English 205:
Lecture 6

Lecture 6: The Sixteenth Century

The Sixteenth Century

During the sixteenth century, also known as the English Renaissance, England experienced the greatest progress in the shortest period in its history. At the beginning of the century, England was a minor island nation. By the end, it was a cultural and political world power.

One reason for such rapid change was the printing press. William Caxton brought the first movable type printing press to England, and printed the first book in English in 1477. Books became cheaper, more available, and more plentiful. There was also an increase in literacy: in the early 15th century, the literacy rate in England stood at only 30%; by 1530, it had risen to 60%.

Another reason for such rapid progress was England's relative political stability, and the ambition of her monarchs. For thirty years, the House of York and the House of Lancaster had warred for control of England. In 1485, Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, defeated Richard the III at Bosworth Field and became King Henry VII. Henry began making commercial treaties with other European countries. Sheep's wool became the basis for the textile export business, and as the demand for wool grew, more and more farms consolidated and were enclosed for large-scale grazing.

Like all great social changes, this commercialization of agriculture brought wealth and opportunity to some and poverty to others. Many landowners and freeholders (tenant farmers who had permanent rights of tenure) benefitted; some landowners became immensely rich, and some freeholders, who would never before have dreamed of owning property, were able to make enough to purchase their own farms. Other tenant farmers, those who had fewer rights, were likely to be evicted and find themselves homeless and unemployed. Some found work as piece workers or day laborers; others--thousands of them--migrated to the cities, where they struggled to survive. As the supply of labor increased, wages fell so far that they were barely enough to sustain life. Working conditions, never good to begin with, declined even more. People in need of cheap housing crowded into filthy tenements, and of course suffered the inevitable spread of disease. Begging, thieving, and prostitution were increasingly common, and the punishments for such crimes were draconian: long prison sentences, transportation, even death. Many writers, Sir Thomas More among them, decried the abuses, and there were occasional uprisings and revolts, but very little of substance changed to alleviate the suffering.

At the same time, England's wealth was growing, as was the financial well-being of many of its subjects. A Venetian traveller in England was impressed by the wealth he saw, remarking on the innkeeper serving his customers from silver dishes and cups, the lavish window displays of the silversmiths, the grandeur of the monasteries, "more like baronial palaces than religious houses," and the fact that the wealth seemed to be spread into the hands of people from the highest to the lowest classes, so that even an apprentice could rise to good fortune.

At the same time that competition and ambition were becoming character traits necessary for financial success, the feudal order was declining. Firearms were replacing bowmen and knights in armor. Tournaments and jousts became entertainment for the Court, and knights of the kind seen in Arthurian romances were becoming obsolete. The courtly love tradition lived on in literature; Caxton's press printed primarily French translations of Romance literature, moral tracts, and Morte Darthur and other medieval romances.

From a literary standpoint, one of the most important changes in the 16th century was the growth of Christian Humanism. It had its roots in the 15th century, but came to real fruition under King Henry VIII. The English Renaissance was a time of ideas, of intellectual excitement, curiosity, desire for knowledge, and willingness to question, not just in England but all over Western Europe. The Greek and Roman classics had been "rediscovered"; that is, they were being read again and their ideas and knowledge were being incorporated into the literature and thought of the time. In 1491, about the time that Sir Thomas More entered Oxford, Copernicus was studying astronomy and mathematics at the University of Cracow. New studies in astronomy led to advances in navigation, which led to improvements in maritime equipment for the purposes of increased exploration and trade. The travels of Columbus and Vespucci fired people's imaginations. In fact, William Rastell, More's brother-in-law, helped plan an expedition to explore and colonize the New World at the same time that More was writing Utopia.

Humanism stressed social and economic reform, peace, and education in the Bible, the classics, and the practical and pragmatic (how to live a moral life and how to serve). Humanist education, as it appeared first at Cambridge, was structured in two parts: the Trivium (Latin grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). The intent of humanist education was to train the young for public service and a moral life. (Elizabeth I was educated as a humanist.)

Under the influence of humanism, "modern" English replaced Latin as the language of learning. Classical languages were taught, but intellectuals revolted against the idea that there was more inherent value in Latin than in any other language. Their attitude was that if a language was crude, the best thinkers writing in that language would make it more refined and precise. English language vocabulary began to expand, since a larger and more precise vocabulary is required for written than for spoken works. And a number of Greek terms were added to English, as well, in the spirit of recognizing Greek as being as valuable a resource of language and art as Latin:

to name just a few examples.

There was one notable exception to this general rule: Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in Latin, and it was translated into French, German, and Italian before being translated into English.

