Before Anne Boleyn laid her head on the executioner’s block, she bent and wrapped the hem of her dress around her feet. She thereby ensured that, if in her death throes she were to spreadeagle her legs, the crowd would not see up her skirt. It was a gesture at once gracious and gruesome, and the verse that Sir Thomas Wyatt (probably) wrote on the occasion from the Tower of London is equally dark (‘circa Regna tonat’ means ‘it thunders around the throne’):
The bell towre showid me suche syght
That in my head stekys day and nyght
There dyd I lerne out of A grate
For all vavore glory or myght
That yet circa Regna tonat.
By proffe I say the[r] dyd I lerne,
Wyt helpythe not deffence to yerne
Of innocencie to pled or prate
Ber low therffor geve god the sterne,
For sure circa Regna tonat.
This comes as close as it was possible to get to criticism of a king who interpreted criticism as treason and who medicated treason with murder. ‘Wyt,’ the poem mourns, ‘helpythe not’ in demonstrating innocence. It is a punning lament, for neither wit nor Wyatt himself can change the mind of Henry VIII. ‘My head sticks’: that is both a hope and a horror, in that botched beheadings were not uncommon. Thomas Cromwell’s was particularly crude and butcherly.
The Tower of London has been partially reconstructed since that day in 1536, and we cannot be sure if Wyatt literally saw Anne’s beheading from his cell. It would have been an oblique view at best, fitting for a poet whose verse unswervingly resists directness. Opacity was a necessity for a court poet serving a king who killed over words; ‘familiar secret talk, nothing affirming’ had been enough to condemn Thomas More. As a result Wyatt’s verse is restless and fragmented, and he often appeared in his own poetry covered in metaphors of concealment, ‘wrapped within my cloak’. Obviousness, for Wyatt, was both tedious and dangerous.
Sir Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503, high and close to the throne, and rose higher and closer. He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Wyatt, who had been a courtier and soldier, a privy counsellor and a bureaucrat of the old school. Henry had remained loyal to Henry Tudor throughout Richard III’s reign, despite starvation and torture; despite, according to legend, being interrogated by Richard himself. ‘Thou servest for moonshine in the water a beggarly fugitive,’ Richard taunts. ‘Forsake him and become mine.’ Henry Wyatt replies: ‘Sir, if I had first chosen you for my Master, thus faithful would I have been unto you.’ Richard is supposed to have been stunned. ‘Oh, how much more happy is that runaway rogue in his calamity.’ We are told, too, that Henry was saved from starving in prison by a cat that brought him pigeons. The account comes from the mythic records of the Wyatt family compiled by George Wyatt, grandson of Sir Thomas. It is one of our more reliable sources, although many of its details seem more glamorous than accurate; as Nicola Shulman suggests in her witty book, Graven with Diamonds, the pigeons are difficult to believe in even for the most ardent admirers of cats. Shulman’s writing has drive and bite, though the parallels she draws can be wide of the mark. For instance, Henry VIII ‘was sincere in all his doings. If he were alive today, he’d be Canadian,’ which is a good joke about Canadians, but not a good joke about Henry.
Henry Wyatt trained his son in chivalry and in eloquence, and introduced him into the court as sewer-extraordinary in 1516, aged 13. The young Wyatt had fortune on his side. He was handsome (‘there was no prettier man at court than he’), a virtuosic horseman, quick to pick up languages, and clever beyond all his contemporaries. He glittered. In his youth, according to George Wyatt, Thomas brought up a lion cub at Alington Castle. It was a much beloved pet until one day, without warning, it ‘ran roaring upon him’. Wyatt ‘drew forth his rapier, and ran it into the rebel’s heart’. This sudden change in attitudes towards his person was to recur throughout Wyatt’s life. For lion, read Henry VIII.
