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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 his mind. “One hour missing attendance upon my Lord Privy Seal may hinder a month’s suit” (V. 97). Every possibly helpful palm had to be greased. But Husee also had the task of buying Lady Lisle’s clothes, in which he showed tact and good taste, of fobbing off creditors, of collecting debts (again a matter involving many visits), looking after the interests of the Lisle and Basset children, visiting the Lisle and Basset estates, etc., etc. All this was apparently done on a stipend of £10 a year, which Husee had the greatest difficulty in getting paid, plus such occasional gratuities as his lord or lady remembered to give him. One can only suppose that, like everyone else, he lived on the tips and douceurs which the confidential agent of the Lord Deputy of Calais could expect: there were jobs to be disposed of there.

Husee is the hero of the Lisle epic, the liveliest of the correspondents. He spotted the up-and-coming men at court, and advised Lisle of the right moment to switch his allegiance. He watched grimly over the family’s interests in their estates, warding off predators like Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, and the Earl of Hertford as best he could—by legal means “if the law favors us,” and by invoking—and paying for—court favor if it did not. In moments of crisis he turned from his easygoing careless lord to the harder-headed and more business- like Lady Lisle. They drafted letters for Lisle to sign, coached him in the line to take with Cromwell, urged him not to fail to beard the king next time he was allowed over to England—of course he did fail—not to allow Thomas Cromwell to pull the wool over his eyes again—though he never acted upon the good advice. (I. 40, II. 256, 267, III. 396, 499, V. 653-8).

Husee was liable to be upbraided by his master and mistress when things went wrong, usually through their fault rather than his, His expostulations make pathetic reading, but also give us insights into the nature of such a relationship. Husee appears to have devoted most of his life single-mindedly to the pursuit of the welfare of the Lisles, to have put up with abuse, insult, and sheer bilking from them. He died in 1548, aged forty-two (I. 360).

Miss Byrne’s running commentary on the letters is endlessly informative. She is endearingly involved with her characters. Her unfailing gusto and infectious enjoyment carry one a long way with her, though it is difficult to share her enthusiasm all through these volumes. Since her book has taken fifty years to write, it is inevitably repetitious and sometimes out of date. When discussing Thomas Cromwell, for instance, Miss Byrne polemicizes against H.A.L. Fisher, R.W. Merriman, and W.C. Richardson (I. 421-2, 429). G.R. Elton is cited occasionally, usually with approval, but one feels that the main lines of her argument were drawn before his influential book, The Tudor Revolution in Government, was published in 1953.

She gives biographical detail on every important character in her volumes—and that means almost everyone of political significance in England in the 1530s. Both Lisle and his wife receive full-scale biographies (I. 137-208, 364-5; 299-350). There is extensive detail on a wide variety of topics—family bills and accounts (I. 674-5, II. 433, IV. 457); lists of spices brought from a grocer (IV. 123), lists of Husee’s expenses (II. 648, IV. 341, 459, V. 260); bills for education at the Sorbonne and at Lincoln’s Inn (IV. 485-7, 516-18), information about wages and prices (II. 566, 368), accounts of Mediterranean voyages (I. 294, 341, 415-20, etc.), an account for making a ship (II. 592), information about piracy and pirates (II. 76, 111, 113), reports on the state of affairs in Calais (I. 652-3, etc.), surveys of Calais fortifications, lists of Calais shipping (VI. 49-51), and Calais muster rolls (I. 680-8). Finally there is a forty-page inventory of Lisle’s household goods when he was arrested in 1540 (VI. 189-210).

The wines at Marseilles are bad; those at Valencia are too hot (I. 595, V. 124-5). “Quarter shoes”—i.e. loose sandals—wear out at the rate of a pair a month (II. 434). There is evidence for mockery of the pope and his “two wives” (I. 564), of priestly celibacy (II. 619), of the mediation of the saints (I. 570), of Purgatory and ceremonies (II. 350, etc.). The prevailing cynicism is typified by Francis Hall’s remark that Bishops Latimer and Shaxton were “not of the wisest sort” to resign “such promotions for keeping of opinion” (IV. 576). Thomas Cromwell contemplates making a voyage to Calais and back for the sole purpose of purging his stomach, rather than having to undergo the normal medical remedy (V. 186).

