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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John Heywood’s date of birth can only be calculated by a remark he made in a letter to Lord Burghley on April 18, 1575. He then claimed to be seventy-eight years old, which would place his birthday before April 18, 1497. There are even fewer direct indications of his birthplace. Bishop Bale and John Pitts, a friend of Heywood’s son, both claim that he was born in London, and this is generally accepted for lack of any evidence to the contrary. Because of his long associations with the court, biographers often assume that as a boy Heywood entered the Chapel Royal as a chorister, but this is mere speculation. Nor is much known about his education. Anthony à Wood claimed that Heywood was a student at Broadgates, Oxford, for a short time, “But the crabbedness of logic not suiting with his airy genie, he retired to his native place, and became noted to all witty men.” Broadgates did not begin to keep records until 1570, so this statement cannot be verified.
The first direct reference to Heywood’s stay in Henry VIII’s court occurs in 1515 when the King’s Book of Payments records the payment of eight pence a day to a “John Heywoode.” Even this reference raises more questions than it answers: It does not indicate what the money was payment for, and since the next reference to Heywood does not appear until 1519, some critics even assume that the first entry is for a different Heywood entirely. In June, 1519, however, Heywood received an allowance of one hundred shillings, and in August he is listed as a singer in the court. His association with the court continued throughout Henry’s reign, although his duties are not always listed in the payment book. Presumably, he was involved in court entertainments of some sort. In 1526, he is referred to as a “player of the virginals,” and in 1528, he was made steward of the royal chamber, a post he also held under Edward and Mary.
Thomas More entered Henry’s court in 1519 and Heywood’s association with More’s circle is well known: Sometime in the 1520’s, he married Eliza Rastell, the daughter of John Rastell and More’s sister, Elizabeth. Heywood’s strong Catholicism, in fact, almost led him to the same...
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