Wyatt’s early career was marked by the good fortune that comes from restless activity. He studied at the Inns of Court, a sub-courtly space where wits could be sharpened and reputations made without over-high stakes. It was a time of formal invention and experimentation in poetry. As Shulman puts it, until Wyatt, the vernacular was seen as ‘a shaggy and hopalong means of expression’. Now English poetry, dormant since Chaucer and Lydgate, got to its feet and sang. John Leland, a friend of Wyatt’s youth, later wrote: ‘The English tongue was rude, its verses vile/Now, skilful Wyatt, it has known your file.’ The only blot on Wyatt’s record was his marriage to the daughter of a Kentish baron, Elizabeth Brooke. We do not know if it was a match of love or strategy, but we do know that the partnership was a failure, and ended in Elizabeth being cast off. The gossip at court was that ‘laquelle il avoit chassee de la maison pour lavoir deprehendee en adultere.’ The poetry Wyatt wrote at this time can be read as a personal and spittingly angry lament, although, as Susan Brigden points out in her magnificent biography, Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest, he wrote in a tradition of disillusioned lovers. It is not always possible to distinguish ventriloquism from confession, and for readers of Chaucer, the prototype for female behaviour was Criseyde:
Ys yt possyble
So cruell intent
So hasty hete and so sone spent
From love to hate and thens for to Relent
Is it possyble
The shame of the cuckold did not blight Wyatt’s career. By 1526 he was an esquire of the king’s body and had undertaken his first diplomatic mission to France. He acquitted himself well – a report of his behaviour, predictably punning, said that ‘he hath as much wit to mark and remember everything he seeth as any young man hath in England’ – and his second mission followed the year after. It came about serendipitously. Wyatt met Henry VIII’s special ambassador Sir John Russell travelling down a wintry Thames. On discovering that Russell was bound to Rome in embassy to Pope Clement VII, Wyatt asked to come along, as much for the adventure as anything else. He said he was ‘desirous to see the country’. ‘And I … if you please, will ask leave, get money and go with you.’ As simple as that. Because the mission was to the pope, and because George Wyatt’s account serves the dual purpose of narrative and Protestant propaganda, it is not surprising that in this episode the prose shades into purple. Still, the story of the two men’s arrival in Rome is just about plausible; George reports that as ‘special tokens of compliment’ the pope sent to their lodgings two of the ‘most choice courtesans … to refresh them withal after their long journey and absence from their wives, with a plenary dispensation verbal for that should be done by them’. Russell laughed and gave them some wine and sent them away. According to his grandson, though, Wyatt took the courtesans as ‘Italian scorn and a kind of prognostic of the evil of their success’. Certainly, the mission began to collapse: on the way to Venice, Russell broke his leg when his horse fell and could not continue. Wyatt – a man so steeped in horse-lore that the animals run through his poetry (‘I my self be bridilled of my mynde’) – galloped on through the night and the rain.
It should have been his moment of glory. As a poet Wyatt fulfilled the central requirement for the ideal advocate. Ambassadors of the period were almost all ‘courtly makers’ of verse, and their wordplay was figured in martial terms. Quintilian’s vision of eloquence was the model for Henry’s court: ‘the speaker who possesses it fights not merely with effective, but with flashing weapons.’ In the event, the meeting was not glorious. Wyatt’s message from the king to the ducal palace – that the pope and the Venetians should accept a truce with the advancing viceroy of Naples, or else ‘not make provision for war so tepidly’ – was met with raised eyebrows. To those who lived ‘in the midst of danger’, the lieutenant general of the papal army said, the English offered only words. The political situation grew steadily more ugly: soldiers were rioting for bread, the snow was knee-deep, and riding back to Rome Wyatt was captured by imperial troops. It was a scandal, a violation of ambassadorial immunity, and an extremely expensive detour. Wyatt was ransomed for three thousand ducats – a colossal sum – and returned to England, his lucky star on the wane.
And then, in 1534, Wyatt killed a man. The news quickly reached as far as Calais: ‘There was a great fray between Master Wyatt and the serjeants of London, where one of the serjeants was slain, and divers of them hurt.’ Wyatt was sent to the Fleet prison, though not for long, and there seems to be no verse about the episode: it was grubby, ignoble, and not the stuff of poetry. We have few clues about the reason Wyatt flashed so irrevocably into violence. It is possible that the timing is important, for these were the dark days in which the defenders of the old faith faced either courageous death or self-disgust, and Wyatt’s explosion may have been political. Equally, trained up for war through the mock-war of jousting and tournament, the young men at court turned easily to private violence. In Holbein’s portrait Richard Southwell has a scar across the neck. The Earl of Surrey was sent to the Fleet after challenging John Legh to a duel – as excuse, he cited ‘the fury of reckless youth’. John Mantell, a champion of the tiltyard and a member of Wyatt’s ambassadorial entourage, was arrested after a fight with a City sergeant. The accompanying dialogue is irresistibly Shakespearean: ‘Ye whorseson catchpoll knaves, well met. Ye shall drink or ye go.’ ‘Art thou a sergeant? Let me see thy mace.’ Mantell fought until his sword broke, then fled. These were the same men who could flip English into Latin and back again, the same man, in Wyatt’s case, who translated Plutarch’s The Quyete of Mynde for the solace of Katherine of Aragon. So violent, and so learned. The question remains haunting; Brigden, whose book will be the standard biography for years to come, calls it ‘one of the most unfathomable moments of his life’.
