Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Thomas Wyatt: Poet & Assassin

Thomas Wyatt the Elder
Say the name Thomas Wyatt and one of two things likely come to mind: poetry and Anne Boleyn. That the famous courtier was in love with Henry VIII's second queen is not doubted, but just how far their relationship ever went is a topic for another day. More interesting, at least in my opinion, is that Thomas Wyatt was one of several men sent by the tyrannical king on a mission to assassinate Cardinal Reginald Pole.

This is the sort of fun little tidbit I love to stumble across. I think many of us have a romantic impression of poor Thomas Wyatt, forced to step aside and leave his lady love to the desires of his king. (There are also rumors that Henry considered Wyatt's wife, Elizabeth, as his sixth wife!) The image of Wyatt as a sneaky murderer, albeit want-to-be murderer, was a bit more difficult to conjure up.

A good way to rid oneself of the presence of a romantic rival in the 1530s was to send him on a diplomatic mission. At that time, King Henry VIII just happened to have lots of need for diplomacy, and Wyatt's skill with words was more appreciated by the king in that arena than in writing poetry to his latest wife. Wyatt's initial goal was to convince Charles V of Spain that he should not invade England. Since Reginald Pole was one of the people arguing for that action, and he just happened to have as much (or more) royal blood than the king, he became a target.

Of course, Reginald Pole was not the only one encouraging those princes who remained loyal to the Papacy to invade England, but Henry heard Reginald's voice the loudest. It is often said that we are hurt most by those closest to us, and Henry and Reginald were close. Cousins with a common ancestor in Richard Duke of York, the men had grown up with a shared heritage. Reginald's mother was lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth of York, Henry's mother, and governess to Princess Mary, his daughter. Henry had also supported Reginald's education, as his father had done before him....up until the point Reginald turned against him.

It had been natural for Henry to request that Reginald write a defense of his desired divorce from Catherine of Aragon. What he didn't count on was Reginald having a mind of his own.

Cardinal Reginald Pole
In De Unitate Ecclesiastica Pole wrote at length about the evil that Henry was perpetrating against his kingdom, the church, and his God. This no-holds-barred attack was intended to bring the king to repentance, but it only served to bring his wrath against the entire Pole family. While Reginald was safe in Italy, Henry had Reginald's oldest brother, Henry Pole, and cousin, Henry Courtenay, executed under trumped up charges of treason supported by the forced evidence given by his younger brother, Geoffrey.

In the meantime, Henry sent assassins after Reginald multiple times during the final decade of his life. He was obsessed with proving that nobody could speak against the King and Head of the Church of England. When others failed, he sent Thomas Wyatt.

According to John PD Cooper in his Propaganda and the Tudor State, "Wyatt himself managed to creep up to the quarters of one of Pole's agents operating on French soil, only to trip haplessly over the threshold and damage his leg, allowing the man enough time to burn his letters."

In 1539, Pole was informed that Wyatt was openly "swaggering about telling everyone how rich he was and how he, personally, was going to murder Cardinal Pole." (Graven with Diamonds, Shulman) Several attempts were made to kill the cardinal on the road during his extensive travels, and Pope Paul III provided him with the protection of bodyguards. The Cappella di Reginald Pole in Rome is a small chapel built to give thanks to God after a thwarted assassination attempt on the road between Rome and Viterbo.

 Before too long, Wyatt's failure to capture or kill Pole was interpreted as conspiring with him by the suspicious king the poet served. In January 1541, Wyatt was arrested and sent to the Tower, where he expected to meet his end as so many before him had regardless of the evidence, or lack thereof, against them. While he was imprisoned there, Lady Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and Reginald's mother, was executed without trial with notice of only a few hours.

Fortunately for Wyatt, Queen Catherine Howard made an appeal for his life during her short tenure in favor. Her marriage to Henry turned out to be more beneficial for the poet than poor Catherine, as she soon found herself the king's second executed wife. Shortly after his release, Thomas Wyatt sickened and died at the age of 39. Reginald Pole went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Queen Mary I until he died on November 17, 1558.

2 comments:

  1. Given that the elder Elizabeth Brooke was a notorious adulteress, I'm inclined to believe that Henry was looking at her young niece and namesake as a wife.

    I really can not see Henry who had had two wives beheaded for being unchaste suddenly want to wed some-one who had a large amount of scandal attached to her.

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    1. You are right about Elizabeth's reputation which doesn't seem to suit Henry's standards. This information was taken from Shulman's biography 'Graven with Diamonds.' Perhaps it is incorrect. Thank you for your comment!

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