Sir Thomas Wyatt: anecdotes

The following anecdotes were referred to in the bibliography of Early Sixteenth Century Lyrics. As it took me some time to track the article down, I have reproduced it here.


September 1850


IN an article inserted in the Magazine for June last, respecting Sir Thomas Wyatt and Bishop Bonner, I alluded to some information about Sir Thomas Wyatt contained in a volume of papers relating to various members of his family, to which access had been kindly given me by its possessor the Rev. Bradford D. Hawkins. I stated, at the same time, that I should probably, in a future paper, communicate some further particulars respecting the Wyatts, derived from that volume and from some other sources. I now proceed to perform my promise.

The Wyatts, or "Wiats," for that was the way in which they spelt their name, were originally a Yorkshire family. Sir Henry Wyatt, the father of the poet, was the first of them who settled at Allington Castle, near Maidstone, in Kent. He was in the service of Henry VII and his sufferings consequent on his fidelity to that king before his attainment of the throne gave occasion to a picturesque anecdote, which is thus related in the Wyatt MS. in the possession of Mr. Hawkins.

"He was imprisoned often; once in a cold and narrow tower, where he had neither bed to lie on, nor clothes sufficient to warm him, nor meat for his month. He had starved there had not God, who sent a crow [raven ?] to feed his prophet, sent this his and his country's martyr a cat both to feed and warm him. It was his own relation unto them from whom I had it. A cat came one day down into the dungeon unto him, and as it were offered herself unto him. He was glad of her, laid her in his bosom to warm him, and, by making much of her, won her love. After this she would come every day unto him divers times, and, when she could get one, bring him a pigeon. He complained to his keeper of his cold and short fare. The answer was, 'he durst not better it.'   'But,' said Sir Henry, 'if I can provide any, will you promise to dress it for me?'   'I may well enough,' said he, the keeper, 'you are safe for that matter;' and being urged again, promised him and kept his promise, dressed for him, from time to time, such pigeons as his accator the cat provided for him. Sir Henry Wyat in his prosperity for this would ever make much of cats, as other men will of their spaniels or hounds; and perhaps you shall not find his picture any where but, like Sir Christopher Hatton with his dog, with a cat beside him."1

But the hero of this pleasant tale went through worse sufferings for his master than those which were alleviated by his friendly cat. It is said that he was subjected to torture, which was inflicted  by an instrument called the barnacles, which is placed by farriers on the upper lip of a horse in order to terrify and keep him quiet under the opera- tion of bleeding. The memory of this fact is heraldically preserved in an addition to the arms borne by this branch of the Wyatts, namely, a pair of barnacles argent, the ring which unites them or; and Sir Henry transmitted the tradition in certain carpets which he caused to be manufactured, in which the figure of the barnacles was eminently conspicuous. In 1735 one of these carpets was in the possession of Francis Wyatt, heir of the family, and then seated at Quex in the isle of Thanet.

On one occasion, after Sir Henry had submitted to this torture, his descendant informs us that he was "examined" by Richard III. "Wyatt," said the tyrant, "why art thou such a fool? Thou servest for moonshine in the water. Thy master is a beggarly fugitive. Forsake him and become mine. I can reward thee, and I swear unto thee I will."   "Sir," was his answer, "If I had first chosen you for my master, thus faithful would I have been to you, if you should have needed it; but the earl, poor and unhappy though he be, is my master, and no discouragement or allurement shall ever drive or draw me from him, by God's grace."

When the standard of the fugitive carl floated on the field of Bosworth, Wyatt found means to join it, and on its success discovered that he had served for something more substantial than moonshine in the water. He was appointed a gentleman of the privy-chamber, and

"In his attending on him the king oft demanded how he thrived. His answer was, his studies were to serve his majesty. Said the king, "Thy meaning is, then, I should study to make thee thrive; and thou sayest well, but the kings, my predecessors, weakening their treasure, have made themselves servants to their subjects.

"Yet," continues the family chronicler, "yet helped he him;" and he explains that he did so in a very characteristic manner, by lending him occasionally as much as a thousand pounds, probably at low interest, and on strict days of payment, by which means Wyatt was enabled to buy land. "The fruite of all were," that he was raised, "from a private gentleman, to a gentleman of the privy chamber; to the honour of a knight banneret; to master of the jewel-house; to treasurer of the king's chamber; to a privy councillor; and the honour of being one of the king's executors."

