John Dudley: Life Story

Chapter 11 : Lord Admiral

Throughout the autumn, Lisle was kept busy with supervising fortifications. Henry took a great deal of interest in military architecture and amended the original plans himself. Lisle was recalled as Captain of Boulogne in early January 1545, probably to his relief. Henry was concerned that the French intended and invasion and wanted Lisle back with the fleet.

Lisle took to the sea in June 1545 with a force of some 16,000 men. He quickly captured a fleet of 30 vessels conveying salt, and pressed them into service, concocting an elaborate plan to use them to enter the French harbour at Le Havre and attack or burn the fleet there. Initially, the plan was hampered by weather, which also gave the opportunity for 23 of the captured vessels to escape.

Lisle was unable to attack Le Havre to any great extent, but did inflict some wounds on French shipping off Alderney. This did not, however, impede the main French attack. Around the 16th July, the main French fleet entered the Solent. Henry was in Portsmouth, dining on his flagship when the news came. He disembarked, and the fleet tried to sail out, but were largely trapped by contrary winds, whilst some of the French ships came close enough to fire.

It was in these circumstances that the 'Mary Rose', captained by Sir George Carew, Lisle’s deputy, sank, with the loss of nearly 500 men. A number of efforts were made to recover her - which Lisle was concerned hampered his defence strategy as they required other vessels to take part. Eventually the attempt at refloating the vessel was abandoned - she was not recovered until 1982.   

The French fleet left the Solent and concentrated its firepower on Boulogne, so Lisle left Portsmouth to mount a counter-offensive. With no standing Navy, one of the hardest tasks Lisle faced was manning the ships – a problem exacerbated when an epidemic broke out on ships coming from Saltash in Devon – attributed to food poisoning from provisions packed too closely.

On 7th August, the fleet, comprising now some 90 sail, left Portsmouth, heading for Rye where the enemy were lurking. Shots were fired, but contrary winds prevented the fleets from grappling. Over the course of a few days, the French departed for home waters, stopping en route to add men to the army besieging Boulogne, whilst Lisle took the English fleet back to the Isle of Wight. Lisle himself sailed on board the flagship – the ‘Henry Grace a Dieu’ or ‘Great Harry’, as it was called. At 1,000 tons, it was by far the largest ship, with the second largest, the ‘Peter Pomegranate’ only 600 tons.

There can be no doubt from the records that Lisle was a very active and able commander – with a thorough knowledge of the men under him, and eager to meet the enemy, without being foolhardy. Henry too, is shown as a man with an eye for detail in matters that interested him. On being sent a list of the captains and their ships, he queried changes since his last instructions, which Lisle explained as one captain being incapacitated by a ‘fervent ague’, necessitating changes in numerous ships.

By mid-September, Lisle having landed in Normandy, and burnt several towns there, including Treport, with the loss of only three men, the naval danger appeared to be over for that year. Lisle was summoned back to London, to the King’s presence. Henry must have been contemplating an important role as Lisle wrote, perhaps rather disingenuously, to Paget that:

‘I would the King had appointed me to serve in the meanest room [role or office] under some nobleman of reputation, for all the world knows that I am not of estimation for so weighty a charge. I should do better service as directed than director; for directions in great affairs appertain to such as have great credit and are feared.’

Amidst all his cares, it appears that Lisle still had financial troubles. It is likely that some of these related to his work as Admiral. As noted above, the commanders received lump sums out of which they had to pay and victual their men. If the men could not be found or hired within budget, the commander would have to pay the difference. Lisle requested Paget to ask the King to make a decision about certain requests he had made for land grants and exchanges. He was willing to take land anywhere ‘All places in the realm are indifferent to me, but I must be holpen or sink.’

In due course, he received further grants – including the manor of Birmingham, which included the rights to receive rent of 3lb of pepper, 1lb of cumin, six barbed arrows and a bow. He was also entitled to ‘bouche of court’, that is, the right to eat at the King’s expense when in attendance on the monarch.