Adolphus William Ward.

Sir Henry Wotton; a biographical sketch online

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M.A., LL.D.


Will you allow me to dedicate to you the
following trifle? This sketch was originally
written to serve as a Monday Popular Lecture
at the College which honours you as one of
its most generous benefactors, and in which
the Christie Library and the Whitworth Hall
will soon stand side by side as enduring
monuments of your goodwill towards our
highest and our widest interests. The sub-
stance of my brief narrative was put together
during a summer holiday at Braemar, and
had it not been for your never-failing aid, I
should have had to leave Scioppius to take
care of himself. It may seem presumptuous
on my part to wish to connect an attempt
which here and there touches the confines of
the Later Renascence period, with the name
of one who is master of every part of that
interesting and complicated chapter of European
literature and life. But scholars like yourself


and your late Rector and friend arc wont
to show a very magnanimous indulgence to
efforts of which the imperfections are no secret
to them. So that, if in this instance I presume
on anything, it is on your kindness, of which
I have experience enough to fall back upon.

Believe me to be,

Yours very truly,


November, 1897.


ALTHOUGH the name of Sir Henry
Wotton is a fairly familiar one to the
ears of Englishmen, there are not, I think,
many to whom he is very much more than
a name. Those who know something of
him beyond the fact that " once he wrote
a pretty poem," derive this knowledge
mainly from Izaak Walton's life of his
friend. 1 Yet while this biographical nar-
rative, steeped as it is in warm personal
sentiment, possesses an interest and a

1 One of the five Lives, now usually printed to-
gether. Walton's Life of Sir Henry Wotton was
originally prefixed to Reliquia Wottoniance^ of which
the first edition appeared in 1651. The edition of the
Lives which I have used is that of Dr. Thomas Zouch,
Izaak Walton's biographer, 2nd edition, 1807. A
MS. sketch of Wotton's life by the antiquary William
Fulman (who also collected materials for the life of
John Hales, of Eton), is preserved in the library of
Corpus Christi College, Oxford, together with some
letters of Wotton's. Other letters of his in MS. are


charm of its own, it exhibits Sir Henry
Wotton, to all intents and purposes, under
a single aspect only, and that hardly of
a kind which usually commands either a
wide-spread or a long-lived popularity. Yet
it very naturally suggested itself to the
associate of the diplomatist and scholar's
declining years ; and I daresay many or
most of us, should we live to his age, would
prefer to be like him remembered as we
were in the calm and peaceful eventide of
our lives, and to leave behind us, could
we do so with truthfulness, the record of
victory over the passions of life, and of
freedom from care

"Of public fame or private breath."

at All Souls', and notes from his letters by Brydall
(see below) at Queen's College. I owe this informa-
tion, together with some other notes as to the MS.
remains of Wotton in the Oxford Libraries, to the
courtesy of the Provost of Queen's, the present Vice-
Chancellor of the University. Fulman's life was pro-
bably used by Bliss in his edition of Wood's Athena
(cf. the notice of Fulman in vol. xx. of The Dictionary
of National Biography, 1889).



But we know full well that to few men it
is given to compass the conditions of such
contentment, and that there are still fewer
in whose lives these conditions are more
than at first a dream as of a distant haven,
and then, when at last they draw within
reach, intermixtures of a little satisfaction
with many disappointments and disillusion-
ings. And perhaps the resistance against
the gentle temptation to suppose that the
curfew-bell implies a vote of thanks is, by
a happy counter-dispensation, strongest in
natures which, like Sir Henry Wotton's
(if I rightly estimate it), are intellectually,
by constitution or by force of circum-
stances, dual. Wotton's experiences were,
for the most part, those of a traveller and
a diplomatist, who knew the ins and the
outs of many cities and of many men, and
who, for better or worse, was obliged to
put his trust in princes. But his man-
hood had begun, and his green old age
ended, as the life of a student whose pen
was ever in his hand, and in ninety-nine


