Depending on how you cut it there have been 21 or 23 British poets laureate. It really got going when King James I (VI of Scotland) started paying a pension to Ben Jonson. Wikipedia tells us that Henry VII had a poet laureate too, a Frenchman named Bernard André. Richard I had a versificator regis, William the Pilgrim. And of course we can imagine wind-swept Ossian-like bards urging on the warriors in the real olden days. John Dryden was the first “Official” poet laureate.

The full list of semi-official and official laureates is:

  • Ben Jonson — 1619-37
  • Sir William Davenant — 1638-?
  • 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 — 2009-2019
  • Simon Armitage — 2019-

According to The Guardian Simon Armitage will receive an annual stipend of £5,750 plus the traditional butt of sack: 600-odd bottles of sherry. The ten-year tenure seems to be a relatively recent development — or the list would have to contain forty names — well maybe with some sort of gap for the Commonwealth. Is it odd that there are just two Sirs? I guess getting the office is considered enough of a reward for a mere writer. The eighteenth century in particular is distinguished by poets we rather ignore nowadays.

In The Guardian Andrew Motion has just written an article celebrating Mr Armitage’s appointment. In the course of this piece he tells us that the ten-year limit was something he insisted upon, which now appears to have become standard. I guess 6,000 bottles of sherry could be seen as sufficient.

See also Poets laureate (US).