Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Wyatt, Sir Thomasfree

(c. 1503–1542)
  • Colin Burrow

Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1503–1542)

by Hans Holbein the younger, c. 1535

The Royal Collection © 2004 HM Queen Elizabeth II

Wyatt, Sir Thomas (c. 1503–1542), poet and ambassador, probably born at Allington Castle, Kent, was the eldest son of Sir Henry Wyatt and Anne, daughter of John Skinner of Reigate.

Sir Henry Wyatt

Wyatt's father, Sir Henry Wyatt (c. 1460–1536), politician and courtier, was a younger son of Richard Wyatt, of Yorkshire, and Margaret, the daughter and heir of William Bailif, of Reigate. His skill as a soldier and reliability as a financier made him one of the longest-serving courtiers of Henry VII and Henry VIII. His support for Henry Tudor began before 1483, and he probably participated in Buckingham's unsuccessful revolt against Richard III in that year. Family legend has it that he was imprisoned and interrogated by Richard III himself, and that during his imprisonment he was fed on pigeons brought to him by a cat. After the victory of Henry VII at Bosworth he received a number of grants and favours. In 1485 he became keeper of Norwich Castle and gaol, and before September 1486 he was made clerk of the king's jewels. He succeeded to the increasingly influential position of master of the king's jewels in June 1488, combining the office with that of clerk of the king's mint. By 1494 he was keeper of the change, assayer of the money and coinage, and comptroller of the mint.

From these grants and offices came sufficient wealth to purchase in 1492 Allington Castle in Kent. Sir Henry retained his Yorkshire links, however, and in March 1487 he became joint bailiff and constable of Conisbrough Castle in Yorkshire. In June of that year he fought against the pretender Lambert Simnel in the battle of Stoke-on-Trent. He became governor of the city and castle of Carlisle in 1494, and at some point was captured and held to ransom by the Scots, for which he was reimbursed by a grant on 22 August 1515. This 'two yeres and more prisonment in Scotland, in Irons and Stoks' (Muir, 40), referred to by Sir Thomas Wyatt in a letter to his son, may have occurred between 1494 and 1496. By June 1496, however, Sir Henry wrote to the king from Carlisle to discuss preparations for putting down the rebellion of Perkin Warbeck, and in June 1497 he was present at the battle of Blackheath. About 1502 he married Anne Skinner. Thomas Scott's anecdotes of the family (BL, Wyatt papers, 29) present her as a powerful overseer of the household, who caught the abbot of Boxley in a compromising position with one of her maids, and stocked him. They had two sons, Thomas and Henry (who is assumed to have died in infancy), and a daughter, Margaret, who married Sir Anthony Lee, MP for Buckinghamshire. Her portrait by Holbein survives in the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Sir Henry became a privy councillor in 1504, and was granted arms in 1507–8. He was an executor of Henry VII's will, and remained in high office in the reign of Henry VIII. Having been granted livery by virtue of his office as master of the king's jewel house at the funeral of Henry VII in May 1509, he was made knight of the Bath at the coronation of Henry VIII, and was appointed to the new privy council. He was commissioner of the peace for Middlesex and Surrey from 1509 to 1515. He established close ties with his Kentish neighbours the Boleyns of Hever Castle (Sir Henry became captain of Norwich Castle jointly with Thomas Boleyn in 1511), and with Thomas Cromwell, who became one of his executors. His military activity also ensured his continuing favour: with a retinue of 102 he accompanied the king to Calais in 1513, and was made knight-banneret after the battle of the Spurs in August 1513. In 1519 he again attended Henry VIII to Calais. In 1520 it fell to him to transport gold and silver plate sufficient for the banquet at the Field of Cloth of Gold. He attended Henry at Canterbury during his reception of Charles V in May 1522, and was by that date sheriff of Kent.

By the later 1520s Sir Henry began to ease out of public life. He stood down as master of the jewels in 1524, and founded a chantry at Milton in Kent in that year; by 1528 he resigned as treasurer of the king's chamber and was succeeded by Sir Brian Tuke. By 1533 his retirement was complete, and his health was failing. In that year his son Thomas deputized for him as ewerer at the coronation of Anne Boleyn. From his retirement in Allington he learned of his son's imprisonment in May 1536, and wrote to thank both Cromwell and the king for his release. He died on 10 November of that year. His will provides for his burial at Milton 'nere unto dame Anee my wyfe' (TNA: PRO, PROB 11/26, fols. 49v–50r) and for the continuance of his chantry there. A portrait by Holbein survives in the Louvre, and another, showing the cat supposed to have fed him during his imprisonment, is in the possession of the earl of Romney.

