man who dutifully served Henry VII and would go on to serve Henry VIII, Thomas’s life looked prosperous even peering out of his cradle. There is sparse surviving knowledge about his childhood, but it can be readily assumed that it was rich and learned, though perhaps a little too full of nurses and nannies.
He first began court life at the age of thirteen as a “Sewer Extraordinary,” which was, in simplest terms, a servant who waited the table. This same year he began at St. John’s College, Cambridge; Thomas showed literary and scholarly potential early in years.
By the late 1510’s Thomas was a tall man, at least six feet tall, handsome, and athletic. Some say he even rivalled the godlike Henry VIII. In 1521, Thomas married Elizabeth Brooke, a daughter of royal descent. They were both young when Elizabeth gave birth a year later, a son named Thomas, after his teenage father. With another spin of the earth, Anne Boleyn, the future love of his life, returned from serving the French Queen Claude. Years later, Thomas’s grandson George Wyatt would chronicle that when Thomas saw “this new beauty” return that winter he quickly fell in love with her.
The details of Thomas’s relationship with Anne are unknown, but it is widely speculated that Anne was flattered by the love he showered her with. The pair became friends, for both were well educated, clever with words, and engaging to converse with. There is one tradition by George Wyatt that Thomas had taken one of Anne’s jewels “hanging by a lace out of her pocket or otherwise loose, which he thrust into his bosom.” He wore this jewel around his neck, and Anne made no move to retrieve it, perhaps because it was of little value, she did not notice its absence or she thought it charming for a poet to wear her jewel.
By 1524, Thomas had separated from his wife on her adultery and began wooing other women, including Anne Boleyn. Also around this time he was appointed an Ambassador for Henry VIII at home and abroad. If Thomas and Anne’s relationship was even remotely rumoured – which it most certainly was – the king would have noticed. And as the king had an eye on the Boleyn girl and had no intentions of sharing, it would have been to his benefit to have Thomas off to Spain or France with one flick of his noble finger.
Thomas Wyatt could not compete with the King of England for the heart of Anne Boleyn. He dropped into the background, but not too far. He continued intertwining Anne into his poems, comparing her to an elusive deer which another hunter had claimed. Now, without a wife or a prospect of one, Thomas could focus on his court duties and his poetry.
The prelude to William Shakespeare was Thomas Wyatt. He adopted literary forms often not used in England such as the rondeau and satire, and is famous for creating the poetic form of sonnet. Thomas’s best known poems are about the hardships of love, while others are more scandalous tributes to the ways of courtiers advancing in the Tudor court. Over 200 works have been attributed to him; his most renowned is “Whoso List to Hunt” which is thought to refer to Anne Boleyn. Many years after his death, Thomas Wyatt would be called such things as “the father of English poetry.” C.S. Lewis called him “the father of the Drab Age” which was the predecessor of the Golden Age of Elizabeth Tudor, the daughter of the woman he pursued and who his son would later die for.
The former suitor and lady remained friends through Henry VIII’s courtship and became a favourite of the King; Thomas was one who travelled to Rome on orders of petitioning the pope to annul Henry’s dead marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In 1533, he was sworn as a member of the Privy Council. On February 22nd, a curious incident occurred, and was of course recorded by Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador who took it upon himself to be known of the most current gossip. Anne Boleyn, the Marquess of Pembroke, had come out of her rooms, where a large crowd was congregated. Seeing a friend, “one she loves well” – this most likely was Thomas – she called out that “for the last three days she had had such an incredible fierce desire to eat apples as she had never felt before, and that the King had said to her that it was a sign that she was with child, and she had said no, it was not so at all.” He also played a part in Anne Boleyn’s coronation and poured scented water upon the new Queen’s hands. In 1535, Thomas was knighted.
But the time for all good and fortunate things came to pass. Despite his friendship with Thomas Cromwell, he, along with six other men, was arrested in May 1536 for adultery – and in turn, treason – with Queen Anne. Once, Thomas may have enjoyed and encouraged the rumours regarding his romantic history with the King’s wife. Now he had to try and undo a decade’s worth of court gossip, convince that his passionate poetry was not concerning Queen Anne – which some of it certainly was – and explain his harmless friendship with her.
During his time in the Tower of London, where so many had met their end, Thomas, having been burdened with the over-imaginative mind of a true poet, did what he always did best. He wrote.
Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Richard Page were not tried on May 12th with their fellow-accused. For awhile, none were sure which men, if any, would survive the ridiculous plot brewed by Thomas Cromwell and motivated by Henry VIII. His and his father’s friendship with Cromwell may well have saved his life because, as it became known that in this case, the King would not spare his favourites. George Boleyn the Viscount Rochford – Anne’s own brother – Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton, and Mark Smeaton were found guilty and sentenced to death.
So was Anne.
Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, Marquess of Pembroke, the woman Sir Thomas Wyatt loved and praised and wooed in his poetry, was to die. Five men were to die for her, and Thomas could have easily been one of them. In the romantic’s view, Thomas would have gladly met the headsman for Anne if the time had come. Surely the man who wore the jewel of the woman he pursued would mount the scaffold with a full heart, knowing all would be well in Heaven. Of course, Thomas was a human, and a human who loved life at that. He would have been frightened and alone in the Tower, with no one but the friendly scratching of his quill for company. He may have well been cursing Anne for putting him there. We may never know, and perhaps that is for the best. In most history, the romantic figures live longer in books and memories. No one will remember a bitter man over a passionate poet.
