Thomas Chatterton was born and raised in Bristol, the son of his father, Thomas, and his mother Sarah. His father, who was variously a musician, poet and numismatist, and a sometime partaker in the occult, and who had been a sub-chanter at Bristol cathedral, died some four months before his birth on 20th November 1752, leaving Thomas and his mother in a difficult, unsupported position. However, his mother’s education enabled her to establish a girls’ school, specialising in ornamental needlework and sewing. Chatterton himself was admitted to Edward Colston’s Charity, a charity school in Bristol, whose curriculum comprised reading, writing and arithmetic, and, more unusually, the catechism. However, of more interest to Chatterton was the church of St Mary Redcliffe, at which his family had long held the office of sexton, while Chatterton’s father had been master of the Pyle Street free school.
For the young Chatterton, then, St. Mary’s Redcliffe was home, both spiritual and actual. Moreover, its history and mysteries consuming his interest far more than his schooling ever could, he soon became familiar with the church’s chivalric, ecclesiastic and civic past, learning the names and circumstances of the various knights and civic dignitaries buried in the alter tombs and the church’s graveyard. The imagination of the young boy was captured particularly by the contents of several ancient, oaken chests, stored in the muniment room over the church’s north side porch, among which he found parchment deeds dating back to the Wars of the Roses, long since forgotten. Though they were not hidden so much as neglected, it proved a treasure beyond any curious young boy’s wildest dreams and compelled him to teach himself letters in his own time, apart from the education he continued to receive courtesy of Edward Colston’s Charity, discovering capitals from an old musical folio in the church and other script from a black-letter Bible. Indeed, his sister spoke of his dislike of small books, and his grandiose attitude: on being asked how he would prefer a bowl which was to be his be painted, she reports as his response “Paint me an angel, with wings, and a trumpet, to trumpet my name over the world”. All this, and his lack of interest in the normal games played by his fellow children, amounted to his generally being considered educationally backward.
From very early in his life he was often overcome with fits of abstraction, either sitting for hours in a trance-like state, and sometimes even crying without reason. This was attributed to his loneliness, which we can in turn attribute to his fascination with St. Mary Redcliffe and its history. This loneliness proved to encourage the natural sense of reserve which he would carry with him throughout his life. Moreover, his love of the mystery of St. Mary Redcliffe helped develop the genius for mystery, mysticism and archaism which characterises his life and career. He was only six when his mother recognised the capaciousness of his talent, while by eight she observed how, left to his own devices, he could spend entire days reading and writing. This rapacious attitude to reading and writing found him a position at the age of eleven as contributor to Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal. Some of his most notable contributions to the journal are the poems he wrote, inspired by his confirmation, and a satire he wrote about the churchwarden who, in 1763, destroyed the beautiful cross which had adorned the churchyard at St. Mary Redcliffe for the past three centuries. Chatterton was greatly affected by this, and the spirit of veneration encouraged his contribution. Having achieved such young success, he precociously accrued an attic in his mother’s house which he considered his study; in it, he hoarded his books, parchments and the documents he rescued from the muniment room at St. Mary Redcliffe. Chatterton displayed a talent for drawing alongside his verbal genius, and this attic became a sort of microcosmic creative environment populated by his medieval idols.
He had written the first of his significant literary mysteries, the dialogue of “Elinoure and Juga”, before he reached the age of twelve. Though he sought honest and impartial criticism and advice, he saw that he would not be taken seriously if he presented the work as his own, and so he resorted to showing it to Thomas Philips, the usher at the boarding school Colston’s Hospital, where he was now a pupil, under the pretence that it was the work of a 15th century poet which he had just found. Philips was impressed, and Chatterton was duly encouraged. Remaining a border at Colston’s Hospital for the next few years, he began to construct the hoax by which the ‘discovery’ of his works would be framed, while continuing to write those works themselves. Though three of Chatterton’s schoolmates are noted as youths in whom Philips’s critical appreciation stimulated a fierce creative rivalry, Chatterton remained comparatively under the radar, electing to keep his own literary endeavour to himself, while spending the little pocket money he received on books from a local circulating library. Alongside this private study, he introduced himself to several book collectors, affording himself access to poets such as John Weever and William Dugdale, along with Thomas Speght’s editions of Chaucer, Spenser and others.