Sir Thomas Wyatt: early years and marriage

Sir Henry's elder son, Sir Thomas Wyatt (sometimes called the elder to distinguish him from his son), was the foremost poet of the court of Henry VIII. He is frequently represented as belonging to a new breed of young, plain-speaking, and exuberant courtiers who populated the court of the new king, and who contrasted with the bureaucrats and money men who flourished under Henry VII. Although his reputation for evangelical religious views and for loose sexual mores distinguishes him from Sir Henry, he retained and built on his father's family and regional loyalties. His fate was closely associated with those of the Boleyns and of Thomas Cromwell, and his career as an ambassador reflected the growing international ambition of his king rather than marking a temperamental difference from his father.

Thomas was born about 1503 and served as a sewer-extraordinary at the christening of Princess Mary in 1516, along with his friend and Kentish neighbour Thomas Poynings. Family legend has it that as a child he saved his father from an attack by a lion which he had raised, a tale which allegedly reached the ears of Henry VIII ('He can tame lions', he is reported to have said; Bruce, 237). Wyatt attended St John's College, Cambridge, the chief centre of humanistic learning. He did not take a degree (confusion with John Wyatt has led many authorities to suppose he did), but the foundations of his later admiration of Seneca, Epictetus, and Horace were probably laid during his time at Cambridge.

By about 1520 Wyatt had married Elizabeth (d. 1560), daughter of Thomas Brooke, eighth Baron Cobham, thereby consolidating his father's position among the Kentish gentry. Thomas Wyatt the younger was born in or before 1521. The marriage was unhappy, and, if the Spanish ambassador (writing on 27 March 1541) is to be believed, the pair were estranged by the second half of the 1520s. By 1537 Elizabeth's brother George, ninth Baron Cobham, begged Cromwell to ensure that Wyatt made provision for his wife, which he was evidently failing to do. By about that date Wyatt had as his mistress Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Edward Darrell of Littlecote, with whom he had at least one illegitimate son, Francis. He later urged his son Thomas to:

love well and agre with your wife … And the blissing of god for good agrement between the wife and husband is fruyt of many children, which I for the like thinge doe lacke, and the faulte is both in your mother and me, but chieflie in her.

Muir, 40–41

It is thought the estrangement was the result of her adultery; Wyatt, however, with characteristic pith, admitted later that 'I graunte I do not professe chastite, but yet I use not abhomination' (ibid., 206).

In 1524 Wyatt became clerk of the king's jewels, which might have prepared him to succeed his father as master, and by 1525 he was an esquire of the king's body. He is mentioned in Hall's chronicle as having participated in the Christmas entertainments in 1524–5, in which an allegorical Castle of Loyalty was defended by, among others, Francis Bryan and John Pointz (to whom he later addressed epistolary satires), as well as by his brother-in-law Sir George Cobham. His first experience of diplomatic service abroad came in 1526, when he accompanied Sir Thomas Cheney (another Kentish neighbour) to France to congratulate François I on his release from imprisonment by the emperor, and to negotiate the position of England in relation to the league of Cognac. He arrived in Bordeaux in April, and on 1 May he was sent back to England, presumably to carry information to Wolsey. Cheney described him as one who 'hath as much wit to mark and remember everything he saith as any young man hath in England' (LP Henry VIII, 4.2135).

On 7 January 1527 Wyatt again went abroad, this time with Sir John Russell to the papal court. According to Russell the pope sent horses for them; according to George Wyatt, the poet's militantly anti-papal grandson, he sent courtesans who offered 'a plenary dispensation verbal' (Papers of George Wyatt, 27) for whatever the diplomats might do with them. They passed on to Venice at the end of February 1527, where Russell injured his leg. Wyatt returned via Ferrara, and was then, despite having a safe conduct from the duke, captured by imperial troops who demanded 3000 ducats for his freedom. The duke of Ferrara is said to have brought about his release by 1 April 1527. In early May Wyatt left Rome, shortly before 6 May when imperial troops sacked the city.

