They Flee From Me #
- Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 - 1542)
Historical - Biographical #
Thomas Wyatt’s earliest sonnets, influenced by the Italian poet Petrarch, give us an inside picture of the precarious situations of his court. Many of his poems see him pursuing beautiful women, one of them, Anne Boleyn, courted King Henry VIII.
Henry was not expected to become King so his early education and life was relaxed, pursuing interests in classical literature, tennis, sporting, jousting and hunting. He also enjoyed music and writing poetry. His early years as a king were indulged in leisure, rather than affairs of state.
Crowned King at the age of 18, Henry was at first very popular because he loved sport, music, hunting and especially Jousting, forbidden by his father. The first twenty years of his kingship were carefree and productive as England began to prosper catching up with Spain and France. He built dockyards, increasing ships from only nine to over fifty.
The best-known fact about Henry VIII is that he had six wives! Most school children learn the following rhyme to help them remember the fate of each wife: “Divorced, Beheaded, Died: Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”. His first wife was Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow, whom he later divorced to marry Anne Boleyn, after courting her for seven years. This divorce caused the split from Rome and Henry declared himself the head of the Church of England.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries began in 1536, and the money gained from this helped Henry to bring about an effective Navy. In an effort to have a son, Henry married four further wives, but only one son was born, to Jane Seymour. Henry had two daughters both to become rulers of England – Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn.
Henry the Eighth had more personal reasons to defy the power of Rome. Initially a faithful Catholic, but when the Pope refused his request for a divorce, he sought any means. It was William Tyndall, a Protestant, whose Book, The Obedience of the Christian Man, contained this passage:
“The supreme authority is scripture over and above the false Pope. It is shameful for princes to be under the authority of the Pope. Kings are the highest authority of the land. The King is the Judge over all, and over him there is no judge”.
He simply confiscated all the Churches vast wealth and appointed himself as the head of a new national Church just so he could divorce Catherine and marry Ann Boleyn… He simply hung, drew and quartered any priests or believers who failed to comply. His daughter “Bloody Mary” reciprocated by killing Protestants who failed to come back to her Catholic faith.
Originally a kind, active and engaging King, Henry only turned nasty after his first twenty years of reign when the death penalty by beheadings of anyone suspicious became the bedrock of his justice system. Usually they were clean mild executions, even bringing in an expert swordsman from France to cut off Ann Boleyn’s head, after coldly abandoning her. An exception was a cook who served up a meal that caused a few court members to die of poisoning. An elaborate contraption was built to having him die by dunking him up and down in a boiling cauldron until he left this world in agony.
Absolute Monarchs enjoyed unfettered power to behead subjects on any whim of suspicion. Wyatt’s life mirrors that of Horace, who also lived in volatile times where the rise and fall of fortunes was subject to that of those you serve. Horace had sided with Brutus and Cassius so when Augustus and Antony won the Battle of Actium in the year 34 B.C. he was in great danger. He was extremely fortunate that his poetic skills were valued and found favour with Maecenas, Octavian’s rich and influential ally, who was fostering and patronising a talented literary circle in the emperor’s interests.
For celebrating the emperor and portraying his regime as the beginning of a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, Horace was rewarded with a large country estate called the Sabine farm. While appreciating his good fortune, he recognised the fragility of life and came up with the philosophy of Carpe Diem- of living for the moment. Dead Poet’s Society brings this alive here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5t3ZzZv8_U
Horace’s poems are mostly satires, so he was able to maintain his literary integrity without losing his head.
Henry VIII’s court was renown for people losing their heads whenever or however the King became displeased with or suspicious of their loyalty.
Thomas Wyatt’s grandfather had sided with the Tudors in the early days of the War of the Roses, and his father, Henry Wyatt suffered torture and imprisonment during the reign of Richard III. Under Henry VII, the family fortunes improved, gaining a family castle in 1492, appointed Privy Councillor in 1504 and later also to Henry VIII. In 1509 Henry Wyatt was created a Knight of the Bath.
Thomas Wyatt enters Henry VIII’s court as a ewerer (bath attendant) and attends classes with St John’s College at the age of 13. At the age of twenty he becomes Clerk of the King’s Jewels.