Henry VIII and Elizabeth I

Henry VIII's marital history is famous, but the religious and political significance of his reign should not be overlooked. The wives are as follows:

Henry VIII was excommunicated by the Pope because of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. But Henry had been taking steps to distance himself from the Catholic Church for some time before that, in an attempt to gain more power and wealth in England. Under pressure from the King, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534, declaring the king the Supreme Head of the English Church, and required that the king's subjects swear loyalty to him under the Act of Succession. Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor and a devout Catholic, was executed after refusing to recognize Henry's authority as head of the Anglican Church. Thomas Cromwell succeeded More as Chancellor; he dissolved the monasteries, executed and imprisoned the clergy, burned clerical buildings and goods, and was himself executed in 1540.

Upon Henry VIII's death in 1547, his son, Edward VI, who was only 10 years old, took the throne. He died of tuberculosis in 1553. He was succeeded by Mary (also known as Bloody Mary), who tried to restore England to Catholicism, burning and otherwise executing some 275 Protestant "heretics." She died on November 16, 1558, and the throne passed to her half-sister, Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth returned England to Protestantism, thus restoring a great deal of political stability. She was a strong strategist and diplomat. During her reign, she outmaneuvered all her opponents both English and foreign, and made England a great world power. She died in 1603.

Sir Thomas More

Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478, in London. His father, John More, was a successful lawyer and later held influential positions in the royal court. Thomas More was sent to St. Anthony's School, where he learned Latin grammar and logic, among other subjects. He also learned the rudiments of English grammar, which was just then becoming an acceptable topic for study. During his childhood, Caxton's printing press made books and pamphlets more common, and thus a great deal of material was available to schoolboys of More's generation. About 1490, John More placed his son as an apprentice in the household of John Morton, Lord Chancellor of the Realm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Under Morton's tutelage, More came to revere both service to the Church and service to the King. He went to Oxford for two years and then left to read law at New Inn and then Lincoln's Inn. He was drawn to devote his life to the Church, and nearly entered the priesthood; he lived, in fact, at the Charterhouse of London for four years, devoting himself to religious study and contemplation. But his desire for marriage was too strong, and he left the monastery. This decision cost him a great deal, and he always wondered if he had erred; to symbolize his devotion and his regret, he wore a hair shirt under his clothes for most of the rest of his life.

He married Jane Colt, the eldest daughter of a family friend. We know little about their marriage, except that she died in 1511 after bearing four children: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecily, and John.

More married again within a month. His second wife was Alice Middleton, a widow, six years older than More. Their marriage appears to have been an economic union, rather than a romantic match, and she managed his financial affairs and his household well, even if she offended some with her sharp tongue.

Around 1510, More began building his career in public service. In that year, as Under-Sheriff in the city of London, he became legal advisor to the Mayor and two Sheriffs and represented them as judge for the city. In 1514, he was appointed one of the Commissioners of Sewers for the left bank of the Thames, a job which involved issues of city planning and public health and sanitation.

Thomas More was sent on his first diplomatic mission in 1515, to Flanders, to negotiate new commercial agreements. He began to write Utopia on this trip.

Another mission to Calais followed in 1517; in that year, More was also made a member of the King's Council. He was present in 1520 at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where treaties were signed by the kings of England and France. He was appointed Under-Treasurer in 1521 and was knighted in that year. In 1523, More was chosen as Speaker of the House of Commons. In 1524 he became the High Steward of the University of Oxford and in the following year, was awarded the same office at Cambridge. In 1529, he became Lord Chancellor of England, the highest office the King had to bestow.

However, More came into conflict with Henry VIII when Henry began to try to divorce Catherine of Aragon. More, loyal to the Catholic Church and opposed to the divorce, could not support Henry's actions, and there was increasing friction between them. More remained loyal to Henry, however, until 1532. When it became clear to him that Henry was determined to marry Anne Boleyn, he decided that he could no longer act against his conscience, and submitted his resignation.

He knew even then that he was risking his life. But he was not arrested until he refused to take an oath (required of all Englishmen) to Henry as their King and the Supreme Head of the English Church. On April 13, 1534, More was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. After his trial, where he refused to give way and instead eloquently defended his beliefs, he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. More lived five days after his trial. In his last letter to his daughter, Margaret, he sent her the hair shirt he had worn under his clothes for so many years, and sent his love to her and his other children.He had no wealth to leave; almost everything had been confiscated by the King upon his arrest, and his family had been impoverished.