At new year 1528 Wyatt presented Katherine of Aragon with Quyete of Mynde, a translation of Plutarch from Guillaume Budé's Latin version, having baulked at the stiffer task of translating Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae. His future mistress, Elizabeth Darrell, was a maid to Katherine, and it may be that this early association with Charles V's aunt led to Wyatt's subsequent appointment as ambassador to Spain. The work gives the first sign of his interest in Stoic retreat from the troubles of the world, which plays a significant part in his later verse.

Connection with Anne Boleyn and imprisonment

From October 1529 to November 1530 Wyatt was high marshall of Calais, an office which he tried to regain in May 1536. This may have developed his interest in French verse forms, apparent in his ballades and rondeaux, although the influence of French culture was so pronounced in the English court that Calais is unlikely to have taught him anything which England could not. On 26 September 1529 he was granted a licence to import wine and woad from France. After his return to England he was appointed in 1532 a commissioner of the peace for Essex. Through this period he was becoming increasingly familiar with his father's executor Thomas Cromwell. He probably accompanied Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (by now established as the king's mistress) to Calais to meet François I in October 1532. His strambotto 'Some tyme I fled the fyre that me brent' (Poems, ed. Muir and Thomson, poem 59) is generally taken to refer to this event, although voyages to France became a regular part of his life. On 1 June 1533 he took his father's place as sewer-extraordinary at the coronation of Anne Boleyn, whose accession can only have strengthened his family's position at court. Through the following years Wyatt consolidated both the status of his family and their connections in Kent and Yorkshire: he was granted a licence to have twenty men in his livery in June 1534. In February 1535 the king nominated him high steward of the abbey of West Malling in Kent, despite a dispute with the abbess, and in July he was granted an eighty-year lease on Arygden Park in Yorkshire. In all probability he was knighted on Easter day 1535 (the records erroneously give a date of 18 March 1536). A brief imprisonment in the Fleet in May 1534 for an affray which had resulted in the death of one of the sergeants of London did not impede his advancement.

Wyatt stated in poem 92 that in May:

my welth and eke my liff, I say,Have stonde so oft in such perplexitie.

This was no exaggeration. On 5 May 1536 he was imprisoned in the Tower—very shortly after the detention of Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris, William Brereton, and Sir Francis Weston, who were accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn. Contemporary witnesses associate him with Smeaton and the others, and imply that their offences were also his. John Hussee recorded in a dispatch to Lord Lisle on 12 May 1536 that Wyatt was imprisoned but not in mortal danger; by 13 May he was reporting that some believed Wyatt and Sir Richard Page were 'as like to suffer as the others' (LP Henry VIII, 10.865). The Spanish ambassador Chapuys recorded that Wyatt and Page had been detained on Anne's account. Wyatt himself later claimed that his imprisonment was the result of the 'undeservyd evyll will' of the duke of Suffolk (Muir, 201). Three later witnesses (Harpsfield, Sanders, and the Spanish Chronicle), all vigorously anti-protestant, report that the poet had been one of Anne's lovers before her accession, and that he had warned the king against marrying her. Critics have eagerly sought allusions to an affair in his verse. One poem in the Egerton manuscript (Poems, ed. Muir and Thomson, poem 50) asks:

What wourde is that that chaungeth not,Though it be tourned and made in twain?

and is entitled 'Anna'. The title, however, is in a later hand. Another poem alludes to 'her that did set our country in a rore' (ibid., poem 97), a line carefully revised in Wyatt's hand to 'Brunet that set my welth in such a rore'. This indicates that a brunette who convulsed his heart and his nation (or perhaps simply his county, the usual sense of the word ‘country’ in this period) was or had been on his mind. Editors have sometimes believed that the injunction 'Noli me tangere, for Cesars I am' (ibid., poem 7), set on the collar of the Petrarchan deer in Wyatt's version of 'una candida cerva', reflects the poet's reluctant acceptance (c.1526–7) that Anne Boleyn belonged to Henry VIII. That a musician, Mark Smeaton, was imprisoned and accused of intimacy with Anne in 1536 does imply that the queen had a circle of lyrists close enough to her to make a king claim that her intimacy with these men was sexual. But neither Wyatt's imprisonment nor his poetry indicates that he was a lover of Anne Boleyn.

