The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.
Thomas Wyatt, like his sister, Margaret, may have known Anne Boleyn from childhood. Their home, Allington, was near the Boleyn estate of Hever. However, Anne spent little time there as a child before being sent to the court of Margaret of Austria.
Wyatt was born in 1503, and according to biographer Susan Brigden, may have been a page in a noble household as a boy. He attended St. John’s College and may have studied law. Following his father’s example, he went to serve at court in 1516, and later became a diplomat.
He married Elizabeth Brooke in 1520, and had one son, also named Thomas Wyatt, usually styled “the younger” to avoid confusion. The marriage was not a happy one and the couple separated around 1526, with Wyatt alleging Brooke had committed adultery, though he didn’t name a specific man as her lover. Despite their separation, Wyatt continued to pay for Brooke’s support.
His grandson, George Wyatt, later wrote that Thomas fell in love with Anne Boleyn when she returned from her service at the French court in 1522. Anne, however, rejected Wyatt’s advances because he was a married man and she was careful about the perception of her virtue, knowing it was the key to her making an advantageous marriage.
Around this time, Anne may have fallen in love with Henry Percy. The couple may have had an understanding they would marry, though never a formal betrothal. In any case, when Cardinal Wolsey caught wind of the relationship, he called Percy before him and ordered him to break it off, much to the young man’s dismay. After Cardinal Wolsey broke up their relationship, Anne retired to Hever for a time, and when she returned to court, she caught the eye of an even more powerful man, Henry VIII.
When Henry first started pursuing Anne, no one could have suspected he would divorce his wife to marry her. Such a thing was simply unheard of. Everyone, including Anne, thought Henry simply wanted her as a mistress, but while the king was pursuing her, no man would seek her hand. Wyatt himself noted this when he wrote his poem Whoso List to Hunt.
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, [do not touch me] for Caesar’s I am
Wyatt may have accepted he would never “capture” this quarry, but he was brave – or stupid – enough to let Henry know he wasn’t the only one seeking Anne’s favors. The story is found in his grandson, George Wyatt’s Extracts from the Life of Queen Anne Boleigne:
About this time, it is said that the knight [Wyatt], entertaining talk with [Anne] as she was earnest at work, in sporting wise caught from her a certain small jewel hanging by a lace out of her pocket, or otherwise loose, which he thrust into his bosom, neither with any earnest request could she obtain it of him again. He kept it, therefore, and wore it after about his neck, under his cassock, promising to himself either to have it with her favour or as an occasion to have talk with her, wherein he had singular delight, and she after seemed not to make much reckoning of it, either the thing not being much worth, or not worth much striving for.
[Henry] took from [Anne] a
ring, and that wore upon his little finger. Within few days after, it
happened that the king, sporting himself at bowls, […] and in his game
taking an occasion to affirm a cast to be his that plainly
appeared to be otherwise; those on the other side said,
with his grace’s leave, they thought not, and yet, still he
pointing with his finger whereon he wore her ring, replied often it was his, and specially to the knight he said, “Wyatt, I tell thee it is mine,” smiling upon him withal.
Thomas, at the length, casting his eye upon the king’s
finger, perceived that the king meant the lady whose
ring that was, […] the knight replied, “And if
it may like your majesty to give me leave to measure it,
I hope it will be mine,” and withal took from his neck
the lace whereat hung the tablet, and therewith stooped
to measure the cast, which the king espying, knew, and
had seen her wear, and therewithal spurned away the
bowl, and said, “It may be so, but then am I deceived,” and so broke up the game.
This thing thus carried was
not perceived for all this of many, but of some few it
was. Now the king, resorting to his chamber, showing some discontentment in his countenance, found means to
break this matter to the lady, who, with good and evident
proof how the knight came by the jewel, satisfied the
king so effectually that this more confirmed the king’s
opinion of her truth than himself at the first could have
Soon afterwards, Wyatt was sent on a diplomatic mission to Rome to convince the Pope to allow Henry to annul his marriage to Katharine in order to marry Anne. It was a mission that was ultimately unsuccessful. But it got him out of England for a time, which may have been the point.
Wyatt returned to England in time to see Anne Boleyn and Henry depart for France to not-so-subtly test the waters as to whether King Francis would accept Anne as Henry’s consort. They married at the end of the trip. Wyatt may have accompanied them on the journey, though his name is not listed in the records of the journey. He wrote a poem around this time:
Sometime I fled the fire that me brent
By sea, by land, by water, and by wind,
And now I follow the coals that be quent
From Dover to Calais, against my mind.