Miss Byrne fights a running battle with the editors of the Letters and Papers for the reign of Henry VIII, correcting their reading and dating of manuscripts and their identification of individuals. She has modernized spelling and punctuation but gives many letters in their original orthography; their difficulty for the nonspecialist reader confirms the correctness of the decision to modernize. She gives us much information about spelling, punctuation, and dialect forms, that will be of interest to specialists. She notes the appearance of many words in the Lisle Letters earlier than the Oxford English Dictionary records them, and lists many proverbs familiar and unfamiliar (I. 72).

She argues—very plausibly—that English men and women could write lively, colloquial, and workmanlike prose, “uncontaminated by the conscious excitement of literary experiment,” long before the age of Lyly, Shakespeare, and Nashe (I. 67-84, 106). One hopes that any student of literacy who is tempted to argue that ability to sign one’s name betokens full ability to write will carefully note the letter in which Anne Basset, Honor’s daughter, declares “I cannot write nothing myself but mine own name” (VI. 34). Many statistical edifices have been built on the assumption that such persons did not exist.

Most interesting, however, is the very full picture we gain of social relations. In peasant society, when a family killed a pig, the neighbors came and helped, receiving cuts from the carcass in return; the gift was expected to be reciprocated on a later occasion. Similarly, when a gentleman went hunting he was likely to slaughter more game than his household could consume: boars’ heads and sides of venison were distributed to friends and neighbors, again in the expectation of return favors. The bigger the lord, the bigger the distribution, the greater the obligation to produce favors in return. At court the obligations tended to be one-way: gifts to the king and his ministers in the hope of favors which might never materialize. Gift-giving at certain seasons became highly ritualized: Husee has a vignette of Henry VIII sitting in state to receive his New Year offerings, with a clerk in attendance to record them—the silver plate, the gold jewels. When Lisle’s twenty sovereigns were presented (in a blue satin purse, but 6d. short, characteristically), they did not go into safe keeping with the rest: they were slapped straight into the capacious royal pocket.

The letters continually refer to gifts in kind—venison, boars’ heads, 1 stallions, horses, a mule, an ox,2 greyhounds, a ship of wheat, tuns of wine and hogs-heads of beer,3 rabbits, does, falcons, hawks, pheasants, capons, gulls, sprats, herrings, carp, tunny, cheeses, grapes.4 The higher the rank of the recipient, the higher the expectations of the donor, the more exotic the gift had to be—a stallion for Thomas Wriothesley (IV. 415), horses for Thomas Cromwell and his nephew Richard. “I perceive they looketh for them,” Husee said, urging speedy delivery (IV.268, 271, V.248).

One advantage of being at Calais was that the Lisles had access to a wider range of commodities: French wines for everybody, a merlin and a porpoise for Cromwell (V. 207, 519), a live seal for the Lord Admiral, which Husee had to keep at Wapping for several weeks at considerable expense and inconvenience (IV. 379, 384), sprats when they were out of season in England, storks for the Prior of Christ Church (II. 578), barrels of sturgeon for the king and the Lord Privy Seal (II. 494, 500), dottrels for Henry VIII (IV. 138). Lady Lisle was given a dozen puffins, as well as marmosets and a long-tailed monkey from Brazil offered by a French diplomat (III. 264, 11. 317). The greatest triumph came when Henry and his new queen Jane Seymour developed a passion for the fat quails which Lisle supplied. Husee called excitedly for more and more quails, fatter and fatter quails, to meet their insatiable appetites (IV. 141-7). The quails tipped the scale in getting Lady Lisle’s daughter introduced into the queen’s household (IV. 151).

Many gifts were not consumed by the recipient, but passed on. Wine became almost a form of currency. A tip—or at the very least a drink—was expected by the servant who delivered the gift, but was not always given.5 Many pathetic little gifts were presented by tenants and dependents of the Lisles, and greater gifts by greater people, all in the hope that the recipient would be “good lord” or “good lady” to them.6 In some instances ready cash was offered (II. 404). To the courtier Ralph Sadler, Lisle wrote: “With your good help the same may be brought about, and I assure you I will see the same recompensed unto you to the best of my power,” adding casually that it was worth £40 to him (III. 528-9; cf. II. 557-8).

