He fights with flashing weapons

Katherine Rundell

  • Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest by Susan Brigden
    Faber, 714 pp, £30.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 23584 1
  • Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy by Nicola Shulman
    Short Books, 378 pp, £20.00, April 2011, ISBN 978 1 906021 11 5

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.

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