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date: 19 October 2019

Elyot, Sir Thomasfree

(c. 1490–1546)
  • Stanford Lehmberg

Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490–1546)

by Hans Holbein the younger

The Royal Collection © 2004 HM Queen Elizabeth II

Elyot, Sir Thomas (c. 1490–1546), humanist and diplomat, was the only son of Sir Richard Elyot (d. 1522) and his first wife, Alice Delamere, a descendant of the Finderns of Derbyshire. Alice died about 1510 and Sir Richard subsequently married Elizabeth Besilles, whose father, William, held the manor of Besselsleigh, Berkshire. Sir Richard Elyot was a king's serjeant-at-law, justice of assize for the western circuit, and judge of the court of common pleas. He inherited the manors of Chalk and Winterslow, near Salisbury, and acquired land at Long Combe, Oxfordshire, where Thomas lived during his youth.

Early life and education

In the preface to the first edition of his Latin-English dictionary (1538) Thomas Elyot wrote that he was educated at his father's house 'and not instructed by any other teacher from his twelfth year, but led by himself into liberal studies and both sorts of philosophy'. This would seem to indicate that he did not attend a university. However, the registers of Oxford University include four references to a Thomas Eliett, Eyllyett, Elyett, or Elyott, who was admitted in 1516, took his BA degree in 1519, and received a bachelor of civil law degree in 1524. These entries may refer to the present subject, although it has been argued that the name is common and another man may be meant. If it was another Thomas Elyot nothing is known about him. It is not known which college Thomas Elyot (whoever he was) attended, but there is a tradition that he was a member of St Mary Hall, a small house associated with Oriel College. It is possible that Elyot was largely self-taught, as his preface states, but that he was allowed to take Oxford degrees at a somewhat older age than usual, perhaps because of his intellectual abilities, his father's prominence, or his residence near Oxford. The university curriculum would not in any case have included the humanist studies that interested Elyot. Cambridge has also claimed Elyot. C. H. Cooper wrote that he was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge, proceeding BA in 1507, but he did not cite his evidence.

The comment in the dictionary would also appear to suggest that Elyot did not attend an inn of court, but the records of the Middle Temple indicate that he was admitted to clerk's commons in November 1510. His father had long been associated with that inn. There is no evidence that Thomas was called to the bar or ever practised law, but from 1510 to 1526 he served as clerk to the justices of assize for the western circuit, assisting his father and continuing for four years after Sir Richard's death. About 1510 he married Margaret à Barrow (d. 1560), daughter of Sir Maurice Barrow or Abarough, who held land in Hampshire and Wiltshire, where he was a neighbour of Sir Richard Elyot.

Although the evidence is slight—the source is More's later biographer Thomas Stapleton—it appears that both Thomas and Margaret Elyot were members of the scholarly circle centred on Sir Thomas More. Following More's execution Elyot went to some pains to dissociate himself from the former chancellor; he asked Thomas Cromwell to

lay apart the remembraunce of the amity betweene me and Sir Thomas More, which was but usque ad aras, as is the proverb, consydering that I was never so moche adict unto him as I was unto truthe and fidelity towards my soveraigne lord.

BL, Cotton MS Cleopatra E. IV, fol. 260

The Latin phrase 'usque ad aram' appears in Erasmus's Adages, where it is glossed to mean that one should not give false evidence, even for a friend. Through More Elyot may have known Erasmus, and it is likely that he studied medicine with Thomas Linacre; the preface to Elyot's book The Castel of Helth states that when he was twenty years old 'a worshypfull phisition, and one of the most renoumed at that tyme in England, perceyving me by nature inclyned to knowledge, radde unto me the workes of Galene' and Hippocrates (Elyot, Castel of Helth, sig. A4). More was probably also responsible for introducing Elyot to Hans Holbein the younger, whose drawings of both Thomas Elyot and his wife survive in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.

Upon the death of his father in 1522 Thomas inherited most of his lands and a large library that included French and Latin books and some fine manuscript primers. The manor of Long Combe was left to Thomas Elyot's relative Thomas Findern of Carleton, Cambridgeshire; following Findern's death in 1523 both Long Combe and Carleton came to Elyot. Elyot later complained to Cromwell that he was troubled with costly lawsuits for possession of these lands, instituted by those 'which made title withoute ryght or goode consyderation' (BL, Cotton MS Titus B. I, fols. 376–7). Between 1515 and 1529 Elyot served as a JP for Oxfordshire and Wiltshire; in 1527 and 1529 he was named sheriff of the two counties. After 1530 he made Carleton his principal residence, and he was named a JP for Cambridgeshire. In 1528 Elyot purchased the wardship of a cousin, Erasmus Pym, who was an ancestor of the seventeenth-century parliamentarian John Pym. The families were related, for Erasmus's father Reginald Pym had married Sir Richard Elyot's stepdaughter Mary Daubridgecourt.

