Thomas Sackville Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Sir Thomas Sackville, first earl of Dorset, was born in 1536 into a noble family. One ancestor had come to England with William the Conqueror, and a more recent ancestor was also a forebear of Queen Elizabeth. Sackville received, in all probability, a thorough and progressive education—for his father was a friend of the humanist educational reformer Roger Ascham, tutor to Queen Elizabeth and author of The Scholemaster (1570, which Ascham in fact wrote at Sackville’s father’s request for the poet’s son). He attended Oxford University and then the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court, where, as a law student, he produced Gorboduc in 1561. Sometime between 1554 and 1559, when the first edition of A Mirror for Magistrates came out, Sackville had completed his two pieces for that work, although they were not included until the second edition, 1563. The poet’s writings were encouraged by his humanistic studies in letters, complemented by an exposure at one of the Inns of Court to affairs and important personages. Sackville’s travels to Rome and France (1563-1566), during which he was given the first of many diplomatic assignments by the Queen, then filled out the traditional education of an Elizabethan gentleman.

In his formal education and travels, as in his writings, Sackville always aimed at a public career. In 1558, he first sat as a member of parliament, at twenty-two years of age. On his father’s death in 1566,...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The overused term “Renaissance man” once had specific validity, signifying the zeal, energy, and virtu of an era as well as designating those scholars, statesmen, and poets of one of histories most glorious and adventuresome periods, especially in Great Britain. Virtu represented a concept of doing many things well, of strength and excellence and of an appreciation for the arts equally matched by martial capabilities. What today is thought of as “virtue” was, at its root meaning, that for which the complete courtier strove. Such was the Englishman Thomas Sackville, first earl of Dorset.

Born in 1536, Sackville was related to Queen Elizabeth I—for whom he served in national affairs for most his life—through Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, a cousin to Sackville’s father, Sir Richard. It seems appropriate that Thomas, whose life represented the Renaissance spirit of virtu, would come into a world associated with political intrigues and the vagaries of fame and infamy at court by being related by blood to the mother of England’s greatest queen. When Boleyn was condemned to be executed by Henry VIII, Sackville, according to some sources, announced her death sentence to Mary, Queen of Scots, cousin and perceived threat to Queen Elizabeth. In further service to the queen, he negotiated the potential—though unrealized—marriage of Elizabeth to the duke of Anjou of France and traveled to France and Italy on diplomatic missions. Sackville closed out his life under the reign of James I, dying while at council business at Whitehall. In between, he was a poet, dramatist, courtier, ambassador, suspected spy, and royal matchmaker. When he died in 1608, he held the title of Lord High Treasurer of England, which King James had made a lifetime appointment five years previously.

Today, Sackville is remembered more for his artistic fame, as contributor to A Mirror for Magistrates, a literary anthology on the medieval and Renaissance concept of tragedy—the fall of princes—and most especially for his collaboration with Thomas Norton on the play Gorboduc, first performed in 1561 for the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court where students studied the law. Due to its popularity, the play was restaged at Whitehall for Queen Elizabeth a few weeks later. Only three known editions of the play existed during the lifetimes of its authors, as performances for the Inner Temple and for the queen were considered private affairs, not meant for the rude multitudes, and staged with great pomp for such events as Christmas celebrations. The first of these editions, 1565, was not “authorized,” while the second, 1570, was and had a new title appended to it: The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex, though, as the edition makes clear, it represents the same play as that performed for the queen. The last edition, 1590, repeats information from an earlier edition, claiming the first three acts by Norton, with the last two written by Sackville.

Gorboduc, although a hard read for most students by today’s standards—with its stately and didactic speeches, high rhetoric, and moral underpinnings combined with violent, eloquently framed descriptions and its use of the “dumb show,” wordless versions in brief of the action...

(The entire section is 1347 words.)