Married at 17, Wyatt had four children. When he suspected his wife adulterous, he openly engaged in several extra marital affairs. They are divorced in 1425, and he takes an interest in Anne Boleyn.
At the age of 24, Wyatt participates in a jousting tournament at Greenwich. King Henry VIII also joins in tilting.
From 1426, Thomas Wyatt joins a series of diplomatic missions, to the French Court, 1427, the papal cout in Rome, to counter the increasing influence of Spain’s Charles V.
From 1428 - 30 Wyatt is sent to Calais as High Marshall, perhaps to exile him from the Court because of his interest in Anne Boleyn. In 1432 he is made a Commisioner of Essex and he becomes friendly with Thomas Cromwell. Anne Boyleyn Marchioness of Pembrooke and confident that the King will marry her, she becomes his mistress.
Anne Boleyn had been brought up in the tough school of courtly intrigue in the French Court. She returned to England in 1522 at 15, joining her sister, Mary, in becoming a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon, in Henry VIII’s Court. Mary was a mistress of King Henry VIII, but when he saw Anne he began to court her. Anne, head strong, had many other suitors, including Sir Thomas Wyatt, so refused the King’s advances insisting on being more than just a mistress, until he would agree to marriage, making her the Queen. In 1433, already pregnant with the future Queen Elizabeth I, the couple secretly marry on January 25 th, but not announced until Easter.
Her failure to produce a male heir was partly due to Henry’s intermittent impotence. As he continued other sexual relationships, she felt entitled to her own infidelity with credible evidence of at least three lovers, hoping they would provide her with a male offspring. They all preceded her to the scaffold.
Thomas Wyatt continues to rise until 1436, when several members of the court are suspected of commiting adultery with the Queen Anne Boyleyn, including her brother Thomas Boyleyn. Henry, disappointed in the lack of a male heir indicates to Jane Seymour that he intends to marry her as soon as he has disposed of Anne.
Thomas Wyatt is also arrested and watchs the execution of Anne Boleyn from a casement in the Tower of London.
Wyatt’s poems were circulated anonymously within the court during his life. There is no indication that the King was aware of them; if he had, Wyatt would likely have been charged with treason. Wyatt’s poems were published in the 1550’s, well after both Henry and Wyatt were safely in their graves.
Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote three famous poems inspired by Henry VIII’s tragic second queen, Anne Boleyn. There is no hard evidence they had any physical relationship, as she had her eye on the bigger prize of becoming Queen.
There is a certain directness and openness in the poem about promiscuity in the court. Everybody appears to be bonking everybody else. His tide keeps turning due to the fickleness of women and the “slings and arrows” of political life. Women are referred to as animals - deer, to be stalked, caught and “tamed”. Henry VIII displays a hypocritical double standard; as Odysseus illustrates, the exact same behavior that types women as sluts, types men as studs.
Men pride themselves as heroic strong men, proving their virility by bedding lots of women. When Henry’s wives engage in a similar manner, they are tainted as impure and a dishonor to him. He has them beheaded.
They Flee From Me #
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
Historical Biographical #
English courts, at least since, Edward III, have been hot beds of intrigue, promiscuity and betrayal, where competing factions jockey for position in order to hold sway over the monarch. Chaucer, initially, found much favour at court only waning at the end.
Men and women used each other to gain an advantage or a position, only to discard them when they had served their purpose.
In 1400, Henry IV, deposed Richard II, allowing him to die in prison, initiating the War of the Roses, where aspirants to the wear the “heavy crown” were the most endangered species on earth. Kings had total impunity; just the suspicion of treason was enough for them to order: “Off with their head”. Richard III stands accused of executing any one he vaguely considered a threat.
Henry VIII’s reign has spawned numerous books and television series exploring the machinations of power plays within his court. A Man for all Seasons by Robert Bolt (1954) dramatized the rise and fall of Sir Thomas More, as a man of principle, envied by rivals such as Thomas Cromwell and loved by the common people and by his family.
