465 Years Later: How Should Thomas Wyatt the Younger be Remembered?
It was on this day (11 April) in 1554, that Thomas Wyatt the Younger was executed at Tower Hill, London, for his part in one of the most threatening revolts of the Tudor period. How should we remember Wyatt? As a traitor to the realm? A well-meaning rebel? Or something else?
Thomas Wyatt the Younger, styled Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger following his knighthood in 1547, was — and continues to be — one of the most interesting men in English History. Wyatt’s father was the poet Thomas Wyatt (the Elder), who — alongside Henry Howard — introduced the sonnet into England, was a member of Henry VII’s court, and was involved in a controversy towards the end of his life, accused of committing adultery with Anne Boleyn. Wyatt’s grandfather was Sir Henry Wyatt, a prominent courtier and politician under Henry VII who brought the Wyatt family onto the stage of national politics and was a part of the ‘New Men’ appointed by the King.
Wyatt the Younger himself is a complex and intriguing character. A politician (as MP for Kent), soldier (fighting in France under Henry VIII), landowner, and rebel, it’s not easy to characterise Wyatt as a traitor or patriot. Of course, few rebels describe themselves as traitors, yet with Wyatt, in particular, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that he wished to realize some major transformation in the operations of England. On the contrary, there were two main causes for the rebellion, religion and dynasty, and neither of these aims was predicated on, or in any way involved, harming Queen Mary I. The religious causes of Wyatt’s Rebellion were more subtle than the dynastic ones. Wyatt was a Protestant, as were all of the prominent leaders of the rebellion. Despite the implication of its name, Wyatt’s Rebellion should not be seen in a vacuum and as only having Wyatt as a notable figure. The rebellion itself was only one of four proposed uprisings in various counties of England. Wyatt, James Croft, Peter Carew, and Henry Grey were to lead rebels in Kent, Herefordshire, Devon, and Leicestershire, respectively. Wyatt’s was the only uprising to not be foiled pre-emptively through the actions of Simon Renard, the Imperial ambassador at the time, who suspected a plot. The religious motives for the rebellion are clear and justifiable. Mary I, in 1554, was in the middle of her attempt to get England re-Catholicised. The First Statute of Repeal had already been passed (in 1553), nullifying all religious legislation passed under Edward VI, and later that same year Cardinal Pole would return to England and three heresy acts from the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V were soon to be revived. The rebellion’s popular conception, then, as one done in opposition the Spanish Marriage (whilst justified, particularly due to its date) is perhaps somewhat misplaced. This (mis)conception, however, is very likely by design. By publicising the rebellion as one done against the Spanish marriage rather than one with religious roots, Wyatt was able to garner support from both anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish sentiment.
This being said, it is still important to see Wyatt as a man motivated by his national identity. Many people feared the marriage between Prince Philip of Spain and Queen Mary as it opened up England to influence from Spain and their interests which could be contrary to England’s desires, as well as intertwining with Spain’s strong Catholic beliefs. Evidence for this notion is clear — French ambassador Antoine de Noailles, for example, recognised the threat that a Spanish regent in England posed to France’s interests, as Spain was already a strong force in Europe and although England was in the midst of a “Mid-Tudor Crisis”, it was often the straw which could break the camel’s back when it came to international conflict.
It is under this guise that Wyatt’s Rebellion grew to amass over 3,000 men by the time it reached London and posed a palpable threat to Mary. In fact, at one point it seemed as though Wyatt might be successful in his ambitions. As Wyatt edged closer towards Mary herself, and it was clear that the future of England would be decided by her next actions, the Queen gave an impassioned speech to her supporters at Guildhall. She denounced Wyatt and his rabble as a ‘traitorous and seditious assembling’. It was here that Mary tried to dispell the idea of her marriage to Philip as a legitimate cause of concern. She proclaimed that Wyatt ‘require[s] the governance of our person, the keeping of our town, and the placing of our councilors’, thereby portraying him as a traitor to the realm and a ‘commotioner’.
Although a speech to persons who already likely supported Mary may seem a last-ditch effort which would have little effect against the thousands of rebels who wanted change, it appears to have worked. Wyatt’s troops, now bolstered with around 500 more troops which had defected from 80-year-old Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, after he had been sent to quash the dissenters, found themselves unable to get to the Queen. They were able to get as far as Ludgate, crossing over a bridge at Kingston which they had to repair, it having been destroyed by royal supporters, however it was there that the rebels met the brunt of popular resistance, as Londoners refused to let them passed and caused the rebel army to disperse.
And so Wyatt’s Rebellion came to an end. Wyatt was executed a few months later. I ask again: How should he be remembered? Was he a religious martyr, executed for his Protestant beliefs? Was he a patriot who died trying to lessen the influence of Spain over English politics? Or was he somewhere in-between?
I believe that Wyatt is too complex a man to be reduced to single ideas. He should be remembered by who he was and what he stood for. As a soldier and politician, a man who not only stood up for what he believed in but also fought for it, whether that be in Boulogne under an English banner, or under his own in Kent.