Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Elyot, Thomas
ELYOT, Sir THOMAS (1490?–1546), diplomatist and author, only son of Sir Richard Elyot [q. v.], by his first wife, Alice Fynderne, was born before 1490. He was doubtless a native of Wiltshire, where his father held estates at Wansborough, Chalk, and Winterslow. According to his own account (Dict. pref.) he was educated at home, but his knowledge of Latin and Greek clearly dated from an early age. The tradition that he was a graduate either of St. Mary Hall, Oxford, or Jesus College, Cambridge, is unsupported by documentary evidence. A Thomas Eliett, or Eyllyott, of St. Mary Hall, was admitted B.A. in June 1518, and B.C.L. 26 Aug. 1523 (Oxf. Univ. Reg. Oxf. Hist. Soc. i. 104, 131). Thomas Baker claims Elyot for Jesus College, Cambridge, and says that he proceeded M.A. there in 1506–7. But the name is not an uncommon one, and the dates of all these degrees fail to harmonise with better ascertained facts in Elyot's career. Before he was twenty he read with ‘a worshipful physician’ (probably Linacre) the works of Galen and other medical writers (Castle of Helth, pref.). In 1509 he accompanied his father on a visit to Ivy Church, where a gigantic skeleton had been unearthed (Leland, Collect. iv. 141). In 1511 he became clerk of assize on the western circuit, where his father was judge. The deaths of his father in 1522 and of Thomas Fynderne, a young cousin on his mother's side, in 1523, put him in possession of much landed property, including the estates of Combe (now Long Combe), near Woodstock, and the manors of Calton Parva and West Colvile, Cambridgeshire. Elyot made Combe his chief residence, and was in the commission of the peace for Oxfordshire in July 1522. Before 1523 he attracted the notice of Cardinal Wolsey, who, unsolicited, gave him in that year the post of clerk of the privy council, but his patron neglected to provide for the payment of any salary. In November 1527 Elyot was sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and in that capacity wrote to Thomas Cromwell (25 March 1527–1528) on some business which concerned the cardinal. This letter, in which Elyot suggests that Cromwell should visit him at Combe, is the first sign of an intimacy which increased rapidly in the following years. In 1528 he resigned the clerkship of assize, and in June 1530 was deprived of the clerkship of the council. He ‘was discharged,’ he writes, ‘without any recompense, rewarded only with the order of knighthood, honourable and onerous, having much less to live on than before.’ He became immediately afterwards a commissioner to inquire into the possessions acquired in Cambridgeshire by his fallen patron, Wolsey, since 1523.
In 1531 Elyot came before the world as an author. He then published his ‘Boke called the Governour,’ with a dedication to Henry VIII. The work, a treatise on the education of statesmen, immediately acquired popularity at court, and it was doubtless to the increase of reputation which it brought that Elyot's appointment as ambassador to the court of Charles V was due. On 4 Sept. 1531, Chappuys, the imperial ambassador in England, described Elyot as ‘a gentleman of 700 or 800 ducats of rent, formerly in the cardinal's service, now in that of the lady (Anne Boleyn) who has promoted him to this charge.’ His instructions, dated 7 Oct. 1531, chiefly deal with the necessity of obtaining the emperor's assent to Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Arragon. He was also privately directed to assist Stephen Vaughan, the English agent at Antwerp, in his search for William Tyndale, who was in that city. Elyot remained abroad for a few months only, and his diplomatic efforts came to little. He complained bitterly that his letters home were unanswered, and that he received the inadequate allowance of twenty shillings a day when he was forced to spend at least forty shillings. On 5 June 1532 Chappuys saw Elyot in London, and reported to the imperial court that he was courting him as much as possible ‘for the better success of the queen's cause.’ There can be no doubt that Elyot's sympathies were at the time with Catherine, and that he strongly urged the English ministers to keep on peaceful terms with Charles V.
