Henry Wotton 1568-1639

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Sir Henry WOTTON 1568-1639

Biographical Note

Born at Boughton Hall, Kent, son of Thomas Wotton, estate manager there. BA Queen's College, Oxford 1588; in Oxford, he met John Donne, a lifelong friend. Travelled extensively on the continent 1589-94, learning languages and visiting scholars (he lodged with Isaac Casaubon in Geneva). Secretary to the Earl of Essex 1594, with whom he travelled on his expeditions to Cadiz and Ireland; he left Essex's service in 1600 and travelled again. This led to his undertaking a secret mission to help James VI of Scotland, who, on assuming the English throne in 1603, knighted Wotton and made him ambassador to Venice. His less than happy involvement in Venetian/Roman politics led to his resignation in 1610; in 1612 he undertook a diplomatic mission to the court of Savoy, and in 1614 was sent as an ambassador to The Hague. His diplomatic career continued into the 1620s, although he was often out of favour with the English establishment as his advice or actions met with disapproval. In 1624 he was appointed Provost of Eton College, and in 1625 became MP for Sandwich. In 1627 he was ordained a deacon.


Despite his rises and falls in favour, Wotton was well-known and well-connected throughout his career, and his acquaintances ranged widely across the literary and scholarly world of his day. As well as Donne, he was noted as a friend of Francis Bacon, and Milton presented him with a copy of Comus. He published Elements of architecture collected ... from the best authors in 1624, and a short Meditation upon ... Genesis in 1631. Some of his poems were published posthumously in Reliquiae Wottonianae (1672).

The size of his library is not known; in his will, he left all his Italian books to Isaac Bargrave, Dean of Canterbury 1586-1643), and all his manuscripts to Eton College, but his intentions regarding other books are not specified, apart from a copy of Dioscorides "with the plants naturally coloured and the text translated by Matthiolo" left to Queen Henrietta Maria. Much of the will is concerned with the disposal of pictures and scientific instruments. The Eton bequest took place, and although the manuscripts are not inscribed there are a number of Italian manuscripts there which clearly came from Wotton. Eleven belonged previously to the celebrated renaissance humanist Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519) and are thought to have been acquired during Wotton's residence in Venice in the 1620s.