Gifts to the king were inevitably very speculative investments; yet failure to make them would put one out of the game altogether. But direct access to the king became more and more difficult. He had to be approached through ministers (II. 169), and they had to be gratified. Thomas Cromwell strove—successfully for a time—to ensure that no one could gain access to the king except through him. As Husee wrote to Lisle in 1535, “I perceive Mr. Secretary’s mind is that your lordship should not write to any man to make mediation in your causes but only unto him.”7 Cromwell not only monopolized the king’s ear, and so controled policy; he and his underlings profited exceedingly from douceurs. It paid to allow a great man’s dependent—Ralph Sadler, for instance—a permanent retaining fee as well as the occasional douceur. Fees and gratuities were necessary to insure actual receipt of money even when it had been granted by the king (V.424, 571).

It was important in this world of cut-throat competition to have “a privy friend” or relative acting as a spy in the household of great men, or indeed of one’s potential enemies. Such a friend would supply copies of private correspondence and other vital information (V. 135, 187-9). William Popley and Ralph Sadler served this purpose for Lisle (or perhaps more accurately for Husee) in Thomas Cromwell’s entourage: they were well worth the “good fee or reward” they received.8 “There can be nothing written nor spoken against your lordship,” wrote Husee gleefully in August 1537, “but it will be known, you are so friended; but this must be kept secret” (IV.380).

The net effect of the whole system was that aspirants to office or court favor, unless they were extremely well-connected, had to lay out a great deal of ready cash in the hope of future favors. Money was eroding the barter economy. A boar’s head, a side of venison, were produced as part of a gentleman’s normal mode of living; but increasingly the expectations of sitting courtiers called for cash expenditure—on an annual retaining fee, a hogshead of wine, a foreign rarity. Lord Lisle ran more and more alarmingly into debt. He left creditors unpaid for years (V. 46). He made bad bargains over selling or leasing lands because he could not wait.

The beneficiaries of his extremity were two of the greatest courtiers—the Earl of Hertford, Queen Jane Seymour’s brother, and Thomas Cromwell. Each of them out-maneuvered Lisle into transferring land to them, and then shamelessly failed to keep his side of the implicit bargain. “They pass no further than to serve their own turn,” wrote Husee, using a euphemistic plural, “and care not who smart, so they may have the sweet. I doubt whether they have either conscience or soul, or believe in Heaven or Hell. God help them as they intendeth to help other!” (V. 473.) The last twist of the knife must have been Cromwell’s poker-faced remark to Husee: “He was sorry that your lordship was no better husband” (III. 487). “Surely, my lord,” Cromwell wrote to Lisle a year later, “such a governor as you be should not…make himself so needy that when the present thing should happen he should be forced to have more estimation of money than regard to the tale it bringeth with it” (IV. 441). Cromwell was well informed about “the tale.”

Lisle’s debts are a running theme throughout the correspondence. Some of them were ten, fourteen, sixteen years old; some were still unpaid at the beginning of the seventeenth century.9 They included quite small sums borrowed from poor tenants and neighbors who could hardly refuse to lend yet who were left to wait years for repayment (V. 741-2). They also included large arrears of taxes. “If extremity had been used against you,” Lisle was told in 1539, “your lordship had been at out-lawry seven years past and much more; but I had commandment to forbear you for a season” (V. 375). When Lisle was imprisoned in 1540, the wages of his Calais household had been unpaid for over six months (VI. 151; cf. V.645).

Lisle seems to have regarded tradesmen as persons who had supplied him with goods in the hope of future benefits. Husee vainly reminded him, again and again, of the consequences of leaving his grocer, his draper, his apothecary unpaid for too long. “I have lost a friend of him forever,” Husee wailed to Lady Lisle in 1539. “I know no man in this city while I have been toward my Lord, that hath done my Lord more pleasure than he. Friends be not so soon gotten as lost” (V. 476, 486, 602). “Friendship taketh small place when money faileth.” “Now may your ladyship see,” he explained, “that ready money buyeth all things at advantage, and they that dealeth otherwise must take it at their price or go without it” (V. 59). As City men succeeded monasteries as bankers, so credit with citizens acquired a new importance. A loan of £400, even at 15 percent, could be secured for Lisle in 1536 only if “two honest merchants…in the City” could be persuaded to be bound for it (II. 455-6, III. 494, 500).