out of a hundred instances, therein proving
him a true man of letters, was employed
in the noting of conceptions rather than in
the correction of final proofs. These two
methods, and the two views involved in
them, of the conduct of life, are not so
easily reconciled, as is sometimes supposed,
in the management of an individual career;
in the mutual relations of men the game
would be democratically dull, but that the
more distinguished figures on the board
move respectively in different ways. To
be sure, the amiable Izaak Walton, after
dwelling on the relative advantages of the
active and the contemplative mode, insin-
uates that they both meet together, " and
do most properly belong to the most
honest, ingenious, harmless art of ang-
ling." Which, however, of the two paths
that led to the same bank was the truly
congenial one to Sir Henry Wotton ?
Was he well warranted in applying to
himself the words which he inscribed over
his study door : Invidia: remedium a cure


against longings and troubles ? Did he
judge with accuracy when he described
himself as "of his nature academical " ?
How much of self-delusion, if any, lurked
beneath the following rather involved con-
trast between the supposed bent of his
nature, and the employments to which he
gave up the last years of his manhood :

"A poor scholar, for that is the highest of my own
titles, and in truth, the furthest end of my ambition.
This other honour (wherewith it hath pleased his
Majesty to cloath my unworthiness) belonging un-
properly unto me ; who, I hope, am both born, and
formed in my education, fitter to be an Instrument
of Truth than of Art " [as we should say, craft]. " In
the meanwhile, till his Majesty shall resolve me again
into my own plain and simple elements, I have
abroad " [as ambassador] " done my poor endea-
vour, according to those occasions which God hath
opened." 1

Such is the nature of the problem,
not perhaps signally intricate or profound,
but neither, I think, devoid of general
as well as special interest, which I pro-
pose to illustrate rather than solve in

1 To Sir Arthur Throckmorton, Reliquiae Wot-
toniatuc, p. 275.



the following sketch. In this attempt
I shall principally rely on Wotton's own
literary remains, which include what was
recoverable of his writings in prose and
verse, and of personal letters from his
hand. 1 And whatever conclusions it may
suggest as to the dualism of his intellectual
nature, and as to his shortcomings in com-
parison with his own or any other ideals,
it will, unless I mistake, show him to have
been a man of noble purposes and high
thoughts, such as, when united to a candid
spirit, a courteous bearing and a pious
spirit compose the amalgam of a true
English gentleman. Nor shall we miss in
him that ingredient of humour without a
grain or two of which the commixture

1 The collection called Reliquue Wottoniamc was
first published by Izaak Walton in 1651, with the
aid of Sir Henry's niece by marriage, the relict of the
second and last Lord Wotton. Subsequent editions
were dedicated to his grand-nephew, Philip, the second
Earl of Chesterfield. (See Zouch's Life of Izaak
Walton.} The edition cited in this Essay is that of
1685, described in the title-page as the fourth, which
was the first to include the letters to Lord Zouch.



would somehow seem to be not quite

Of the fine qualities which distinguished
Sir Henry Wotton we shall probably be
disposed to allow the credit of not a few
to his ancestry. For more than two cen-
turies before his birth, which occurred in
the year 1568, his forefathers had dwelt
at Bocton Hall, in the parish of Bocton-
Malherbe, in the fair county of Kent a
willing nurse of enterprise, as we know,
in many a period of our national history.
Above all, the men of Kent were wont to
claim for themselves by right of birth that
freedom of speech which is appropriate to
shires flattering themselves that they think
to-day what all England will think to-
morrow. Combined with the reasonable
self-confidence which has always marked
the sons of English country gentlemen,
such a feeling is apt to serve as a useful
mainstay in life. 1 In the Philosophical

1 Sir Henry Wotton, although he never owned an
acre of land, had in him something of that country



Survey of Education, which remains one
of Wotton's most interesting literary frag-
ments, he undertakes to speak " without
publick offence, though still with the
freedom of a plain Kentish-man." Yet
among the public services for which, under
the Tudors at all events, the Wotton
family had been chiefly distinguished, the
most conspicuous had been diplomatic ;
the eminent Dr. Nicholas Wotton himself,
who under Elizabeth noluit archiepisco-
pari, and who had been Secretary of State

gentleman's pride which is a quite different thing from
personal vanity or self-consciousness. In his Life
and Death of the Duke of Buckingham (Reliquiae^
p. 208) he refers with scorn to one of the censors of
the Duke, who "would scant allow him to be a
gentleman " whereas his ancestors had " chiefly con-
tinued " about four hundred years in the same seat
in Leicestershire, etc. He was of opinion, that even
in literary composition good breeding should make
itself perceptible, though it ought not there to assert
itself with too much emphasis. One of the Aphorisms
appended to the fragmentary Survey cited in the text
(/., p. 91) would have approved itself to the author
of Pend:nnis : " Somewhat of the Gentleman gives a
tincture to a Scholar ; too much stains him."
' /Z.,p. 71.



