The Tudor Society

17 January – Poet Thomas Wyatt is arrested

On this day in Tudor history, 17th January 1541, courtier, diplomat and poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, was arrested and sent to the Tower of London after being accused of corresponding with Cardinal Reginald Pole, and referring to the prospect of Henry VIII’s death.

Wyatt was taken to the Tower and it looked like he'd be executed, but he was saved by Queen Catherine Howard, but at a huge cost.

Find out more about what Wyatt was accused of, how he escaped execution and what he had to agree to, in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 17th January 1569, Agnes Bowker of Market Harborough, Leicestershire, allegedly gave birth to a cat. Find out more about this rather tall tale in my video from last year:

Also on this day in history:


On this day in Tudor history, 17th January 1541, courtier, diplomat and poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, was arrested and sent to the Tower of London after being accused of corresponding with Cardinal Pole, and referring to the prospect of Henry VIII’s death.
It wasn’t his first time in the Tower, he’d been imprisoned there in May 1536 after the fall of Anne Boleyn, but was eventually released without charge.

But what happened in 1541?

Well, claims made by Edmund Bonner, who had been sent along with Simon Heynes to France in 1537 to help Wyatt with diplomacy there, came back to haunt Wyatt. In 1538, Bonner wrote to Thomas Cromwell claiming that Wyatt was trying to contact Cardinal Reginald Pole, the king’s enemy, AND that he had also wished for the king’s death, saying “By goddes bludde, ye shall see the kinge our maister cast out at the carts tail, and if he soo be served, by godds body, he is well served”, i.e. that he wanted the king hanged. Nothing happened to Wyatt at this point, but Cromwell, who acted as Wyatt’s patron, kept hold of Bonner’s letter.

Cromwell was executed as a traitor in July 1540 and Wyatt retired from court, probably to his family seat of Allington Castle in Kent. However, Bonner’s previous claims were resurrected and on this day in 1541, Wyatt was taken to the Tower of London. Orders were given for his plate and horses at Allington to be confiscated and for his household to be dismissed. It was not looking good for him.

An oration prepared for his trial by Wyatt during his imprisonment shows that he denied verbal treason, claiming that his words about the king were simply him using a common proverb and referring to the fact that the king was going to be left out of an alliance between Francis I and the Holy Roman Emperor. Wyatt concluded that “The labour be took in the King's affairs is proof that he meant not that naughty interpretation.” As for the accusation regarding Pole, he claimed that he was seeking contact with Cardinal Pole to spy on him, and that the king and council knew that Wyatt wasn’t a papist as they knew “the hazard he was in in Spain with the Inquisition for speaking against the bishop of Rome”.

In “A declaration made by Sir Thomas Wiatt, knight, of his innocence being in the Tower upon the false accusation of Dr. Bonarde, bishop of London, made to the Council”, Wyatt declared that he had “never offended” and had never communed or sent messages to “any known traitor”. The letter he sent was a detailed rebuttal of the accusations against him.

Although Wyatt was evidently prepared to plead his case in court, he was never tried, and on 19th March 1541, Queen Catherine Howard interceded with her husband the king on Wyatt’s behalf, asking for mercy. Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, recorded this in a letter to Mary of Hungary:
“The King lately took his queen to Greenwich, and as it was the first time after her marriage that she had to pass through London by the Thames, the people of this city honored her with a most splendid reception, the Tower saluting her with salvoes of artillery. From this triumphal march the Queen took occasion and courage to beg and entreat the King for the release of Maistre Huyet (Whyat), a prisoner in the said Tower...”

The king granted his wife’s petition and Wyatt was summoned to appear before the king at Dover later that month. He was granted a full pardon and released from the Tower, but at a price. Chapuys explained what he described as “hard conditions”:
“ the first of them being that the said Wiat should confess the guilt for which he had been arrested; and, secondly, that he was to resume conjugal relations with his wife, from whom he had been separated for upwards of fifteen years. Wiat had cast her away on account of adultery, and had not seen her for many 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 criminal relations with one or two other ladies that he has since loved, he is to suffer pain of death and confiscation of property.”

Wyatt had separated from his unfaithful wife, Elizabeth Brooke, as Chapuys states, many years before, and was living with his mistress, Elizabeth Darrell, the mother of his illegitimate son, Francis. He may have had to set Darrell aside, but when he wrote his will in June 1541, he bequeathed land to her and their son.

In 1542, Wyatt was back in favour and had been restored to his office of ambassador. However, his return to favour was shortlived. He was taken ill with a fever after receiving the emperor’s envoy at Falmouth, in Cornwall, on 3rd October 1542. Sir Thomas Wyatt died on the 11th October 1542 at Clifton Maybank House, the home of his friend Sir John Horsey, in Sherborne, Dorset. He was buried at Sherborne Abbey.

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