The most probable explanation of both Wyatt's imprisonment in 1536 and his release is not romance but family loyalties and locality: his family was close to the Boleyns by geography and allegiance, and his detention, probably at the instigation of Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, served to indicate that all family and friends of the Boleyns were in danger. His release is likely to have resulted from his family's and his own close ties with Cromwell. On 7 May his father wrote to his son, hoping that he was 'ffounde trewe to his grace' (Muir, 30). Four days later Sir Henry wrote to thank Cromwell (who had assumed Sir Henry's former office of master of the jewels in 1532) for his efforts on his son's behalf, evidently believing that he would be released shortly, and urged Cromwell to act as a father towards him. It is probable that Wyatt witnessed the execution of Anne Boleyn's supposed lovers from the Tower on 17 May 1536:

The bell towre showed me suche syghtThat in my hed stekys day and night.

Poems, ed. Muir and Thomson, poem 126, ll. 16–17By mid-June he was released.

Ambassadorial duties

Wyatt grumbled vocally about his imprisonment, but after his release there was no diminution in the favours shown to him: he was made steward of Conisbrough Castle (an office formerly held by his father) during the northern rising, and in October 1536 he was charged to provide 200 men to resist the rebels. He also became sheriff of Kent. The final favour bestowed on him was to prove a bitter one: on 12 March 1537 he received his instructions as ambassador to the court of the emperor Charles V, a little over a month after he had been granted livery of his father's lands. He spent most of the next two and a half years in almost constant motion abroad. He was briefed to improve relations with the emperor, which had been frosty since Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon (the emperor's aunt), and to negotiate a marriage between the Princess Mary and the infante of Portugal. But his main challenge was to ensure that the French king and the emperor did not form a league from which England was excluded. Cromwell also urged him to use his ability as an observer of men in order to plumb the emperor's intentions: 'fishe out the botom of his stomake' (LP Henry VIII, 12/2.870). Wyatt sailed in April 1537. It is likely that during this journey he composed two letters to his son, which urge him to honesty and good service to the king, and which hope that 'Senek were your studye and Epictetus, bicause it is litel to be euir in your bosome' (Muir, 43). In May–June he passed through Paris, Lyons, Avignon, Barcelona, and Saragossa, where John Briarton, his assistant, wrote to Thomas Wriothesley, 'we were extremely handeled, as though we had been Jewes' (ibid., 44). They were compelled, despite Wyatt's protestations, to pay duty on their clothing. On 22 June Wyatt had the first of several amicable audiences with the emperor, although his attempts to persuade the emperor of the invalidity of the donation of Constantine met a predictably bland response. Wyatt later experienced trouble from the Inquisition for distributing ‘heretical’ books. It is likely that these works touched on the temporal authority of the pope, or ‘the bishop of Rome’ as Wyatt and all loyal English subjects termed him by this date.

Wyatt's embassy was bound to fail. It is not clear that any parties ever wanted any of the marriages he was supposed to negotiate, and the emperor and the French king, exhausted and impoverished by war, were set on reconciliation. The birth of Prince Edward in October 1537 meant that Princess Mary, declared illegitimate and unlikely ever to succeed to the English throne, was never to become daughter-in-law to the king of Portugal. Wyatt was rebuked by Cromwell for failing to pass on to the emperor Princess Mary's letter acknowledging her illegitimacy. This he presumably withheld to increase her appeal as a dynastic partner. After the death of Jane Seymour in October 1537 a marriage was suggested between Henry VIII and the duchess of Milan, whose claim to the crown of Denmark the emperor used as an inducement to the match. While Wyatt's negotiations in Spain became increasingly complex, his debts were mounting up at home. He repeatedly pressed for an increase in his ‘diet’, or living expenses, and was repeatedly stalled.

The emperor and François I were set on negotiating a deal, which Wyatt attempted by increasingly desperate measures to break. They met at Nice. Here Francis Bryan, the ambassador to the French king, gambled for high stakes, and Wyatt lent him £200. The debt was repaid by Cromwell in November, but a memory of it gives a sharp bite to the start of Wyatt's epistolary satire to Bryan:

A spending hand that always powreth owteHad nede to have a bringer in as fast.

Poems, ed. Muir and Thomson, poem 107, ll. 1–2

Edmund Bonner and Simon Heynes too were in Nice. They had been dispatched in theory to assist Wyatt, but in practice to keep an eye on him. In a desperate attempt to create discord between the emperor, François, and the pope, Wyatt suggested that John Mason be sent to the papal legate Cardinal Pole (with whom Mason had an earlier association) to elicit information from him. This plan yielded no results, and about 25 May 1538, Wyatt's least happy month, he was sent home bearing an offer of marriage for both Mary and Henry on terms which his king was bound to refuse. The emperor promised Wyatt twenty-five days for his return to Nice with an answer before any peace was concluded with François. This was characteristically devious: Wyatt's absence was probably engineered to enable Charles and François to make a treaty, which they duly agreed on 20 June, just after the expiry of the twenty-five day period of grace. Henry is supposed to have thought that Wyatt was more the emperor's ambassador than his own by this point; certainly he was outmanoeuvred.