under Edward VI., is stated by Walton to
have been nine times " Ambassador unto
foreign princes." According to the same
authority, however, Thomas Wotton, the
father of Sir Henry, preferred to dwell in
his ancestral home, exercising hospitality
and cherishing learning ; and from him
his youngest son may have derived what
he himself believed to be the most deep-
seated of his tastes and tendencies. Of his
mother, his father's second wife, we hear
nothing, except that though his friends
had advised Thomas Wotton, in making
his second choice, to take care to avoid
" those that had children, those that had
law-suits, and those that were of his kin-
dred," all these impediments coexisted
in her, but that love prevailed over all.
Henry's three elder brothers, the sons of
their father's first consort, were all of them
active servants of the Queen ; the eldest,
Edward, who was in his turn employed on
several embassies, was afterwards raised
to the peerage by King James I., over


whom he had gained a strong personal in-
fluence already as English ambassador at
the Scottish Court. Like his more cele-
brated brother, he seems to have taken a
warm interest in literature. 1

Henry Wotton, who never lost his love
for Bocton Hall, and who in the decline of
his age, when he was becoming just a little
of a valetudinarian, declared, in conformity
with a pleasing superstition, that its air
best agreed with him, 2 in due course

1 To him was addressed one of the Sonnets ap-
pended by Chapman to his Translation of Books
I.-XII. of the Iliad (1609 or post) ; but it was with-
drawn with two other of these Sonnets in the edition
of the entire Iliad, published in 161 1. See Dictionary
of National Biography, vol. x. (1887), p. 49 (art.
George Chapman). As to the descent from this
Lord Wotton of the celebrated Earl of Chesterfield
(in some respects a kindred spirit), who alienated the
manor of St. Mary Lyng Ockmere, which the Wottons
had acquired by intermarriage with the ancient family
of Bellknap in the reign of Henry VI 1 1., see Hasted's
History of the County of Kent (2nd edition, 1787),
vol. ii. pp. 116-7. The second Earl of Chesterfield,
to whom Izaak Walton dedicated the 1672 edition of
the Rdiquicc, was his grandfather.

* To Nich. Pey> 1626 (Religuia, p. 321).



passed on to Winchester and New Col-
lege, Oxford. His old school we find him
revisiting the year before his death, in-
dulging in a fancy of deeper significance
than the other, that in the familiar place
he might meet again with the thoughts
and hopes, long since dulled or dis-
appointed, of his boyhood. At Oxford he
must have carried on his studies in the
spirit of freedom which is the essence of
the true intellectual life of a University,
whose real purpose, as he tells us himself, 1
is not to prepare for " the performance of
some solemn exercise," or, let us say,
some stiff examination but to enable men
to "live some space among the assiduous
advantages and helps of knowledge."
That he was not estranged by labours
taking a different bent from the love of

1 In another of his Aphorisms of Education (Re-
liquice, p. 87), where he favourably contrasts the usage
in this respect of the English Universities with those
of the foreign of his own day. He could not foresee
the days of the University of London as at present,
and apparently in perpetuum^ constituted.



polite letters is proved by his having at
Queen's, whither he had migrated from
New, and where his name occurs in one of
the earliest lists of members of the college,
composed a play called Tancredo, a subject
characteristically derived from the master-
piece of contemporary Italian literature
which the Gerusalemme Liberata so sig-
nally typifies both in its charms and in its
symptoms of beginning decay. 1 He never
wholly lost the instinct of dramatic com-
position ; and apart from his fondness for
drawing characters, of which instances will
be found in his letters as well as in his set
compositions, and which were quite in har-
mony with the literary fashion of his age, he
actually dramatised doubtless in his later