Most of Chatterton’s holidays from Colston’s Hospital were spent at his mother’s house, particularly in his study in the attic. Here, his imagination was able and allowed to run free and he ‘lived’ in his own idealised world, imagining himself a subject of Edward IV and under the rule of the great Bristolian merchant William Il Canynges, who had been mayor of Bristol five times. Chatterton, in whose imaginary existence Canynges “still ruled in Bristol’s civic chair”, was familiar with this old Bristolian not only from his period as mayor in Chatterton’s ideal era, but through an effigy of his in St. Mary’s Redcliffe; Chatterton would later represent him as enlightened, a patron of art and literature.
Sadly though, however vividly Chatterton’s imagination could render his idealised 15th century existence, it was not powerful enough to bring any such enjoyment to those around him and so it was not long before Chatterton conceived the romance of Thomas Rowley. By fabricating the romance of Thomas Rowley, a 15th century monk, and concurrently adopting the same name as a psudonym for himself as a poet and historian, Chatterton was able to fantasise about an alternative childhood in which he had had a father. The psychoanalyst Louise J. Kaplan explains the imposturous invention of Rowley as a reaction against having been raised by two women, his mother and sister. She argues that in order to “reconstitute the lost father in fantasy” he created, unconsciously, “two interweaving family romances [fantasies], each with its own scenario”. Kaplan makes her belief that the consistent manner in which the Rowley romance addresses Chatterton’s own upbringing is utterly unconscious. She insists he did not sit down to write with the intention of doing so; rather, the latent insecurities he had as a result of the stunted nature of the formation of his masculine identity caused him, unaware, to write the fantasy which he did. Of the two scenarios Kaplan identifies, it is in the first that we find the wealthy, fatherlike patron William Canynge, clearly rooted in his older fantasies. Kaplan describes the second as his romance of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, in which he imagines his talent as a poet bringing him fame and fortune and the ability to rescue his mother from poverty.
Having seen the positive effect a patron had on Thomas Rowley, ignoring the minor technicality that Rowley’s success was imaginary and instead believing his own fantasy, Chatterton decided he needed a patron and so decided to seek one in Bristol, where his own character of patronage, Canynge, resided. He first became acquainted with various writers and historians, including William Barrett, George Catcott and Henry Burgum. He soon begain providing them with Rowley’s transcripts to assist them in their work. Barrett, an antiquary, soon relied exclusively on these transcripts in his research and source material for his “History and Antiquities of Bristol”, which was eventually published in 1789 and was an unequivocal failure. Chatterton felt that his Bristol patrons weren’t paying him enough, so he moved towards the wealthy Horace Walpole, sending him specimens of Rowley’s poetry and “The Ryse of Peyncteynge yn Englande” in 1769. Walpole offered to print them on the condition that they had never been printed, though he later found out that Chatterton was merely sixteen years old and that the pieces may well have been forged, and so he angrily and scornfully turn Chatterton down.
Walpole’s scorn was the first time Chatterton’s fantasy had really been challenged. Hitherto he had been able to exist within it and the real world simultaneously, but now he saw for the first time how fragile his enterprise really was. Understandably hurt, he withdrew slightly and wrote little for the whole summer. During this break, he matured somewhat and at the end of the season found his attention being drawn towards politics and periodical literature. He ceased contributing to Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal and instead turned his attention towards the more highbrow and better revered Town and Country Magazine, and other London periodicals. Town and Country Magazine held the advantage over its competitors, however, for though several periodicals had established themselves in the wake of the eighteenth century’s burgeoning interest in sexuality and the sexual lives and practices of others, the majority focused on the more sordid tales of prostitutes and brothels while Town and Country Magazine addressed the increasing adultery lawsuits brought by members of the upper-classes. Though members of many different professions and positions were targeted, the most commonly exposed were “aristocratic rakes and their kept women”. Perhaps partly in response to being snubbed by Walpole, Chatterton turned his pen against such members of the aristocracy as the Duke of Grafton, the Earl of Bute and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, the Princess of Wales.
He had now been writing for these London journals for some time while still living in Bristol. Having decided he needed to move to London if he were to stand a realistic chance of finding a suitable patron, he now had to devise a means of getting there despite his situation of poverty. As such, the next thing he wrote was on Easter Eve, 17th April 1770, and was his “Last Will and Testament”, in which he effects a perplexing mixture of satire, jest and earnestness, intimating a desire to end his life the following evening. In cutting thrusts of satire he bequeathes his “humility” to the Rev. Mr Camplin, his “modesty”, “prosody and grammar” to Mr Burgum and his “religion to Dean Barton”, and he leaves to Bristol “all his spirit and disinterestedness, parcels of goods unknown on its quay since the days of Canynge and Rowley”. Alongside these jests, though, are more earnest and sincere acknowledgements, such as that of intelligent sympathy from his friend Michael Clayfield. Altogether then, the “Last Will and Testament” compounded clear humour with troubling sincerity, and most probably had the effect of frightening those around him sufficiently enough to garner sympathy and financial support. His master cancelled his indentures, his friends donated money, and he left for London.