In the midst of this favour Wyatt retained the unselfish simplicity of his devotion to the royal service, and was bold enough even to admonish his stern master when he thought his conduct "not for his worship;" proofs of which the historian before us declares that he had seen. A portion of a letter contained in Mr. Hawkins's volume proves that Wyatt was employed in some temporary service of trust and confidence in the northern counties.

Such a man might well be the father of a hero. Nor was his wife less qualified by personal character to impart energy and fearlessness to her offspring. She was Anne, daughter of John Skinner esquire, of Reigate, in the county of Surrey. The domestic chronicler records, that whilst her husband was absent, in attendance at the court, she kept up a liberal hospitality at Allington Castle. "Lady Wyatt and her house" were celebrated throughout the county, Sir Henry being so seldom there, that some even of his neighbours were scarcely acquainted with him. The absence of the master seems to have encouraged the people round about to take liberties with the establishment; but probably Sir Henry would have been found easier to deal with in such matters than his intrepid lady. Amongst other persons who invaded the peace of Lady Wyatt's establishment was the abbot of the neighbouring abbey of Boxley, then principally celebrated for that marvellous piece of mechanism which is still remembered by the name of the wonderful rood. The abbot, as we are told in our MS. "coming often unto her house, and sometimes [naughty abbot!] playing his pranks there," the dragon of a lady, hearing of the abbatial peccadilloes "set a watch upon him," and, as ill-luck would have it, master abbot "was taken in the manour." Such an attack upon the reputation of her household constituted an unpardonable offence in the estimation of Lady Wyatt, and without judge or jury, and in stern defiance of the wide privileges of the spirituality, she condemned the salacious abbot instantly to do penance for his knavery. Appeal was out of the question. Neither bishop nor ecclesiastical court was consulted. The clerical dignitary was carried through the gatehouse, and there in front of the castle, to the admiration of gentle and simple, sate the abbot of Boxley "in the stocks!" If the abbot had been a wise man, as he was no doubt a good churchman, he would of course have pocketed the affront, and have given himself with greater diligence to his masses and the exhibition of his rood, but the joke was too good a one to be confined to a little nook in Kent, and master abbot by way of making it better known appealed to the Privy Council to avenge his insulted dignity. Sir Henry was called upon to answer for the offence of his lady. He was wiser than the abbot, and replied with a jest. He told the council that if he, or any of the lords there present, had angered his wife as the abbot had done, in that place where she thought herself to be a justice of the peace at the least, he verily believed that she would have done as much for him or any of them. As to his responsibility for the actions of his wife, he laughed at it; — "Truly, my lords, you must let me live in the country if you would have me to be responsible for them." He warned their lordships also, if they were matched as he was, what suspicion they might raise in the minds of their own wives if they took upon them to condemn his. "If you," he remarked, "should seem to allow the abbot to play with my wife's maids, will not your wives think that you love the sport yourselves, and allow yourselves as great a liberty?" The judgment is not recorded, but one cannot doubt that, whatever it was, it left the abbot to enjoy the laugh, and something worse, of a country just arousing itself to a full sense of the character and value of the so-called religious houses.

This fearless couple had according to our MS. only two children, Margaret, married to Sir Anthony Lee, and Sir Thomas, the poet. It is not my intention to give a biography of this popular writer and wit; out merely to add to the circumstances of his life, as they are detailed in the current biographies, such particulars as are either new or are better related in Mr. Hawkins's volume. That he partook in the daring character of his parents was evident from the earliest action that is mentioned of him.

"He brought up at Allington Castle a lion's whelp and an Irish greyhound, in which he took much delight; and their manner was in his absence to attend his home-coming at the gate or hall-door; and many times there they met him and with great joy entertained him. But at length, when the lion's whelp grew into courage and heat, instead of friendly welcome, it ran roaring upon him, and flew fiercely into his bosom, and had certainly destroyed him but for the greyhound, who, coming after the lion, was as soon in his neck as he in his master's bosom, and with his teeth palled him on his back, until Sir Thomas Wyat, in a most present and undaunted courage, drew forth his rapier and ran it into the rebel's heart."

When he afterwards went to court and there distinguished himself by his free and daring spirit, Henry VIII, who had beard of this memorable accident, remarked of him, "Oh, he can tame lions!"

