Sir Thomas Wyatt (1) by Hans Holbein the Younger

Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542). Pen and chalk by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), circa 1535-1537. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 - 24 September 1542)[1] was a 16th-century English lyrical poet credited with introducing the sonnet into English.[2] None of Wyatt's poems were published during his lifetime; the first book to feature his verse was printed 15 years after his death. [3]


Wyatt was born at Allington Castle, near Maidstone, in Kent – though his family was originally from Yorkshire. His mother was Anne (Skinner) and his father, Henry Wyatt, had been one of Henry VII's Privy Councillors, and remained a trusted adviser when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509.

Wyatt was over 6 feet tall, reportedly both handsome and physically strong. Wyatt was not only a poet, but also an ambassador in the service of Henry VIII. He first entered Henry's service in 1515 as 'Sewer Extraordinary', and the same year he began studying at St John's College of the University of Cambridge.[4] He married Elizabeth Brooke (1503–1550), the sister of George Brooke, 9th Baron Cobham, in 1522, and a year later she gave birth to a son (Thomas Wyatt, the younger, who led Wyatt's rebellion many years after his father's death). In 1524 Henry VIII assigned Wyatt to be an Ambassador at home and abroad, and some time soon after he separated from his wife on the grounds of adultery.

He accompanied Sir John Russell to Rome to help petition Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage of Henry VIII to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, an embassy whose goal was to make Henry free to marry Anne Boleyn. According to some, Wyatt was captured by the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V when they captured Rome and imprisoned the Pope in 1527 but managed to escape and then made it back to England.

Rumored affair with Anne BoleynEdit

=Many legends and conjectures have grown up around the notion that the young, unhappily married Wyatt fell in love with the young Anne Boleyn in the early-to-mid 1520s. The exact nature of their relationship remains uncertain today. Their acquaintance is certain. However, whether or not the two shared a romantic relationship is unknown to this day. There is sufficient evidence to imply that Wyatt and Boleyn were romantically connected. To quote a modern historian "that they did look into each others eyes, and felt that to each other they were all too lovely.."[5] is a quite possible scenario. In his poetry, Thomas calls his mistress Anna, and often embeds pieces of information that correspond with her life into his poetry.

"And now I follow the coals that be quent, From Dover to Calais against my mind;" This line could be referring to Anne's trip to France in 1532 right before her marriage to Henry VIII. This could imply that Thomas followed her to France to try and persuade her otherwise or merely to be with her. Later in his life, Thomas writes, while referring to a woman, "Graven in diamonds with letters plain,There is written her fair neck round about,Noli me tangere, Ceasar's, I am;" This shows Wyatt's obvious attraction to a royal lady. His grandson (who penned a biography of Anne Boleyn many years after her death) wrote that the moment Thomas Wyatt had seen "this new beauty" on her return from France in winter 1522 he had fallen in love with her. According to various gossips they were lovers. When she attracted King Henry VIII's attentions sometime around 1525, Wyatt was the last of Anne's other suitors to be ousted by the king. According to Wyatt's grandson, after an argument over her during a game of bowls with the King, Wyatt was sent on, or himself requested, a diplomatic mission to Italy. There is no proof that Anne reciprocated any love for her which Wyatt had.

Imprisonment on charges of adultery Edit

In May 1536 Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower of London for allegedly committing adultery with Anne Boleyn. He was released from the Tower later that year, thanks to his friendship or his father's friendship with Thomas Cromwell, and he returned to his duties. During his stay in the Tower he may have witnessed not only the execution of Anne Boleyn (May 19, 1536) from his cell window but also the prior executions of the five men with whom she was accused of adultery. Wyatt is known to have written a poem inspired by the experience (, which, though it stays clear of declaring the executions groundless, expresses grief and shock.

