The Lisle Letters
Back to timeline
In 1932, Muriel St Clare Byrne was working on a project to produce an edited collection of the letters of Henry VIII for publication when she made a fateful discovery that would shape the rest of her life. To her great joy she found that the Public Record Office had preserved a collection of correspondence belonging to Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle - a collection of circa three thousand letters - the majority of which were written whilst he was Lord Deputy of Calais between 1533 and 1540 - and which provided a fascinating insight into not only Arthur’s official and business life but also his and his family’s personal life during those seven turbulent years. Muriel described this collection of letters written by many men and women - average and below average, and unusual or remarkable or outstanding - as: “a gigantic happening - the great Tudor epic of the ordinary, covering the most memorable seven years of the reign of Henry VIII - and such is the vigour and vitality of these men and women that we are swept up into their happening because it is life itself, caught on the wing”.
For her six-volume opus of The Lisle Letters, Muriel has selected almost two-thirds of the original collection of three thousand letters, and these she has ‘translated’ into modern text so that they come alive to the reader of today. This format enables the modern reader to become so immersed in the day-to-day lives of the characters in this true-life sixteenth-century drama that it is possible to be in a sense alive with them and not just to be an historical observer separated by centuries in time.
In her Preface to The Lisle Letters, Muriel leaves no doubt of her belief that this collection of letters makes three important contributions to our understanding of the Tudor world: firstly, with regard to the spoken and written language and the literature of the century - of ‘the tongue that Shakespeare spake’; secondly, with regard to the social history of that time; and, finally, with regard to the connection between Arthur Lisle’s arrest and Cromwell’s downfall.
The story told by The Lisle letters is centred in three people: Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle; his second wife, Honor, a daughter of the Cornish Grenvilles; and their man of business, John Husee, gentleman, of London.
Nevertheless, a multitude of people play their part as correspondents in these letters. It is Muriel’s contention that these people, in the main, wrote as they talked. “In consequence, when these letters of the 1530s constantly remind us of Shakespearean phrasing, and even more significantly of the rhythms of his dramatic prose, and of the movement of his simpler verse, in a way that we are not reminded by contemporary Elizabethan narrative prose, we can, I believe, rightly infer that the link between the world’s greatest dramatist and these early letters is speech - Tudor speech - as it was spoken by the people throughout the century.
These correspondents were therefore, arguably, speaking with ‘the tongue that Shakespeare spake’ some thirty or so years before he was born, and The Lisle Letters suggest that the basic expansion of vocabulary which is generally attributed to the last quarter of the sixteenth century had already happened in the first quarter.
Arms of Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle
Thus, by 1523, Arthur Plantagenet, who had started life with a quarterly wage of £6 13s 4d, some twenty years before, had, by royal favour and his loyalty and merit, risen to rank, titles, and possessions which for the moment outrivalled all save the highest. And in 1524 he was made Knight of the Garter.
Lisle had three daughters by the Lady Elizabeth: the eldest was Frances; the next was Elizabeth; and the youngest was Bridget.
The Lady Elizabeth, died circa 1525-6, and it is almost certain that Arthur Lisle would have lost the Dudley lands on her death, but he would have retained the much more valuable Lisle lands, and he also acquired the Waytes’ lands in Hampshire in 1528. In addition, he had his offices of Porchester, Clarendon and Bere.
Arthur Lisle married his second wife, Honor, some time between November 1528 and June 1529.
The years 1523 to 1533 were the heyday of Arthur Lisle’s career. Prior to his departure to Calais in 1533, he can be summed up as a man who:
Had a typical successful career in the first thirty years of the sixteenth century;
Though able, was not the essential bureaucrat, the born, dedicated civil servant;
Did not have the vigour, the particular kind of push, the knack of acquiring and husbanding wealth, as some of his more successful contemporaries;
Found it difficult to ask for useful little perquisites or perhaps timed his requests badly;
Was probably a bad bargainer;
Kept clear of politics;
Was obviously in demand socially and for great Court functions;
Was one of the King’s Councillors;
Was careless about money matters;
Was a great entertainer;
Was a considerable landowner;
Was prominent in local government;
Served for eight years as a sufficient administrator in his office of admiralty; and
Was Sir Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, KG, JP, Vice-Admiral of England, Keeper of Porchester Castle, Warden of the Forests of Clarendon and Bere, sometime Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and one of the King’s Council.
Arthur Lisle’s final act before departure to Calais was to act as Chief Panter at Anne’ Boleyn’s wedding.
Arthur Lisle’s handwriting was superior to almost all of his contemporaries. “As a stylist Lisle suits his letters to their different purposes. Those to his wife, as hers to him, are a category apart, but in his personal letters in general there is a friendliness and courtesy that betokens more than just the facile pen of a man with much correspondence. He is brisk and colloquial, expansive or brief, according to the pressure of feeling; and it is especially interesting to watch for this more personal tone breaking through in some of his business letters to Cromwell, witnessing to a genuine degree of trust and intimacy in their relationship”.
Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle
Before discussing the man, it may be of interest to establish the origin of the name ‘Plantagenet’. It can be traced back to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, a handsome, belligerent, red-headed young man born in 1113, who wore a sprig of yellow broom blossom in his hat. The name Plantagenet is derived from the Latin name for broom - planta genista. Geoffrey’s eldest son inherited the English Crown, as Henry II, in 1154.
It is Muriel St Clare Byrne’s considered view that, in the summer of 1461, the newly crowned nineteen-year-old Yorkist king, Edward IV, rode in progress through southern England and, at some time during that progress, he seduced Elizabeth Lucy, the daughter of a Hampshire landed gentleman, Thomas Wayte, whose family had been established as considerable landowners in Hampshire since the fourteenth century. Edward IV was the last Plantagenet King, and Elizabeth Lucy bore him a bastard son, called Arthur, who grew up to become Viscount Lisle, the Uncle of Henry VIII, who was the second son of Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s legitimate daughter.
Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle undoubtedly benefited from being the Uncle of Henry VIII. He was one of Henry’s personal attendants and held such high offices as Sheriff of Hampshire, Vice-Admiral of England, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, a member of the King’s Council, Keeper of Porchester Castle, Warden of the Forests of Clarendon and Bere, and Lord Deputy of Calais.
Arthur Plantagenet started to build his fortune by marrying Edmund Dudley’s widow, Elizabeth Grey in 1511, and this entitled him to a substantial share of the Dudley lands - comprising properties in four counties. Then, in 1519, Arthur’s wife, Elizabeth, succeeded to the lands of her brother - together with the title of Baroness Lisle - in her own right. These lands - referred to hereafter as the Lisle lands - comprised properties in eleven counties. Four years later, the King gave Arthur, whom he held in high favour, the title of Viscount Lisle. The income from the rents due from the Lisle lands alone amounted to about £600 per annum.
Honor Lisle, née Grenville, was Arthur Lisle’s second wife. She was the widow of Sir John Basset of Devonshire, with whom she had seven children.
Sir Thomas Grenville, who was an Esquire of the Body to Henry VII and Sheriff of Cornwall, had eight children, two sons and six daughters, and Honor, probably born between 1493 and 1495, was most likely to have been the youngest daughter. The Grenvilles lived at Stowe, which lay between the town of Kilkhampton and the west coast of Cornwall, three miles north of Bude.
In 1515, Honor married Sir John Basset of Umberleigh; he was a widower of fifty-three, and she was his second wife. The Basset property at Umberleigh was situated in North Devon, to the southeast of Barnstaple and near the river Tawe, and Sir John Basset owned lands of considerable extent in both Devon and Cornwall as well as a manor in Wiltshire. He died in 1528, and Honor became a widow of considerable financial means – and, as such, a very attractive proposition for a would-be suitor!
Whilst there is little evidence from which to construct a physical description of Honor Lisle, there is an abundance of evidence to show that she possessed a great many accomplishments: she was a generous hearted woman; had considerable charm combined with a compelling and forceful personality; dressed well in the courtly fashions of the day; was a spirited, vigorous and fearless person, tough but not hard, who did not hesitate to speak her mind (leaving some to accuse her of being ‘very sharp and hasty’); was a strict disciplinarian to both children and servants alike; managed and operated an efficient household; was deeply religious; loved pets; understood medicine; and could more than hold her own with the social skills required of a noble lord’s wife, such as: reading, riding, dancing, playing cards and shooting with the bow.
Honor was not as extravagant as Arthur, and in matters of business her judgement was shrewder than his. He, of gentle and generous disposition, would promise much but frequently fail to deliver, and so it was to Honor that those seeking repayment of Arthur’s debts or help with their own advancement would write in the first instance, or, at the very least, copy to her the requests of this nature they had sent to her husband. Honor would stubbornly persist in her quest to advance her family’s interests, whilst Arthur, appearing only too keen to accept promises at face value, invariably failed to secure a just and fair solution to his legitimate claims.
“Men and women deal and speak frankly with her, but with no diminution of respect. The impression grows that she and her lord were well matched in honest meaning, though perhaps her outspokenness was a little more tempered by discretion than his. She was obviously a woman whom men admired, whose friendship they sought and valued, and to whom they turned for sympathy, companionship, and advice.”
Honor took responsibility for the lion’s share of unofficial, semi-official and family correspondence. Letter writing must have occupied a very large part of her time. In actual fact she dictated rather than wrote the letters, and she must have been responsible for at least six hundred and fifty during her time in Calais – although, because so many from her must have been destroyed, there are only forty-one available in The Lisle Letters. She has “a good style – clear, flowing, measured, and dignified; and so full of natural speech cadences and rhythms that we may, without being fanciful, allow ourselves the belief that we know something of the individual manner of her talk”.
“People write to Honor Lisle when they want something; but they also write because she is somebody with whom they want to keep in touch, because she makes them feel that she cares about what happens to them and has a concern for other people’s affairs as well as her own, and will take trouble for them. There is a bounty of spirit, and a compelling vitality that evokes response, a warmth to which they stretch out their hands as to the fire on the hearth.”
