Authors: Thomas Norton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright

Author Works


Gorboduc, pr. 1561, authorized edition pb. 1570 (also known as The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex; with Thomas Sackville)


The only achievement of Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville in drama consists of their collaboration on Gorboduc, first performed at one of the Inns of Court, the Inner Temple, on January 6, 1561. It was enough of a success to gain a second performance, before Queen Elizabeth I, on January 18 at Whitehall. Norton, born in 1532, was a member of a wealthy London family associated with the Grocer’s Company. While still quite young, he entered the household of Lord Somerset, the Protector, where he proved himself an intelligent youth and served that nobleman well as amanuensis. Some of Norton’s Calvinist ideas were formulated while he served under Somerset; as early as 1552 Norton corresponded with John Calvin.{$I[AN]9810000440}{$I[A]Norton, Thomas}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Norton, Thomas}{$I[tim]1532;Norton, Thomas}

The lives of Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, four years Norton’s junior, intersected several times during their careers. The first such occasion perhaps came in 1555, when they both entered the Inner Temple to study law, of which Norton later made a successful career, serving as counsel for the Stationers’ Company and later as solicitor for the Merchant Taylors’ Company.

Norton married twice, both times to relatives of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer: first to a daughter, Margery, then to a cousin, Alice. Cranmer was burned by the Catholics in 1556, the year after Norton married Margery. Later in life Norton was virulently anti-Catholic.

Norton and Sackville were associated as members of Elizabeth’s first Parliament in 1558. Norton began the main period of his literary career about that time: His translation of Calvin was published in 1561; his collaboration on Gorboduc culminated in the performances of 1561-1562; and his verse translations of certain psalms belonged to 1562. He also wrote a few poems in Latin and some in English as well as a number of polemical attacks against Catholics.

At various times between 1558 and 1580 Norton was a member of Parliament for Berwick and for London. Norton and Sackville both were seated in Elizabeth’s second Parliament, convening in January of 1563, which wrote a new petition to request again the same things that the first Parliament had been denied: that for the good of the country Elizabeth should agree to marry and should define the royal succession. Norton was a member of the committee charged with studying the question of succession, and he may even have been its chairman, for his was the voice that read the committee report to the second Parliament. He was the probable author of the new petition.

Norton entered Oxford in 1565, receiving a master of arts degree in 1569. In that year he wrote an attack on the duke of Norfolk because of the proposed marriage of the duke to Mary, Queen of Scots. Norton’s religious fervor earned for him a new appointment; he was asked officially to take notes at Norfolk’s trial for treason, at which Sackville was one of the men who sat in judgment.

In 1571 the City of London appointed Norton to the newly created position of Remembrancer. His hatred of Catholicism led him to Rome to gather information to be used against English Papists, and in 1581 he officially became the censor of Catholics, carrying out his task with torture and with persecution. Among others, Edmund Campion and Francis Throckmorton evidently suffered from the cruelty of the Puritan zealot who came to be known as “Rackmaster-General.” Eventually Norton’s Puritan fanaticism led him too far: When he dared to criticize episcopacy he was removed from office, and when he continued his attacks, he was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London for a brief time in 1583. When released, his health was broken; he died the next year at the family home, Sharpenhoe, in Bedfordshire.

History certainly paints very different pictures of the two authors of Gorboduc. Norton became the bitter Calvinist master of a torture chamber, his religious fanaticism finally overpowering his good judgment. Sackville remained a moderate Anglican, respected by all for his humanity and working to the last for his country.

BibliographyBaker, Howard. Induction to Tragedy: A Study in a Development of Form in “Gorboduc,” “The Spanish Tragedy,” and “Titus Andronicus.” 1939. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965. This standard work considers the tragic form from two viewpoints: artistry and moral significance. Baker discusses the authorship question of Gorboduc and the possible Senecan influence and also considers native English dramatic influences to be very strong. Pays some attention to the historical criticism of the play.Berlin, Normand. Thomas Sackville. New York: Twayne, 1974. This biographical and critical study discusses Norton as well as Sackville.Clemen, Wolfgang. English Tragedy Before Shakespeare: The Development of Dramatic Speech. Translated by T. S. Dorsch. London: Methuen, 1961. In this study of the “set speech,” the author finds Gorboduc weakened by the lack of correlation between speech and characterization or speech and action.Graves, Michael A. R. Thomas Norton: The Parliament Man. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994. Biographical and critical study.Whall, Helen M. To Instruct and Delight: Didactic Method in Five Tudor Dramas. New York: Garland, 1988. Finds Gorboduc consciously designed for artistic effects and its authors unsatisfied with simply delivering a powerful message. Shows evidence of their artistic concerns in the elaborate dumb shows, the patterned divisions of the five acts, and their innovative verse.
Categories: Authors