Honor Grenville: Life Story

Chapter 1: Youth & First Marriage

Honor Grenville was a typical Tudor matron and courtier – of gentry stock, she married into the nobility, had numerous children, step-children and kin and was at the heart of affairs in England in the 1530s. We know a huge amount about Honor’s daily life from the Lisle Letters – a vast collection of correspondence from the period 1533 – 1540 which has been painstakingly sifted, transcribed and explained by the scholar Muriel St Clair Byrne. In six fascinating volumes, the contents of this work are some of the best sources of information about England and Calais during the period covering everything from military movements to orders for children’s clothes.

Honor was one of the younger daughters of Sir Thomas Grenville, who held two important manors – Bideford in Devon, where the Grenvilles had been lords of the manor for some eleven generations, and Stowe, Kilkhampton, Cornwall. The Grenvilles were at the heart of a complex web of Cornish and Devon families whose interrelationships are sometimes difficult to follow, but who held the majority of public offices in the two counties.

Sir Thomas had been an early supporter of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and following Richmond’s elevation to the crown as Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth, Grenville was appointed as Sheriff of Cornwall. In the next generation, Honor's brothers and in-laws, particularly Sir John Arundell of Lanherne, husband of her sister Katherine, effectively controlled Cornwall and west Devon.

Honor was probably born at Stowe, but the exact location of her upbringing is unknown. It was common for both girls and boys to be brought up in other households, it being considered that they would learn better and be more disciplined outside their own home. Often, if a childhood marriage had been arranged, the bride would be brought up in her future husband’s home. For girls, the move usually took place at around the age of twelve.

If a girl were not marrying into her foster family, she would return home in her mid-to-late teens either to marry or to serve in another household as an attendant on a woman of higher rank. This pattern of young people being sent to different households, and received in her own, recurs throughout Honor’s life, and many of the letters relate to placing children or reporting on those in her care.

For Honor, there was no childhood betrothal, so far as the records show, for when her father died in January 1514, although she was probably about twenty, she was still unmarried. Sir Thomas left instructions with his oldest son, Roger, that Honor was to be married with a dowry of 300 marks. This was a handsome, although not munificent sum.

Roger carried out the duties expected of him and in 1515, Honor married Sir John Basset of Tehidy and Umberleigh.  Like Honor’s father, Sir John had been an adherent of Henry VII, and had also taken part in Buckingham’s rebellion of 1483. He was suitably rewarded by Henry for his support, and, like his father-in-law, served as Sheriff of Cornwall, as well as Sheriff of Devon. This support for the King cost him dear in 1497, when his loyalty to Henry in the face of the Cornish Rebellion resulted in his house at Tehidy being badly damaged.

The match was the classic marriage we associate with the Middle Ages - the young woman married to the ageing widower. Sir John was at least thirty years older than Honor and already had three daughters by his first wife, Elizabeth Denys, to whom he had been married since his adolescence. But he had no son and probably hoped that a new bride would provide one. Honor swiftly did her duty and gave birth to three sons and four daughters, who arrived more or less at yearly intervals until Sir John’s death on 31st January 1528.

During Honor’s eleven years of marriage to Sir John, we can suppose she lived the life of a country gentlewomen. The Basset estates were large with manors at Tehidy in Cornwall, as well as Umberleigh in Devon. It would have been Honor’s role to manage the households, the servants, children, any foster children, undertake basic medical care, keep the family in clothes sewn by herself and her female attendants, and to undertake legal and estate business to support Sir John. Unlike the court ladies of the generation that followed her, Honor did not speak French and had no knowledge of Latin. She could read, but, if she could write more than her name, she preferred not to. All of her extant correspondence was dictated.