The Lisle Letters provide us with “the most comprehensive account we possess of the noble lady of the first half of the sixteenth century” and they illustrate “so compendiously the activities and the capacities of the typical Tudor gentlewoman. We see her functioning in all the characteristic relationships – at home as wife, mother, and mistress of the household, and as hostess providing hospitality and entertainment. She is the business woman, dealing with the affairs of all the members of the family and fully empowered to act for her husband, his ‘dearest partner of greatness’, using her influence with him on behalf of all kinds of petitioners, and her own influence or their joint influence with both men and women in great place, and performing the accustomed offices of friendship and the sending of gifts and tokens and letters within an amazingly wide circle, embracing both sexes and individuals of every age and degree.”
Prior to his association with the Lisles, John Husee was already being described as a citizen of London and a merchant of Calais. He was most definitely a vintner, as he had been admitted to the freedom of the Vintners’ Company on 21st June 1527. The exact year of his birth is not known, but it is likely to have been between 1503 and 1506, and so he would still have been a relatively young man when he became Lisle’s London agent in 1533 – a position in which he was trusted with all of Lisle’s confidential business. It is likely that, coincident with this appointment as his agent, Lisle also gave John Husee a position in the Constablerie at Calais, thus making him a member of the King’s Retinue there, for which he was paid eight pence per day.
The five hundred and fifteen letters, contained in The Lisle Letters, in which John Husee was a correspondent illustrate not only the pivotal roll that he played in the lives of Arthur and Honor Lisle but also the astonishing contribution he has made to our understanding of life in Tudor times.
Muriel describes John Husee as the “chorus or presenter” in this drama. “Husee talked to everyone, and men, women, and children all talked to Husee. Even Cromwell afforded him ‘long half hours’ of confidential talk, and most people took him into their confidence to quite a remarkable degree. He was that kind of man. Lisle entrusted his most complicated legal, financial, and personal concerns to his care, with the result that Husee was always dealing with people of importance like Cromwell or Fitzwilliam or Wriothesley in his endeavours to secure justice or favours for the Lord Deputy, or the Lady Deputy, or their various families. He knew exactly how the system worked, and had the whole business of ‘suits’, and the art of ‘waiting’ upon the great ones of the earth at his finder tips, combining tact, pertinacity, and patience in his dealings to an almost superhuman degree.”
“Among all the people who served their interests there was no one who gave the Lisles a more whole-hearted devotion. As the years go by, his relations with both Honor and her husband become more personal, more affectionate and confidential; but he never takes advantage of the increasing intimacy to bate one jot of the respect due from ‘your ladyship’s own man’, ‘your lordship’s most bounden.’ To the end he is the perfect family retainer, his own life and interests genuinely identified with the lives and interests and needs of those whom it was his pride to serve. Husee is in himself the complete manual of Tudor etiquette. He knows what is proper to every occasion, and does his best to keep Lisle up to the mark.” Arthur Lisle would write: ‘Gentle Husee, I commend me to you.’
Husee is the very model of tact and diplomacy: knowing when to correct Lisle and suggest a more appropriate modus operandi yet also knowing when to offer praise to him when it is due. He is masterful at choosing the right type and value of gift from Lisle to achieve the desired result; for example: ‘My Lord Privy Seal [Cromwell] maketh much of his piece of wine your lordship sent him.’ [A piece of wine is equal to a butt or 126 gallons.]
Such was the trust and faith that Arthur and Honor had in Husee that they could pour their woes out to him from Calais and invariably receive the right amount of encouragement and reassurance from him to put them back on their feet. Husee was undoubtedly more politically aware and astute than either Arthur or Honor, and there are many examples in the Letters where he finds it necessary to offer pertinent advice to prevent either or both of the Lisles from putting themselves into jeopardy with the State apparatus – particularly with Cromwell and the King. Nevertheless, it was that quality of honesty combined with basic decency possessed by the Lisles that “wins Husee’s devoted service, and is at one and the same time the delight of his heart and the despair of his practical common sense.” Husee invariably saw through Lisle’s so-called ‘friends’ at court and was quick to point out the dangers that they presented: ‘Unless my lord procure new friends he shall do little good at their hands that he now taketh to be his friends, for here is nothing but everyone for himself’. In a like manner, Husee’s talent for judging character meant that he was often able to steer Lisle in the right direction so as to obtain support from those with influence at court, and he certainly had the ability to spot those whose stars were in the ascendant with the King. He did not always get it right though; for example, he never fully gauged the mind of Cromwell.
Husee was almost cast in the role of surrogate parent to Arthur’s and Honor’s children – looking after them in both London and the counties. Husee also “did nearly all Lady Lisle’s shopping for her in London. He knew her ladyship’s tastes to a nicety, and was always a close bargainer on her behalf.” In addition he was required to search out potentially acceptable servants and waiting-gentlewomen for Honor.
Lord Lisle’s indebtedness “made things very awkward for Husee as his man of business in London. Tailors, mercers, grocers, and chandlers were apt to turn nasty, and refuse any more credit. Their refusals, as transmitted, were politely worded, but Husee knows when the limits of patience have been reached: ‘desiring your ladyship that I may have money sent to pay the grocer and chandler, for they never leave crying and calling upon me for it’. ‘The pewterer is but a knave’, he laments, ‘and will not serve you without real money’. When the half-year’s rents come in, some of the worst debts are settled, but there is always somebody writing for payment, and always the same complaint: ‘My lord, before this time I sent unto your lordship like letter as this is, with like warrant; but I never heard thereof again. My lord, I pray you to consider that this duty hath been long due.’