Inevitably, though, the question that most dogs Wyatt scholarship is whether he was a lover of Anne Boleyn. Almost certainly he wasn’t. Much has been read into Wyatt’s poetry, but it is a dangerous occupation to hunt solid fact in verse. Brigden resists the impulse, quoting liberally but rarely analysing the poetry; when she does, it is conditional analysis, done with care. There is a prose account in Nicholas Sander’s gleefully slanderous The Origins and Progress of an Anglican Schism, published in 1585, a text which suggests that Anne Boleyn was Henry’s own daughter. It also states that on seeing Henry prepare for marriage Wyatt panicked at the thought of the king’s anger were he to discover their former liaison, and went to him to forestall both wrath and wedding. He ‘confessed that he had sinned with Anne Boleyn, not imagining that the king would ever make her his wife’. Chiming in, another Catholic source claims to know exactly what Wyatt said to the king: ‘I beseech your grace to be well advised what you do, for she is not meet to be coupled with your grace, her conversation hath been so loose and base, which thing I know not so much by hearsay as by my own experience as one that have had my carnal pleasure with her.’
This sounds so risky a strategy, and the account is taken from so biased a source, that it is almost absurd. Brigden’s scrupulousness prohibits her from taking sides, although there are, she says, ‘convincing reasons why Anne and Wyatt should never have been lovers’. George Wyatt certainly did not believe it. As he pointed out, the king was more likely to believe Anne than Wyatt, and Wyatt risked bringing ‘heavy displeasure … upon himself ever after’. The king’s heavy displeasure could crush to death. George gives a different, more moderate account of the relationship. In it, Wyatt reveals his friendship with Anne to the king through pantomime. It is not a riveting story: it begins with Wyatt teasing Anne and taking from her a jewel attached to a scrap of lace. Refusing to return it to her, he wore it round his neck as a pledge of her favour. The king, who was known to wear a ring of Anne’s on his little finger (at the stage, a finger still little enough to fit; it was after his third marriage that the king grew large), was playing Wyatt at bowls a few days later. A throw was disputed, and the king, meaningfully displaying his finger, said: ‘“Wiat, I tell thee it is mine,” smiling upon him withall.’ Wyatt replied, ‘And if it may like your majesty to give me leave to measure it, I hope it will be mine,’ and, taking the jewel from his neck, used the lace to measure the throw. The king ‘spurned away the bowl’ like a petulant child, and said: ‘It may be so, but then I am deceived.’ The story is garnered at so many removes that it is not reliable; nonetheless, there are elements that ring true – the dumbshow and the violence – for certainly court life under Henry was somewhere between a ballet and a war.
Then, on 5 May 1536, in the midst of the uproar surrounding Anne’s imprisonment, Wyatt was arrested and sent to the Tower. Neither he nor we can be entirely clear why. Although his contemporaries whispered that Wyatt was ‘as like to suffer as the others’, he did not die in the company of Mark Smeaton – a musician with whom he was associated and who confessed, under torture, to adultery with Anne – or with Sir Henry Norris, William Brereton and Sir Francis Weston. Wyatt himself believed he was the victim of a slur campaign led by an old enemy, the Duke of Suffolk, and there may be truth in this. Certainly, Wyatt’s family were allies of the Boleyns, and in arresting his most favoured poet Henry showed that none close to that family was safe. Wyatt was released after just a few days, unmurdered though not unscathed. His memory of the episode was bitter. Recalling it, Wyatt (probably) wrote:
My welth and eke my liff, I say,
Have stonde so oft in such perplexitie.
