With Tudor Times we profile a different figure every month. Here, Melita Thomas looks at Honor Greville whose correspondence offers a unique glimpse into Tudor life.
Honor lived a long life by Tudor standards, dying in 1566 at the age of about 73. For the majority of that life, we know no more about her than about any other gentlewoman – the names of her family, details of her marriages and the date of her burial.
But for seven years between 1533 and 1540, there is more information about Honor and her extended family than almost anyone else in England – everything from the state of her mills to her pets, from the cost of her clothes, to her concerns that her daughter wasn’t practising her music and that her son wasn’t eating breakfast.
These nuggets can be gleaned from a cache of letters, known as the Lisle Letters, which were seized by the king’s officers from Honor’s home in Calais. Piled with other state papers, they were little noticed until the scholar Muriel St Clair Byrne transcribed them into six fascinating volumes, in the 1970s.
But who was Honor, and why were her papers of interest to the king?
The daughter of a loyal supporter of Henry VII, the Cornish Sir Thomas Grenville, Honor married Sir John Basset, a man some 30 years older than herself, by whom she had seven children, as well as acquiring four step-daughters. After 13 years of successful married life spent at the Basset manors of Umberleigh in Devon and Tehidy in Cornwall, Honor was widowed in January 1528.
In 1529, Honor first appeared on the public stage as the second wife of Sir Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, the illegitimate son of King Edward IV, and half-uncle to Henry VIII. Despite the age gap of at least 20 years, the two were devoted to each other. In one letter Lisle wrote that he was missing her so much he couldn’t sleep.
The marriage presented Honor with another three step-daughters, the Ladies Frances, Elizabeth and Bridget Plantagenet, as well as Lisle’s own three step-sons, John, Andrew and Jerome Dudley.
Lisle supported the king’s divorce from Katharine of Aragon so the Lisles were chosen to go to Calais in 1532 in the retinue of Anne Boleyn, Honor being one of only six ladies invited. The following June, she was probably at Anne’s coronation feast, as Lisle had the honorary office of Chief Panter. A few days later, they sailed for Calais for Lisle to take up the prestigious role of the King’s Deputy, in command of England’s last territory in France, a place of great symbolic importance.
For Honor, while Calais was a busy hub of diplomats and merchants passing to and fro, the posting necessitated near-daily instructions to her agents in England to manage the Basset estates and arrange the education of her children and step-children.
Honor’s most frequent correspondent was John Hussee, who sent news of the rise and fall of Henry’s ministers, wives and friends. In one illuminating letter written before Anne Boleyn’s trial, he wrote that she would be executed, an indication that the queen’s probable innocence would be no defence to Henry’s determination to be rid of her. The news must have been a shock to Honor – she had sent Anne gifts, including a monkey (which Anne could ‘scant abide’) and a spaniel.
Shortly after Henry’s third marriage, Honor corresponded with court contacts, seeking a place in the new queen’s household for one of her daughters, either Anne Basset, or, if she were thought too young, her older, but less good-looking sister, Katherine. Disappointingly, Queen Jane declined but in 1537, the situation changed when Honor gained favour by sending copious supplies of quail, which Jane craved during pregnancy. Grateful, Jane appointed Anne as a maid-of-honour, although Jane’s death soon made Anne redundant until the king’s fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves.
Anne of Cleves stayed in Calais for two weeks en route to England, and Honor wrote to her daughter that the new queen was gentle and easy to serve. Anne Basset became rather a favourite with Henry VIII: it has even been suggested that she was his mistress. Whatever the relationship, it was sufficiently friendly for Honor to send the king her own quince marmalade.
When the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves proved disastrous, Lisle became caught in the cross fire between Cromwell, desperate to retain the king’s favour, and the Duke of Norfolk, whose niece, Katheryn Howard was poised to supplant Anne. Cromwell had frequently undermined Lisle’s deputyship, and suggested that Lisle, and particularly Honor, were ‘papists’. Norfolk, seeing a chance to challenge Cromwell, persuaded Henry and his Privy Council to set up a commission to consider Lisle’s conduct.
The Commission found in Lisle’s favour and when he was summoned to London in early 1540, it was rumoured that he would be granted an earldom. Instead, within weeks news came that he had been arrested for treason: several men in the Lisle household were alleged to be embroiled in a far-fetched scheme to hand over Calais to the Pope.
While none of the accused implicated the Lisles, Lord Lisle was despatched to the Tower of London and Honor was placed under house-arrest. Never tried or condemned, Lisle remained in the tower until March 1541 until Henry became convinced of his uncle’s innocence and sent him a message of affection. Sadly, Lisle, overcome by shock, died within a few hours of a heart attack.
Released from confinement, Honor retired to Cornwall, where she lived another 25 years as obscurely as she had her first 36.
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