The Letters show that Husee warned Lisle on more than one occasion that ‘friendship taketh small place when money faileth’ and ‘it doth evidently appear that every man here is for himself’. By 1535, the truth about money, as Husee says, is that it was ‘very scant, and here is nothing to be done without it’.”
Husee’s letter writing style is at once entertaining and informative. He can be witty, ironic, caustic, generous of spirit and philosophical. He employs aphorism, epigram, epithet, and proverb to good effect but never to the extent that they obscure the main points at issue. Good at describing events, people, behaviour and places, he occasionally excels with little cameos of colourful moments at this Tudor Court of Henry VIII – leaving the reader with a fascinating picture of life at that time. However, “it is not only the set piece, or the description of a scene with which he catches our attention – it is the knack of the lively image, the happy turn of phrase, the instinctive choice of the right word, the vitality of an unexpected adjective, noun, or verb, the fastidious application of a colloquialism, or simply the sheer gusto of a whole passage.”
“The one thing Husee could not bear was reproaches from his lord or lady. He was bitterly hurt when, in a moment of crisis, Lisle once suggested that he had not been prosecuting the family affairs with sufficient zeal.” Moments like these were to blow over quite quickly, because Husee at least was not one to dwell on such hurts. That Husee, a humble Tudor gentleman, was the truest and most able friend that the Lisles ever had there is little doubt, and the respect and admiration they felt for Husee can be best summed up by Arthur’s simple reference to ‘my friend John Husee’.
John Husee died, in 1548, at the relatively young age of about forty-two.
Muriel describes John Husee as “that best and rarest servant, the man who instinctively treats his employers as human beings……the most delightful character in the story.”
The other correspondents can be broadly categorised as:
Those in contact with the King at Court: his ministers, favourites and officials;
Merchants and tradesmen;
Arguably the most intriguing of these other correspondents is Thomas Cromwell. As Henry VIII’s principal secretary and chief minister, he was undoubtedly the intermediary between Arthur Lisle and the King. There are a total of thirty-two letters from Cromwell in The Lisle Letters - nineteen of which are officially concerned with policy and government. By contrast, there are ninety letters to Cromwell from Arthur Lisle.
Muriel believed that Cromwell rated Lisle “as a tolerant, practical, ordinary man, above all a man of good will, zealous to serve his prince, a man who would be willing to defer to his [Cromwell’s] judgement over questions of religion, being, as he frequently repeats, ready to carry out the King’s commandments, ‘and your lordship’s’, to the last drop of blood in his body.” Nevertheless, Cromwell, “exploited, bullied, and swindled Lisle, taking unscrupulous advantage, as he did with everyone, of the unique position with the King into which he had manoeuvred himself.”
Calais - a coloured plan drawn in circa 1535-1540
Calais was captured by Edward III in August 1347. Then, on 17th July 1453, it became England’s only ‘possession’ in France when John Talbot, fighting on behalf of Henry VI, was defeated at Bordeaux. This defeat marked the end of the Hundred Years war. Calais would retain this unique role of being England’s one bridgehead in Europe for a further one hundred and five years until it was finally lost to the French in January 1558.
The full extent of the English ‘possession’ of Calais amounted to some one hundred and twenty square miles of territory. The walled town of Calais, as shown in the plan above, was surrounded by the Marches - which were also referred to as the Calais ‘Pale’. The Pale was a roughly rectangular piece of land which extended: seven miles south to the town of Guisnes; thirteen miles east to the town of Gravelines; and five miles west to the town of Sangatte. Much of the Pale, especially the land to the east of Calais, was originally marsh-land, but it had been drained and cultivated for nearly two hundred years to the extent that a network of water-courses, dykes and canals created by the inhabitants had enabled them to convert the marsh into arable or grazing land. Whilst this system was expensive to maintain, it provided a very effective security against attack. In the event of an alarm being raised, the sluices could be closed thereby inundating the countryside surrounding the town of Calais with flood water.
From 1453, Calais had become the only channel for all English exports - primarily wool. The designated market for wool was called the ‘Staple’ - and the wool trade was dominated by the Merchants of the Staple, the ‘Staplers’, who brought enormous wealth to the town of Calais. For example, Henry VII had received an annual revenue of £13,000 from the ‘Pale’ - well in excess of the £8,000 per year required to maintain it. After 1520, however, the position was reversed, and with an income of £8,000 or less, expenditure ran to £17,000. After Arthur Lisle’s arrival in 1533, there was virtually no income for the Crown from the Staplers, whilst annual maintenance was something like £10,000. Small wonder then that, with no money to spare from the Treasury, Henry VIII and Cromwell were invariably slow to react to cries for support from Calais and that even then, only the barest minimum was done. Such a policy led directly to a material decay in the fabric of Calais - such that the fortifications, at many points, were either completely inadequate or in a ruinous condition due to a lack of money for the necessary repairs; the wages of the Garrison were continually in arrears; and the ordnance and artillery were in ‘ruin and decay’.