Wyatt trekked back to Barcelona in July 1538 with the imperial court, and from there went on to Toledo. In September Bonner wrote a malicious letter to Cromwell, which alleged that, while at Nice, Wyatt had treacherously sought contact with Cardinal Pole through Mason, and that he had also treasonably expressed a wish for the king's death. Cromwell detained Mason, but glossed over the accusations in his correspondence to Wyatt. He retained Bonner's letter, which was discovered and used to plague Wyatt after Cromwell's fall in 1540.

By January 1539, as the rapprochement of the emperor and François developed, and plans for the king's marriage to the duchess of Milan foundered, Wyatt declared to Cromwell, 'I ame at the wall. I ame not able to endure to March', when his recall had been promised (Muir, 86). The emperor received Cardinal Pole to his court in February 1539, and Pole detected signs of a growing coolness towards England. It is almost certain that, in desperation to break the looming alliance between the pope, François, and Charles V, Wyatt became involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Pole. Ciphered letters leave only hints of this plan, although Wyatt had discussed a quick-acting Spanish poison with Elizabeth Darrell during his return to England in June 1538, and had asked if the king wished to obtain any. That plan too came to naught, although it made Pole fear for his life: he still believed that Wyatt was on the loose and in pursuit of him in September 1539.

From June to November 1539 Wyatt was probably at Allington laying out some of the £106 which remained in his hands after paying the £3090 3s. of expenses for his embassy. But in mid-November he was once more sent to the emperor, who was at this point in Blois on his way to pacify the Low Countries. Wyatt's role was again to seek a means of creating a breach between the emperor and the French king, while congratulating both rulers on their growing amity. The measure he eventually adopted was circuitous: at Paris he seized an English traitor called Robert Brancetour, who was said to have been urging English subjects to support Cardinal Pole. Brancetour was in the entourage of the emperor, but he was under the jurisdiction of the French king, who naïvely agreed to the arrest. The emperor's fury secured the release of his follower, and all Wyatt could do was to insinuate that the failure to yield Brancetour showed ingratitude on Charles's part towards the English king. When Wyatt called the emperor an ingrate, he exploded with rage: 'I take it so that I can not be toward hym Ingrate. The inferyour may be Ingrate to the greter, and the terme is skant sufferable bytwene like' (Muir, 135). This was relayed back to the French king as an indicator that the emperor had a 'Fantazie that he shuld be pereles' (Merriman, 2.251). Wyatt's patient fishing of the emperor's stomach eventually yielded its dram of bile; but with no marriage negotiated, Pole alive and well, and the Valois and the Habsburgs effectively reconciled, he 'trotted contynually up and downe that hell throughe heate and stinke from Councelloure to Embassator' (Muir, 181) to no avail. He was recalled in late April 1540, and shortly before his departure from Spain probably composed 'Tagus, farewell' (Poems, ed. Muir and Thomson, poem 99). He was not sorry to leave.

The fall of Cromwell and Wyatt's arrest

May 1540 was a happy month: Wyatt was home. But by 10 June, Cromwell, his chief patron and protector, was arrested. The Spanish Chronicle records that Wyatt witnessed his execution on 28 July 1540, and that he was addressed from the scaffold by his patron: 'Oh, Wyatt, do not weep, for if I were no more guilty than thou wert when they took thee, I should not be in this pass' (Chronicle of King Henry VIII, 104). It is traditionally believed that Wyatt's imitation of Petrarch's sonnet on the death of his patron Giovanni Colonna, 'The piller pearisht is whearto I lent' (Poems, ed. Muir and Thomson, poem 236), reflects on Cromwell's fall. His death was indeed a disaster for a family which had developed close ties with Cromwell from the 1530s. Wyatt probably owed him his release from the Tower in 1536, and if the French ambassador is to be believed Cromwell had calmed Henry VIII's irritation with his ambassador on at least one occasion (Kaulek, 157). From July to December 1540 Wyatt probably retired to Allington, where he undertook extensive renovations of the castle. Some authorities have it that he composed his penitential psalms during this period (others favour the aftermath of the 1536 imprisonment); their preoccupation with enemies and tyrannical rulers might well grow from Wyatt's experiences in 1540.