And, in the Tower: ‘these blodye Dayes have brokyn my hart.’
If Wyatt’s heart was broken, his fortunes swiftly mended. He was sent as an ambassador to the court of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and from there across Europe. This was an honour, though a dubious one. Underpaid, ambassadors were expected to reflect the glory of their king in hospitality, and to fund the necessary glamour out of their own pocket. Wyatt, who had none of his father’s financial acumen, wrote repeatedly to complain of his debts. Moreover, he was uncertain of his new role. He wrote new and uneasy verse, experimenting with the ottava rima form:
So hangith in balaunce
Off war my pes, reward of all my payne
At Mountzon thus I restles rest in spayne.
Instead of gold the king, whose natural suspiciousness was mutating into paranoia, sent Edmund Bonner, ostensibly to help but in fact to spy on Wyatt. Bonner’s letters, addressed to Thomas Cromwell, make wonderful reading. They accuse Wyatt of every misdemeanour possible, from being ‘given to all pleasure, and spending unthriftily upon nuns’, to being the secret ally of the emperor, to not letting Bonner ride his horse.
Bonner’s letters should never have been taken seriously by anyone. Alongside his accusations of Wyatt he condemns another ambassador, Stephen Gardiner, on the grounds that Gardiner had misled him into thinking he was invited to dinner. Gardiner, he said, sat at table ‘making merry communications all supper while, but nothing at all yet speaking to me, or giving anything to me, saving, at the coming of the fruit, he gave me a pear.’ Bonner also, damningly, accuses Wyatt of being a Catholic, although this claim is coloured by desperation; other people he accuses of being ‘Papistes’ include Wyatt’s companion John Mason, who was later cleared by the Bishop of Winchester as being favourable to the ‘true religion’ and the Holy Roman Emperor, whose Catholicism could hardly have been a surprise. As Wyatt later wrote, ‘I thynke I shulde have more a doe with a great sorte in Inglande to purge my selffe of suspecte of a lutherane than of a papyst.’ Nonetheless, it was Bonner who put Wyatt in the Tower for a second time.
Wyatt returned home in time to meet the spring of 1540. His homecoming was cause for joy, and the French ambassador reported that no lord in the whole kingdom enjoyed the king’s grace more than did Sir Thomas Wyatt. But circa Regna tonat: the king, by now a great slab of a man, had been afflicted by a tertian fever, and his judgment grew erratic. In July, Wyatt’s friend and protector Thomas Cromwell was ineptly beheaded. Six months later, Wyatt was arrested. The first time he had been taken he had been allowed to ride to the Tower. This time, he walked, hands bound, escorted by 24 archers. A silence fell on the court. The charge against him was twofold: that he had had contact with Cardinal Pole, a man with a potentially legitimate claim on the throne and who was therefore public enemy number one; and that Wyatt had said to Bonner, ‘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.’ With these words Wyatt had allegedly imagined the king’s death, and had committed treason.
In the cold darkness of the Tower, Wyatt wrote out an oratorical masterpiece, now known as his Defence. It summoned up all his legal and ambassadorial training and commandeered rhetoric to act as his bodyguard. He explained that the cart-tail comment was a common proverb, a nothing-meaning slip: if something ‘is evell taken heede to, or negligently, slyppes owte of the carte and is loste’. His prose was by turns ornate and stark: ‘in dede worde wrytinge or wysshe I never offended.’
In the event, it was not the Defence that secured Wyatt’s release. It was the new queen, Catherine, who on her first outing down the Thames passed by the Tower and petitioned for the poet inside. Eleven months later, she was put to death, along with her alleged lover. In a piece of disfigured logic, two men with whom she had allegedly dallied before her marriage were also arraigned for high treason; one was executed. It was to this court that Wyatt returned. Our last picture of him is of a man still riding wildly in the king’s service, galloping towards Cornwall on a diplomatic mission. He caught a fever while still on his horse, and laid himself down at the house of a friend in Dorset where, in early October 1542, he exchanged the restless rest for the eternal one. The verse written on his death emphasised his poetic originality – he was the first man to write an English sonnet – and his unrivalled eloquence. And even in epitaph, they punned:
Holbein, the chiefest of that curious Art
Drew Wyatt’s lively Image in each part
With matchless skill; but no Appelles can
Portray the wit and spirit of that man.