On paper at least, Calais was ‘defended’ by a Garrison of soldiers, which included:
Twenty-four men given the rank of ‘Spear’ - each with one, two or more men under him. ‘Spears’ were persons of good family;
A regiment called ‘Le Vynteyne’ with a theoretical total of two hundred and forty men;
Another body of men called ‘Le Constablerie’ comprising a theoretical total of one hundred and eighty men;
A ‘Banner Watch’ of six men;
Six ‘Sergeants’ - also known as ‘Tipstaffs’;
Four men of the ‘Day Watch’;
Four ‘Skewrers’ (Scouts); and
In addition, Arthur Lisle, as the Lord Deputy, had his own ‘Retinue’ of thirty-one soldiers, and other officials, including: the Treasurer, the High Marshall, the Comptroller, the Knight Porter, the Vice-Marshall, the Lieutenant of Calais Castle, the Lieutenant of Rysbank (Harbour Fort), the Lieutenant of Newnham Bridge, and the Captain of Guisnes all had an allocation of soldiers that amounted in total to approximately three hundred personel.
The men occupying these positions all received wages of varying amounts, which were not particularly attractive in themselves, but the positions were popular for other opportunities - maybe to do with business or marriage into local families - such that there was always a ‘queue’ of applicants waiting to take up a position, or ‘Room’ as it was often referred to. Needless to say, the process of obtaining a ‘Room’ often involved some form of patronage, wire-pulling, and financial transaction!
The terms of Arthur Lisle’s appointment as Lord Deputy, perhaps equivalent to a Governorship today, gave him, on paper at least, wide-ranging powers. However, with powerful local personalities involved, the day-to-day running of Calais was by no means a simple process. During the earlier part of his tenure, Arthur seemed to be more than capable of managing Calais, but, during the last two years, he became a victim of events.
The Period - 1533-1540
Lisle was appointed to the post of Lord Deputy of Calais because Henry VIII undoubtedly considered him to be the man best suited to the demands of the job. As Calais was England’s only bridgehead into Europe, the man chosen to run it would need to be a good administrator, entertainer, diplomat and communicator. Henry VIII was an extremely shrewd judge of character, and he would have appointed Lisle only because he knew him, through close personal association over many years, to be not only loyal and trustworthy but to have the proven skills necessary for this post.
If Muriel St Clare Byrne’s assumption that Lisle was born in 1462 is correct, then he would have been just over seventy when he went to Calais. Nevertheless, he appears fit and well when he arrived in 1533 and was still in reasonable health in 1539. During his tenure of office in Calais he suffered from periods of ill-health, but, in the main, he seems to have weathered the stresses and strains of life as a Lord Deputy remarkably well for a man of his age. That he relied greatly on his wife’s strength of character, judgement, business sense and above all, their mutual love, there is no doubt – particularly when his incurable optimism in matters of finance proved to be ill-founded, bringing him to periods of doubt and depression. Honor “had nerve, courage, resource, in greater measure than Lisle, who was the more easily depressed, the more ready to exclaim that life was not worth living and he was sick and tired of the unequal struggle”. The struggle referred to here may well be to do with the fact that “owing to the circumstances of his Calais appointment – and perhaps, also, partly by reason of age and temperament – he was unable to hold his own in the fiercely competitive scramble for gifts, offices, promotions, and sinecures which was at its height during the years of Cromwell’s ministry”. Such was the way in which the King confiscated wealth from his ‘enemies’ and then presented some of it to his ‘friends’.
Whilst the very nature of the role of Deputy at Calais was always going to put a strain on the personal finances of even the most thrifty incumbent, a person like Arthur Lisle, who enjoyed entertaining on a grand scale, was inevitably going to get ever deeper into debt. Lisle took his role of entertaining visiting and local dignitaries in the style that did honour to his King very seriously, and it was to cost him dear. Neither Henry VIII nor Cromwell would have been at all concerned that Lisle’s debts were mounting due to such extravagance; on the contrary, the more that Lisle was in their debt, the more power and control they had over him. “Bills went unpaid not only for months but for years, and creditors’ letters were left unanswered, till in despair of ever getting a penny the poor wretches would volunteer to forgo something of the total, if only the Lord Deputy would send them a substantial part of what he owed them.” “To Honor Lisle, less extravagant by nature, there fell, in consequence, the task of endeavouring to curb this lavish spirit, and many of the letters requesting payment of the debts are either sent direct to her or come as duplicates of the letters to her husband.” “Creditors are staved off for the time being by a payment of something on account, often with a promise to pay another instalment, or the remainder, at Michaelmas or Lady Day or Christmas or Easter, or some other quarterly or half-yearly postponement of the day of reckoning.”
Whilst indebtedness was a fact of life among the best Tudor families, it was nevertheless incumbent upon Arthur Lisle to be astute, even ruthless, in his business dealings if he was ever going to have a hope of managing his indebtedness. This he singularly failed to do. By nature a generous and trusting man, he fell foul of the greed, craft and treachery of those who all too easily took advantage of him in matters of business and finance. Prior to 1535, Lisle had struggled on, by dint of selling assets and living on credit, but then the effects of inflation started to take their toll to the extent that Arthur Lisle found himself in an ever-tighter debt spiral.
