ELYOT, Sir Thomas (c.1490-1546), of Long Combe, Oxon. and Carlton cum Willingham, Cambs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. c.1490, 1st s. of Sir Richard Elyot of Wiltshire and London by 1st w. Alice, da. of Sir Thomas Delamere of Aldermaston, Berks., wid. of Thomas Dabridgecourt. educ. M. Temple, adm. 1510. m. c.1510, Margaret, da. of John Abarough of Downton, Wilts. s.p. suc. fa. 1522. Kntd. 1530.2

Offices Held

Clerk of western assizes and commr. of gaol delivery, western circuit c.1510-26; j.p. Wilts. 1515, 1525-9, Oxon. 1522-d., Cambs. 1532-d., eastern circuit 1540; commr. tenths of spiritualities, Oxon. 1535, musters, Cambs. 1546; other commissions 1538-d.; sheriff, Oxon. and Berks. 1527-8, Cambs. and Hunts. 1532-3, 1544-5; clerk of the Council c.1523-30; ambassador to Charles V 1531-2.3


By his own account Thomas Elyot was ‘continually trained in some daily affairs of the public weal ... almost from childhood’. His father, a prominent lawyer of west country stock, was appointed a justice of assize for the western circuit in 1506, and employed his son as clerk on the circuit from about 1510. Meanwhile, the humanistic studies which Elyot was to turn to such good use in later years were not neglected. He says himself ‘that he was educated in his father’s house and not instructed by another teacher from his twelfth year, but led by himself into liberal studies and both sorts of philosophy’, a sufficient refutation of the claim made by both universities to have taught him. He also made some study of medicine, being instructed in the works of Galen and Hippocrates by ‘a worshipful physician and one of the most renowned’, apparently Thomas Linacre. This prodigious programme of self-education was to bear fruit in his writings, where his early reading is marshalled in a vast array of quotation and allusion.4

It was during his years at the Middle Temple and on the western assizes that Elyot made the acquaintance of More, Cromwell and Wolsey. Thomas Stapleton lists Elyot and his wife among More’s ‘friends and companions in the pursuit of polite literature’, and Elyot had to appeal to Cromwell, probably in 1536, to ‘lay apart the remembrance of the amity between me and Sir Thomas More’. Of Elyot’s early association with Cromwell nothing is known save that in 1538 Elyot referred to their friendship as of 19 years’ standing. It was Wolsey who arranged Elyot’s appointment as clerk of the Council about 1523, and Chapuys later referred to him as formerly in the service of the cardinal.5

Sir Richard Elyot died in 1522, leaving his son as heir and executor of a complicated estate, which included a library of French and Latin books and some fine manuscript primers. One manor, that of Long Combe, Oxfordshire, was bequeathed to Thomas Findern of Carlton, Cambridgeshire, a relative by marriage whose death the next year made Elyot heir to both Long Combe and the Carlton estates, although at the cost of four suits in Chancery which lasted for more than a year and cost him £100. He was to make his residence at Long Combe from 1522 until 1530, when he moved to Carlton. In 1528 he purchased the wardship of his cousin, Erasmus Pym, ancestor of the great Parliamentarian.6

Elyot tried to avoid his promotion to the clerkship of the Council, which was to cause him serious financial loss because of Wolsey’s failure to secure him a salary and his enforced surrender of the clerkship of the western assizes, worth 100 marks a year. His new duties centred on the Star Chamber, but he also served the King in ‘some things pertaining to the clerk of the crown, some to the secretaries, and other travail’. The diversity of his work is illustrated by his presence at the court of aldermen of London in 1529 to declare the Council’s decree for butchers; at this meeting he was also admitted to the freedom of the Grocers Company. His tenure of the office ended with the fall of Wolsey, and he was ‘rewarded only with the order of knighthood, honourable and onerous, having much less to live on than before’.7

