Poets at the Tower of London: National Poetry Day 2021

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK which encourages all to enjoy, discover and share poetry. The special theme this year is ‘Choice’. Curator Charles Farris explores the lives of just some of the poets who have lived and worked at the Tower of London… not always by choice.

National Poetry Day is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and share poetry past and present, and hopefully inspire future generations of writers. The Tower of London boasts more than 1000 years of royal history and so it will come as no surprise that several important poets have visited, worked and even lived in London’s most famous fortress. In this blog, I would like to share some of their stories with you.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400)

Geoffrey Chaucer is widely regarded as England’s greatest medieval poet and often termed “the father of the English language”. Although greatly influenced by Continental writers like Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch, and Guillaume de Lorris, Chaucer did much to put the English language on the literary map. His most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, is not only a collection of hilarious (if often rude) stories but offers fascinating snapshots of medieval life which have kept historians and literary scholars busy for centuries. But did you know he worked at the Tower of London?

Illustration of Geoffrey Chaucer by Iain McIntosh © Historic Royal Palaces

Poetry has never been the most profitable occupation and Chaucer worked hard to support his art. Chaucer had a number of professions and a long career serving both the Crown and the nation. One such job was as ‘Clerk of the King’s Works’ from 1389-91, overseeing royal building projects. In this position, he oversaw the extension of the Tower of London Wharf, although the work itself was managed by master mason of the Tower, Henry Yevele.

Chaucer’s struggle to balance his professional commitments with his art is a common one faced by many artists. After a long day of clerical work, he would then turn his attentions to his real passion: writing. Chaucer described this exhausting lifestyle vividly in his poem The House of Fame:

For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon,
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book
Tyl fully daswed* ys thy look.

(Riverside Chaucer, 356, ll. 652–8)
*dimmed

Charles, Duke of Orléans (1394-1465)

Charles d’Orleans was born into an aristocratic family with an illustrious lineage: his grandfather was King Charles V of France and his uncle was Charles VI. His childhood in the Loire Valley seemed idyllic and perfect for a budding aristocratic poet. His father was a patron of poets and the famous writer Christine de Pizan dedicated poems to his mother, Valentina Visconti. But sadly, his future was not so rosy.

By the time Charles d’Orleans was 21, his father had been murdered and his mother had died – and then things got even worse. Charles was captured by Henry V’s army at the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415, having only been knighted on the eve of the battle. Charles was taken to England where he remained a prisoner for 25 years. During this time, Charles was often imprisoned at the Tower of London.

A depiction of the imprisonment of Charles, Duke of Orléans, in the Tower of London from a 15th-century manuscript © British Library Royal MS 16 F II, f.73. CC-By-NC 4.0

Charles wrote in both Middle French and Middle English, the latter of which he learned to speak fluently while in England. He wrote over 500 poems during his lifetime, many of which were created during his years of captivity. Charles wrote a number of types of poetry popular in his day. These included ballades (poems or songs written in a number of similar metres typically consisting of stanzas of seven or eight lines of equal length); roundels (short repeating-line poems); chansons (a French form of song popular in the later Middle Ages); and allegories (stories which use symbols to convey a hidden meaning), that celebrated love, chivalry, and the aristocratic life. Charles’ later works were less idyllic, no doubt because of his experience of suffering and loss.

In one of his famous roundels, supposedly written “To his Mistress, to succour his heart that is beleaguered by jealousy”, Charles used the imagery of a castle to describe the suffering of his heart. One can’t help but wonder if the Tower of London, or another of the castles that had imprisoned him, were on his mind when he wrote it:

Chanson XIV (translation by Andrew Lang)

Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart,
And with some store of pleasure give me aid,
For jealousy, with all them of his part,
Strong siege about the weary tower has laid.
Nay, if to break his bands thou art afraid,
Too weak to make his cruel force depart,
Strengthen at least this castle of my heart,
And with some store of pleasure give me aid.
Nay, let not jealousy, for all his art
Be master, and the tower in ruin laid,
That still, ah, Love, thy gracious rule obeyed.
Advance, and give me succor of my part;
Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart.

Charles d’Orleans (1391-1465)

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

Sir Thomas Wyatt was the foremost poet of the court of Henry VIII and regarded the most important English poet of the first half of the sixteenth century. Son of Anne Skinner Wyatt of Surrey and Sir Henry Wyatt, the latter being one of the longest-serving courtiers of Henry VII and Henry VIII, Sir Thomas had many qualities regarded highly among renaissance aristocracy: he was skilled in diplomacy, accomplished at jousting, at ease partaking in court entertainments, and adept at writing courtly poetry.

Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1535-7 Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Wyatt’s poetry was daring and innovative, experimenting with meter and voice. Like Chaucer before him, he took inspiration from classical and contemporary Continental poetry but was proud of the English traditions too. Wyatt is credited with writing the first English sonnets and true satires through which he explored the political issues of the day.

Unsurprisingly (as a Tudor courtier) his life was not without drama. After Anne Boleyn’s dramatic fall from the king’s favour, accusations of adultery and plotting against the King’s life were levelled against the Queen, her brother and a small group of courtiers, including Sir Thomas Wyatt. There is little to indicate from Wyatt’s imprisonment, nor his poetry, that he was a lover of Anne Boleyn. In all likelihood, Wyatt’s incarceration was chiefly because of his close family ties with the Boleyns and the personal animosity of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Fortunately, Wyatt was released, probably thanks to his close ties with Thomas Cromwell.

However, not everyone was so fortunate: George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris, William Brereton, and Sir Francis Weston were all executed on Tower Hill on 17 May 1536 and Queen Anne was executed within the Tower two days later. It is possible Wyatt channelled these terrible memories from his time at the Tower through his poetry:

The bell towre showed me suche syght
That in my hed stekys day and night.

(Poems, ed. Muir and Thomson, poem 126, ll. 16–17)

Writing in Context

While poetry may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Tower of London, these examples remind us that it occupies an important place in our literary heritage. These are just some of the poets who have strolled (willingly or otherwise) through its gates and no doubt their experiences influenced their writing. I wonder who will be the next great poet to visit and follow in their footsteps?

Charles Farris
Public Historian, Curators Team
Historic Royal Palaces

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