The letters written and received by the Lisles during these seven years at Calais cover an enormous breadth of subjects, such as: the administration of Calais; feuds between members of the Calais Council; diplomacy with regard to representatives of the French King, Francis I, and the Emperor, Charles V; the management of the Lisles’ estates in England; the lives, careers and loves of members of the Lisles’ families; the increasing problems associated with Arthur and Honor Lisle’s debts - particularly those whereby they kept tradesmen waiting for literally years to be paid; constant requests for favours - be they simple requests for wine, venison, or live birds of prey or more complex requests for employment in their household, the Calais Garrison or benefices in England. A constant theme concerned the perilous state of the Calais fortifications, the lack of both victuals and wages for the Garrison, and disputes with regard to the allocation of places, or ‘Rooms’ in the Garrison for ‘Spears’ and ‘Soldiers’. The whole issue of patronage, preferment, wire-pulling and financial ‘transaction’ that was involved in obtaining a ‘Room’ in the Garrison presented Arthur Lisle with a never-ending series of dilemmas; whatever solution he came up with would inevitably result in a complaint from the party that had not been favoured.
As regards the sensitive issues surrounding English politics - particularly those directly related to the King - it is important to remember that letters were by no means a secure method of sending information. They could be intercepted and read by those with an interest in doing harm to the correspondents. Word of mouth by trusted individuals was arguably safer, and in many of the letters we see statements to the effect that the ‘bearer’ of the letter will provide further information. Nevertheless, The Lisle Letters do contain some comments on the momentous events that took place between 1533 and 1540, and one or two examples for each of those seven years are given here.
A letter from England, dated 21st June 1533, from John Grenville, a nephew of Honor Lisle, was primarily about asking a favour, but, in a postscript, it revealed the news about the first of the English martyrs to die for maintaining the doctrine of the sacrament as it was eventually to be set forth in the book of common prayer: “This day there was judged to death two heretics, one named Frith and one Tayler, which shall be burned on Wednesday.”
Of the many cases in The Lisle Letters where reading between the lines is important is the brief comment made by George Taylor, Anne Boleyn’s Receiver General, to Lady Lisle when he says, in a letter dated 19th August 1533, that “her Grace intends, God willing, to take her chamber”. This briefest of statements refers to the preparations for Anne Boleyn to give birth to her first child on 7th September 1533 - a girl who would eventually become Queen Elizabeth I. Interestingly none of the Lisles’ English correspondents refer to the birth of Elizabeth - an indication perhaps of both a general dislike of Anne Boleyn and also of the known desire of the King to have had a male heir.
In a letter to Honor Lisle, dated 16th November 1533, John Salcot, Abbot of Hyde, revealed that “our holy Num of Kent hath confessed her treason against God and the King - that is to say, she hath confessed herself not only a traitress but also an heretic. And she with her complices are likely to suffer death”. In fact, a trial for treason had to be abandoned for legal reasons, and the King and Cromwell had to use a bill of attainder against the Nun and four of her associates to secure the death penalty. As a result, all five were executed at Tyburn on 20th April 1534.
During the last few months of 1533, the crisis surrounding the lack of victuals in Calais dominated the correspondence between Arthur Lisle and Cromwell. However, as was often the case, an unrelated passage in Arthur Lisle’s letter to Cromwell, dated 13th December, heralded England’s final breach with Rome: “pleaseth it you to be advertised that this day, being the xiith day of this instant month, I received your letter, by the which I do perceive that you received the process of the excommunication which the Pope hath given out, and that you have delivered the same to the King’s Grace”. The breach with Rome is one of the dominant themes affecting everyone until the end of the Lisle story.
Sir Thomas Palmer was a senior official at Calais, and, whilst in London, he sent a letter to Lord Lisle, dated 15th April 1534, stating that “My Lord of Winchester is out of the Secretaryship and resteth in Master Cromwell”. This was confirmation that Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, having refused to swear to the Act of Supremacy, had been sacked from his position of Secretary to Henry VIII, and that Thomas Cromwell had been appointed in his place. The Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament on 3rd November 1534, established Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The power of the Pope in England had thus been completely destroyed.
A letter, dated 23rd September, from John Husee to Arthur Lisle reveals how adroit John Husee was in ferreting out up-to-date, or in this case, advance news. In this letter, he states that “I went immediately unto Mr. Secretary [Thomas Cromwell], who is now Master of the Rolls”. In fact, Cromwell did not officially become Master of the Rolls until 8th October! Nevertheless, Husee’s brief statement serves to highlight Cromwell’s grip on the levers of power - which were such that, by then, he was the power behind Henry VIII.
In a letter to Arthur Lisle, dated 4th May, John Husee stated: “This day were drawn, hanged, headed, and quartered iii monks of the Charterhouses, i of the brethren of Sion, and a priest”. This would be the year when far more prominent persons than these would be executed for refusing to accept Henry VIII’s religious doctrine. Cardinal John Fisher would be beheaded on 22nd June, and Sir Thomas More on 6th July.