On Tuesday, July 6, 1535, More walked through the crowds up the hill to the scaffold carrying a small red cross. He kept his wit and composure to the end. He needed a helping hand to mount the steps of the old, tottering scaffold, and said to the Lieutenant of the Tower, "I pray you, Master Lieutenant, see me up safe, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself." As tradition demanded, the executioner knelt and asked More's forgiveness for what he was about to do. As tradition also demanded, More embraced and kissed him and gave him his blessing. More made a brief speech asking the people to pray for him, and asking them to bear witness that he was about to "suffer death in and for the faith of the Holy Catholic Church." He said that he died the king's good servant, but God's first.

Then, as was traditional, More removed most of his clothes to give them as a fee to the headsman. He told the executioner not to be afraid to do his work, and not to "strike awry." He bound his own eyes with a linen band, lay on his stomach, and put his neck across the block. He moved his beard out of the way, saying that it had done no treason, and so should not be cut in two. He was killed with one stroke of the axe.


Utopia is divided into two books: the first describes the conditions of England, and the second describes Utopia, a country where the political and social structure creates a perfect life for its citizens. London provided the geographical pattern for the Utopian capital, Amurote.

Amerigo Vespucci's account of his Four Voyages was the inspiration for More's fictitious commonwealth. Vespucci said he had left behind him 24 men with arms and six months' provisions to further explore the islands of the western seas. It was a simple matter for More to take as his narrator one of these men, thus giving his narrative a framework of fact to enhance its credibility.

More's experience with diplomacy and government gave him a sound base of knowledge from which to write Utopia. He despised the warlike spirit which governments chose to foster as a means of settling disputes; hence, the Utopians hated war and belittled military glory. More also believed, unlike most people of his time, that women should be educated just as boys were, and put his beliefs into practice by educating his daughters in Greek, Latin, logic, philosophy, natural history, theology, and astronomy. In Utopia, women are considered the mental equals of men: "Both are reasonable beings," he wrote, "distinguished from the beasts; both therefore are suited equally for those studies by which reason is cultivated."

In Utopia, the laws are simple and few enough to be understood by all, so there is no need for lawyers; no one is idle and everyone shares the fruits of labor equally; working days are short and leave time for leisure; wealth is not measured by material things but by the growth of the mind and spirit; problems in human relationships are handled with intelligence, understanding and compassion; the younger generation honors the older; neighbor helps neighbor.

To readers today, these ideas are nothing new, but Utopia was unique in its time, not for setting out contemporary problems, but for providing solutions for them. Some scholars have speculated that More wrote Utopia as a handbook for the young Henry VIII. Two years before Utopia was published, Machiavelli had written The Prince and dedicated it to Lorenzo di Medici; only a few months before, Erasmus had written The Education of a Christian Prince for the boy who was to become Spain's Emperor Charles V. But Henry VIII was already 25 when Utopia was published, and More knew him well enough to know that he did as he pleased.

Whether More believed in the solutions he proposed or not is still a matter of debate. The description of the evils of present-day England is set during the reign of Henry VII, not Henry VIII. And the proposals are all put into the mouth of the narrator, Hythloday. At the end of Book 2, More steps in in his own voice to say that he cannot agree with everything Hythloday has said, and doubts whether such ideas could work in England. He may be distancing himself to protect himself politically, or he may truly not agree with some of the ideas set forth.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Thomas Wyatt's father was Henry Wyatt, who supported Henry VII in his struggle against Richard III at Bosworth. As a reward, Henry Wyatt was given the profitable post of Keeper of Norwich Castle and Gaol; he was promoted to Constable in 1486. Then he became the Master of the King's Jewels and later, in 1524, Treasurer of the King's Chamber. He was one of the executors of Henry VII's will. Under Henry VIII, Henry Wyatt secured even more wealth and honors.

Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503 and groomed by his father for a career at Court. He was sent to St. John's College at Cambridge for a humanist education, and then transferred to Oxford for specific diplomatic training.

Wyatt married in 1520, at the age of 17. His wife was Elizabeth Brooke, the daughter of the Wyatts' neighbor, Lord Cobham. A son, Thomas, was born the following year.

By 1523, Thomas was helping his father with the royal finances. His first official appointment was in 1524, as Clerk of the King's Jewels. By 1525, he also held the title "esquire of the body." He became an accomplished diplomat, serving on missions to France in 1526, and to Italy in 1527. When Henry Wyatt retired in 1536, Thomas inherited his job as Treasurer of the Chamber. Like his father, Wyatt believed in service to God and service to the King; unlike Sir Thomas More, he saw no conflict in these two duties.

Wyatt's marriage was not as successful as his career. It was troubled from the start, and was breaking down by 1525. In 1526, Wyatt and his wife separated, possibly due to her adultery, and their relations remained bitter for many years.

