The two hallmarks of John Heywood’s life were his ready wit and his loyal Catholicism. Through a long life and drastic swings in religious opinion at the English court, he kept in royal favor by his wit until finally, as an old man, he was driven into exile for his faith. His birth, parentage, and early life are obscure. He was born about 1497, possibly in London; he may have been the son of a lawyer, William Heywood, sometime of Coventry. He may have spent some time at Oxford; the early historian of Oxford, Anthony Wood, claimed that Heywood had been a short time at Broadgates Hall but that “the crabbedness of logic not suiting with his airy genie, he retired to his native place, and became noted to all witty men, especially to Sir Thomas More (with whom he was very familiar).”
Heywood certainly became an intimate of the Humanist circle centered on More, and it is probably no coincidence that Heywood first appears as a salaried appointee at the court of King Henry VIII in the summer of 1519, at about the time that More resigned as under sheriff to concentrate on his duties as privy councillor. Heywood’s position at court, at first, was as “singer” and “player on the virginals” (an early keyboard instrument). His skills were appreciated by King Henry, himself an accomplished musician, and were rewarded with grants of money and leases on land in addition to his quarterly stipend. The exact time when Heywood became involved with dramatic activities at court is unknown, but it seems likely that his six extant plays were written in the 1520’s. He was later renowned for his varied skills as an entertainer. John Bale, for example, wrote in 1557 that Heywood “was accomplished in the arts of music and poesy in his own tongue, and ingenious without great learning; he spent much time in conducting merry dances after banquets and in presenting pageants, plays, masques, and other ‘disports.’” In 1528, he received a life annuity of ten pounds and may have left the court; on January 20, 1530, he was admitted to the London company of mercers and appointed to the office of measurer of linen cloths.
Sometime during the period 1523-1529, Heywood married Eliza Rastell, daughter of the Humanist author and printer John Rastell. Eliza’s mother was a sister of Sir Thomas More, and thus Heywood by his marriage cemented his relationship to the More circle at the time More was approaching his zenith at...
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