Interestingly, the letters do not contain any direct reference to the executions of Fisher and More. In a letter to Arthur Lisle, dated 28th June, John Husee stated: “It is said that Mr. More shall be arraigned the latter ending of this week”. Sir Thomas More’s trial for treason, with regard to his stance on the Act of Supremacy, began on 1st July. There was complete silence from Lisle’s correspondents after that - perhaps an indication of the mood in the country at large regarding the persecution of ‘heretics’. People were obviously very wary of going on record about these events.
In a letter that John Husee wrote to Honor Lisle on 13th May 1536 he says: “Madam, I think verily, if all the books and chronicles were totally revolved and to the uttermost persecuted and tried, which against women hath been penned, contrived, and written since Adam and Eve, those same were, I think, verily nothing in comparison of that which hath been done and committed by Anne the Queen; which, though I presume be not althing as it is now rumoured, yet that which hath been by her confessed, and others, offenders with her, by her own alluring, procurement and instigation, is so abominable and detestable that I am ashamed that any good woman should give ear unto. I pray God give her grace to repent while she now liveth. I think not the contrary but she and all they shall suffer”.
The day after Husee wrote his letter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared that Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was null and void; then, on 17th May, the five men accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn - including her brother George Boleyn - were executed; and, finally on 19th May Anne Boleyn was executed. The following day, Henry VIII was betrothed to Jane Seymour, and, in a letter to Arthur Lisle, dated 30th May, William March said: “My Lord, as this day the King is known to be married unto one Mrs. Jane Seymour, Sir John Seymour’s daughter”.
The events surrounding the Pilgrimage of Grace came to a bloody conclusion in 1537. In a letter to Arthur Lisle, dated 23rd February, John Husee stated: “Here are very good news that on Friday last, being the xvith of this instant, Sir Cristopher Dacres, uncle unto the Lord Dacres of the North, skirmished with certain of the rebels in the north, and slew viiC  of them and more, and took the rest in manner as many more prisoners, and hung them up and put them to death upon every bush, insomuch that he hath won his spurs”. Then, in a letter to Lisle dated 15th April, he stated “The Lord Hussey, Lord Darcy, Aske [Robert Aske], with divers others, are in the Tower. I think they shall have short despatch, according to their demerits”. After referring to the rebels in several more letters he stated in a letter to Lisle, dated 29th June, that: “The xxviiith of this month the Lord Hussey, Sir Robert Constable and Aske were delivered out of the Tower into the hands of Sir Thomas Wentworth, now Captain of Carlisle, who accompanied with L.  horsemen had the conduct of them northward - that is to say, the Lord Hussey to suffer at Lincoln, Sir Robert Constable at Hull, and Aske to be hanged in chains at York, as some saith, or at Nottingham. God have mercy on them”.
On a much more joyful note, John Husee wrote a letter to Honor Lisle, dated 9th May, in which he stated: “The saying is that the Queen’s Highness is with child, xx weeks gone. I trust the news be right certain”. It would seem that John Husee’s information was once again accurate as he begins his letter, dated 16th October, to Arthur Lisle by saying: “Pleaseth it your lordship to be advertised that on Sunday last past, by xii of the clock, the Prince was christened in most solemn and triumphant manner, whose birth hath more rejoiced this realm and all true hearts in the same more than anything hath done this xl  years”. The fact that the birth of Edward VI on 12th October was a difficult one, is well documented - as is the tragic death of Jane Seymour only twelve days after the birth.
After three months of court mourning for the death of Jane Seymour, John Husee reported in a letter to Arthur Lisle, dated 6th February, that: “The King and all others of the Court hath cast off their black” - a positive confirmation, if one were needed, that Henry VIII was once again in the marriage market. Interestingly, Husee had hinted in a letter to Lisle a month earlier that the King had been casting an appraising and appreciative eye over at least two ladies at Court! In fact, it would not be until late the following year that Anne of Cleves arrived on the scene as the prospective fourth wife of Henry VIII!
The dissolution of the monasteries was well underway in 1538, and there are numerous references to it in The Lisle Letters. For example, in a letter, dated 12th October, John Husee says to Arthur Lisle that: “And as for the Friars, he [Cromwell] putteth no doubts but your lordship shall have it”. In this context, the ‘Friars’ refers to the White Friars Priory in Calais.
Much time in the first half of 1539 was spent in determining religious doctrine, and this culminated in an ‘Act Abolishing Diversity of Opinion’ being passed by Parliament in June. In a letter to Arthur Lisle, dated 13th June, John Husee said: “Pleaseth it your lordship to be advertised that the Act concerning the Sacrament is passed, and I think shall be shortly published by proclamation; the sum whereof is, that whatsoever hereafter be reasoned and spoken of the same, after the consecration, otherwise than hath been in time past; that is, the very body of God to be there in flesh and blood, realiter et essentialiter; the offenders thereof to be taken as traitors and heretics, and to suffer as in case of like offences. And further, no priests nor religious persons hereafter to marry, in pain of death, and those that are already married to separate them from their spouses by a day limited, which is not long hence, and never to be taken again in their company upon pain of death. And all such persons as shall offend to be taken as felons. Further, that no vows of religious women, widows or maidens in any wise to be dispensed withal, but the same to be observed and kept, and all such as transgress and infringe the same to be adjudged as felons”.