Anthony Wood asserts that Sir Thomas Wyatt visited Italy, but Dr. Nott, arguing de non apparentibus, made out a case in opposition to the Oxford antiquary which has been deemed satisfactory by his subsequent biographer. Mr. Wiffen, in his Memoirs of the House of Russell, opened up the question again, and showed clearly enough that a Wyatt, who was probably the future Sir Thomas, really visited Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence, and Rome. To remove all possibility of doubt as to the identity, one of our MS. chroniclers, in this instance Sir Thomas's grandson, tells us the origin of his ancestor's Italian mission, upon the authority of Edward the third Earl of Bedford. His account is as follows : —

"Sir John Russell, after lord privy seal, having his depeache of ambassage from Henry VIII to the Pope, in his journey on the Thames encountered sir Thomas Wyatt, and after salutations was demanded of him whither he went, and had answer, 'To Italy, sent by the king.'   'And I,' said sir Thomas, 'will, if you please, ask leave, get money, and go with you.'  'No man more welcome,' answered the ambassador. So this accordingly done they passed in post together."

This must have been in January, 1526-7, when Wyatt was three-and-twenty years of age.

On their arrival in Rome they were received with all the distinction which belonged of right to ambassadors from the great Defender of the Faith. A Turkish horse which the Pope was accustomed to ride was sent for the special use of Sir John Russell, another for Wyatt, and others, hacks of less dignity, for the members of the ambassador's suite. These were sent out to them twelve miles from Rome that they might make their entrance into the capital of the world with proper dignity, and two miles from the city the ambassadors were met by a high official in the papal court, who led them to their lodgings, and overwhelmed them with his courtesies. Amongst other acts of that kind, one is chronicled in our MS. which it is difficult to relate in terms appropriate to the chasteness of modern ears, but which is too curious to be altogether omitted. "The chief favourite of his holiness" had scarcely departed when the astonished Englishmen were well nigh overwhelmed with further proofs of Italian kindness. A messenger arrived, but not alone. He came accompanied by two of the chief beauties of the papal court, and, as he introduced the ladies, adroitly whispered in the ear of the travellers "a plenary dispensation verbal." The travellers answered this courtesy by calling for wine, after which given, with a compliment in crowns and much laughter, the ladies and the messenger were dismissed together.

"This fashion," continues our chronicler, "was taken a tast [looked upon as a test] how they came furnished with crownes for depeche of that they came for. But sir Thomas took it withal to be an Italian scorn and kind of pronostick of the event of their success. So far Edward late earl of Bedford, of worthy memory, recounted to me of the frank love and friendship that was between his father [grandfather?] and my grandfather, in those days being in the king's service together, he ending his relation here by occasion of his being called to council. That which followed I after received of two; one a gentleman, a follower then of sir Thomas, another a kinsman of his name, some yet of good place living that heard it reported from their own mouths thus.

"After much delays and expense of moneys in the court of Rome, the ambassador urging earnestly his depeche, on letter from the king, he finally received answer of evil-satisfaction, according to the expectation of the former pronostick, which signified to the king, he was suddenly called home by new letters. And on his return, in a certain place changing horses, sir Thomas in his chamber on the wall drew a maze, and in it a minotaur with a triple crown on his head, both as it were falling, and a bottom of thread with certain guives and broken chains there lying by, and over this word,

Laqueus contritus est et nos liberati sumus.

This was but finished when the ambassador remounted with sir Thomas: he in the way told him what he had left behind him in return of the scorn used to them at their arrival to Rome, and in disdain of the want of success of the king's affairs there. At it my lord laughed heartily, specially (you may suppose) after he heard his holiness and all his college of cardinals wisdoms were troubled to scan upon a draft of the emprese sent to Rome by some that advertised of the author of it. But much the king is said to have taken pleasure to hear the discourse of it at my lord's return, and it was thought an occasion to the king of his employing sir Thomas the more in his services of importance and trust ever after."2

Another fact which has been equally unknown to Wyatt's biographers is established by a letter referred to by Mr. Wiffen,3 namely, that Wyatt, in the course of a journey from Venice to Rome, was seized and detained as a prisoner by the imperialist forces under Bourbon. A correspondence ensued between the English ambassador, the papal court, and the captors. A ransom of 3,000 ducats was demanded. In the meantime Wyatt remained a prisoner, but, before the diplomatists had come to an arrangement, he saved them all further trouble by effecting his escape and suddenly making his appearance at Bologna.

