The Lisle Letters 
edited by Muriel St Clare Byrne.
Chicago, 744 pp., £125, June 1981, 0 226 08801 4
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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.

Whatever one may think of the edition: the verdict has in some measure already been pre-empted by several magisterially enthusiastic reviews by eminent persons (not all of them expertly acquainted with the era). Perhaps, therefore, the time has come at even so early a date to attempt a more judicious appraisal. Miss Byrne’s dedicated labours deserve to be treated as worthy of criticism as well as praise. Thus the exceedingly long time taken to do the work has left its mark. The frequent citation of long-discarded authors (especially Trevelyan, who knew nothing at first hand about the 16th century) gives the book at times an old-fashioned air, while important recent studies of direct relevance – for instance, Michael Bush’s analysis of the dispute between Lisle and Edward Seymour (1966) – are overlooked. In fact, to judge from the bibliography, the editor closed her reading list well over a decade ago, a decade full of very important contributions. This has led to error. Miss Byrne’s description of early-Tudor society as one in which ‘a great political Plan’ tried everything ‘by the simple standard of what was expedient for the consolidation of power’ reads oddly by now when we have come to understand the haphazardness of much of this plan, the crucial importance of the law and its institutions, and the powerful drive for a reform in faith and morals which animated so much activity. Indeed, it reads a bit oddly in the light she herself later throws on so many of the realities of the age’s politics, and thus comes to look like a premature generalisation, derived from elderly ‘authorities’, with which she must have come to disagree as the work went on. She confuses the king’s Chamber with his Privy Chamber, a point of importance in the tracking of so many careers to which she devotes such labours. Henry VII’s mythical treasure reappears; Anne Boleyn is called Marquise of Pembroke when, in fact, and most significantly, she was created marquess in her own right. Much time is taken up with fighting R.B. Merriman, who in 1902 had the influential temerity to call Lisle a person of no account: but Merriman no longer has any influence – and his verdict on Lisle may not have been so crassly mistaken as Miss Byrne maintains. Some of the detail is wrong: thus ‘obolus’ means farthing, not penny, an error which quadruples a tax assessment. And the editor’s Latin is disconcertingly shaky. Her treatment of case-endings suggests that she would have done better to copy medieval clerks, who in their equal uncertainty preferred to use abbreviation marks. A three-line passage from some letters patent contains three elementary mistakes and moreover sees special significance in a common formula: and this sort of thing recurs more than once.

Pedantry, no doubt, and in so vast a compilation one may well expect more and worse slips than do occur. A more serious criticism must be directed at the whole plan of the work, which unfortunately will operate counter to the effect that it deserves to have. For one thing, the editor not only left no stone unturned: she has also taken care that absolutely everything found beneath those stones shall be put into print. Thus the reader is overwhelmed with masses of antiquarian detail which indeed testifies to laudable industry and persistence but also makes large parts of the book unreadable. Every section carries appendices where further research proliferates. Documents of all sorts are printed in all sorts of places. These six volumes may well provide a large reservoir of materials to be further exploited by others – letters, legal documents, statements of accounts – but such selections (which at times simply burden the edition) can be dangerous, too, because they suggest that the much vaster quantity of like material not in print does not need to be searched for. The selection is idiosyncratic, being guided by the desire to know every last thing about the characters in the Lisle circle, and it is somewhat sentimentalised by a determination to convey the affection which those characters have instilled in Miss Byrne after such long years of close acquaintance.

Above all, the heart of the matter, the Lisle correspondence itself, is presented in a way which makes reading and digesting it more difficult than it need have been. Miss Byrne carefully explains her editorial procedures (which are indeed pretty much exemplary and do not need her slightly nervous defence – a defence which seems to be addressed to the long-defunct ghost of A.F. Pollard), and wisely modernises spelling and so forth: the letters themselves are easy reading. Corrected decipherings of messy hands and revised datings nearly always carry perfect conviction. But the letters are embedded in a continuous narrative plus analysis, arranged in chapters: this breaks up the chronological sequence and attempts to compel the reader to accept a story with interpretation at the editor’s hands. Nor are the letters at all easy to find, often interspersed as they are within the commentary and (in view of costs, understandably) not differentiated in the printing. Miss Byrne would have done better if she had followed more conventional practice by producing her edition and then separately writing her book about its revelations. Her decision to do both things in one, and to do them at inordinate length in inordinate detail, makes the edition so enormous and so charged with digressions that no one can really be expected to read through it.