In the 1530s, he wrote poetry in the Devonshire MS declaring his love for a woman; employing the basic acrostic formula, the first letter of each line spells out SHELTUN. A reply is written underneath it, signed by Mary Shelton, rejecting him. Mary, Anne Boleyn's first cousin, had been the mistress of Henry VIII between February and August 1535.[6]

In 1540 he was again in favor, as evident by the fact that he was granted the site and many of the manorial estates of the dissolved Boxley Abbey. However, in 1541 he was charged again with treason and the charges were again lifted — though only thanks to the intervention of Henry's fifth wife, then-Queen Catherine Howard, and upon the condition of reconciling with his adulterous wife. He was granted a full pardon and restored once again to his duties as ambassador. After the execution of Catherine Howard, there were rumours that Wyatt's wife, Elizabeth, was a possibility for wife number six, despite the fact that she was still married to Wyatt.[7] He became ill not long after, and died on 11 October 1542 around the age of 39, while staying with his friend Sir John Horsey at Clifton Maybank House in Dorset. He is buried in nearby Sherborne Abbey.[8]

Descendants and relatives Edit

Long after Thomas Wyatt's death, his only son, Thomas Wyatt the younger, led a thwarted rebellion against Henry's daughter, Queen Mary I, for which he was executed. The rebellion's aim was to set the Protestant-minded Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, on the throne. His sister Margaret Lee Wyatt was the mother of Henry Lee of Ditchley, from whom descend the Lees of Virginia, including Robert E. Lee]]. Thomas Wyatt's great grandson was Virginia Governor Francis Wyatt.


Wyatt's professed object was to experiment with the English tongue, to civilise it, to raise its powers to those of its neighbours.[9] Although a significant amount of his literary output consists of translations of sonnets by the Italian poet Petrarch, he wrote sonnets of his own. Wyatt's sonnets first appeared in Tottle's Miscellany, now on exhibit in the British Library in London.

In addition to imitations of works by the classical writers Seneca and Horace, he experimented in stanza forms including the rondeau, epigrams, terza rima, ottava rima songs, satires and also with monorime, triplets with refrains, quatrains with different length of line and rhyme schemes, quatrains with codas, and the French forms of douzaine and treizaine [10] in addition to introducing contemporaries to his poulter's measure form (Alexandrine couplets of twelve syllable iambic lines alternating with a fourteener, fourteen syllable line).[11] and is acknowledged a master in the iambic tetrameter.[12]

While Wyatt's poetry reflects classical and Italian models, he also admired the work of Chaucer and his vocabulary reflects Chaucer’s (for example, his use of Chaucer’s word newfangleness, meaning fickle, in They flee from me that sometime did me seek). His best-known poems are those that deal with the trials of romantic love. Others of his poems were scathing, satirical indictments of the hypocrisies and flat-out pandering required of courtiers ambitious to advance at the Tudor court.

Critical IntroductionEdit

by John Churton Collins

Wyatt and Surrey are usually classed together — par nobile fratrum — the Dioscuri of the Dawn. They inaugurated that important period in our literature known as the Era of Italian Influence, or that of the Company of Courtly Makers — the period which immediately preceded and ushered in the age of Spenser and Shakespeare. With some of the characteristics of expiring mediævalism still lingering about them, the prevailing spirit of their poetry is the spirit of the Renaissance,— not its colour, not its exuberance, not its intoxication; but its classicism, its harmony, and its appreciation of form. With the writings of Virgil, Martial and Seneca, in ancient, and with the writings of Petrarch and his school in modern times, they were evidently familiar, and they have as evidently made them their models. The influence of that school is indeed manifest in almost everything these poets have left us, sometimes directly in translations, in professed imitation, in turns of expression, still oftener indirectly in tone, form and style: but they owed more to the Italy of the fourteenth than to the Italy of the first century.

