Authors: Thomas Sackville

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright and poet

Author Works


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


“Induction” and “Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham,” in A Mirror for Magistrates, 1563 (2d 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.{$I[AN]9810000397}{$I[A]Sackville, Thomas}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Sackville, Thomas}{$I[tim]1536;Sackville, Thomas}

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 to follow–remains noteworthy as being perhaps the first English tragedy in blank verse. Its diversion from the medieval morality play (still a major influence in Gorboduc) is also notable for the fact that the protagonists are not destroyed by Chance or Fortune but rather by their own failings. In its familial division and animosities, the play looks ahead to William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606), though the influence is by no means certain.

Sackville may be better appreciated today for his poetry, which appeared in the second edition of A Mirror for Magistrates, a compilation of poems meant to instruct God’s chosen nobility by offering exempla of tyrants; thus, the mirror shows their faults, links tragedy to sinfulness, and offers warnings for the present. A Mirror for Magistrates represented a collection of narratives on the tragic lives as related by the ghosts of famous Britons, becoming one of the most popular works of the Elizabethan era, first published in 1559. Sackville contributed two poems to the 1563 edition: “Induction” and “Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham.” The inspiration for his work found its metaphors and thematic material in both medieval and classical sources; it remains important to note that the concept of the “original” in the Renaissance had a dual nature: In its essential sense, “original” meant going back to the “origin,” thus paying homage to the source material, but the word came to mean something in the more modern sense of “unique.” Sackville, a student of Vergil (70-19 b.c.e.), shows his indebtedness to the Roman poet, much as he would himself serve as an inspiration for Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599), author of The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), a long narrative poem that allegorically praises Queen Elizabeth. Sackville demonstrates his indebtedness to Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), especially in his use of the poetical form of “royal stanza” (seven lines of iambic pentameter rhyming ababbcc); John Lydgate (c. 1370-1451), whose The Falle of Princis (1494) represented one of the most influential of medieval texts; Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), who wrote The History of King Richard III (1514); Edward Hall (1499-1547), author of The Union of the Noble and Ilustre Famelies of Lancastre and York (1548), usually called Hall’s Chronicle, which served to glorify the Tudor dynasty; and the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (1517-1547).

Sackville’s “Complaint” concerns the Duke of Buckingham, Richard III’s most loyal, if infamous, servant. Whereas the “Induction” presents a dialogue of the characters involved with Buckingham and King Richard, the “Complaint” stands as a monologue on the sorrow and misgivings of the duke in his service of what Elizabethans had come to regard as the most villainous of Britain’s kings. Within this monologue, Buckingham comes to account for his treachery in securing the crown for Richard, his later rebellion against the illegitimate king, and his own betrayal at the hands of a close friend named Banaster. As many critics have noted, the phrase “marke wel my fal” occurs frequently in the poem as a means for Buckingham to reflect his “mirror” upon the future that magistrates must face. What marks the work as more modern than medieval, however, lies in its insistence that Fortune–God’s operational free will in this world, which includes the capricious will of the English people–is less tied to Chance than to one’s own choices, decisions, and desires. The many examples of tyrants throughout history point to the ramifications of power lust, cruelty, and self-interest at the expense of the governed, inevitably pointing to the rulers’ transgressions. Moreover, blood begets blood, offering the theme of revenge, so important to the later Elizabethan drama, which capitalized on England’s newly emerging recourse to law, the courts, and the limitations of barons and powerful men of nobility who had previously taken blood revenge into their own hands as a right and duty. Thus Sackville anticipates and influences the glory of England’s golden age of drama, with its playwrights such as Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson.

Normand Berlin’s fine study of Thomas Sackville, part of the Twayne English Authors series, makes a number of excellent points in his final chapter, noting that while Sackville remains relatively obscure today, save for graduate students in English literature, he made a rich, if unobserved, “contribution to the development of Elizabethan tragedy. To know Thomas Sackville–to know his two poems and one play–is to know where Elizabethan tragedy came from and where it was going.” Sackville’s poems contain all the exciting elements of Elizabethan tragedy: Fortune’s Wheel, the protagonist’s personal choices and responsibilities, ghosts with messages for the living, revenge motifs, revealing introspection through soliloquies, the loathsome yet sympathetic villain, and the poetic power of blank verse. If somewhat obscure today, Sackville remains a prominent illustration of Renaissance virtu and its implications of virtue, as artist, statesman, and patriot.

BibliographyBerlin, Normand. Thomas Sackville. New York: Twayne, 1974. This study, one of Twayne’s English Authors series, is among the most readable on Sackville’s work and life, including some fine criticism.Campbell, Lily B., ed. The Mirror for Magistrates. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1960. An excellent text of the poems, with a lengthy and equally excellent introduction to the works.Cauthen, Irby B., Jr., ed. Introduction to Gorboduc: Or, Ferrex and Porrex, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970. Although brief, the introduction to the play offers approximately twenty pages on biography, political atmosphere of the times, and textual criticism of the play.Ruoff, James E., ed. Crowell’s Handbook of Elizabethan and Stuart Literature. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975. Although this handbook is out of print, copies may be found in libraries and used bookstores, rewarding the patient book hunter. Listed under Gorboduc and A Mirror for Magistrates, one finds concise plot summary, critical synopses, and bibliography. The handbook still proves invaluable for students of Renaissance literature.Vanhoutte, Jacqueline. “Community, Authority, and the Motherland in Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 40, no. 2 (Spring, 2000): 227-239. Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton’s Gorboduc urges Elizabeth I to accept parliamentary advice by marrying, providing an heir, and ensuring the stability of England. Vanhoutte argues that the play renders this advice emotionally legitimate by advancing the claims of what it calls the “mother land,” and in the process, the play questions dynastic notions of community.Zim, Rivakah. “Dialogue and Discretion: Thomas Sackville, Catherine de Medici and the Anjou Marriage Proposal 1571.” The Historical Journal 40, no. 2 (June, 1997): 287-310. Sackville’s previously unpublished letters of his secret interview with Catherine de Medici concerning the 1571 Anjou marriage proposal exploit the actuality of dramatic dialogue beyond the normal use of diplomatic correspondence.
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