King Henry VIII was not the sort of man you wanted to rile, even if you were one of England’s most distinguished authors.
Henry became good friends with Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), lawyer, social philosopher, and author of Utopia (1516) among other works. The king took great pleasure in his friend’s company, sometimes calling unannounced on More at his home in Chelsea just “to be merry with him.”
One day after dinner the two walked about the garden for an hour talking, the king with his arm around More’s neck. William Roper, More’s son-in-law, remarked how happy it made him to see Sir Thomas on such familiar terms with the king. “Son Roper,” replied More, “I may tell thee that I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France, it shall not fail to go.”
Sir Thomas More
The friendship continued for a time, the king appointing More Chancellor of England in 1529. But things began to sour the following year when More refused to support Henry’s annulling his marriage to wife Catherine so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. In addition, More refused to support Henry’s separation from the Catholic Church and refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
More was subsequently put on trial for treason, convicted on trumped up evidence, and beheaded. He went to the scaffold claiming that he was “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” The Catholic Church canonized More in 1935.
Execution of Sir Thomas More
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516-1547) also learned the dangers of getting on the wrong side of King Henry.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Surrey had the distinction of being the first poet in England to write in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—a form later employed by some of England’s greatest poets such as Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning.
Surrey, moreover, was the first to write an “English sonnet”—a poem with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. This form is also called the “Shakespearian sonnet,” not because Shakespeare invented it, but because Shakespeare wrote most of his 154 sonnets in the rhyme scheme Surrey created. But in addition to being the first person to write blank verse and the English sonnet, Surrey had the less enviable distinction of being the last person beheaded by Henry VIII.
The Howards were nobility and close to the seat of power, close to the crown. But being close to the crown did not ensure one’s personal safety. In some cases, in fact, it only brought one closer to the block. Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine, was a Howard, and thanks to Henry, Catherine Howard lost her head in 1542. Her cousin Surrey made the mistake of thinking he had more sway at court than turned out to be the case.
In early 1547, with Henry’s health declining, it was clear that he had not long to live. His son and heir, Prince Edward, was only nine years old, and Surrey calculated that he himself was in a good position to be regent. He let it be known that upon the king’s death, he would secure the prince and the regency. He also claimed that the men of the rival Seymour faction “loved no nobility, and if God called away the King they should smart for it.”
Suspicions grew that what Surrey really intended was to seize the prince, murder his principal rivals, and make himself king. Based on these suspicions, officers of the court arrested Surrey and threw him into the Tower. He stood trial for treason, was convicted, and with Henry’s sanction, sentenced to death. After an unsuccessful attempt to escape from the Tower through his privy, Surrey was taken to Tower Hill and beheaded on January 21. Henry died exactly one week later, on January 28.
Elizabethans considered Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) the greatest poet of the age. Shakespeare, born ten years after Sidney, would not be fully appreciated for some time yet. Sidney’s sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella, ranks third only after Edmund Spenser’s and Shakespeare’s. It should be kept in mind, however, that Sidney wrote his sonnets first, thereby laying much of the foundation for those who followed.
Sir Philip Sidney
Philip, like his father, became a courtier to Queen Elizabeth. Later he became a favorite of the Queen, for he was handsome, brave, intelligent, well-educated, well-mannered, and skilled in the manly arts of riding, jousting, and so on. Elizabeth appointed him Governor of Flushing in the Low Countries, and there in a battle with the Spanish, a musket ball struck him in the left leg about two inches above the knee.
Sidney’s uncle, the Earl of Leister, wrote home that Philip had suffered “a very dangerous wound, the bone being broke in pieces.” Adding to the problem, doctors could not remove the musket ball. The wound eventually became infected, gangrene developed, and Sidney, at age 31, died 25 days after his injury, on October 17.
Playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) also met a violent end at the hands of another. On May 12, 1593, officers of the Lord Mayor arrested Marlowe’s friend and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. They suspected Kyd of writing and putting up placards around London maligning and threatening foreigners, particularly the Dutch and French, who resided in the city.
While looking through Kyd’s papers, the officers discovered fragments of a work denying the divinity of Christ along with other blasphemies. Kyd denied writing the fragments. He said they had been left in his study two years earlier by Marlowe. Subsequently, the Privy Council, on May 18, ordered Marlowe to appear before them.
Meanwhile, the Lord Keeper received information that Marlowe had frequently blasphemed Christ and the Virgin Mary. He was said also to have ridiculed Moses for being a mere juggler and saying that Sir Walter Raleigh’s personal attendant, Harriott, could juggle better. “Into every company he cometh he would persuade men to atheism, willing them not to be afeard of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both God and His ministers.” Born in the same year as Shakespeare, Marlowe, at age 29, appeared to be in a tight place. Blasphemy at the time was a capital offense. But his troubles only worsened.
Late in the morning of May 30, Marlowe and three other men arrived at the Bull Inn, a boardinghouse in Deptford, Kent, several miles east of London. The men spent the day talking, walking about the garden, eating, and drinking. About 6 o’clock in the evening they went inside.
Marlowe lay down on a bed near where his companions sat at a table. Soon he and one of the other men, Ingram Frizer, got into a dispute about the bill. As the argument grew more heated, Marlowe jumped up from the bed, grabbed Frizer’s dagger from his belt, and struck him at least twice on the head with the hilt. In the struggle that followed, Frizer seized the dagger and stabbed Marlowe just above the right eye, killing him.
A coroner’s inquest determined that Frizer had acted in self-defense. Yet the dramatic circumstances of Marlowe’s death have since stirred the imaginations of conspiracy theorists. One group contends that the three men lured Marlowe to the Deptford house so they could murder him. One or more of the companions, so the theory goes, wanted Marlowe dispatched due to political reasons or personal jealousies.
Another conspiracy group claims that Marlowe staged his own death. According to this theory, Marlowe used the body of a miscreant to fake his murder. He then went into hiding and lived the rest of his life in seclusion, spending his leisure hours writing the plays erroneously attributed to Shakespeare.