The Wolf Hall trilogy, by Hilary Mantel, comprised of three books: Wolf Hall (2009), Bring up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (2020) creatively bring to life the intrigues played out.
Henry VIII, began his life promisingly. Well prepared for reigning, he was good at book learning, athletic, a huntsman, dancer and jouster.
Because his brother Arthur died without consummating his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Queen Isabella of Spain, he married her. He was a devout Catholic slavishly supporting Pope Clement, for which he was awarded the title, Defender of the Faith, claiming “he had no superior on earth”.
He choose outstanding advisors, including Sir Thomas More, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and Thomas Cranmer. (all Thomas)
Henry’s problems began when he was overlooked for the position of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, that title going to Charles V of Spain. When Pope Clement refused his divorce from Catherine, conflict with Rome began. Things became really nasty.
Peter Ackroyd writes: Henry was brutal, bloody, ruthless; a total tyrant who killed right left and centre simply on a whim, against anyone who dared to stand in his way. Not only his wives, but Chief Ministers and advisors, also thousands of Clergies and assumed heretics who refused to bow to his capricious demands.
Thirty Bishops who opposed him were strung up publicly as deterrents.
Cardinal Wolsey was eliminated for failing to secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1534, as was Sir Thomas More in 1535 for refusing to support Henry’s break from Rome – both beheaded. In the mean time he found time to burn many non-conformists; Jews and 23 Anabaptists in 1535 in bonfires and took the further step of seizing most of the wealth of the church, which was estimated to hold one-third of all the land in England. to bestow on his loyal supporters. Vagrants could be hanged, and under Henry VIII, they were hanged in great numbers.
“Any monks or abbots complicit in rebellion were seized and executed, their houses surrendered to the king. The abbots of Kirkstead and Barlings, of Fountains and Jervaulx and Whalley, were all hanged; they were followed a year later by the abbots of Glastonbury, Colchester and Reading. This was merely the prelude to a more general confiscation. Within three years the monasteries, the friaries, the priories and the nunneries would be gone. …”
This was of immense benefit to the Crown, and represents the largest transfer of land ownership since the time of the Norman conquest. The properties were sold to the highest
bidder briber. From Tudors by Peter Ackroyd
Wyatt’s fortunes waxed and wanes wildly under the reign of Henry VIII. As a member of a prominent family that had supported the Tudors against the House of York, they gained the status of land and high office. Earlier, he joined the King in the sports of hunting and jousting, then Wyatt was entrusted with many important diplomatic missions including a trip to Rome to plead for Henry’s divorce. Later, when Henry seized the church monasteries and abbeys, Wyatt became a wealthy land owner.
However, in 1526, Wyatt was one of four arrested for allegedly committing adultery with Anne Boleyn. From his prison bell tower, he watched the other three, including George Boleyn, brother to Anne, lay their heads on the chopping block. Next, he watched as Anne had her head severed from her body for adultery and engaging in witchcraft.
The following poem published posthumously gives some indication of his requiem for Anne Boleyn:
‘Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei’, #
translates as ‘though innocent, my enemies surround my soul’.
Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.
(‘it thunders around the realm’.)
The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.
These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.
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.
By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.
Fortunately, Wyatt, with the intervention of Thomas Cromwell, was released to wax in favor again. He was granted several large estates seized from the Catholic Church. Later, Wyatt had children with a mistress, Elizabeth Darrel.
In 1540 Wyatt was arrested again for treason with his patron, Thomas Cromwell. As Henry VIII’s chief Minister, Cromwell is often present at the scaffold, until he appears for his own, due to his indiscretion in exposing Henry’s sexual humiliation in the non consummation of his marriage to Anne of Cleaves.
Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, saved Wyatt’s head by urging the King to lift the charge on the condition Wyatt return to his first wife. Catherine Howard, later, too faced the executioner for all her infidelities.
Imagine an unfettered Trump! How many heads would have rolled by now?
Sir Thomas Wyatt died of natural causes in 1542. Henry VIII dies after a series of illnesses in 1547. The poems were published in the 1550’s.
How would other critical readings like feminist or psychological ones interpret the above poems?