To Wyatt and Surrey our debt is a great one. They introduced and naturalised the Sonnet, both the Sonnet of the true Petrarchian type and the Sonnet which was afterwards carried to such perfection in the hands of Shakespeare and Daniel. In Surrey we find the first germ of the Bucolic Eclogue. In Wyatt we have our first classical satirist. Of our lyrical poetry they were the founders. Their tone, their style, their rhythm, their measures, were at once adopted by a school of disciples, and have ever since maintained their popularity among poets. In their lyrics indeed is to be found the seed of everything that is most charming in the form of Jonson and Herrick, of Waller and Suckling, of Cowley and Prior. They gave us—but this is the glory of Surrey alone—the first specimens of blank verse that our language can boast. They were the creators of that majestic measure the heroic quatrain. They enriched diction with fulness and involution. They were the first of our poets who had learned the great secret of transfusing the spirit of one language into that of another, who had the good taste to select the best models and the good sense to adhere to them. They gave the deathblow to that rudeness, that grotesqueness, that prolixity, that diffuseness, that pedantry, which had deformed with fatal persistency the poetry of mediævalism, and while they purified our language from the Gallicisms of Chaucer and his followers, they fixed the permanent standard of our versification. To them we are indebted for the great reform which substituted a metrical for a rhythmical structure. Their services to our literature may at once be realised by comparing their work with that of their immediate predecessors, and by observing its influence on the writers in the four Miscellanies which appeared between 1557 and the publication of England’s Helicon in 1600. Indeed these interesting men stand in much the same relation to the poetical literature of England as Boscan and Garcilaso de la Vega stand to the poetical literature of Castile.

It is unfortunately not possible to decide how far these two poets acted and re-acted on each other. We are however inclined to think that Wyatt was the master-spirit, and that Surrey has been enabled to throw him so completely and so unfairly into the shade, mainly because he had his friend’s patterns to work upon. Wyatt was his senior by at least fourteen years, and Wyatt’s poems, if we except at least the Satires and the Penitential Psalms, were in all probability early works.

The poems of Wyatt consist of Sonnets, Lyrics in all varieties of measure, Rondeaux, Epigrams, Satires, and a poetical paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms. His genius is essentially imitative. His Sonnets are either direct translations or servile imitations of Petrarch’s. Of his lyrics some are borrowed from the Spanish, some from the French, some from the Italian; all, with the exception of half a dozen perhaps, are more or less modelled on writings in those languages. What we call his Epigrams are for the most part versions from the Strambotti of Serafino d’ Aquila. One of his Satires is an abridged imitation of the Tenth Satire of Alamanni, the other two were respectively suggested by Horace and Persius. Even in his version of the Penitential Psalms he was careful to follow in the footsteps of Dante and Alamanni. The dignity and gravity which characterise the structure of some of his lyric periods appear to have been caught from the poets of Castile. His general tone is sombre, sententious and serious, and he is too often reflecting when he ought to be feeling. The greater part of his poetry is wasted in describing with weary minuteness transports of slighted and requited affection, but his true place is among observant men of the world, scholars and moralists. His versification is often harsh and uncouth, except in some of his lyrics, which are occasionally very musical, and in his Satires, which are uniformly terse and smooth. He is inferior to Surrey in diction, in taste, in originality, and in poetical feeling; but it may be doubted whether the more delicate genius of the younger poet would have been able to achieve so complete a triumph over the mechanism of expression had he not been preceded by his robuster brother.[13]


The Egerton Manuscript,[14] originally an album containing Wyatt's personal selection of his poems and translations, preserves 123 texts, partly in the poet's hand. Tottel's Miscellany (1557),[15] the Elizabethan anthology which created Wyatt's posthumous reputation, ascribes 96 poems to him, (33 not extant in the Egerton Manuscript). These 156 poems can be ascribed to Wyatt with certainty, on the basis of objective evidence. Another 129 poems have been ascribed to Wyatt purely on the basis of subjective editorial judgment. They derive mostly from two Tudor manuscript anthologies, the Devonshire[16] and Blage manuscripts.[17] R A Rebbholz in his preface to Sir Thomas Wyatt, The Complete Poems, comments, 'the problem of determining which poems Wyatt wrote is as yet unsolved'.[18] However, as Richard Harrier's The Canon of Sir Thomas Wyatt's Poetry (1975) shows, the problem of determining which poems aren't Wyatt's is much simpler. Harrier examines the documentary evidence of the manuscripts (handwritings, organization, etc.) and establishes that there is insufficient textual warrant for assigning any of these poems to Wyatt. The only basis for ascribing these poems to Wyatt resides in editorial evaluation of their style and poetic merits. Compared with the indubitable standard presented in Wyatt's 156 unquestionably ascribable poems, fewer than 30 of these 129 poems survive scrutiny. Most can be dismissed at once. The best edition of Wyatt thus far is Joost Daalder's (1975). It presents 199 poems, including 25 misascriptions (mostly segregated as "Unascribed") and is missing a dozen poems likely to be Wyatt's. A new edition of this major poet, the inventor of lyric poetry in Modern English, is urgently needed.


