Thomas Shadwell was born at the family seat Santon Hall in Norfolk, the son of a lawyer and local magistrate whose family had fallen on hard times after their support of the losing Royalist cause in the Civil War. Thomas was educated at Bury St Edmunds School and Caius College, Cambridge which he entered in 1656. He left without taking a degree and joined the Middle Temple to study law but gave up his studies after realising that the legal profession was not for him.
After travelling on the continent he returned to London where he joined the literary fraternity and commenced a career as a poet and playwright. After the Restoration he became one of the court wits and a friend of Sir Robert Howard, a fellow dramatist and politician. His first play The Sullen Lovers, a comedy, staged in 1688 enjoyed moderate success but his Epsom Wells (1672) brought him public acclaim. Over the next twenty years he wrote some eighteen plays, mostly comedies, several based on Moliere’s works. His plays were often bawdy but portray a hatred of pomp and show but contain an honest, moral purpose. He also translated Juvenal’s The Tenth Satyr.
Initially a friend of Dryden, who wrote the prologue to one of his plays, he later became involved in a fierce literary feud with him and in 1788 replaced him as the poet laureate more for his Whig sympathies than any literary merit. He was also made the historiographer royal and following these appointments he instituted the New Year and Birthday Odes, congratulatory poems to the recently installed monarch William III and his Queen Mary which could have done him no harm.
His poetry was of mediocre quality and he is best remembered for Nymphs and Shepherds which was set to music by Purcell. He married Anne Gibbs who acted in some of his plays and they had four children, one of whom, Charles, became a minor playwright. He died suddenly in Chelsea, aged 51, some say through an overdose of laudanum. There is a marble monument placed by his son John as a memorial to him in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, which gives his age at death of 55.