Lo, how desire is both sprung and spent!
And he may see that whilom was so blind,
And all his labour now he laugh to scorn,
Meshed in the briers that erst was all too-torn.
Some interpret this as being written right after the marriage of the king to Anne, “from Dover to Calais” to witness something he didn’t want to see. Now, his desire is “sprung and spent” and he sees what he was too blinded by love to see before.
Wyatt played a part in Anne Boleyn’s coronation as queen, pouring scented water over her hands, likely to wash them before her coronation banquet. He was appointed one of the king’s “sewers,” – a server at the king’s table.
While at court, Wyatt was part of a circle of poets that contained Henry Howard, Margaret Douglas, Mary Shelton, and Mary Howard. The Devonshire Manuscript was passed among them and contains hand-written transcriptions of popular works of poetry. Nearly 130 of the poems in the manuscript were written by Wyatt, so his verse must have been very popular at court.
Scholars who study his work believe Wyatt was influenced by Italian poetry, and Continental styles of verse. He elevated the English sonnet to an art form.
Although Wyatt’s oeuvre is uneven, his poems at their best achieve searingly honest expressions of intense experience. He gradually changed English poetry by this seriousness, bringing his overwhelming passions into equilibrium with a counterweight of fully considered words.
Wyatt wasn’t only writing poetry while he was at court. In 1534, he was arrested and put into Fleet prison for getting into a fight with London law enforcement in which one man died and another was gravely injured. He was released from the prison within a month or so, back in the king’s good graces.
Wyatt and Anne Boleyn appear to have retained a friendship after she married the king. It appears that Wyatt was used by Anne to announce her pregnancy to the court. She called to a courtier in front of others. This courtier is unnamed by Eustace Chapuys in the letter, but indicated as one whom Anne had “loved” previously and who was banished because of jealousy – Wyatt seems to be the only one who fits that description. Anne announced that she had a longing to eat apples, which the king said was a sign she was with child.
Forty miles away, another small drama was unfolding at the household of Katharine of Aragon. Katharine refused to renounce the title of queen, and she would not allow ladies to serve her who addressed her as “princess.” Ominously, a list was drawn up of the ladies who refused to swear the Oath of Succession. One of the names on this list was Elizabeth Darrell.
Wyatt and Darrell may have known one another for years. In 1520, the court had gone on progress and had been hosted overnight by Darrell’s father, who had been a minor official in Katharine’s court. The Darrell family was conservative, old-school Catholic. Darrell’s grandmother owned relics, including the stone on which it was believed the archangel Gabriel had stood during the Annunciation.
When Katharine died, she left the loyal Darrell £200 in her will as a dowry, though she noted no marriage was currently forthcoming. Henry VIII did not honor Katharine’s will and it wasn’t until the reign of Queen Mary that Darrell received the funds.
Soon after Katharine’s death, Anne Boleyn was arrested. Thomas Wyatt was one of the men arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, but his arrest was somewhat different from the others. The Spanish Chronicle, though not always factually reliable, relates it thus:
This Master Wyatt was a very gallant gentleman, and there was no prettier man at Court than he was. When the jousts were finished and they were disarming, the captain of the guard came and called Master Norris and Master Brereton, and said to them, “The King calls for you.” So they went with him, and a boat being in waiting, they were carried off to the Tower without anyone hearing anything about it. Then Cromwell’s nephew said to Master Wyatt, “Sir, the Secretary, my master, sends to beg you to favour him by going to speak with him, as he is rather unwell, and is in London.” So Wyatt went with him.
It seems that the King sent to Cromwell to tell him to have Wyatt fetched in order to examine him. When they arrived in London Cromwell took Master Wyatt apart, and said to him, “Master Wyatt, you well know the great love I have always borne you, and I must tell you that it would cut me to the heart if you were guilty in the matter of which I wish to speak.” Then he told him all that had passed; and Master Wyatt was astounded, and replied with great spirit, “Sir Secretary, by the faith I owe to God and my King and lord, I have no reason to distrust, for I have not wronged him even in thought. The King well knows what I told him before he was married.”
Then Cromwell told him he would have to go to the Tower, but that he would promise to stand his friend, to which Wyatt answered, “I will go willingly, for as I am stainless I have nothing to fear.” He went out with Richard Cromwell, and nobody suspected that he was a prisoner; and when he arrived at the Tower Richard said to the captain of the Tower, “Sir Captain, Secretary Cromwell sends to beg you to do all honour to Master Wyatt.” So the captain put him into a chamber over the door …
Some have interpreted Wyatt’s arrest as Cromwell’s window-dressing, pretending diligence in investigating Anne’s alleged crimes and arresting multiple suspects. Chapuys expected more men to be accused, because he said the king had declared Anne had over a hundred lovers during their marriage. (Which would make her a very busy woman indeed!)