In 1535 Wyatt was knighted.

Four of his poems ("Forget not yet,""The Appeal," "A Revocation," "Vixi Puellis Nuper Idoneus...", and "To His Lute") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900.[19]


Critical opinions of his work have varied widely.[20] Warton, the 18th century critic, considered Wyatt 'confessedly an inferior' to his contemporary Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and that Wyatt's 'genius was of the moral and didatic species and be deemed the first polished English satirist'.[21]

The 20th century saw an awakening in his popularity and a surge in critical attention. C.S. Lewis called him ‘the father of the Drab Age’ (i.e. the unornate), from what Lewis calls the 'golden' age of the 16th century,[22] while others see his love poetry, with its complex use of literary conceits, as anticipating that of the metaphysical poets in the next century. More recently, the critic Patricia Thomson, describes Wyatt as the Father of English Poetry [23]

In popular cultureEdit

  • Wyatt was portrayed by actor Jamie Thomas King in the Showtime TV series The Tudors.


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[24]

See alsoEdit

Sir Thomas Wyatt "They flee from me" Poem animation01:24

Sir Thomas Wyatt "They flee from me" Poem animation



  1. Lindsey, Karen (1995). Divorced, beheaded, survived : a feminist reinterpretation of the wives of Henry VIII. Reading, Mass.: Perseus Books. ISBN 9780201408232. 
  2. Tillyard E M W, Introduction ,The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, A Selection and a Study,The Scholartis Press,London, 1929
  3. Shulman, Nicola (2011). Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt, Coutier, Poet, Assassin, Spy. London: Short Books. ISBN 9781906021115. 
  4. Wyatt, Thomas in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  5. The Poetrical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt with Memoir and Criticial Dissertaion
  6. Hart, Kelly (June 1, 2009). The Mistresses of Henry VIII (First ed.). The History Press. p. 147. ISBN 0752448358. 
  7. The Mistresses of Henry VIII by Kelly Hart, p.197
  8. "Sherborne Abbey: The Horsey Tomb". Retrieved 2008-07-13. 
  9. Tillyard E M W,The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, A Selection and a Study, The Scholartis Press, London, 1929
  10. Berdan,John M,Early Tudor Poetry,New York,1920
  11. Schmidt, Michael; The Lives of the Poets, Phoenix 1988 ISBN 978-0-7538-0745-3
  12. Wyatt:The Complete Poet.ed, R A Rebholz. Penguin Books Ltd, London 1978 ISBN 978-0-14-042227-6
  13. from John Churlton Collins, "Critical Introduction: Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Jan. 5, 2016.
  14. Egerton Manuscript 2711,British Museum
  15. Tottel's Miscellany,ed Richard Tottel, Bodeleian Library 13860, Oxford, 1557
  16. The Devonshire Maunscript Collection of Early Tudor poetry 1532-41,British Museum
  17. Blage MS,Trinity College,Dublin
  18. Wyatt:The Complete Poet.ed, R A Rebholz. Penguin Books Ltd,London 1978 ISBN 978-0-14-042227-6
  19. Alphabetical list of authors: Shelley, Percy Bysshe to Yeats, William Butler. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 19, 2012.
  20. Wyatt: The Critical Heritage ed. P Thomson, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1974 ISBN 0 7100 7907 9
  21. Warton, Thomas The History of English Poetry,1781
  22. C S Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, Oxford, 1954
  23. Introduction to Wyatt:The Critical Heritage ed. P Thomson, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd,LOndon 1974 ISBN 0 7100 7907 9
  24. Search results = au:Thomas Wyatt, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 6, 2015.

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