SIR THOMAS WYATT competed with Henry VIII for the affections of Anne Boleyn.
Even if you have never heard of Wyatt, a diplomat and a brilliant poet, you can probably guess what happened next…
In 1533, Henry VIII secretly married Anne Boleyn.
Three years later, Wyatt was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Soon after, Anne Boleyn was executed, probably within sight of Wyatt’s cell.
In July 1540, Wyatt witnessed – with tears in his eyes – the execution of his friend and patron Thomas Cromwell (the central character of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall.)
In January 1541, Wyatt himself was accused of treasonable behaviour as an ambassador, and was again taken to the Tower, bound and handcuffed. Historians suspect the real issue may actually have been Wyatt’s relationship with his mistress, Elizabeth Darrell, a Catholic and Maid of Honour to Katharine of Aragon. Wyatt was pardoned by the King – but also told that unless he gave up Darrell, and went back to his estranged wife, he would lose everything he possessed and be killed.
Let’s pause a moment here. It is clear that Wyatt knew intimately how slippery life could be at the court of Henry VIII (“the slipper toppe / of courtes estates”) and people he loved had died “dazed with dredfull face.”
Shortly before Wyatt wrote the poem from which these words are quoted, called ‘Stond who so list’, it was said of him: “Mr Wyatt… doth often call to his remembrance his emprisonment in the Tower, which seemeth so to stick in his stomacke that he cannot forget it…”
The big question is – did Wyatt himself so wish to escape from this terrifying milieu that, in Dorset, he faked his own death so as to go back to living secretly with his mistress?
This extraordinary idea is put forward by the poet Alice Oswald, in the introduction to a new selection of Wyatt’s poems (in Faber’s Poet-to-Poet series).
In October 1542, Wyatt was told by the King to go to Falmouth, to meet an envoy sent by emperor Charles V. The story then is that Wyatt rode too fast, got overheated, caught a chill or a fever, and, stopping in West Dorset at Clifton Maybank, at the home of his friend Sir John Horsey, he died and was quickly buried.
Oswald writes: “Strangely, for a man of his status, he was buried not in his own grave, but in his host’s family tomb [in Sherborne Abbey]. His mistress, Elizabeth Darrell, whom he’d been forced to leave two years before, was living in Exeter, and I can’t help wondering whether, on his way to the West Country, he decided to fake his own death to rejoin her. The beauty of that idea is that it changes the poem ‘Stond who so list’ from a wish into a whispered decision:
in hidden place, so let my dayes forth passe,
that when my yeares be done, withouten noyse,
I maye die aged after the common trace…”
If this idea is true, then this plaque set in the floor of Sherborne Abbey is wrong. Wyatt is not buried here, there is a body missing from the Horsey family tomb, and for nearly 500 years Wyatt’s daring plot has been a secret never even guessed at – until now.
Note: Wyatt wrote some of the greatest and most haunting poems in the English language. The best ways in to his work are probably Oswald’s selection (which has a brilliantly intelligent introduction) and the revolutionary essay ‘Myths, Metres, Rhythms’ by Ted Hughes in Winter Pollen (Faber, 1994). Hughes praises Wyatt’s irregularity, spontaneity, nakedness of feeling: “No poet ever cut so deep into the nerve…”