Viscount Lisle at Calais

G.R. Elton

  • The Lisle Letters edited by Muriel St Clare Byrne
    Chicago, 744 pp, £125.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 226 08801 4

In the reign of Henry VIII, when a man was arrested for treason (an arrest which, among the eminent, tended to be equal to a conviction, with the usual consequences), his papers were confiscated and disappeared into the royal archives in the Tower. Considering the number of people who suffered this fate, the amount of surviving material is distressingly small. What happened to Cardinal Wolsey’s unquestionably massive, and unquestionably confiscated, correspondence, a remnant of which was acquired by Sir Robert Cotton? Where are the papers of Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More? Perhaps the former kept none; the latter, practising his famous discretion, very likely destroyed his in the months during which, still free, he could confidently look forward to his arrest. Of course, there are scattered items from his and other people’s correspondence which have accidentally survived here and there, but – apart from Thomas, Lord Darcy’s small collection – only two private archives now exist among the Henrician state papers at the Public Record Office: those of Henry VIII’s Lord Privy Seal and Viceregent, Thomas Cromwell, and those of his lord deputy at Calais, Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle.

Most people have heard of the first and few (until now) of the second, though the lives of the two men were closely intertwined. Lisle was in several respects more fortunate than Cromwell. Imprisoned on a charge of treason, he was never tried and was in the end set at liberty, only to die almost at once of ripe old age. More important in the present context, his papers still form a separate collection, having escaped the disastrous attentions of 19th-century archivists who felt disgustingly free to break up and rearrange collections – ‘to make sense’ – without keeping a record of what they found. (Even less excusably, such vandalism still at times occurs today.) Cromwell’s papers were so mistreated to form the mainstay of the artificial class called ‘State Papers, Henry VIII (SP 1)’, with the result that it is nowadays often impossible to say whether a given document came from his files or not. Froude was the last historian to read the Cromwell correspondence in the original state in which it survived from 1540 to the 1860s. Though the editors of that famous calendar, The Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, included the Lisle papers, they left them undisturbed, and it is this remarkable collection, familiar enough to students of Henry VIII’s reign, which forms the basis, in judicious selection, of this monumental edition of close on 1700 letters (with additional material thrown in). The 19th century thought that the Lisle papers contained little material bearing on their own limited, ‘high politics’ attitude to history; finding in Cromwell’s archives the main strain of events, Brewer, Gairdner and the rest (destroyers of archives) made it the heart of their edition, whereas the personal and family affairs of the Lisles could be interspersed in the calendar without being incorporated in SP 1.

So there they lay (available and mostly used in their calendared form) till one day ... One day in the early 1930s, a young student of Tudor England, interested especially in its language, literature and social life, came upon them and decided to do something about them. The something in question has now seen the light of day, fifty years later and in six very large volumes. Newcomers to the Public Record Office in the late 1940s soon heard of the mini-factory established in a cubicle off the Rolls Room upstairs where Miss Muriel St Clare Byrne, author of that well-known and affectionate little book, Elizabethan Life in Town and Country (1925), and editor of Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn (1936), was beavering away, sorting, transcribing, annotating thousands of letters exchanged between Lord Lisle, his wife Honor, their agents in London, and leading members of the Henrician court and political circles. If it seemed that there was something less than professional about the operation at times – something in the nature of a vacuum-cleaner sucking up everything in sight – it was also plain that the little room housed an enterprise driven forward by relentless persistence, utter commitment and loving involvement. After a time, rumour reported that the work of decades, though completed, could find no publisher willing to risk bankruptcy by actually putting it into print. Meanwhile Miss Byrne grew no younger. Now at last, however, the faith which moves mountains has moved even a publisher, and, whatever one may think of the edition, everybody who has any sort of justice and kindness in his heart must rejoice at the courage of the University of Chicago Press, who have taken this half-century’s enterprise under their wing, as well as at the courage of Miss Byrne who stuck it out against all disappointments for so long.

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