Government service and The Boke Named the Governour

Late in 1523 Elyot was appointed senior clerk of the king's council. He later wrote that he owed his advancement to Cardinal Wolsey, who encouraged him to resign his lucrative post with the justices of assize but never gave him a patent for the office in the council or paid him the fee of 40 marks a year. Elyot served for more than six years, handling Star Chamber affairs as well as those proper to the council itself. After Wolsey's fall Elyot lost the office; he later complained to Cromwell that he had never been properly compensated for his services. In June 1530 Elyot was knighted, probably in recognition of his work with the council.

Elyot's reputation as a humanist scholar rests primarily on his treatise The Boke Named the Governour. First published in 1531 and dedicated to Henry VIII, it is divided into three books and deals with a variety of topics. The first few chapters advance a monarchical political theory, with Elyot arguing that a 'publike weale' is made up of a hierarchic order of degrees of men. At the top of the hierarchy there must be a single ruler, the king. Monarchy, therefore, is the only natural and proper form of government; Elyot says that the king within his realm is like God within His, thus implying that the king's power is unlimited. This view of government can be traced back to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Castiglione, whose book The Courtier may have been given to Elyot by Thomas Cromwell.

The remainder of book 1 describes the form of education appropriate for young men who are destined to be members of the governing class. Here Elyot prescribes the classical works to be read in the original Greek and Latin and deals also with physical education, dancing, and music. The second and third books are of less importance. They are concerned with setting out the virtues that governors should display; the definitions are often trite, but there is considerable interest in the anecdotes drawn from ancient history that Elyot uses as examples of virtuous behaviour. The Governour demonstrates the considerable breadth of Elyot's knowledge of classical and Renaissance literature; it became very popular, running through eight editions during the sixteenth century, and was very influential in disseminating new humanist ideas on the role of the gentleman in England. It is likely that Elyot in publishing the Governour was deliberately courting the king's favour, and it is possible that the section praising monarchy was added at the request of Thomas Cromwell. Like Elyot's other writings the treatise was brought out by the king's printer Thomas Berthelet.

Ambassador to Charles V

Elyot's next appointment probably came as a mark of the king's favour. In September 1531 he was named ambassador to the emperor Charles V. Ostensibly he was to represent Henry VIII at a chapter of the order of the Golden Fleece, but in fact his principal charge was to sound out Charles regarding the king's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, who was the emperor's aunt. Since Elyot's own sympathies lay with Katherine, and since it was in any case unlikely that Charles would abandon her cause, the embassy was unpleasant and fruitless, and it did not last long; in January 1532 Elyot was recalled, and Thomas Cranmer, the future archbishop of Canterbury, was sent to take his place.

Instead of returning to England directly, Elyot remained on the continent until June, travelling with Cranmer to visit the towns of Worms, Speier, and Nuremberg. In Nuremberg, although he approved of the married priests, he joined the French ambassador in walking out of a church service in order to avoid taking communion according to the Lutheran rite. He also spent some time in the Netherlands, following the king's order to try to apprehend William Tyndale, whose radical writings offended the English court. It was probably following Elyot's recall that Charles V made his famous comment that he 'wold rather have lost the best city of our dominions than have lost such a worthy councellour' (Roper, 103). Upon his return it was evident that the king's opinion of him was diminished. He had also lost money; as he complained to Cromwell, his allowances had not covered his expenses. Although he sought further preferment, he was never again to hold a prominent office.

Henry's divorce, granted by Cranmer in 1533 after parliament had rejected papal jurisdiction in England, and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn seriously distressed Elyot. He expressed his views in a letter sent to John Hackett, English ambassador in the Netherlands, in April, at exactly the time of the passage of the Act in Restraint of Appeals. 'We have hanging over us a grete kloude', he wrote, 'which is likely to be a grete storm whan it fallith' (TNA: PRO, SP 1/75/81). Elyot hoped that he would die in the true faith, but he would not abuse the sovereign to whose loyalty he was sworn.

The dictionary and the Castel of Helth

No longer in favour at court, Elyot retired to his Cambridgeshire estates and spent the rest of his life in scholarly activities. His most important contribution was his Latin–English dictionary, first published in 1538 and like the Governour dedicated to Henry VIII. It would have appeared sooner, Elyot wrote in the preface, had not the king expressed an interest in it and sent additional books for him to study. The printer had already worked through the letter M; the later portions of the dictionary are fuller, and an appendix contains additional entries beginning with the letters A–M. An enlarged second edition appeared in 1542 and was reprinted without significant changes in 1545, shortly before Elyot's death. As Elyot said, he had given English equivalents for virtually all the words found in classical texts, and had also provided tables of ancient weights and measures. His was not the earliest Latin dictionary, but it was the first based on classical sources and applying humanist principles.

Together with the Governour and the dictionary, Elyot's Castel of Helth completes the trilogy of his major works. It is an attempt to summarize the teachings of the ancient Greek and Roman physicians, especially Galen, so that English men and women may understand and regulate their health accordingly. It popularized the theory of the four humours and complexions, which became a basic part of the intellectual make-up of Renaissance Britain, and suggested medicines and treatments for a variety of ailments. Probably based on Elyot's studies with Linacre, it differed from Linacre's own writings, for Linacre translated the works of Galen from Greek to Latin, hoping to make them accessible to doctors but not wishing to allow ordinary men and women to diagnose their own complaints. It was Elyot who provided an accessible handbook in the vernacular.