According to Burnet and Strype, Elyot was engaged on diplomatic business in Rome in September 1532, but this is proved to be an error (Crofts, xci–xciii.) On 18 Nov. 1532, and again on 8 Dec., Elyot made fruitless appeals to Cromwell to procure his release from the office of sheriff of Cambridgeshire, to which he had been appointed for a second time. Both in 1533 and 1534 Elyot was busy at literary work, and he announced his intention in the latter year of devoting himself to it exclusively. But in 1535 he again became ambassador to Charles V. In all probability he left England in May, and joined the emperor at Barcelona, whence he proceeded with him on the expedition to Tunis. He seems to have been in the emperor's suite at Naples at the end of the year, and there learned from the emperor himself the news of the execution of his friend Sir Thomas More, which took place on 6 July 1535 (William Roper, Life of Sir T. More). Elyot was home at Combe in 1536. A proclamation was then issued demanding the surrender of all papist publications, and of one of Fisher's sermons. Elyot wrote to Cromwell acknowledging that he had a large library, and that he had purchased a copy of the prohibited sermon, but he did not know where it was, and he denied that his books were of the character denounced in the proclamation. In a second letter to Cromwell of about the same date (July 1536), Elyot, while complaining that his religion was needlessly suspected, admitted that ‘the amity between me and Sir Thomas More’ was ‘usque ad aras,’ but he insisted that he had accepted the reformed doctrine. He entreats that adequate payment should be made him in consideration of his diplomatic and other official services, for which he had received no reward. In 1536 and 1537 he began his Latin-English dictionary; Henry VIII lent him books and encouraged him to persevere when doubts of his capacity made him anxious to relinquish it. It was issued in 1538. In 1540 Elyot took part in the reception of Anne of Cleves at Blackheath, and on 14 May of the same year bought of Cromwell the manors of Carleton and Willingham, Cambridgeshire. Cromwell was attainted before the purchase was complete, and the property reverted to the crown, but it was re-granted to Elyot 4 Aug. He was M.P. for Cambridge in 1542 (Willis, Not. Parl. i. 190), and sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire November 1544. He died 20 March 1546, and was buried in Carleton church. A monument was erected to his memory, but it is now destroyed. Elyot left no will and no children. His heir was Richard Puttenham, elder son of his sister Marjory. A portrait by Holbein in the Windsor collection was engraved by Bartolozzi.
Elyot married, after 1522, Margaret, daughter of John Abarrow, of North Charford, Hampshire. A portrait of her by Holbein is now at Windsor Castle. After Elyot's death she married Sir James Dwyer. She was buried at Great Staughton, Huntingdonshire, 26 Aug. 1560.
Elyot's literary work, although it exhibits no striking originality, illustrates the wide culture and erudition of Henry VIII's court. Political philosophy and the theory of education chiefly interested him. His views were borrowed from the foreign writers of the Renaissance. Erasmus's influence is plainly discernible. Pico della Mirandola, Francesco Patrizi the elder, and other less-known Italian authors were familiar to him. His intimate friends included Sir Thomas More and Roger Ascham. As a Greek scholar who first translated part of Isocrates into English, and as an early student of both Greek and Latin patristic literature, he well deserves to be remembered. That he should have written all his books in his native language gives him a high place among the pioneers of English prose literature. His style is clear, although its literary flavour is thin. His fame as a translator lived through Elizabeth's reign. Nashe the satirist writes that ‘Sir Thomas Elyot's elegance in translation did sever itself from all equals.’
All Elyot's books issued in his lifetime were published in London by Thomas Berthelet. They are as follows: 1. ‘The Boke named the Gouernour, deuised by Sir Thomas Elyot, knight,’ 1531, 1534, 1537, 1546, 1557, 1565, and 1580, dedicated to Henry VIII. The twofold object of the work was ‘to instruct men in such virtues as shall be expedient for them, which shall have authority in a weal public, and to educate those youths that hereafter may be deemed worthy to be governors.’ Much is borrowed from Patrizi's ‘De Regno & Regis Institutione’ (Paris, 1518), from Erasmus's ‘Institutio Principis Christiani,’ and Pontano's ‘De Principe.’ The latest edition, a reprint of the 1531 issue, was carefully edited by Mr. H. H. S. Crofts in 1883. 2. ‘Pasquil the Playne,’ 1533 and 1540, a prose dialogue between Pasquil, Gnatho, and Harpocrates on the advantages of loquacity and silence. Gnatho advocates the former, Harpocrates the latter, and Pasquil, who takes a neutral side, indulges in some severe satire. The work, which opens with a quotation from Æschylus, may have been suggested by the ‘Dialogus Marphorii et Pasquilli,’ issued at Rome about 1552, a copy of which Bonner sent as a gift to Cromwell 24 Dec. 1532. No copy of either the first or second edition is in the British Museum (Collier, Bibliog. Cat. i. 254; Ames, Typ. Antiq. iii. 307). 