In this transitional world it was important to grab tangible assets. “Money was never so scant since this King reigned” is the continual cry in the 1530s (III. 534). Tenants are recklessly cutting down timber for the sake of ready cash. Hence the scramble for monastic lands. “To date this was the best property investment of all time,” Miss Byrne rightly observes (V. 7, cf. V. 76, 115). In 1535 Husee believed that “when the King’s Highness falleth to dealing of abbeys, I doubt not but your lordship shall have one of them in commendam” (II. 627-8). Lisle was dealing privately with the “prior as yet” (as he described himself) of a friary in Calais which he hoped to persuade the king to grant him (V. 126, 328-9). If you delayed you would miss out. Hence, too, the fact that the successful monopolists of royal favor became so very rich so quickly, being in the best position to corner the market. Historians perhaps sometimes think too exclusively of politics or religion when they discuss the faction fights of Henry VIII’s reign, too little of mere spoils of office.

Hence the even more ugly practice of begging for pickings from the property of a fallen courtier as soon as he had been arrested, long before he had been tried and condemned (III. 356-8). An equally distasteful way of making quick money, in which Thomas Cromwell shared no less than Lisle, was by securing pardons for condemned criminals. “If your lordship handle him well,” Husee wrote to Lisle apropos a man found guilty of manslaughter, “it is not to be doubted but he will pay well for it, for the King’s Highness thinketh that at least it will be worth £100 to you” (II. 627, cf. 561, 652).

Miss Byrne’s story ends tragically, with Lord Lisle recalled to England, imprisoned, and accused of treason in 1540. He was fortunate in being one of the very few in the reign of Henry VIII who escaped execution after such a charge. But he remained in the Tower until February or March 1542, when he was pardoned shortly before his death (VI. 180). Honor was arrested and released at the same time as her husband. She lived on until 1566, but never remarried.

Miss Byrne has an intriguing and, I believe, novel explanation of this unexpected denouement. Up to 1540 Lisle had managed, at vast expense, to keep in with Cromwell. But in 1539 the Act of Six Articles showed the first sign of a decline in Cromwell’s influence, and Lisle began to reinsure. He made overtures to the conservative Norfolk-Gardiner axis. Miss Byrne argues that this was Cromwell’s reason for engineering the recall of Lisle, his arrest, imprisonment, and the seizure of his papers. Cromwell took advantage of a crazy plot to betray Calais to the French, of which Lisle was certainly not cognizant, to suggest that he was guilty of treasonable activities.

After Lisle’s arrest it was revealed that Lady Lisle’s daughter had secretly contracted marriage to a French papist. No doubt this was done through fear that her parents would oppose the match; but it was an offense to contract such a marriage without royal approval. Lisle was arrested on May 19, 1540, just a month after Cromwell had been created Earl of Essex and appeared to have recovered his position. But then came a dramatic reversal; on June 10th Cromwell himself was arrested, and by the end of July he had been executed. Miss Byrne’s conjecture that Lisle was a hapless victim in this savage struggle for power at least merits consideration. Lisle was about the only person arrested at this time who survived.

He was neither a nice man nor a very effective politician. Apart from the fact that George Monck, the hero of the restoration of Charles II in 1660, was descended from him, Lisle’s most lasting memorial is this vast correspondence, seized in order to be of use to Cromwell in his power struggle, and fortuitously preserved when that failed. In Miss Byrne it has found the ideal editor. It will be her memorial too.

  1. 1

    I. 40-1, 297-8, IV. 379, 424.

  2. 2

    I. 44, 390, 405-6, II. 578, V. 706.

  3. 3

    I. 416, II. 544-5, III. 372, IV. 415, 424, 453, V. 24-5, 330.

  4. 4

    I. 390, 406, II. 522, 544-5, 640, 645, III. 372, IV. 130, V. 24-5, 100, 342, 630.

  5. 5

    III. 29-30, 325-6, 386.

  6. 6

    II. 43-4, 48, 51, 69, 91-2, 161, 486-7, 513-14, III. 92, IV. 88.

  7. 7

    II. 467, 275, 415, 423, 515-16.

  8. 8

    II. 278, IV. 41-2, 45, 61-2, VI. 60.

  9. 9

    I. 22-3, II. 506-7, 639, III. 534, IV. 123-4, V. 248, 340, 342-3, 607-8, 672, 699, VI. 163-4.

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