Wyatt’s father, Sir Henry, home at Allington, apparently didn’t think his son’s arrest was particularly noteworthy. He’s recorded to have said,
If he be a true man, as I trust he is, his truth will him deliver.
And then he went to bed.
Cromwell wrote to Wyatt’s father on the 10th of May to assure him his son was in no danger of being executed. His father wrote back the next day to thank Cromwell and ask him to tell Wyatt,
… that this punishment that he hath for this matter is more for the displeasure that he hath done to God otherwise.
In other words, let Wyatt know he had been arrested because he was known for immoral behavior. Wyatt had made it easy for Cromwell to select as a “suspect.”
From his window in the Bell Tower, Wyatt likely witnessed Anne Boleyn’s execution. He probably wouldn’t have been able to see the executions that took place on Tower Hill outside of the walls, but he later commemorated the victims in verse.
Those bloody days had broken his heart, but he returned to court service. He didn’t have much of a choice.
In 1536, Elizabeth Darrell became Wyatt’s mistress. She bore him three children over their years together: Henry, Francis, and Edward. (The latter was executed along with his half-brother, Thomas Wyatt the younger, for rebelling against Queen Mary.) Darrell was his wife in all but name for the rest of his life.
Theirs was an unusual relationship for the day. Mistresses were usually kept under wraps, quietly ignored by the legitimate wife, the relationship shrouded in shame. Darrell and Wyatt appear to have been very open about their arrangement. Their relationship may be why Darrell was declined as a lady in waiting for Jane Seymour and served Gertrude Blount, Marchioness of Exeter instead.
There is no indication that Wyatt ever tried to divorce Brooke to marry Darrell, but it does seem he decided to sever financial ties with her in 1537. There is no record of what happened to change Wyatt’s mind about maintaining her. Brooke went to live with her brother, Lord Cobham, who tried to use his court influence and connections to force Wyatt to resume Brooke’s support. Wyatt flatly refused. It seems that’s how matters remained for the next few years.
Darrell was still living with Wyatt in 1541 when Bishop Edmund “Bloody” Bonner accused Wyatt of saying about the king:
By God’s blood, ye shall see the king our master cast out at the cart’s tail, and if he so be served, by God’s body, he is well served.
Being “cast out at the cart’s tail” meant being hanged, as criminals usually stood in a cart with the nooses around their neck and then the horses pulled the cart away from under them. Bonner was claiming that Wyatt had treasonously “imagined” the king’s death. Wyatt was duly arrested and his property was seized, but Darrell was allowed to live in one of his houses because she was expecting a child.
Wyatt wrote a defense in which he claimed he’d meant the king might metaphorically fall out of the cart and be left behind in an alliance between the Emperor and France. The new young queen Katheryn Howard interceded for Wyatt and the king decided to be merciful. The council offered him a pardon on condition that he take back his wife, Brooke, from whom he had now been separated for fifteen years.
He will now be obliged to receive her, and should he not do so, and not lead a conjugal life with her, or should he be found to keep up adulterous relations with one or two other ladies that he has since lived with, he is to suffer pain of death and confiscation of property.
It is not known whether Wyatt ever obeyed this command. The court was soon occupied with the fall of Queen Katheryn, and who would occupy the newly-vacant position of queen. Chapuys said that Henry eyed Brooke as Katheryn’s replacement, though she was still married to Wyatt at the time, but it’s possible he’d confused her with another woman by the same name.
Wyatt was sent to Falmouth to escort the Imperial Ambassador to London, but had to stop at a friend’s house in Dorset when he became ill with a fever. He died at age 39 and was buried in a simple tomb at Sherborne.
Wyatt left property to Darrell in his will, but the properties were seized when Wyatt’s son, Thomas Wyatt the younger, was arrested for supporting a rebellion against Queen Mary. In 1554, Darrell married Robert Strowde and Queen Mary paid her the legacy that Katharine of Aragon had left her. From there, she fades from history and is assumed to have died around 1556.
Brooke also remarried. Her second husband was Sir Edward Warner, Lord Lieutenant of the Tower. Her husband was arrested when her son, Thomas Wyatt the younger, rebelled against Queen Mary. Her son was executed and her family fortunes were grim until the ascension of Queen Elizabeth. Brooke died in 1560 and was buried within the Tower, though the exact location of her grave is unknown.