For the next year Elyot lived in retirement at Carlton and composed his famous treatise on education, The Boke named the Gouernour. Like all his works The Gouernour was printed by Thomas Berthelet, the King’s printer. It opens with several chapters in extravagant praise of monarchy and was well received at court, the King commending Elyot’s ‘diligence, simplicity and courage in that [he] spared none of the state in the rebuking of vice’. As a mark of his favour the King appointed Elyot ambassador to Charles V in the autumn of 1531. Ostensibly he was to represent the King at a meeting of the order of the Golden Fleece; actually he was to sound the Emperor on the question of the divorce. As Elyot’s sympathies lay with Catherine of Aragon, he was not well-suited to this mission. His appointment lasted only from October until the following January, when he was replaced by the less equivocal Cranmer and left the Emperor’s court ‘to the great grief of all’. According to Chapuys, the King said that he had recalled Elyot at the request of ‘sa femme’; if Catherine did have a hand in the matter she was probably acting on behalf of Elyot himself, who later implied, in a letter to the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, that he welcomed his early recall. Besides being distasteful, his mission (as he later told Cromwell) cost him £400.8

Elyot did not return to England until June 1532. For a time he remained in Germany with Cranmer; they visited Worms, Speier and Nuremberg, and Elyot did not like what he saw. At Nuremberg, although he admired the prosperity and governance of the town, and even approved the married priests, he joined the French ambassador in walking out of church to avoid taking the communion by the reformed rite. From April till June he stayed in the Netherlands, trying at the King’s orders to apprehend Tyndale; although he spent some of his own money in bribes, he was unsuccessful. On his return to England he waited on the King and perceived his opinion ‘minished towards me [and] other men advanced’. The King’s attitude might have been more severe had he known that Elyot was going to supply a full report of their conversation to Chapuys and, in a coded letter, to a Spanish agent. In November 1532 Elyot was pricked sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. He wrote two letters to Cromwell in a fruitless attempt to escape this office, which, he said, cost any man 100 marks, a sum he could not afford since his embassy.9

Elyot was badly upset by the events of 1533, the divorce, the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the coronation which he was required to attend. He wrote in April to John Hackett, English ambassador in the Netherlands: ‘We have hanging over us a great cloud, which is likely to be a great storm when it falleth ... I would I had some comfortable news to send you out of these parts, but the world is otherwise.’ In 1533 he penned several gloomy and outspoken pamphlets which fortunately for him were largely ignored. Pasquil the Playne, for example, is a dialogue in which a councillor who is out of favour lashes out at flatterers who surround the King; although the setting is Rome, the domestic allusion is thinly veiled. He also translated a sermon of St. Cyprian, that well-spring of Renaissance pessimism. Just how badly Elyot seemed out of step with events is reflected in a dispatch of Chapuys in January 1534 which lists him among the English advocates of Catherine who would support a Spanish conspiracy against Henry VIII and his new Queen. He did not, however, cease to serve the crown, acting as a commissioner for tenths of spiritualities in 1535, or to declare, in the letter in which he renounced his friendship with More, his detestation of ‘all vain superstitions, superfluous ceremonies, slanderous janglings, counterfeit miracles, arrogant usurpations of men called spiritual and maskings religious, and all other abusions of Christ’s holy doctrines and laws’. When in 1537 John Parkins, the ‘fool of Oxford’, accused him of consorting with papists he was not even asked to defend himself. In 1538 he published the first version of his Dictionary and presented a copy to Cromwell; in this great endeavour he was much encouraged by Henry VIII, who loaned him some books to complete the task.10

In 1538 Elyot purchased from Cromwell for £790 a manor adjoining his own estates at Carlton; this property brought him a certain amount of trouble as he had to defend a Star Chamber case against the tenant and to be confirmed in possession after Cromwell’s fall. In the following year he acquired further parcels of land in Cambridgeshire worth £40 a year; as he paid the court of augmentations only £438, at a rate of less than 11 years’ purchase, Cromwell may have arranged this bargain to reward Elyot for his losses in the King’s service. For the subsidy of 1545 Elyot was charged £10, a figure suggestive of an income of about £200 a year in land.11

