Tiptoe Through the Tudors

The Lisle Letters

edited by Muriel St. Clare Byrne
University of Chicago Press, 3,952, six volumes pp., $250

This is, I think, the largest single work I have ever had to review. Epic in size and scope, tragic in the story it tells, it is also epic in its conception and execution, a remarkable triumph of persistence and determination. Miss Muriel St. Clare Byrne conceived of the idea of editing the Lisle correspondence in 1932. Now at last this colossal work appears as an eighty-sixth birthday present for Miss Byrne. Some two thousand letters—and they are only a selection!—are embedded in a running commentary in a work of nearly 4,000 pages.

Miss Byrne rightly claims that “the prime fact about the Lisle correspondence is its bulk.” It is “a mass of unorganized material,” which gives us a close-up picture both of the official dealings of the Lord Deputy of Calais with the English government in the years 1533-1540, and of the private affairs of the Lisle family and its ramifications during these years. Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle, was an illegitimate son of Edward IV, and so Henry VIII’s cousin. Miss Byrne thinks he was born about 1462, but she admits it might have been at least as late as 1470; others say 1480. Lisle certainly does not sound like a man in his seventies in this correspondence (I. 25, 144). He married for the second time in 1529 Honor Basset née Grenville, the daughter and widow of a Devon country gentleman (I. 5, 99-100).

As the world saw it, he married beneath him; but he married wisely. Honor was clearly twice the man her husband was. “With a few words and a present of a penny,” one of their acquaintances boasted, “he would have his lordship’s good will, so that my lady was not in the way” (V. 249; cf. 687). But she and her husband had a very deep affection for one another and positively enjoyed being together (I. 5, 26-7). “God…send us both shortly a merry meeting, which is the thing that I most in the world desire,” wrote Honor during one of their rare separations (V. 316; cf. 284, 319, 652). Historians of the relation of the sexes should note this, and historians of childhood must study, as the editor puts it, an “unusually detailed account of the training and experience of the children of Lisle and his wife…. It should help to adjust and correct the popular conception of the relationship between parents and children” (I. 87-9). One of Honor’s sons was at Lincoln’s Inn, another went to the University of Paris at the age of eight; two daughters were brought up in French families.

The third key figure in the correspondence is John Husee, Lisle’s agent of all work. He looked after every stage of his master’s and mistress’s land transactions. This involved intensive lobbying, waiting on a great man at court, often scores of times before he had time to see anyone; and then scores more times before he made up …

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