In the midst of all this, Wyatt found time to write poetry and, after the failure of his marriage, to conduct several love affairs. The most dangerous of these was his affair with Anne Boleyn. The Wyatts and the Boleyns had known each other for years; they had been neighbors, and Boleyn's father had worked at the Court with Henry Wyatt. Anne was born in 1507; she and Thomas may have known each other as children, but they probably met at Court in 1522 or 1523. There was no love affair at that time: Wyatt was newly married, and Anne was in love with someone else. They probably became involved in 1525, and their affair lasted at most two years. In 1527, Henry VIII decided he wanted Anne Boleyn as his wife, and warned Thomas Wyatt off. Wyatt had been in Italy until May of 1527, and returned to find the affair between Anne and Henry already well-established. A great deal of his poetry (including the poems we are reading for this class) dating from this period is probably about Anne Boleyn.

It would be romantic to think of Wyatt as the hapless victim, but in reality, there was never any chance that he and Anne Boleyn would marry: he was already married (he never divorced his wife), and Anne was a member of the ambitious Howard family, and was never faithful to her many suitors in any case.

Nevertheless, one source claims that Thomas Wyatt warned Henry not to marry Anne, telling him that she could not be faithful and that she was a "bad woman." Henry refused to listen and banished Wyatt for the next two years. Whether this story is true, we have no way of knowing. But Wyatt was posted in Calais, and held the position of Marshal there, from 1528 until 1532.

By 1532, he was back in England, appointed Commissioner of the Peace for Essex. In 1533, he served as chief ewer at Anne's coronation on June 1. In 1534, Wyatt was appointed High Steward of West Malling, and on Easter, March 28, 1534, he was knighted.

Then his fortunes changed. On May 5, 1536, he was arrested and imprisoned at the Tower of London. He was charged, along with five others, with treasonous adultery with the Queen, Anne Boleyn; she was accused of adultery and also of incest with her brother. The cases against the defendants were weak. By this time, Anne had had several miscarriages and stillbirths and had failed to give Henry a male heir, and his relationship with her had deteriorated. He determined to clear the way for a new wife, and Anne's enemies at Court were willing to help him. Adultery was never proven in any of the cases. Even so, all of the defendants except Wyatt were executed. Thomas Wyatt stood at his window in the Tower on the morning of May 17, 1536, and watched as his friends were beheaded.

Wyatt was released from prison on June 14, and was back in the royal favor by the end of the year, when he was appointed Sheriff of Kent. Some time during this year, Wyatt met and formed an attachment to Elizabeth Darrell, a former maid of honour to Catherine Howard. They lived together, but never married, since he was still married to Lady Wyatt.

In 1537, Wyatt was appointed Ambassador to Spain. He left Spain in 1539 and went to France as a diplomat on several matters, representing the interests of the King. He returned to England in time to see Cromwell arrested, the Cleves marriage annulled, Henry's marriage to Catherine Howard, and on the same day, July 28, 1540, the execution of Cromwell. In the midst of all this upheaval, he retreated to his country estate, but it did no good. With the death of Cromwell, his enemies had come to power at the Court, and Wyatt was arrested on January 17, 1541, and sent again to the Tower. This time, his property was confiscated and his family and servants turned out of their homes. An exception was made for Elizabeth Darrell, since she was pregnant with Wyatt's child.

Wyatt was accused of involvement in a plot to murder a Cardinal several years before. The man had never been assassinated, and Wyatt had been cleared by Cromwell of having any part in the plot. He now protested his innocence again. Innocence in such a situation was irrelevant. What saved him was his family's long friendship with the Howard family; he was exonerated and released, and his property was restored to him, when the Queen interceded for him.

In 1542, he was the Member of Parliament for Kent. In October of that year, he was on his way to meet the new Spanish ambassador at Falmouth, when he caught a fever and died suddenly.

Wyatt's chief contribution to English literature was his introduction to England of Italian forms of poetry that had been made famous by Dante and Petrarch: terza rima, ottava rima, rondeaux, and Petrarchan sonnets. Wyatt also played a large role in changing the focus of poetry from the "macrocosm," in which man was a tiny element of the rest of God's creation, to the "microcosm," in which a single man's feelings, thoughts and desires were the center of interest.

If you'd like more information on any of the topics in this lecture, see the Links page. Enjoy!

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Thomas More, by Richard Marius
2. The Introduction to The Utopia of Sir Thomas More, by Mildred Campbell
3. A Literary History of England, edited by Albert C. Baugh.
4. Sir Thomas Wyatt and His Background, by Patricia Thomson