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Wotton, Sir Henry

Category: Poet


Sir Henry Wotton (30 March 1568 – December 1639) was an English author, poet, diplomat and politician who sat in the House of Commons in 1614 and 1625.

He is perhaps best known for the quote, "An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." 

Of 25 poems printed in Reliquiae Wottonianae 15 are Wotton's. Of those, two are well known, On his Mistris, the Queen of Bohemia," and The Character of a Happy Life."  During his lifetime he published two works: The Elements of Architecture (1624), which is a free translation of de Architectura by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio; and a Latin prose address to the king on his return from Scotland (1633).

Despite the poems and the book on architecture, Wotton’s chief interests appear to have been scientific. In qualifying for his M.A. degree he read three lectures De oculo, and to the end of his life he continued to interest himself in physical experiments. 

The poetic urge appears to have been inspired by fright and insecurity more than anything else.  He was permanently in financial difficulties and was on one occasion arrested for debt. Furthermore his political life was, to say the least, exciting.

He became the agent and secretary of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. It was his duty to supply intelligence of affairs in Transylvania, Poland, Italy and Germany. “Wotton was not, like his unfortunate fellow-secretary, Henry Cuffe, who was hanged at Tyburn in 1601, directly involved in Essex's downfall, but he thought it prudent to leave England, and within sixteen hours of his patron's apprehension he was safe in France”.  It was a very close thing and Wotton spent most of the rest of his life abroad, including a long stay in Venice with two breaks (1612–16 and 1619–21).

Whilst there, he helped the Doge in his resistance to ecclesiastical aggression, and was closely associated with Paolo Sarpi, whose history of the Council of Trent was sent to King James as fast as it was written.

Even in Venice, his life was not without incident.  Wotton was brought into ‘temporary disgrace’ in the early 1600s and was forced to make two formal defences of himself, one a personal attack on his accuser, and the other privately to the king.  As a consequence, he obtained no diplomatic employment for some time, but seems to have finally won back the royal favour by his parliamentary support for James's claim to impose arbitrary taxes on merchandise.


Were there any other influences to inspire the poetic muse?  The other influence was undoubtedly love.  In 1620 he was sent on a special embassy to Ferdinand II at Vienna, to do what he could on behalf of James's daughter Elizabeth of Bohemia. Wotton's devotion to this princess, expressed in the verses beginning "You meaner beauties of the night," was sincere and unchanging.

At his departure the emperor presented him with a valuable jewel, which Wotton received with due respect, but before leaving the city he gave it to his hostess, because, he said, he would accept no gifts from the enemy of the Bohemian queen.

Wotton died at the beginning of December 1639 and was buried in the chapel of Eton College.


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