This Act, the first Article of which enshrined the concept of transubstantiation into law, was, in effect, a resolution against religious reform, and it undoubtedly led to religious ‘difficulties’ in Calais which created the opportunity for Cromwell to engineer the arrest of Arthur Lisle in May 1940 and his subsequent incarceration in the Tower of London.
In September, Henry VIII, having viewed a flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves, chose her to be his fourth wife, and, in October, Lady Lisle received a letter from her daughter, Katherine Bassett, in which she says: “Madame, the cause of my writing to your ladyship is, that we hear say that the King’s Grace shall be married, and my lord and my lady as yet doth hear no word of their coming to London. Wherefore I desire your ladyship that ye will be so good lady and mother unto me as to speak that I may be one of the Queen’s maids”. However, the problems associated with winter travel from the Continent to England meant that Henry VIII would have to wait until the beginning of January 1540 before he finally met Anne of Cleves for the first time!
Henry VIII’s adverse reaction to Anne of Cleves when he met her for the first time is a matter of record, but, inevitably, due to the sensitivity surrounding this matter The Lisle Letters have nothing controversial to say. However, John Norris hints at the problem in a letter to Honor Lisle, in early January, when he says: “And that day [New Year’s Day] the King’s Highness came thither [Rochester] prively and banquetted with her Grace upon Friday [5th], and so came prively away again that night”. The fact that Henry, having seen Anne of Cleves, left to return to London on the same day speaks volumes! Nevertheless, the marriage took place on 6th January.
With Henry VIII blaming Thomas Cromwell for persuading him to marry Anne of Cleves - a woman that he took an instant dislike to the first day he met her - the scene was set for Cromwell’s rivals, headed by the Duke of Norfolk and Thomas Cranmer, to engineer his downfall.
On 9th March 1540, Henry VIII appointed a Royal Commission, of which Arthur Lisle was a member, to inquire into disturbances and disorders in Calais. The recommendation for this commission came from Cromwell’s enemies, led by the Duke of Norfolk, who, having visited Calais and talked to Arthur Lisle, was convinced that this Commission would provide an opportunity to expose Cromwell as one who was ambivalent when it came to matters of religion. By 5th April, the Commissioners had written to Henry VIII to say that they had discovered that there was great division among the King’s subjects resident in Calais with regard to religious practices in Calais - particularly with regard to the non-observance of the ‘Act Abolishing Diversity of Opinion’ passed by Parliament in 1539. The Commissioners identified those by name who were accused of the non observance of this Act - but, importantly, Arthur Lisle was not among them. Nevertheless, on 17th April, the King wrote to the Commissioners ordering them to send Arthur Lisle to London “both to visit us and also to declare his mind and opinion in some things used in that our said town and marches, meet to be both revealed and reformed”. The King also wrote to Lisle separately to “command” him to return. He did so and was in London by 23rd April. It is important to note that, weeks earlier, Arthur Lisle had already indicated his desire to meet the King to discuss the problems in Calais, and so, it would not have alarmed Lisle to receive the summons.
Initially well received by the King, Lisle was soon to find himself ensnared in a web of deceit spun by Cromwell, which resulted in him being suspected of active involvement in treasonable activities whilst Deputy of Calais. He was arrested and sent to the Tower on 19th May. Cromwell, perhaps seeking to divert attention away from his own failings, had sown the seeds of doubt in Henry VIII’s mind about Arthur Lisle’s loyalty with regard to a plot, involving Cardinal Reginald Pole, to surrender Calais to the French. Cardinal Pole, the son of the Countess of Salisbury, was a staunch Catholic and supporter of the Pope. He had refused to accept Henry VIII as Supreme Leader of the Church of England and, as a consequence, had left England to escape Henry’s clutches.
Arthur Lisle was to languish in the Tower until the early part of 1542 when he was pardoned, having been cleared of any imputation of treason. Sadly he died of natural causes on 1st March - only a few days before he was due to be released from the Tower.
Cromwell, the architect of Lisle’s demise, was to suffer a much worse and more rapid fate. The Duke of Norfolk would not have found it difficult to persuaded Henry VIII that Cromwell stood in the way of a divorce from Anne of Cleves, and, as Henry was now besotted with the Duke of Norfolk’s niece, Catherine Howard, the Duke undoubtedly had the King’s ear! It is therefore not surprising that the Duke of Norfolk, who had nurtured a seething hatred of Cromwell for so long, was able to turn the King against his Chief Minister. Cromwell’s fall was dramatic, and he suffered a gruesome execution at Tower Hill on 28th July 1540.
This very brief explanation of Arthur Lisle’s demise pales into insignificance when compared to the account that Muriel St Clare Byrne writes at the end of her six-volume opus - The Lisle Letters. Hers is a truly riveting and beautifully constructed account that leaves the reader in no doubt that she is the pre-eminent master of this subject.