The death and disgrace of Wyatt's protector eventually led to a revival of the accusations of Bonner and Heynes. There were two accusations which endangered Wyatt's life: Bonner's claim that he had communicated with Cardinal Pole was potentially deadly in 1540, as the king's hatred of Pole was by that date extreme; his accusation that Wyatt had said 'By goddes bludde, ye shall see the kinge our maister cast out at the carts tail, and if he soo be served, by godds body, he is well served' (Muir, 67) might mean that Wyatt had treasonably compassed the king's death by words, since Bonner claimed Wyatt meant that the king should be hanged like a thief. Wyatt was duly taken bound and under guard to the Tower on 17 January 1541. Three days later Sir Richard Southwell was instructed to confiscate plate and horses from Allington (where Elizabeth Darrell, apparently pregnant, was in residence), and to pay off Wyatt's servants. A traitor's death was almost certain to follow.

Wyatt's defence against the charges survives in BL, Harley MS 78. In it he orchestrates the full range of tones, from homely directness to ambassadorial innuendo, which run through his best poems. Similarities between the language of the defence and that of two poems to Francis Bryan, 'A Spending Hand' and 'Syghes ar my Foode' (Poems, ed. Muir and Thomson, poems 107 and 244), make it very likely that those works date from his period in the Tower or a time close to it. In the defence he does not deny that he had resented his imprisonment in 1536, but insists that he had not treasonably wished the king's death. In a careful mingling of outright denial and implicit confession he makes it clear both that he regarded the extension of the Treason Act in 1534 to include words as potentially a pretext for tyranny, and that he by no means considered Henry to be a tyrant. He claims he had not committed verbal treason: he had simply used the common proverb to mean that something 'is evell taken heede to, or negligently, slyppes owte of the carte and is loste' (Muir, 198); that is, he meant that Henry was likely to be left out of the league between the emperor and François. He also insists that his contact with Pole through Mason was in order to spy on him rather than to conspire with him.

It is not known whether the defence was delivered, but it confesses enough to have been regarded, with some licence, as the full confession which Wyatt is said to have made. On 19 March Katherine Howard is reported by the Spanish ambassador to have interceded on his behalf, and Wyatt was released. Henry had (for him) something approaching a sincere affection for the poet: the French ambassador Marillac reported that 'there was no one with whom the King was more private, nor to whom he gave greater demonstrations of love' (Kaulek, 263), and Henry retained in his personal possession at Hampton Court Wyatt's seal, and a set of varvels (rings attached to the jesses of a hawk, often engraved with the owner's name). Lloyd's testimony that Wyatt had prompted the English Reformation by jesting 'that a man cannot repent him of his sin but by the Pope's leave' (Lloyd, 46) can be discounted as an attempt to make the poet into a hero of protestantism; but Wyatt's combination of frankness, learning, and conversational salt appealed to the king. Wriothesley reported that Wyatt confessed his guilt and received his pardon from Henry VIII at Dover in late March. Chapuys recorded that a condition of his pardon was that he should take back his wife, 'from whom he had been separated for upwards of fifteen years' (CSP Spain, 1538–42, 314). It may be that Elizabeth Brooke is the 'clogg' on Wyatt's heel described in his 'Satire' to Poyntz (Poems, ed. Muir and Thomson, poem 105, l. 86), although some authorities date the poem to his release in June 1536.

Death and reputation

Wyatt's rehabilitation after imprisonment was, once again, rapid. By April 1541 he had been appointed to command 300 horse in Calais. Grants of land and offices followed in July, and by December he had become knight of the shire and MP for Kent. In March 1542 he became steward of the manor of Maidstone, and was granted three former monastic properties, including the Carmelite priory in Aylesford, Kent. By August he was rumoured to have been appointed vice-admiral of the fleet against France. His health was not good, however. Since March 1539 he had complained of violent headaches. He made a will on 12 June 1541 (now unlocated; LP Henry VIII, 16.470, 18.981, 89), which made his son Thomas his chief heir, but which also provided land in Dorset and Somerset for both Elizabeth Darrell and her son Francis (or Henry as he is called in some documents).

