Nicholas Breton, son of William and Elizabeth Breton, was born into an affluent and ancient family of the Layer-Breton area of Essex. The dates of his birth and death have been disputed, but 1545/1555-1626 seems a reasonable estimation of his lifespan. By February 20, 1576, Nicholas had situated himself in London, where, between the years 1577-1626, he published works in rapid succession. On January 14, 1592, he married Ann Sutton. They had at least four children, several of whom are known to have died in infancy or adolescence. The life of Nicholas Breton was a notable one: he shares with Robert Greene the distinction of being one of the first professional writers in England (Neilson 37).
Breton enjoyed the patronage of important figures at court. He was the ‘humble servant’ first of Sir Philip Sidney, and then of Sidney’s sister, the Countess of Pembroke(Grosart xxvi). Although he dedicated The Pilgrimage to Paradise, Joyned With The Countesse of Pembroke’s Love to her (Robertson xxv), he lost the favour of the Countess during the 1590s. The works that he constructed during this time, however, were good enough to win him public recognition as a skilled author. Eventually, he came into the service of royalty, serving first Queen Elizabeth and later King James.
Some of Breton’s early writings resemble those of his second stepfather, George Gascoigne, who was a close imitator of Petrarch’s poetry (Robertson xx). Breton made deliberate use of Gascoigne’s two poems "The Passion of a Lover" and "The Straunge Passion of a Lover," but after this, Gascoigne’s influence is less evident (Robertson xxi). According to Richardson, Breton’s own pleasant nature interfered with the dark Petrarchan style he was trying to emulate (33). Often described as containing sentences leading everywhere and nowhere, his lines are, nevertheless, commended for containing “colloquial and proverbial expressions that add life and humanity” (Neilson 33).
There are varying accounts of Breton’s education. Alexander Grosart speculates that the author had minimal education, claiming that Breton never took on the airs of a scholar (Grosart xix). According to Jean Robertson and James Neilson, however, it is possible that Breton was a student of Oxford (Robertson xviii, Neilson 32). Breton knew Italian and the amount of time that he spent abroad must have also taught him a great deal about the world (Robertson xxiii). His travels have been blamed for his significant lack of writing during the 1580s (Neilson 32). Taking all of this into account, it is still likely that most of Breton’s education was informal.
From 1592/1595 to1605, Breton focused mainly on religious writing. During this period, Breton also turned his hand to the writing of satires. The blending of the satirical and religious can be seen in The Passion of a Discontented Mind, a poem first published in 1601. Here Breton laments and satirizes the sorry state of man, pleading for God’s grace and mercy. Breton’s authorship of this text has been disputed. Lollier, Grossart, and Sir Leslie Stephen in his Dictionary of National Biography entry, do not credit him with Passions of a Discontented Mind because the manuscript lacks Breton’s initials and ‘mintmark’ words, and is published with a stationer that Breton was not in the habit of employing. However the obvious similarities between Passions of a Discontented Mind and Breton’s Passions of the Spirit, give credence to the attribution of the poem to Breton in later printings (Robertson xciii).
It appears that after 1605, his works were published more slowly than earlier. However, this lapse does not necessarily indicate a dwindling career, since it followed his most popular work, Fantastics, originally published in 1604. After this there are only three books entered in the 1622 Stationer’s Register; none appear to have been published (Robertson xxxi).
Apparently without academic credentials, Breton explored issues of theological, philosophical, social, and political importance through satirical, religious, romantic, and pastoral forms of literature. It is this wide range that has caused some critics to find his works drab and without character; however, his breadth of interests makes him important to our study of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.