1 Tasso's poem was first published in 1581.
Wotton's play, which is not extant, must have been
written about 1586. It is not at all likely that
Wotton's play was a version of the story of Tancrcd
and Gismunda, dramatised for the English stage in
1563 (and again in 1591), and in a seventeenth cen-
tury version which Mr. I. Gollanez is now editing,
Thomson's Tuncred and Sigismunda (1745) appears
to be taken, not from Boccaccio, but from Gil Bias.



days the theme of a religious meditation. 1
In literary occupations, such as the com-
position of Tancredo, Wotton may be con-
jectured to have enjoyed the sympathy, if
not the co-operation, of a friend who first
became dear to him at Oxford, and of
whose life, so singularly rich in its inner
experiences of both joy and sorrow, he
undertook, too late for carrying out his
purpose, to write an account. This was
the famous John Donne, many years after-
wards Dean of St. Paul's, and probably, of
all contemporary English writers, the one
who exercised the most commanding in-
fluence in those spheres of life and thought
in which Wotton moved. In later times
his verse has been by turns extolled and
censured with almost the same vehemence,
while his prose has come to be all but
forgotten. 2 Notwithstanding, however,

1 A Meditation upon the 22nd Chapter of Genesis
(Reliquia, pp. 265-9) is a dramatic speech supposed
to be delivered by " the Father of the Believers " on
receiving the Divine injunction to sacrifice his son.

2 According to Wood, Athence, vol. iii. p. 502 (Bliss's



Wotton's literary tastes and intimacies
during his Oxford residence, his most ab-
sorbing interests there seem rather to have
been what we should call scientific. As
part of the exercises for his Master's de-
gree, which he seems to have taken about
1589 or 1590, he read in Latin three lec-
tures De Oculo, and the excellence of these
procured for him the friendship of Alberi-
cus Gentilis, then Professor of Civil Law
in the University. Gentilis, while en-
couraging Wotton's predilection for mathe-
matical studies, cannot have failed to instil
into him some interest in the subjects of
his own teaching, and in that of his treatise
De Legationibiis, published in 1583, in
particular. 1 But at the same time he

edition), Donne was a commoner of Hart Hall (after-
wards, and now again, Hertford College) at a time
when Sir Henry Wotton " had a chamber there."

1 It was followed in 1589 by the De Jure Bel/i t to
which Grotius afterwards acknowledged his obliga-
tions. Albericus Gentilis was probably the first
Italian Protestant, but very far from being the last,
with whom Wotton contracted friendship. See as to
him Hallam's Literature of Europe, Part II. chap. iv.



familiarised him with the Italian language,
which Wotton afterwards grew to use like
a second native tongue. His love of
scientific pursuits proved enduring, and
can hardly but have been strengthened by
his kinsmanship with Bacon, to whom as
late as 1620 he is found sending, together
with compliments on the completion (or
supposed completion) of the Novum Or-
ganon, on account of certain early experi-
ments witnessed by him in Kepler's house
at Linz. 1 Wotton was of the Baconian
school as a student, or if the term be
thought more fitting, as an amateur of
science; in 1622 he writes from Venice to
Charles, Prince of Wales, promising to
communicate to him such philosophical
experiments as might come in his way ;
" for mere speculations have ever seemed
to my conceit, as if reason were given us
like an half moon in a Coat of Arms, only
for a logical Difference from inferior Crea-
tures, and not for any active power in
1 Reliquia, pp. 298 seqq.


itself." 1 "As a chimical man" even in
his old age, he was consulted by his friend
Izaak Walton on the ingredients of certain
strong-smelling oils celebrated as seductive
to fish ; 2 but into this investigation, or into
that of certain distillings from vegetables
for medical purposes which he discussed
with his nephew, Sir Edmund Bacon,
about the same period of his life, 3 we may
be excused from following him. In his
retirement at Eton College he also in-
terested himself in experiments of measur-
ing small divisions of time by the descent
of drops through a filter. 4 Hcsc quidem

But neither optics nor the drama are, or,
at least, were in the latter part of the six-
teenth century, usually regarded as aids to
fortune ; and probably Francis Bacon him-
self, although at the time when his " very

1 Reliquiae^ p. 319.

* The Compleat Angler (reprint of the 1653
edition), p. 98.

