[1770] - Chatterton poisons himself in London, aged 17

Thomas Chatterton was born on 20 November 1752 at Pile Street School in Bristol. His father was a writing master and amateur antiquarian who died three months before Chatterton was born; his mother was a seamstress. After early schooling at home, he entered Colston’s, Bristol’s bluecoat school, in 1760 where he read voraciously, acquiring a taste for medieval verse and beginning to compose his own poetry. He left school in the summer of 1767 to begin an apprenticeship as a legal scrivener to the attorney John Lambert. He continued reading widely in old English vernacular poetry and it was at this time that he discovered two boxes of old manuscripts that had belonged to his father. The discovery inspired him to compose the fictitious works of a fifteenth-century monk named Thomas Rowley; he subsequently claimed that his deceased father had recovered Rowley’s works from St Mary Redcliffe, the parish church where the Chatterton family had worked as sextons for two centuries. A number of possible sources have been suggested for Chatterton’s Rowley, including a Bristol bailiff and a chantry priest. Nonetheless, Chatterton crafted a compelling medieval world in which Rowley lived as a poet, author, literary agent, antiquarian, biographer and five-times mayor of Bristol. Chatterton’s forgeries, produced on old vellum in an ancient calligraphy, were so convincing that few questioned their authenticity. But in the late 1760s, as Chatterton began sending his Rowley poems to figures in the book trade, doubts began to arise. In March 1769 Chatterton wrote to Horace Walpole and enclosed ‘The Ryse of Peyncteynge yn Englande’. Walpole took great interest in the poem, but when he showed it to friends, they immediately recognized it as a forgery. Nonetheless, Chatterton continued to compose Rowleyan works, publishing widely in journals in Bristol and London, whilst also developing a reputation as a sharp political satirist. As Chatterton’s literary fame developed, he sought to end his apprenticeship as a legal secretary. He did so by trying to frighten his master into believing that he intended to commit suicide. His plan worked and, after penning a ‘Will’ in which he proposed to die on Easter Sunday 1770, he was released from his duties as an apprentice.

Chatterton duly set out for London on 24 April 1770 where he sought to develop his literary career. Initially, he was successful in being contracted to write journal articles and prepare books for publication. In June, however, he moved from his lodgings in Shoreditch to an attic room in Brook Street, Holborn, where the proprietor, Mrs Angell, ran a bawdy house. Over the next two months his fortunes deteriorated: he became increasingly short of money and came to be noted for temperamental instability. He died suddenly on 24 August 1770, aged 17, from an accidental overdose of arsenic and laudanum, which he may have taken as an antidote to venereal disease. He was declared insane by the coroner and given a pauper’s burial in Shoe Lane.

Chatterton’s short life and the tragic circumstances of his death have been seen by many to be part of the genesis of English Romanticism. He was the subject of verse by Wordsworth, Byron and John Clare; Coleridge’s first published poem was entitled ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’; Keats dedicated Endymion to his memory; and in 1803 Robert Southey and the publisher Joseph Cottle produced an edition of Chatterton’s poetry. Later in the nineteenth century, Dante Gabriel Rossetti compared him with Shakespeare and Robert Browning celebrated him as a genius. It was, however, the painter Henry Wallis (1830–1916) who captured the Chatterton myth in an iconic picture that was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856 (see link below).

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