Diplomacy was the death of him. On 3 October 1542 Wyatt was appointed by the privy council to conduct the earl of Tyrone to the king; on the same day, however, he was sent to meet the Spanish envoy Montmorency de Courrière at Falmouth. He contracted a fever on his return, and died, probably about 6 October, in the house of Sir John Horsey in Sherborne, Dorset. He was buried in the great church at Sherborne, probably in the Horsey family vault, on 11 October 1542.

Wyatt's death prompted elegies by Leland, Surrey, and Thomas Chaloner. The printing of Surrey's and Leland's elegies in 1542 was the first occasion on which a recently dead English author was publicly canonized by those who felt they were his successors. The elegies present him as a singular figure, and are right to do so. He translated and imitated sonnets (of which he is the first known English exponent) and canzone by Petrarch with a skill that warrants his early reputation as one of 'a new company of courtly makers' who 'having travailed into Italie … greatly polished our rude and homely manner of vulgar Poesie' (Puttenham, 60). From Serafino, Wyatt learned to craft short and pithy ottava rima stanzas known as strambotti, a form which he tended to use for verses which riddlingly appear to allude to contemporary events. Some of his stanzaic poems, such as 'My lute, awake' (Poems, ed. Muir and Thomson, poem 66), appear to imply musical settings, although none survives. The division between courtier poets and professional musicians in the court of Henry VIII was more or less impermeable, and Wyatt's poems, if they were sung, were probably not sung by him.

Wyatt was also the first to translate and imitate epistolary satires in terza rima from Horace and Alamanni. These epistles, to Sir Francis Bryan and John Poyntz, aim to appeal precisely to the experiences of their addressees, and insist that withdrawal into Horatian retirement is the only antidote to the deceptions and uncertainties of court life—of which both Wyatt and his addressees had ample experience. Wyatt's receptiveness to humanist currents of learning is matched by his willingness to experiment with the theology and vocabulary of evangelical writers. The paraphrases on the penitential psalms in terza rima explore evangelical vocabulary, and show signs of wide reading in Catholic, evangelical, and Lutheran sources. The psalms (one of which was at some point dedicated to Surrey) derive from so many sources and work on so many concerns—salvation, penitence, obedience and resistance to a sovereign authority—that a distinct theological position does not emerge from them. Wyatt claimed in his defence, however, that 'I thynke I shulde have more adoe with a great sorte in Inglande to purge my selffe of suspecte of a Lutherane then of a Papyst' (Muir, 195–6).

Scholars disagree over the canon of Wyatt's verse and the criteria for inclusion in it: Muir prints 268 poems as his (which is excessive), Daalder a tentative 184. The manuscript Egerton 2711 in the British Library is generally agreed to contain poems exclusively by Wyatt (a total of 108 if the psalms are counted as a single poem). Some are copied by amanuenses and revised by Wyatt, others are in Wyatt's hand throughout. Although it has been suggested that this manuscript indicates that Wyatt wished to gather his works for an audience in print, its contents probably indicate rather that he wished it to remain in his family: his verse assumes that his readers are a part of a small group who will be able to unpick the often cryptic allusions to personal and public events which it contains. The Egerton manuscript was preserved by the Harington family, as was the Arundel Harington manuscript (owned by the duke of Norfolk). This contains four additional poems ascribed to Wyatt. There are a further eleven ascriptions to him in the collection of verse in and by several hands known as the Devonshire manuscript (BL, Add. MS 17492); editors differ in their attribution of other poems in that manuscript. Six further poems are ascribed to Wyatt in the ‘Blage’ manuscript (TCD, MS 160). Few would now agree with Muir that the majority of unascribed poems in this manuscript are also Wyatt's work. Sixteen additional poems are printed in the section devoted to Wyatt in Tottel's miscellany (Songes and Sonnettes, 1557), and a number of pieces sometimes attributed to him appear in the fragmentary Court of Venus. There are further poems in BL, Hill MS Add. 36529, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Parker MS 168, and BL, Harley MS 78.

No other writer in the early Tudor period is known to have experimented in so many genres, or to have left behind such a substantial and varied body of verse. Although Wyatt is often casually referred to as the first 'Renaissance' poet, it is more accurate to regard his achievement as distinctively Henrician: he assimilated European forms of verse and a Chaucerian poetic vocabulary to the life and milieu of a Henrician courtier and diplomat, generating in the process poems which darkly allude to political events, and which testify to the habitual indirectness of expression on which the life of a courtier and diplomat in this period depended.