Later writings

A number of Elyot's late writings are thinly veiled comments on Henrician politics. The Defence of Good Women (1540) purports to be an account of the life of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra but in fact is intended as a eulogy of Katherine of Aragon. Pasquil the Playne (1533) is a dialogue set in ancient Rome; it castigates the flatterers who have come to surround the ruler. A translation from Isocrates, The Doctrinal of Princes (1533?) directs monarchs how they should govern their realms and cities. 'Th'office of a good counsellour', Elyot wrote, 'with magnanimity or good courage in tyme of adversity, may be apparantly founden in my boke called, Of the Knolege Beloning to a Wise Man' (preface to the dictionary, 1538). The book is based on Diogenes Laertius' account of Plato's experiences at the court of Dionysius of Sicily; it shows that Plato acted fittingly when he warned Dionysius about tyranny. Some other writings are unrelated to contemporary events. The Education or Bringinge up of Children (1533?) is a translation from Plutarch, dedicated to Elyot's sister Margery (or Marjory) Puttenham. More personal, spiritual works include translations of a sermon by St Cyprian and the Rules of a Christen Life by Pico della Mirandola (1534) and A Preservative Agaynste Deth (1545). Roger Ascham wrote that he was once in Elyot's company and asked him if he knew when the longbow was first used in England. Elyot replied that he was writing a history of England, De rebus memorabilibus Angliae, which would soon be published; it included an account of the use of bows and shafts by King Vortigern, at the time the Saxons first came into the realm. The work, if ever completed, was almost certainly never printed and no manuscript is known to have survived.

Elyot was a member of the parliament of 1539, having been elected a knight of the shire for Cambridgeshire. The official returns do not survive, but Elyot's preface to the 1539 edition of the Castel of Helth apologizes for errors in the text resulting from his 'attendance on the Parlyament, I being a member of the lower house'. There is no record of his activities there. The eighteenth-century antiquarian Browne Willis believed that Elyot sat again for Cambridgeshire in the parliament of 1542, but the returns show that he was wrong. It is possible that Elyot represented the borough of Guildford in the parliament of 1545; the return names 'Thomas Elyatt, gent., of Shalford', which may refer to Sir Thomas, who held land at Shelford, Cambridgeshire, but it is also possible that another Thomas Elyot who was a servant of Sir Anthony Browne's at Cowdray is meant.

Death and burial

Elyot was one of the gentlemen appointed to receive Anne of Cleves in 1540. He was ordered to provide ten men for the army in France in 1543 and twenty in 1544. He had made a will in 1531, before going on his embassy to Charles V, and he confirmed its provisions on 23 March 1546. He died three days later and was buried in the parish church at Carleton, Cambridgeshire; a commemorative brass has disappeared. As he had no offspring, he left his property to his wife Margaret for her lifetime and then to his nephew Richard Puttenham, elder brother of George Puttenham, author of The Arte of English Poesie. Perhaps because he did not think that his library would be appreciated by either heir, he directed that his books be sold and the proceeds be distributed to poor scholars.

Elyot's public services, while significant, were not of the highest importance, and his writings lack originality. His great contribution was as a popularizer of the culture of classical antiquity; no one did more to bring the ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans to Tudor England.


  • S. E. Lehmberg, Sir Thomas Elyot, Tudor humanist (1960)
  • J. M. Major, Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance humanism (1964)
  • P. Hogrefe, Life and times of Sir Thomas Elyot, Englishman (1967)
  • T. Elyot, The boke named ‘The governour’, ed. H. H. S. Croft, 2 vols. (1880) [ed. from 1st edn of 1531]
  • T. Elyot, The book named the governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (1962)
  • T. Elyot, The castel of helth (1541)
  • M. Douling, Humanism in the age of Henry VIII (1986)
  • S. E. Lehmberg, The later parliaments of Henry VIII, 1536–1547 (1977)
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/31, sig. 14
  • B. Willis, Notitia parliamentaria, 3 vols. (1715–50)
  • R. Ascham, Toxophilus (1571), sig. 28v
  • ‘Registrum H, Registrum congregationis’, 1518–36, Oxf. UA
  • letter from Elyot to Cromwell, BL, Cotton MS Cleopatra E. IV, fol. 260
  • letter from Elyot to Cromwell, BL, Cotton MS Titus B. I, fols. 376–7
  • letter from Elyot to Hackett, TNA: PRO, SP 1/75/81
  • W. Roper, The life of Sir Thomas Moore, ed. E. V. Hitchcock (1934)


  • H. Holbein the younger, chalk drawings, Royal Collection [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

manors: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/31, sig. 14

S. T. Bindoff, ed., , 3 vols. (1982)
Oxford University Archives, Oxford
C. H. Cooper & T. Cooper, , 3 vols. (1858–1913); repr. (1967)
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
A. Wood, , 2 vols. (1691–2); 2nd edn (1721); new edn, ed. P. Bliss, 4 vols. (1813–20); repr. (1967) and (1969)