Friday, June 26, 2015

Meeting Arthur and Honor: The Lisle Letters

Arthur Plantagenet was a bastard son of Edward IV, acknowledged and raised at his father's Court. He was Elizabeth of York's half-brother and thus related to Henry VIII who appointed him as the King's Deputy at Calais, England's last holding in France after all the battles and claims of the Hundred Year's War. We have no verified image of Arthur Plantagenet, but reports indicate that he resembled his father (portrait at right), said to be one of the handsomest men of his time.

He married twice: first to Elizabeth Grey (who had been married first to Edmund Dudley, one of Henry VII's counselors beheaded at the orders of Henry VIII after he succeeded to the throne) and then to Honor Grenville, the widow of Sir John Bassett. Arthur had children with Elizabeth; Honor had children with John; Arthur and Honor did not have any children together. Arthur received the title of Viscount Lisle through his first wife, whose father was Edward Grey.

Arthur was close to Henry VIII, serving as Privy Councilor, Vice-Admiral of England, and attending The Field of the Cloth of Gold. As Deputy of Calais he represented his majesty's interests and served his nephew. Of course, he had money problems since payment did not come with that service, and so he was always looking for ways to develop more income.

We know this because of "the Lisle Letters", the correspondence of the Lisle family, which were seized when Arthur was arrested on suspicion of treason. This correspondence, with exchanges both official and personal, is still on file in the Public Records Office. Arthur and Honor wrote to each other, to John Husee, their agent, to Thomas Cromwell, to their children, to other friends at Court, etc. The letters contain details about their efforts to arrange the education of their children, their gifts to friends and family, information about the conflicts between France and the Holy Roman Empire, etc, etc.

Muriel St. Clare Byrne edited the Lisle Letters in six volumes for the University of Chicago Press (published in 1981) and then her friend Bridget Boland edited a selection in an abridgment published by the same press in 1983. Muriel St. Clare Byrne was a friend of Dorothy L. Sayers and studied at Somerville College. Bridget Boland wrote the screenplays for Anne of the Thousand Days, The Prisoner (the 1955 movie about a cardinal on trial in a Communist country), This England, and the original Gaslight (not the Charles Boyer/Ingrid Bergman MGM version). She also wrote a novel, The Wild Geese, about religion in Ireland during the penal years.

What interested me in reading the abridgment of the letters (in a used Penguin edition) was, of course, the religious issues as Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell set out to remake religion in England with the Church of England as a state church led by the monarch as Supreme Head and Governor. People had to be careful when writing about the momentous events of those days: the executions of the Carthusian monks, Bishop John Fisher, Sir Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, etc. The Dissolution of the Monasteries provoked only Arthur's efforts to reap some of the spoils and the Pilgrimage of Grace comes and goes. 

Then there are the Sacramentalist preachers who begin to teach in Calais about Holy Communion and the Real Presence (denying the Real Presence, which was not what Henry VIII believed), connections to Reginald Pole, another Plantagenet cousin, Honor Lisle's Catholic devotions--the letters and St. Clare Byrne's notes demonstrate what a briar patch religion and politics were in Henry VIII's reign. Arthur Plantagenet got caught up in the conflict between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Norfolk over control of Henry VIII's last years on the throne. He survived Cromwell but died on March 3, 1542 after being held in the Tower of London for almost two years. Henry had decided to release his uncle but Arthur had a heart attack--"this King's Mercy was as fatal as his Judgements", one chronicler opined.

One of Honor's sons, St. Clare Byrne notes in the Epilogue, James Bassett, married St. Thomas More's granddaughter Mary, Margaret and William Roper's scholarly daughter:

Bassett’s marriage to Mary Roper drew him into the circle of friends and kinsmen of Sir Thomas More. Like most of her relations she was a learned lady, ‘very well experted in the Latin and Greek tongues’, who had translated Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, as well as other works of the early Fathers. Rastell’s edition of More’s English works, published in 1557, included her translation of her grandfather’s Treatise on the Passion. Bassett himself, despite the vicissitudes of his early education, was a fluent linguist, and a contemporary considered him endowed with ‘all spiritual and bodily gifts’, so they were probably well-matched.

Bassett was a servant of Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, and survived Edward VI's reign to thrive during Mary I's reign with Court appointments and property. Sadly, according to his parliamentary biography:

The marriage was short-lived, however. Bassett was only just over 30 when he made his will on 6 Sept. 1558. He bequeathed his ‘dear and well-beloved wife’ jewels, half his goods, his house in Chelsea and a life interest in his lands. He left small gifts to three of his sisters, lamenting that his ‘ability’ was ‘now but small’, and that if his debts had not been so great he would ‘better have remembered them’. To his unborn child (Charles) he left the lease of his house near the Savoy. Except for £20 to the Black Friars [sic] of Smithfield and provision for his servants, he ordered the residue of his goods, together with the wardship of his nephew and all his leases in Devon, to be sold to pay his debts. He appointed his father-in-law, William Rastell and Ralph Cholmley as his executors, and his nephew James Courtenay (his fellow-knight in November 1554) and the dean of St. Paul’s as overseers. Bassett died on 21 Nov. 1558 and was buried five days later at Blackfriars, Smithfield, hardly living to see the new reign which could have brought for him only renewed exile or imprisonment, as it did for his two sons.

His sons were Philip and Charles (the latter born posthumously). Charles was associated with St. Edmund Campion and Father Robert Persons and suffered imprisonment for it before going to Rome to study at the English College. He died in Rheims in 1583. His older brother Philip followed his maternal grandfather's career path as a lawyer but was expelled from Lincoln's Inn and spent the fortune left by his father on recusancy fines.

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