When the five accused men and the Queen died, Thomas was thirty-three years old. His son was fourteen, and he had been separated from Elizabeth Brooke for twelve years. Thomas Wyatt was not a perfect man, husband, or father, but when those six souls left their bodies he was the most perfect, honest poet he had ever been. His poem which says that “circa Regna tonat” [around the throne it thunders] was most likely written during his time in the Tower or shortly after, and reflects the deaths of his friends and the unstable ground they all walked upon. He is careful not too openly call the deaths unjust, but notes that nobility – Viscount Rochford, Sir Henry Norris, and Queen Anne herself – are not to be spared if they “press too fast in at that gate.” The grief and shock in this poem is evident of a man who has witnessed horrors.
Thomas Wyatt was released from the Tower of London later that year and returned to his duties as member of the Privy Council and Ambassador. He was not to be untouched by the previous events, but wisely did not speak of the happenings in the Tower during that bloody May. His views towards the subsequent Queen Consorts – Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Howard – are unknown as there seems little ready information about Sir Thomas after the six deaths at the Tower.
By 1540, Thomas was restored to full favour. But, just as before, downfall quickly followed fortune. Poor Thomas was again arrested for treason and held in the Tower in 1541. Fortunately, the current wife of Henry VIII, the young Katherine Howard, first cousin to Anne Boleyn, interceded on his behalf on the terms that he would reconcile with his estranged wife. He agreed, and was released. Maybe Thomas had full attentions on reuniting with Elizabeth Brooke, or maybe not. That may never be known.
On October 11th, 1542 Sir Thomas Wyatt died at the age of thirty-nine at Sherborne, Dorset. One might think that something as trivial as a fever would never claim the man who had competed against the King of England over a woman, the man who had survived two treason charges and months in the Tower. Or perhaps it was just as well. No doubt Thomas thought often of those horrific days in May six years prior, when it was only by chance that it was not he who laid his neck upon the block. Now, in death, Thomas would have no more waking nightmares of his murdered friends, no more worries about the headsman’s axe. In death, there would only be good, or at the least, not any bad.
Thomas was a writer. Like all men and women of ink and paper, death held curiosity, intrigue, and fear. After a lifetime of pouring word after word about death, one would wonder if he was right. However, there is one thing a writer fears, fears more than death. The unfinished story. To die before you’ve drawn the last letter. Will it sit there after you’re dead and the words fade? Will someone come along, pick it up, read it, and never know the ending? Will it simply be burned on a cold winter morning to start the fire in the hearth? Only a writer knows exactly what they’ve began, even if they don’t know how it will end.
I believe that’s one of the reasons I like Thomas so much. Like me, he is a person of word. Between writers there is an unscripted understanding, a bond. It is known exactly the mindset of another like you. Writers are often unpredictable, a little crazy, proud, tentative, and humble all at once. But when one poet looks at another, there is a moment where they know precisely what the other is thinking. When one author reads the word of someone they’ve never met, they can easily imagine them scribbling away, muttering under their breath, eyes watering from candle smoke and lack of blinking. Apparently this connection cannot be severed, not even after 500 years.
The fact that Thomas died so young is another factor in my loyalty to him. The true artist that he was, he would have several poems started or half-finished on October 11th: a satire, a sonnet, a new translation of a psalm, perhaps. Not only were there numerous works left unfinished, Thomas’s life was unfinished. Would he have tried to reconcile with Elizabeth Brooke? Would having been in his son’s life somehow altered the rebellion against Mary I years later? Would he have collaborated with other poets such as William Shakespeare?
The thing that I regret for Thomas the most is that he missed the Golden Age. He never lived to see Anne’s daughter rule: how proud he would have been! How wistful! The reign of Elizabeth Tudor was the time of people like Thomas, and like me: it was an age of poetry. Will Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe… Had Thomas lived long enough, would he have become a playwright as well as a poet, as those younger men had done? The possibilities Thomas Wyatt could have had in life are both fanciful and desirable.
The one thing historians today remark upon is that Thomas Wyatt the Younger almost brought Elizabeth Tudor down with him: the son of the poet and the daughter of the Queen. Thomas the Younger died claiming Elizabeth’s innocence. The Elder Wyatt certainly would have died the same way for Anne.
Unrequited love is known by many, and so many can sympathize with Thomas about Anne. I believe that the story of Thomas became truly unfinished in 1533, when Henry VIII secretly married Anne Boleyn. She was not his to pursue any longer, only a married woman, wife of a King at that. I often wonder what history would be like if Anne had given Thomas a proper chance. Henry VIII would have remained married to Catherine of Aragon – though for how much longer? – England may not have broken from the Roman Church, and most significantly, Elizabeth Tudor would not have been born. The more I think about it, the more I resignedly admit that Anne Boleyn made the right choice in loving the King and not the poet.
The unfinished story of Sir Thomas Wyatt is tragic, for everyone deserves to be loved by the one they love. But because I am made of the same stuff, of ink and paper, of pens and parchment, of unrequited love and unfinished stories, I will love and think of Thomas. I think of him writing in the quivering light of candle stubs, just as I do. I think of him fingering Anne Boleyn’s jewel as a nervous habit, just as I knot my fingers in a necklace. I think of his eyes following the willowy figure of Anne, and the way his hands would twitch with the desire to write about her elegance, just as my hands began twitching with desire to write about him. I will love Thomas, the poet, my brother of word, long after the candles have burnt down and the ink has dried.
In fact, I believe I shall love Thomas always.
- Thomas Wyatt (Poet) Wikipedia Page
- Mistress Anne: The Exceptional Life of Anne Boleyn by Carolly Erickson
- The Young Elizabeth: The First 25 Years of Elizabeth I by Alison Plowden