  • K. Muir, Life and letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1963)
  • The poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, ed. K. Muir and P. Thomson (1969)
  • P. Thomson, Sir Thomas Wyatt and his background (1964)
  • The works of Henry Howard earl of Surrey and of Sir Thomas Wyatt the elder, ed. G. F. Nott, 2 vols. (1815)
  • S. Brigden, ‘“The shadow that you know”: Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Francis Bryan at court and in embassy’, HJ, 39 (1996), 1–31
  • The papers of George Wyatt, esquire, of Boxley Abbey in the county of Kent, ed. D. M. Loades, CS, 4th ser., 5 (1968)
  • W. H. Wiatt, ‘On the date of Sir Thomas Wyatt's knighthood’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 60 (1961), 268–72
  • W. M. Tydeman, ‘Biographical data on Sir Thomas Wyatt’, N&Q, 206 (1961), 414–15
  • S. C. Wyatt, Cheneys and Wyatts: a brief history in two parts [n.d., 1959]
  • State papers published under … Henry VIII, 11 vols. (1830–52)
  • LP Henry VIII, 4.2135, 10.865, 12/2.870, 16.470, 18.981, 89
  • D. Starkey, ‘The court: Castiglione's ideal and Tudor reality, being a discussion of Sir Thomas Wyatt's “Satire addressed to Sir Francis Bryan”’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, 45 (1982), 232–9
  • R. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean portraits, 2 vols. (1969)
  • R. C. Harrier, The canon of Sir Thomas Wyatt's poetry (1975)
  • J. Bruce, ‘Unpublished anecdotes of Sir Thomas Wyatt the poet, and of other members of that family’, GM, 2nd ser., 34 (1850), 235–41
  • E. K. Chambers, Sir Thomas Wyatt and some collected studies (New York, 1965)
  • The complete poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, ed. R. A. Rebholtz (1978)
  • The collected poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, ed. J. Daalder (1975)
  • D. Lloyd, The states-men, and favourites of England since the Reformation (1665)
  • P. Beal, English literary manuscripts, 1 (1980)
  • D. Starkey, ed., The inventory of King Henry VIII: the transcript (1998)
  • M. A. S. Hume, ed. and trans., Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England (1889)
  • J. Kaulek, ed., Correspondance politique de MM. de Castillon et de Marillac, ambassadeurs de France en Angleterre (1537–1542) (Paris, 1885)
  • N. Harpsfield, A treatise on the pretended divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, ed. N. Pocock (1878)
  • N. Sanders, Rise and growth of the Anglican schism, trans. D. Lewis (1877)
  • G. Puttenham, The art of English poesie, ed. G. D. Willcock and A. Walker (1970)
  • J. Leland, Naeniae in mortem T. Viati, equitis incomparabilis (1542)
  • H. Howard, earl of Surrey, Songes and sonnetes, written by Henry Howard late earle of Surrey, and other (1557)
  • Life and letters of Thomas Cromwell, ed. R. B. Merriman, 2 vols. (1902)
  • BL, Egerton MS 2711
  • letters, BL, Harley MS 282
  • Wyatt's defence, BL, Harley MS 78, fols. 5–7, 7–15
  • BL, Wyatt papers, loan MS 15
  • BL, Devonshire MS, Add. MS 17492


  • BL, papers, loan MS 15
  • BL, corresp. and papers as ambassador to Charles V, Harley MS 282
  • BL, Devonshire MS, Add. MS 17492
  • BL, defence, Harley MS 78
  • TCD, ‘Blage’ MS, MS 160


  • H. Holbein the younger, chalk drawing, 1535, Royal Collection [see illus.]
  • attrib. H. Holbein the younger, woodcut, 1542, BL; repro. in Leland, Naeniae
  • H. Holbein the younger, oils (Henry Wyatt), Louvre, Paris
  • oils (after H. Holbein the younger, 1540), NPG; version, Bodl. Oxf.
  • oils (Henry Wyatt), priv. coll.
  • oils (after H. Holbein the younger, 1550), NPG
J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, & R. H. Brodie, eds., , 23 vols. in 38 (1862–1932); repr. (1965)
Historical Journal
Gentleman's Magazine
Camden Society
G. A. Bergenroth, P. De Gayangos, & others, eds., , 13 vols., PRO (1862–1954); M. A. S. Hume, ed., , 4 vols., PRO (1892–9); repr. (1971)
Notes and Queries