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The Lisles in their Letters

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In a previous issue History Today considered the Lisle Letters as a great publishing enterprise. This article by V.H.H. Green concentrates on what the letters tell the reader about the Lisles themselves, their lives and times.

Initially the historian may have some misgivings about the six fat volumes of the Lisle letters, so sumptuously produced by the University of Chicago Press.* As Dr David Starkey observed in the March 1981 issue of History Today the work might be regarded as one of the 1ast great enterprises in historical publishing, its findings in some respects superseded even before the last page emerged wet from the press. The letters, the majority of which have been available to researchers through the medium of the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII , have been long, nearly half-a-century, in the editing. Although Professor Scarisbrick's life of Henry VIII appears in the bibliography, the last books and articles mentioned in the footnotes date from 1966 and the majority from decades earlier. The commentary is full and detailed, but at times so discursive and even meandering as to be tedious; yet there are also episodes in the letters themselves where an explanatory footnote would have been welcome. There are some factual errors. Moreover so much work has been done on early Tudor history in recent years, so much new research accomplished, that inevitably the interpretation, even of the major theme of so-called Henrician absolutism, appears to be dated. Yet, having made such reservations, no one can dismiss the Lisle letters either as a white elephant or as a damp squib. They form in toto a stupendous achievement, and the editor herself, Miss Muriel St Clare Byrne, through a long lifetime spent as it were in Tudor England, has become so saturated in the period that she manages to convey the ethos of the age in a very remarkable., satisfying and readable fashion.

The letters, some 1,677 out of the surviving three thousand or so, cover the seven years (1533-1540) of the lord deputyship of Calais of Arthur Plantagent, Viscount Lisle. They cease after his arrest in 1540 and their survival was ironically made possible as a result of their seizure by the royal agents investigating the charges made against him. Lisle was an illegitimate son of Edward IV, later a companion of the youthful Henry VIII and made by him as an elderly man (though I am not persuaded by Miss Byrne that he was born as early as the 1460s) Lord Deputy of Calais. He was a bluff, good-natured, conscientious but careless man, at times demanding and disingenuous; 'Mr Bryan', John Husee warned him, 'willed me to write further to your lordship that you must keep all things secreter than you have used, and saith that there is nothing done nor spoken but it is with speed known in the Court.' Like many of his ilk he was often deeply in debt; tradesmen were unpaid, sometimes for years; loans were not repaid when they fell due. 'If your things be not in order ', Sir Brian Tuke, Treasurer of the King's Chamber, reminded him, 'to make now a great payment of your old debts, and also the new, and the rest soon after, there is no remedy but your lordship must make further means.' Consequently Lisle sought office, favour, pensions, grants, a share of the dispossessed religious houses, in a vain effort to make both ends meet, 'beseeching you', as he supplicated Thomas Cromwell, 'to help me to some old abbey in mine old days.' miss Byrne has little difficulty in refuting Merriman's charge that Lisle as Lord Deputy was supremely incompetent; but she may very likely have overestimated her hero's political capacity. He appears in many respects a rather inept and nondescript administrator, as a man and politician well-intentioned but somewhat ineffectual.


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