In 1539 Elyot sat in Parliament for—so far as is known—the only time. It was the first Parliament to be summoned after Elyot’s two large purchases of land in Cambridgeshire, for which he was returned as junior knight. To his personal eminence and local standing he doubtless added the support of Cromwell and of his fellow-Member, (Sir) Giles Alington, who had married More’s step-daughter. Some light is thrown on his presence in the Commons by his observation in the preface to the 1539 edition of The Castel of Helth, dedicated to Cromwell, that he had made some corrections in it, ‘and yet perchance some things might happen to escape, which were as needful to be corrected, mine attendance on the Parliament, I being a Member of the Lower House, withdrawing from me leisure convenient to find in this work all the faults which might be amended’. The statement, originating with Browne Willis, that Elyot represented the borough of Cambridge in the Parliament of 1542 is incorrect, but it is not impossible that he was returned again for the shire in 1545, a Parliament for which the Cambridgeshire Members are unknown.12

Besides continuing his work as a local official, Elyot was one of the gentlemen appointed to receive Anne of Cleves in 1540 and was ordered to provide ten men for the army in France in 1543 and 20 in 1544. He had made a will before going abroad on the embassy in 1531; he confirmed its provisions on 23 Mar. 1546 and died three days later. In the absence of any children of his own, his property went to his wife Margaret for her lifetime and then to his nephew Richard Puttenham, elder brother of the author of The Arte of English Poesie. His books Elyot ordered to be sold ‘and the money thereof coming to be distributed to poor scholars which be good students after the rate of six shillings eight pence to every scholar’. He was buried in the church at Carlton, where the brass which once commemorated him has long since disappeared. There are fine drawings of Elyot and his wife (who later married (Sir) James Dyer) by Holbein in the royal collection at Windsor castle; a commemorative poem appears in Leland’s Encomia.13

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: T. M. Hofmann


  • 1. E159/319, brev. ret. Mich. r. [1-2].
  • 2. Date of birth estimated from first reference. DNB; S. E. Lehmberg, Sir Thomas Elyot, 4-9, 16-17, 189; PCC 24 Maynwaryng; LP Hen. VIII, v; Corresp. More, ed. Rogers, 249.
  • 3. LP Hen. VIII, i-v, xi-xxii; Lehmberg, 23n, 31n, 156nn, 157nn; Cott. Titus B1, ff. 376-7, Vit. B21, f. 60; CSP Span. 1531-3, pp. 239-40.
  • 4. Elyot, The Boke named the Gouernour (1531), ff. aijv 56; Dictionary (1538), f. Av; The Castel of Helth (1541), f. Aiv; Lehmberg, 5-10, 131, 170-1; J. M. Major, Sir Thos. Elyot and Renaissance Humanism, passim.
  • 5. Lehmberg, 6-7, 15-16; Cott, Cleop. E4, f. 260, Titus B1, ff. 376-7; inscription to Cromwell in Dictionary, BL press mark C28, m. 2; LP Hen. VIII, add.; CSP Span. 1531-3, pp. 239-40.
  • 6. PCC 24 Maynwaryng, 36 Holder; Cott. Titus B1, ff. 376-7; PRO Lists, xxxviii. 319; LP Hen. VIII, iv.
  • 7. Cott. Titus B1, ff. 376-7; City of London RO, Guildhall, rep. 7, f. 231v; 8, f. 39v.
  • 8. Elyot, Of the Knowledge which Maketh a Wise Man (1533), ff. A3v-A4; Lehmberg, 95-114; LP Hen. VIII, v; CSP Span. 1531-3, p. 382.
  • 9. Cott. Vit. B21, ff. 58-59; Titus B1, ff. 376-7; CSP Span. 1531-3, p. 453.
  • 10. SP1/75/81; LP Hen. VIII, vi-viii, xi, xiii; Elton, Star Chamber Stories, 19-51.
  • 11. LP Hen. VIII, xiv. xv; St. Ch.2/10/36-38; C142/74/16; E179/82/191.
  • 12. Browne Willis, Not. Parl. i. 190, followed by DNB; C.H. Cooper, Cambridge Annals, i. 407.
  • 13. LP Hen. VIII, xiv, xv, xviii, xix, xxi; PCC 14 Alen; Leland, Coll. ed. Hearne, v. 144; Holbein (The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace 1978-9), 62-64.