Our next notice of Wyatt after his return to England relates to his first imprisonment in the Tower, which was the consequence of some displeasure given by him to Henry VIII. The fact is alluded to in the paper in the Magazine for June, and is there asserted by Bonner to have occasioned long-continued and rancorous anger and dissatisfaction in the mind of Wyatt. Its cause is as yet unknown, nor am I able to clear it up, although not without hope that the following letters may lead to its discovery. It has been hinted that it arose out of some acquaintance with Anne Boleyne, but I have not found anything which confirms that notion. The family chronicler relates that the unwelcome tidings that his son was "clapped up in the Tower" were conveyed to Sir Henry Wyatt, who was then an aged man and living in retirement at Allington, in the dead of the night.

"A messenger awaked him with the news .... yet was not the old knight, though a most loving and careful father for his only [?] son, terrified with it, but having read the letter gave only this answer: 'If he be a true man, as I trust he is, his truth will him deliver: it is no guile:" and with this word fell asleep again very soundly until his accustomed hour, and then, with all diligence, he did that by letters to the court he thought best, and which he found sufficient in the end. In the meantime not further troubling himself, as the manner of heartless and unprepared men is, to no purpose."

Of the letters which he wrote to the court about this imprisonment of his son, two have been preserved in the Cromwell correspondencc in the State Paper Office, and as I believe they have never been published I will print them here. The first of them, written during his son's imprisonment, and addressed to Cromwell, then the king's secretary, runs as follows : —

[Cromwell Correspondence, S.P.O.
Vol. 48. No. 382.]

"Most singuler good maister, I have receivid your lettres this xth daie of May, to my grete comforte, and most humbly I thank your maistershipe for the paine that ye have take to write unto me the comfortable articles of your lettre, as well toching my son Thomas as to me, which lettres and paine that ye have takin I nor my saide sone ought never to forget. Hit maie please God that wee maie deserve yt with our seruice. And whene soeuer hit shalbe the kinges pleasure with your help to delyuer him, that ye will shewe hym that this ponishement that he hathe for this matter ys more for the displeasure that he hathe done to God otherweise, wherein I beseeche you to aduertice hym to fly vice and seme God better thenne he hathe done. And thus, as I am most bounden, I shall praie to God for the preseruaçon of your maistershippe long to contynewe.

"From Alington, this xj. daie of May,
"By your assurd seruant,


"To the right honorable, and my singuler good maister, maister secretory."

From the tone of this letter, as well as of that which follows, it may be inferred that the accusation against Sir Thomas was not of a very serious kind. They seem to point rather to some wild or heedless frolic than to any very serious offence. The second letter was written after Sir Thomas had been discharged. Probably he was sent home from the Tower to remain at Allington under the honourable surveillance of his father, and was finally discharged in consequence of the letter which is alluded to in the following letter.

[Cromwell Correspondence, S.P.O.
Vol. 48. No. 383.]

"Myne owne good maister secretory. In my most harty maner I recommend me unto you, certefying you that upon the receite of your lettres declaring unto me the kinges pleasure, after I had consydered to my grete comfort with myself the kinges grete goodnes toward my sonne, with his so favorable warnynges to adres him better thenne his wit can consyder, I strait callyd unto me my saide son, and as I have done oft, not only commandyd hym his obediens in all pointes to the kinges pleasure, but also the leving of such slanderous façon as hath engendred unto hym both the displeasure of God and of his maister, and as I suppose I fownde hit not nowe to do in hym, but alredy done. And further, on my blessing I have chargid hym not only to folowe your commaundmentes from tyme to tyme, but also in euery point to take and repute you as me, and if whilist he livithe, he have not this for sure printyd in his hart, that I refuse hym to be my son. I beseche you to contynewe unto hyme as ye have bene, and I mysknowe hym not to much, ye shall not think [yourself] eville emploide. And, after I be ons againe recommendyd unto you, I pray God send you as well to fare, myne owne good maister secretory, as I wolde myne owne hart, and I shall dayly pray for you. At Alington this xiiij. dale of June,

"Your assured frend and seruaunt,


To my singuler good maister and frende maister secretory to the kinges grace."

The same volume from which these two letters of Sir Henry are extracted contains also one letter of Sir Thomas. It appears in the document printed in the former paper (Gent. Mag. June, p. 566,) that he was sent on the foreign embassy to which Bonner's accusations relate very shortly after his imprisonment in the Tower. "Was not that a pretty sending of me ambassador to the emperor, first to put me in the Tower, and then forthwith to send me hither?" The following letter exhibits him just appointed to his embassy, and is worthy of attention, as well on account of its biographical interest as also for the glimpse which it gives us of what was in those days esteemed to be the creditable expedition of a diplomatic envoy who travelled on horseback in twelve hours from London to Hythe as a port of embarkation for the continent.

