Nicholas Breton Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 972 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, two lyricists whom he resembles, Nicholas Breton (BREHT-uhn) had no contemporary biographers. Among his friends and acquaintances, however, he counted, in addition to the two mentioned, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Suckling, Thomas Nashe, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher. Evidence for this and other facts of his life comes from registration of works, prefaces, and dedications and epitaphs. Legal records indicate such facts as his father’s death, his inheritance, his education at Oxford, his marriage, and the birth of two children, but not much more. His devotion to Philip Sidney has led to speculation regarding his relations with Sidney’s sister, the countess of Pembroke, for whom he wrote his finest poems, but no evidence suggesting a liaison has been discovered.

The date and place of Breton’s birth are conjectural, based on the date of his father’s death and the inheritance of a house in Essex. His stepfather was the noted Elizabethan poet George Crascoigne. Breton’s death date and place are more nearly proved: 1626 is the date of his last published work, and London is where he had been active for many years and published more than fifty books.

Breton’s satiric works were often ridiculed and seem heavy-handed and sophomoric in comparison with others of the “tribe of Ben” Jonson, though Jonson himself wrote the preface to Breton’s poems on melancholy. No one disputes his rightful place among the writers of idylls and lyrics, for Breton studied with Spenser and Sidney, and the inclusion of his pastorals in such a work as The Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse shows them to be not inferior to those of his better-known contemporaries.