3 Reliquia, pp. 454-5 (1633).

4 Ib., p. 475 (1628 or post).



good cosin " was carrying on his studies
at Oxford, he was still chiefly intent upon
"drawing in" patrons for the pursuit of
science, would a little later have refrained
from advising him to " draw them in "
with a view to what is coarsely called the
main chance. 1 What has been already
noted as to the traditional ways of life of
the Wottons, suggests the most obvious
explanation of the choice actually made by
Henry among the paths likely to lead to
success in life. That on which he actually
entered was neither a very direct nor a very
easy one ; but it nowhere appears that a
short-cut to the goal was open to him. He
was, of course, without the personal posi-
tion or influence at Court such as might
have enabled him to " beg " an heiress,
and it was not his luck to be married by
one outright. I cannot say whether we
ought to interpret the Poem written by Sir
Henry Wotton in his Youth, otherwise

1 Cf. Abbott, Introduction to Bacoris Essays (1876),
vol. i. p. xxviii.

17 c


entitled Of a Woman's Heart, as com-
memorating a personal experience ; it is
full of the bitter despondency of ado-
lescence, and it is at the same time virtually
the solitary love-poem of his composition.
For the commonplace dialogue, " by the
way," with the subsequent Serjeant Hos-
kyns (of whom a word more anon), is not
to be taken into account, and Sir Henry
Wotton's devotion to Queen Elizabeth of
Bohemia was, as we shall see, rooted in
quite a different kind of sentiment. If in
his youth he really cherished a passion and
then renounced it

" Untrue she was ; yet I believed her eyes,

Instructed spies,

Till I was taught, that love was but a school
To breed a fool,"

this born depositary of other people's
secrets kept his own through life ; for we
shall look in vain through the whole of his
literary writings and correspondence for
either any second trace of his own amour,
or for so much as another reference to the


generally interesting subject of love and

As it would seem, in the earlier part of
the year 1590, Henry Wotton, who had
finished his course of studies at Oxford,
and whom the death of his father about
this time had probably further impelled to
bethink himself of the prospects for his
future, began a course of foreign travel
which, in the first instance, occupied about
seven years. We shall see that he left
England again about the close of the cen-
tury, and that it was not till after his
return at the commencement of the reign
of James I. that he regularly entered into
the foreign service of the Crown. But
there can be no doubt that this had from
the first been the object of his ambition.
It was with the same definite end in view
that he not only resided successively in
a considerable number of places in Ger-
many, Italy, Switzerland and France, but
diligently and systematically collected in-
formation on the laws, politics, and social


life of these several countries, and kept up
an active correspondence of what I may
call an intelligentiary kind on the subject
of his experiences with friends and patrons
at home. Nowadays, as I venture to sur-
mise, the English diplomatic service would
be apt to resent the admission of a jour-
nalist- to its ranks ; at least, so I judge
from the dislike which I have heard ex-
pressed to such appointments even in a less
elevated official sphere. And yet it is pre-
cisely as a journalist of the best kind in
other words as an educated observer who
has cultivated both the habit of enquiry
and the art of expression, but neither of
them to the exclusion of the other that
Wotton and others after him have qualified
themselves for these important branches
of public work. In any case, Wotton, who
in his later years modestly averred of
himself that " in the College of Travellers,
wherein if the fruit of the time he had
spent were answerable to the length, he


might run for a Deacon at last," 1 travelled
neither for honest gain, like his contem-
porary, James Howell, nor for travel's sake,
like his other contemporary, Tom Coryate. 2
He was not one of those who, in his own
phrase, which holds true of a condition of
things still within the memory of man,
" are as desirous men should observe they
have travelled far as careful in their travels
to observe nothing." 3 At the same time
he makes no secret of the circumstance
on which another species of modern
travellers is wont to dwell with misplaced
emphasis, since there is nothing to prevent
them from staying at home that it be-
hoved him in his journeyings to practise
economy. Of one of his sojourns he
writes that, " with the best frugality he

^ pp. 356-7.

8 Tom Coryate was, as Wood relates, vol. ii. p. 299,
introduced to Wotton at Venice by a letter beginning
" Good wine needs no bush, neither a worthy man
letters commendatory," which much pleased the bearer,
who had on a similar occasion been, to his natural
annoyance, introduced as a 'very honest poor wretch.'

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