3. ‘Of the Knowledge which maketh a Wise Man,’ 1533 and 1534, a prose dialogue, on philosophical topics, between Plato and Aristippus, suggested by a perusal of Diogenes Laertius's account of Plato. A letter to Honor, second wife of Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, is printed at the close of the volume. 4. ‘A Swete and devoute Sermon of Holy Saynt Ciprian of the Mortalitie of Man;’ ‘The Rules of a Christian Lyfe, made by Picus, Erle of Mirandula,’ 1534, two tracts, dedicated to Susan, wife of John Kyngstone, a daughter of the Richard Fetiplace whose widow was the second wife of Elyot's father. Cyprian's sermon was doubtless translated from Erasmus's edition (Basle, 1520). 5. ‘The Doctrine of Princes, made by the noble oratour Isocrates, and translated out of Greke in to Englishe,’ London, 1534, a translation of the Oration to Nicocles. 6. ‘The Castel of Helth,’ London, 1534, 1539, 1541, 1561, 1580 (?), 1595. No copy of the first edition, assigned to 1534 and stated to have been dedicated to Cromwell, is now known. A letter to Cromwell in Harl. MS. 6989, No. 21, is clearly intended as a dedicatory epistle, and cannot be dated later than 1534. The book is a medical treatise of prescriptions for various ailments, and Elyot gives an account of the disorders from which he himself suffered. The fact that it was written in English by one who was not a doctor roused much wrath on the part of the medical profession. Elyot replied to his medical critics in a preface to the edition of 1541. The treatise was very popular till the close of the century. 7. ‘The Bankette of Science,’ London, 1539, 1542, 1545, 1557, a collection of moral sayings chiefly from the fathers. 8. ‘The Dictionary of Syr T. Eliot, knyght,’ London, fol. 1538 and 1545, Latin-English. The copy presented by Elyot to Cromwell is at the British Museum, and with it there is a long Latin letter by Elyot to Cromwell. An edition revised by Thomas Cooper (1517?–1594) [q. v.] appeared with the title ‘Bibliotheca Eliotæ’ in 1550, 1552, and 1559. 9. ‘The Education or Bringinge up of Children, translated out of Plutarche,’ London, n.d. 4to. This book is mentioned in the ‘Image of Governance’ (1540), and is therefore earlier than 1540. The ‘British Museum Catalogue’ dates it conjecturally in 1535. 10. ‘The Defence of Good Women,’ London, 1545, a dialogue between Caninnis, Candidus, and Queen Zenobia. 11. ‘The Image of Governance, compiled of the actes and sentences notable of the moste noble Emperour Alexander Severus, late translated out of Greke into Englyshe,’ London, 1540, 1544, 1549, and (by William Seres) 1556; compiled from notes made in 1529 and 1530, while writing the ‘Governour.’ These notes were partly translated, according to Elyot, from a Greek manuscript by Eucolpius, the Emperor Alexander Severus's secretary. This manuscript had been lent to Elyot by a gentleman of Naples named Pudericus or Poderico. To the translation Elyot added extracts from other authors, both Latin and Greek, dealing with the duties of rulers. The subject resembles that of Guevara's ‘Libro Aureo,’ translated by Lord Berners [see Bourchier, John, second Baron Berners] in 1533. William Wotton [q. v.] endeavoured to convict Elyot of plagiarism from Guevara and other writers, and asserted that the statement that it had been translated from a Greek manuscript by Eucolpius was false. Dr. Humphrey Hody denied with equal vigour that Elyot could have had any direct acquaintance with Eucolpius's writings (Treatise on Septuagint). A careful perusal of Elyot's preface and text acquits Elyot of Wotton's and Hody's charges. Elyot's preface contains a list of his previous works. 12. ‘Howe one may take profyte of his enmyes, translated out of Plutarche,’ London, n.d. Since no mention is made of this work in ‘The Image,’ it is probably to be dated after 1540, although the British Museum Catalogue suggests the date 1535. To fill up some blank pages at the end Elyot added ‘The Maner to chose and cheryshe a friende,’ a collection of ‘sayings’ from classical authors. Berthelet reprinted the two pieces with the ‘Table of Cebes,’ a translation by Sir Francis Poyntz. 13. ‘A Preservative agaynste Deth,’ London, 1545, dedicated to Sir Edward North, a collection of passages from Scripture and the fathers.]
Ascham writes in his ‘Toxophilus’ (1545) that Elyot told him ‘he had a worcke in hand which he nameth “De rebus memorabilibus Angliæ.”’ This book, if completed, was, so far as our present information goes, never published. A manuscript belonging to G. F. Wilbraham, esq., of Delamere House, Chester, gives an account of ‘commendable deedes’ concerning Chester, and among the authors whom the writer says he has consulted is ‘Sir Thomas Eliot, his chronicle of the description of Brettaine.’ It is quite possible that Hollinshed or Harrison may have had access to such a manuscript. Eight lines, translated into English from Horace's ‘Ars Poetica,’ are attributed to Elyot by William Webbe in his ‘Discourse of English Poetry.’[Mr. H. H. S. Crofts collects all the information in his long introduction to his valuable edition of the Governour (1883). He prints Elyot's letters to Cromwell there, and an interesting despatch addressed to the Duke of Norfolk while on his first embassy. See also Cooper's Athenæ Cantabr. i. 89; Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, ed. Brewer and Gairdner; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, i. 150; Fuller's Worthies; Strype's Memorials.]