The Breton, or Britton, family traced its roots to the company of William the Conqueror and held ancestral lands in Lincolnshire and in Layer-Breton, Essex, where Sir John LeBretoune was a knight banneret at the time of Edward I. Nicholas Breton’s father, William, sought his living in London trade, establishing a respectable fortune speculating in church properties that had been confiscated during the Reformation. By the time of Nicholas’s birth around 1545, the family consisted of prosperous members of London’s mercantile class, holding its “capitall mansion house,” according to William Breton’s will, in Redcrosse Street, maintaining its country seats as well.
Following their father’s death, the Breton sons’ financial situation underwent a significant change, one that dictated the need to pursue professional careers. The marriage of the young men’s mother, Elizabeth Bacon Breton (through whom the family was remotely connected with Sir Francis Bacon’s family), to the poet George Gascoigne drained William Breton’s substantial legacy away from his sons in a series of complicated legal maneuvers. Nevertheless, Nicholas Breton’s youth seems to have been comfortable and even advantageous, as he was a part of the cultured middle class that so enjoyed the widening horizons of the English Renaissance. Although he seems to have been destined for one of the professions, Breton spent only a short while at Oriel College and never attained an academic degree. Nevertheless, he was familiar with classical and contemporary authors (Ovid, Petrarch, Dante, Torquato Tasso, Ludovico Ariosto, and Pastor Fido became his literary models) and with the courtly arts, which were to play a prominent role in his career as a poet in search of a patron. Although not much is known about his domestic life other than that he frequently adopted the literary pose of paterfamilias, it is known that he married Ann Sutton around 1592, and the births of four of their children and the deaths of two appear in the parish register of St. Giles, Cripplegate. For the apocryphal tradition that Ann was an “unquiet wife,” little evidence can be found.
Of greater relevance to his literary career was Breton’s close association with the Sidney circle, in the aura of which most of his lyric and divine poems were written. Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, appears as the ideal...
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