Honor Grenville: Life Story

Chapter 6 : Politics

During the period 1533-1540, whilst Lisle was Lord Deputy in Calais, England was undergoing a legal and cultural revolution. In 1534, the Acts of Supremacy and Succession stripped the Pope of all his powers in England, as well as his revenues, and proclaimed Henry as Head of the Church in England. His marriage to Anne Boleyn was to be recognised, and her children to be accepted as his legitimate heirs. Later, after the execution of Anne in 1536, there were further religious and political upheavals. It was a time of great instability, both at home and abroad, and it is against this backdrop that Lisle’s deputyship took place.  

Whilst in Calais, Honor and Lisle had an agent in London, John Husee, to represent their interests. Hussee, who was clearly devoted to the whole family, was the most frequent writer of the letters in the collection. He was responsible for managing huge amounts of business for the Lisles, but his chief role was to manage politics for them – to understand who was in favour and who was out, who needed a present and what might be suitable, who was looking for a job and who had one to offer that the Lisles could put forward one of their clients for.

Husee was their eyes and ears – in the febrile atmosphere of Henry’s court in the 1530s, he often wrote that he would explain matters when they met – reluctant to put any contentious statements on paper. He relayed Sir Francis Bryan’s warning to Lisle that he needed to be ‘secreter’ about affairs than previously, and that he was reported to be consorting with unnamed people in a way that ‘sound[ed] highly against [Lisle’s] honour’.  Everything that passed was known at court – a hint that Lisle was surrounded by spies and informers.

Hussee regularly visited Cromwell to explain Lisle’s requirements and to find out what the King was expecting. By 1533, Cromwell was in charge of most of Henry’s day to day business. Although the King always maintained the ultimate decision making power, he was a strategic, rather than tactical thinker. His great skill was in choosing servants who could handle detail, and, for so long as Henry’s wider plans were moving in the direction he desired, he would allow Cromwell and his other ministers to handle details. Thus, keeping on Cromwell’s good side was absolutely crucial.

As well the strategic problems with which Lisle had to deal, there were, as always, local political issues, particularly around status in a hierarchical society. Lisle, although described as pleasant, good-hearted and gentle, soon found himself at odds with Sir Richard Whethill and his son. The underlying issue was one of precedence. Both claimed to be the supreme authority in Calais – Lisle as the King’s Deputy and Whethill as Mayor, Justice and King’s Lieutenant.

After an incident in which, according to Hussee, Whethill treated Lisle very ‘ungoodly’ in Lisle’s own garden, the Deputy complained to the Council. He received an answer from Cromwell that he should have clapped Whethill and his son in prison and not bothered the Privy Council with it. It seems hardly likely that the arrest and imprisonment of his Mayor would have pleased the King – Cromwell was clearly just being awkward. Eventually, some arrangement must have been made between Lisle and Whethill, as Whethill the younger married Honor’s great-niece, Jane Grenville.

Later in the same letter, we get a hint of what Cromwell might have had against Lisle, and probably Honor. Whilst Cromwell was with Hussey a man named Turney passed them in the corridor, and Cromwell pointed him out as someone whom Lisle had sacked ‘wherein he hath not done well.’  Hussee replied that Turney had not been sacked, but sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury for examination, on suspicion of possessing heretical books. Cromwell told Hussee to warn Lisle not to ‘meddle in such matters’, and that all such books had been ‘set out for the furtherance of [the]….derogation of the Pope and his laws.’ 

This incident occurred around the time of the passing of the Act of Supremacy 1534, negating Papal supremacy in England, so Lisle was presumably acting in accordance with the law as it stood prior to the Act. Cromwell, who was a Reformer, might have been disgruntled that Lisle was not pressing ahead with reform. 

Hussee also reported that it was rumoured in London not only that talking to Honor was the way to get things done in Calais – hardly guaranteed to boost Lisle’s credibility - but also that ‘My Lady Deputy’ was very superstitious. A taste for traditional Catholic practices was coming to be seen as superstition, and as the religious divide began to widen to create a new Reformed Church, this was one of the battlegrounds. Whatever Turney had been disseminating, Cranmer confirmed its legality, and he was reinstated.

Lisle had also dismissed several men he thought unworthy, who had all appealed to Cromwell and had their complaints upheld. At the same time, he was being advised by Sir Francis Bryan to act authoritatively in the position in which Henry had set him. He was thus between a rock and a hard place – criticised for not being forceful enough, but then undermined when he made a decision, Eventually, Lisle pushed back when Cromwell tried to reinstate one Richard Hunt who had been dismissed following a case of perjury.

Another individual with whom Lisle clashed was Sir Robert Wingfield. Wingfield was influential at court. He had been ambassador to both France and the Empire during Henry’s reign and was also connected to the royal family. His uncle, Sir Richard Wingfield, was the widower of Katherine Woodville, sister of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and previously the wife of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Bedford.

Wingfield had been Lord Deputy himself in the years 1523 – 1526, during which period he drained some of the marshland surrounding the city on which he had proceeded to build a house and park on some 4,000 acres of the reclaimed land. Lisle considered that the wetlands were an important part of the city’s defence and he ordered the land to be drowned, with predictable results for Wingfield’s property. The relationship between the two deteriorated, and when Wingfield became Mayor in 1534 the matter came to a head with both claiming precedence. 

 Honor Grenville

Honor Grenville

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