About Thomas Wyatt
Thomas Wyatt was born in 1504. His father was a Lancastrian, imprisoned and tortured near the end of the Wars of the Roses in the reign of Richard III, then promoted to high office by Henry VII. Thomas entered the court of Henry VIII where he filled a range of important posts, and survived (but only just) the terrifying changes of fortune facing all who tried to serve that dangerous king.
At the age of seventeen he married Elizabeth Brooke, but separated from her around 1525 charging her with adultery. She bore him a son, Thomas Wyatt the younger, who was later to be executed for raising a rebellion against Queen Mary.
By 1527 Thomas Wyatt’s diplomatic career had begun, with missions to France and Italy, where he became acquainted with the literature of those countries, including the Italian poet Petrarch, profoundly affecting Wyatt’s own poetry. The reader on this recording, Alice Oswald, writes in her own brilliant introduction to her edition of Wyatt’s poems, that Wyatt uses Petrarch as an instrument of self expression, the way a man might use a flute. ‘Whoso list to hunt’ adapts a poem by Petrarch, but also refers openly to Wyatt’s possibly unrequited love for Anne Boleyn.
Whether or not Wyatt was ever Anne Boleyn’s lover, he certainly swayed with the political wind, transferring his allegiance from Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to Anne. When Anne fell from favour, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London along with her lovers and supporters; he looked on at their executions from his cell window: ‘The bell tower showed me such sight / That in my head sticks day and night.’ His own life was saved by his patron, Thomas Cromwell, on condition of testifying against his friends.
When Cromwell himself fell, Wyatt was present at his execution too. The slipperiness of the life of the court is described in ‘Stand whoso list’; the last line echoes Cromwell’s fate: ‘Doth die unknown, dazed with dreadful face’.
Wyatt’s poems reflect his frightening world, but he could not be openly topical without risking imprisonment and death. Riddling and evasive, they often seem to slip out of your grasp. Few were published in his lifetime, and most were passed round in manuscript. They seem often to have been part of a game played by diplomats killing time while waiting on the pleasure of Europe’s emperors and kings. But they also chronicle the anguished memory of love now lost, as in ‘They flee from me’: ‘All is turned through my gentleness / Into a strange fashion of forsaking’.
Wyatt died on a final mission for his king. In October 1542 he rode hard to welcome the imperial ambassador of Charles V at Falmouth, caught a fever and died at the house of Sir John Horsey in Dorset. He was thirty-nine.
Poems by Thomas Wyatt
Books by Thomas Wyatt