Upon his arrival and taking lodgings with a relative in Shoreditch and sharing a room with a Mr Walmsley, he found himself somewhat recognised amongst periodical editors for his writing at Town and Country Magazine, the Middlesex Journal and several others. This enabled him to find work swiftly at other journals, such as the Freeholder’s Magazine, which was a political miscellany supportive of John Wilkes and liberty. Though his contributions were accepted and generally well received, he in turn received very little or nothing for them. Nonetheless, he wrote with hope to his mother and sister, spending his first earnings on presents for them. The pride he felt and the ambition it served were gratified and reinforced by the interest and flattery he garnered from editors and political figures; indeed, none other than Wilkes himself had “expressed a desire to know the author”, noting his trenchant style. Meanwhile, Lord Mayor William Beckford greeted him “as politely as a citizen could”, acknowledging with grace and gratitude one of Chatterton’s political addresses. He abstemiousness and diligence served him well, for with persistence and flair he could assume the style, for example, of Tobias Smollett, or the bitter satire of Charles Churchill, or successfully parody Ossian, or replicate the refined grace of Thomas Gray and William Collins, all of whom were highly regarded. Undoubtedly the skills of fabrication and imitation which he had learnt as a child were serving him well.
Despite still being short of money, having lived in London for nine weeks he relocated from Shoreditch to an attic in Brook Street, Holborn. To compound his cash flow problems, state prosecutions of the press had recently rendered letters in the style of Junius, arguably the most recognisable political and social commentator, impermissible, leaving Chatterton without the use of one of the strongest strings in his bow. However, in his new attic he enjoyed the solitude he had missed while sharing space in Shoreditch. Mr Walmsley had noted how Chatterton spent most of the night writing, and now he was able to spend the entire duration of the night doing so. Finding himself in familiar seclusion in his new attic, he was able to revive his earlier fantasies, and began with a imaginary parchment of the old monk Rowley entitled “Excelente Balade of Charitie”. Despite being a fine poem, skillfully and cynically disguised in archaic language, grammar and turn of phrase, it was swiftly rejected by Town and Country Magazine.
Chatterton was neighboured by a kindly apothecary, who began to realise that the young Chatterton was undernourished. He subtly began to ask the young writer for dinner, but was repeatedly refused on the assurance that Chatterton was not hungry. His landlady, too, had noticed his necessity having seen him not eat for three days, and pressed him to share dinner with her, but was refused too. Indeed, posthumous examination of his pocketbooks and accounts indicated that, despite the praise Hamilton, Fell and other editors lavished on him, they paid him no more than a shilling for an article, and less than eightpence for a song, several of which were still unpaid to him.
In some of his last writing, he imagined the real-life monk of Bury St Edmunds, John Lydgate, challenging the fictional Rowley to a versemaking contest, and it was under the guise of this fictionalised event that he wrote Songs of Ælla, a piece of exceeding beauty. Again, a mere fragment remains of his Tragedy of Goddwyn, named the Ode to Liberty, and it is with this that it abruptly ends. Despite its brevity, however, the piece makes a legitimate claim to a place among the finest lyrics in the English language. Considering the poets age, barely seventeen, this brief and fragmented collection represent one of the most remarkable instances of precocious artistic intelligence in the history of English literature.
As we have seen, despite the literary merit of his writing, he simply could not live from its earnings and so he eventually wrote to Barrett pleading for a letter of recommendation to help him attain an opening as a surgeon’s assistant on board an African trader. Still waiting for a reply, on 24th August 1770, aged just seventeen and nine months, he retired to his small Brook Street attic for the final time, carrying the arsenic with which would kill himself, desperately and hopelessly tore up his remaining work, and drank. Tragically, mere days later a Dr Thomas Fry arrived in London with the intention of offering patronage to the young Chatterton, “whether discoverer or author merely”. Dr. Fry had an eye for potential literary forgeries and purchased the scraps of work which Chatterton had torn to pieces before killing himself from the landlady Mrs. Angel, who had swept them up in the hope of finding a suicide note. After compiling the scraps and reconstructing the fragment which so simply betrayed Chatterton’s despair, Dr. Fry identified it to be a modified ending to Songs of Ælla, and found it to be as rare a piece of lyrical brilliance as he had expected from the young man he sought to support.