[Cromwell Correspondence, S.P.O.
Vol. 48. No. 384.]

"Plese it your good lordshipp, after I toke my leve of yow it was xij off the cloke afore I was dispechid from the kynges hyghnes. And, altho I made such diligens that I was at the see syde by midnyght, yet it helpid me not, the wynd being so gret, and so it hath contynewd all this day till now late in the nyght, so much that no mariner wold aventure to go abord, as this berer can informe yow. To morow erly I shall embark ; this berer shall se me abord ; and off the rest off my diligens shall be no lak. I humbly recommend vnto yow my matter off Mallyng, in wiche I fownd at the kynges handes so good inclination that I ame glad of the hope that I have, wich is, that it is in your handes. And in the accompt that I wrot in your lordshippes boke of valew, I have misrekenid, for it is not owt off hand vnto [m]e worth xlli by yere, as my servant Multon shall informe yow, and this berer also, who I besech your lordshipp may, among your grete travailes, sometyme importune yow in the remembrance of the matter. Mychellmas is at hand, and that that then shold be receyvid myght help something my payment. I have nothing elles to wryt vnto your lordshipp, but as occasion shall ryse ye shall not want the troble off my lettres, as our lord knowth, who send yow the accomplishment of your most gentill desiris. At Hide [Hythe] the Friday after Corpus Christi.

"Yours always most bounden,

The trial of Sir Thomas upon the accusation of Bishop Bonner is thus alluded to in a treatise upon the Reformation, written by his grandson George Wyatt, which is included in Mr. Hawkins's volume.

"In the frame of speech, in altering one little word, syllable, point, accent, and even in the same words transposing much difference might make in this case [the writer is referring to an oath taken by Queen Katharine] and much material. I speak not in vain. My grandfather (that I speak not of this invention brought into art [act?] by the Jesuits in our times) upon such a trick, and even by the practice of bushops, was put to the search of his wits upon point of his life in the highest degree, and had been tripped in it, if God, the noble king he served, and his honorable council (looking into it), had not respected his innocency."

This MS. contains other matters relating to this interesting family, but our space is exhausted, and we must draw to a close. We cannot do so better than with an anecdote of Sir Thomas the younger, the history of whose rebellion we commented upon so lately in our review of the Chronicle of Queen Jane. (Mag. for August, p. 157.) It is here stated that he declined to join the Duke of Northumberland in his endeavour to divert the succession from Mary to Jane, "and to the privy council, then wavering, he offered to proclaim her [Mary] at Maidstone, and did so, for which afterwards he had her thanks." Shortly afterwards, fore-seeing probably the storm which was then advancing upon his country and upon his faith, he designed to go abroad, and procured permission to do so, accompanied by his wife, his eldest son, and daughter. His wife was then about to lie in, and he waited only until she was fit to travel. But his fate advanced upon him with rapid steps. The hateful intended marriage between Mary and Philip was proclaimed. Wyatt got involved in the premature and ill-judged attempts which were made to arrest it. One fatal folly led to another, and at last he determined to raise his standard in revolt. As he departed from Allington on this disastrous enterprise, and took his last farewell of his wife and children, he took in his arms the babe for whose birth he had remained in England, and kissing the unconscious innocent, exclaimed "Thou majst prove a dear child to me!"  "as it happened, indeed," concludes the simple chronicler of the misfortunes of his ancestor.

There are some other facts in Mr. Hawkins's volume respecting Sir Thomas Wyatt the younger which shall not be withheld if our present extracts are deemed of sufficient interest to justify the resumption of the subject.



1. Some memoranda in Mr. Hawkins's volume, compiled by Richard Wyatt, son of Mr. Serjeant Edwin Wyatt of Quex in Thanet, contain the following account of certain pictorial illustrations of this incident, in the possession of the family down to the middle of the last century "of which story," Richard Wyatt says, "I can find no remains but his picture, and another of a cat, seemingly in the same hand-painting, with a pigeon in his claw, delivering it att the grates of the dungeon, with certain verses relating the story. The painting seems old, though we have no account by whose hand done." Can any of our Kentish friends, or other persons interested in the Wyatts, inform us what has become of these curious relics of family history?

2. Richard Wyatt, in the family memorials before alluded to, remarks, that "we have" (no doubt at Quex) "the picture" of the maze, "with a centaur in the middle and a triple crown falling off his head." We may again ask whether any one can give us information as to this picture.

3. Vitellias, B. ix. fo. 85