Updated date:

Britain's Poet Laureate: The Monarch's Poetry King or Queen

After the Spanish Armada of 1588 the English Armada of 1589 was intended to show England's supremacy over Spain. It was a disaster

Learn about the history and purpose of the Poet Laureate's role in the United Kingdom.

Learn about the history and purpose of the Poet Laureate's role in the United Kingdom.

“Dancing is the poetry of the foot.”

That was the delightful view of John Dryden (1631-1700,) the first official Poet Laureate in Britain.

King Charles II (1630-1685) is often credited as the British monarch who created the role of Poet Laureate in 1668 with John Dryden as the first holder. However, his grandfather James I of England/VI of Scotland (1566-1625) unofficially promoted the dramatist and poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637) to the role in 1616 and gave him a pension. Dryden was the first to hold the position officially which is why most people don’t think of Jonson.

Britain's First Poet Laureate John Dryden (1631-1700)

Britain's First Poet Laureate John Dryden (1631-1700)

Why Is Someone Made Poet Laureate?

The title of Poet Laureate has traditionally been awarded to a poet who has work of significant, often national, importance. Since 1668 it has been an official role within the royal household and today’s Poet Laureate is Yorkshireman Simon Armitage, CBE (b.1963). He succeeded Carol Ann Duffy (b.1955) on 10th May 2019.

The Poet Laureate was once only replaced when they died but since 1999 the tenure has been of ten years, so Armitage will relinquish the position in 2029. Sir Andrew Motion (b.1952) was the first Poet Laureate to retire. So far, Elizabeth II has had seven Poet Laureates during her reign. In contrast, Queen Victoria’s sixty-three-year-long reign saw only four holders.

John Dryden remains the only one to be sacked, for religious rather than creative reasons. As a Catholic convert, he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to his new Protestant monarchs William III (1650-1701) and Mary II (1662-1694) in 1689. He was swiftly replaced by his contemporary Thomas Shadwell. (1642-1692).

When Were the First Poet Laureates of Anywhere Created?

Poet Laureates have existed since the Roman era. “Laureate” was taken from laurel and referred to the wreath or crown of laurel, myrtle and ivy leaves placed on early achievers' heads. Although the laurels have vanished, the role is still prestigious whichever country the poet comes from.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892.) Poet Laureate between 1850-1892.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892.) Poet Laureate between 1850-1892.

What Does the British Poet Laureate Do?

There are no specific duties attached to the role but it is expected that significant national events and their anniversaries, the death of a royal or perhaps a landmark birthday will trigger the creative juices. The other unspoken presumption is that the Poet Laureate will promote poetry, its rich heritage and its purpose in the modern world. Sir Andrew Motion believed that knowing his term was just ten years long made him more effective and productive as Poet Laureate.

The honour of being Poet Laureate is immense, as he commented:

“Those who say we should dismantle the role of Poet Laureate altogether, the trick they miss is that being called this thing with the weight of tradition behind it...opens doors...for the good of poetry in a way that nothing else would allow.”

the-uks-poet-laureate-the-monarchs-poetry-king-or-queen

Fancy the Poet Laureate’s Salary?

The annual salary in Dryden’s time was a welcome but comparatively modest £200. During the 1700s a £100 salary was paid. In addition, between 1630 and 1800 “a sack of butt,” a barrel of sweet Canary wine, went to the holder. After a break of 184 years, the practice was revived so Elizabeth II has awarded a barrel, equivalent to 720 bottles of sherry, to the incumbent Poet Laureate from Ted Hughes to Simon Armitage.

The current annual salary of £5750 falls within the remit of the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Simon Armitage has so far used his salary to set up and continue the annual Laurel poetry prize for work produced about the environment, ecology and nature. (The shortlist of 2021’s contenders will be published on the 22nd September 2021 and the winner’s name will be announced on the 8th October 2021.)

The U.S.A.’s Poet Laureate receives $35000 but there’s no sweet wine or sherry. (Surely a deal breaker?)

Simon Armitage, the current British Poet Laureate.

Simon Armitage, the current British Poet Laureate.

Who Has Been a British Poet Laureate?

Since 1668 there have been twenty one poets who have filled the role for the king or queen of their era. Some are world-renowned, some are less well known but all of them were eminent in the field. Only one, so far, has been female:

  • John Dryden (1668–89)
  • Thomas Shadwell (1689–92)
  • Nahum Tate (1692–1715)
  • Nicholas Rowe (1715–18)
  • Laurence Eusden (1718–30)
  • Colley Cibber (1730–57)
  • William Whitehead (1757–85)
  • Thomas Warton (1785–90)
  • Henry James Pye (1790–1813)
  • Robert Southey (1813–43)
  • William Wordsworth (1843–50)
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850–92)
  • Alfred Austin (1896–1913)
  • Robert Bridges (1913–30)
  • John Masefield (1930–67)
  • Cecil Day-Lewis (1968–72)
  • Sir John Betjeman (1972–84)
  • Ted Hughes (1984–98)
  • Andrew Motion (1999–2009)
  • Carol Ann Duffy (2009–19)
  • Simon Armitage (2019– )
  • To be awarded in 2029


The four year gap between Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s death aged 83 in 1892 and the appointment of his successor Alfred Austen (1835-1913) in 1896 was a mark of respect for the man who had written about the unforgettable Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War (1853-1856) and an ode on the death of revered soldier and former Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) which expressed the mood of the nation.

In April 2021 Simon Armitage produced The Patriarchs - An Elegy to mark the death of Prince Philip (1921-2021,) Elizabeth II’s husband.

He has also produced notable poetry about Coronavirus, lockdown and the huge problem of climate change.

The queen’s granddaughter Princess Beatrice gave birth to a little girl on the 18th September 2021. Is there another poem on the way from the Poet Laureate? Time and the muses will tell.

Princess Beatrice and Edouardo Mappelli Mozzi Welcomed a Daughter on the 18th September 2021.

Princess Beatrice and Edouardo Mappelli Mozzi Welcomed a Daughter on the 18th September 2021.

Sources

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

Related Articles