Henry Wotton Biography: Renaissance Diplomat, Poet, and Scholar


Delve into the life and legacy of Henry Wotton (1568-1639), the English Renaissance figure known for his roles as a diplomat, educator, and minor poet. From his early education at Winchester School and Oxford University to his extensive travels across Europe, explore Wotton’s fascinating journey. Learn about his diplomatic service, including his ambassadorial duties in Venice and dedication to the affairs of Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia.

Henry Wotton

Henry Wotton; English diplomat, educator, and minor poet: b. Boughton Malherbe, Kent, England, March 30, 1568; d. Eton, December 1639. He attended Winchester School and Oxford University, where he began a lifelong friendship with John Donne. He then spent several years traveling and studying language, art, architecture, and chemistry in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. After returning to England, he became secretary in 1597 to Robert Devereux, 2d earl of Essex, whom he accompanied on two expeditions against the Spanish and on the ill-starred Irish adventure.

Although not a party to Essex’s plans, Wotton decided not to return to England when Essex fell, but went first to France and then to Italy. Ferdinand I de’Medici, grand duke of Tuscany, sent him to warn James VI of Scotland of an impending assassination. In gratitude James, when he came to the English throne as James I in 1603, knighted Wotton and named him ambassador to Venice, where he served intermittently during the next 20 years. A witty comment concerning the role of an ambassador brought him temporarily under James’ disfavor in 1612; but Wotton apologized, supported the king in Parliament, and eventually returned to ambassadorial duties on the Continent. He devoted himself particularly to the affairs of the queen of Bohemia, King James’ daughter Elizabeth.

In 1624 Wotton returned to England for good. His salary was in arrears, and he renewed his entreaties for preferment from the king. He also published The Elements of Architecture at this time and received from James the provostship of Eton College. Since Wotton felt the position required him to take religious orders, he did so and spent the rest of his life studying divinity. Feeling death near, he ordered his tombstone inscribed in Latin with the sentence (in translation): “The itch of disputation will prove the scab of the church.” Weakened by asthma, he died of a fever.


Wotton wrote many letters and essays. Some of them were gathered together with his poetry, character sketches, and observations on famous people of his acquaintance by his friend Izaak Walton, who prefaced the collection, Reliquiae Wottonianae (1651), with his famous Life of Sir Henry Wotton. Wotton’s reputation as a poet rests upon the slender foundation of some two dozen poems, but the exquisite lyrics On His Mistriss, the Queen of Bohemia, The Character of a Happy Life, and A Description of Spring justify his claim to that honored name.

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