So much for curmudgeonly reservations. Now to the admission that in many ways this is a marvellous work. Miss Byrne claims things for the Lisle correspondence which are absolutely true and absolutely important. Here there is room only to hint at them. The papers illumine early-Tudor English in ways that will surprise those unfamiliar with its easy, flexible, colloquial vigour, and especially those who have thought Thomas More’s laboured prose typical. They provide a splendid picture of life in a noble household and family; especially they help to knock two familiar and false generalisations on the head. Honor Lady Lisle – downright, businesslike, self-centred and sensible – would have been astonished to hear that 16th-century women lived a life of helpless slavery, and the loving relations between herself and her much older husband hammer yet another nail in the coffin housing the strange thesis that marital affection was unknown in England before the 18th century. Above all, the correspondence gives an extensive and splendidly clear view of what the facts of place-hunting, favour-hunting and royal patronage – those desires and ambitions by now widely recognised as the essential elements in Tudor social and political life – really meant. Since the correspondence covers in the main only the years during which the Lisles were at Calais and thus out of direct contact with the King’s court, that centre of the governing order’s existence, it is no wonder that so much of it turns upon efforts to keep in touch, to keep track of the see-saw of royal favour, and to seek advantage at a distance. Well served by his agents, especially the invaluable John Husee whose letters would alone make the collection worth having, Lisle heard everything: his correspondence is stuffed with what must in Henrician terms be called political inside-information. It is not gossip that gets recounted in these mentions of Henry’s smiles or frowns, Cromwell’s forthcomingness or warnings, the ups and downs of fortunes, but the true substance of those events that produced policy at the highest level. How the King received a New Year’s gift (a moment when the barometer was studied with special care by the experts) showed who stood where, who might be able to help, who was out or on the way to disaster – and it therefore showed the relationships at the heart of ‘high politics’. This is front-page stuff and to be treated as such. To have so much of it collected together, not in abstracts but in that fullness which alone reveals meaning, and more particularly to have very often what in early-Tudor correspondence tends to be hard to get – both sides to an exchange of letters – is an enormous boon, and should quickly assist historians to penetrate to facts of life which have too often been ignored or treated in fleshless generalisations. That it will also attract non-specialists is certain because the life is here; that they will regularly mistake much meaning is a minor problem to which we can attend in time.

The people who crowd these pages vary in quality and weight but become real enough: here Miss Byrne’s passion for every bit of detail, hunted for through the public records, pays off handsomely. She obviously became very much involved with them all, and in many cases one finds it easy to agree with her affectionate assessment of them. Lady Lisle was all she says, even if she is inclined to discount the evident signs that her ladyship could be ruthless and noisy. Her children (by her first husband, Sir John Basset) offer more material for understanding the attitudes of stern but loving parents than for judging their own still undeveloped personalities: however, they too come across as quite interesting in themselves. So do many of the Lisles’ correspondents, pursuing their own ends while loyally serving their master’s interests. What, however, of Lord Lisle himself? An illegitimate son of Edward IV, he began a courtier’s career under Henry VII and continued it under Henry VIII, serving in the royal household and in war, and accumulating a modest fortune. He was never very prominent – as good a reason as any for his untroubled survival at a time when royal blood in one’s veins constituted a major personal risk. As Miss Byrne emphasises, he was evidently a man of kindness and sweet temper. She makes a strong but even so surprising case for a birth-date in about 1462, which would mean that when he got his first, and only, office of public importance, as governor of Calais, he was in his early seventies. The case is strong but also circumstantial, and it may be mistaken. As Miss Byrne says, we often forget how long-lived 16th-century people could be. However, a man of fifty as one of young King Henry VIII’s household companions seems as unlikely as that a man of about seventy-five should have been thought capable of causing his wife’s mistaken impression that she was pregnant with a Plantagenet child. Too much depends on the supposition that after his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville Edward IV would have sired no more bastards: that king’s reputation runs another way.

As deputy of Calais, Lisle was evidently conscientious and reasonably thorough – not by any means the ninny that recent tradition had made him – but Miss Byrne’s praise for his administration goes beyond the acceptable. Her defence of him skips rather too swiftly over the great investigating commission of 1535 and its statutory aftermath: events at least in part occasioned by the government’s dissatisfaction with their representative. Calais, it is true, would have been a very difficult charge for anybody: an inexperienced and possibly old man, however honest and concerned, must have found it an impossible task. There was never enough money; the wool staple was in precipitate decline; members of the garrison and the civil administration maintained running feuds of great virulence; above all, England’s outpost on the Continent, ever threatened by the likelihood of French attacks, stood exposed to the two political movements most feared by Henry VIII – extreme religious radicalism infiltrating from the Netherlands, and the possibility of treasonable dealings with the King’s enemies in Catholic Europe, especially Cardinal Pole. A mixture of these two threats in the end landed Lisle in disgrace, the Tower, and peril of his life. Miss Byrne argues that he was innocent of all charges and fell victim to Cromwell’s manoeuvres in early 1540 against his own personal enemies: despite years of genuine friendship, Cromwell at the last betrayed him because he needed a fall guy for his last desperate intrigues. This reconstruction of the events leading up to Cromwell’s fall is on the whole convincing: it fits well with what has so far been thought of that crisis and constitutes the book’s major contribution to general history. On the other hand, it is not possible to accept that Lisle did not offer Cromwell a chance by taking some very dubious steps; his kindness, frankness and essential decency need not be doubted, but that there was a touch – quite a notable touch – of helpless dimwittedness about him is also clear. At moments, thoughts obtrude of Lord Emsworth, as there are moments when Lady Lisle reminds one of P.G. Wodehouse’s formidable aunts.

The man who in the end comes to dominate these volumes is indeed Thomas Cromwell. The King is there, threatening or friendly, frequently spoken of, a dangerous and incalculable particle. But the minister provides the real structure of the Lisles’ relations with the world of court, council, politics and patronage. The fact has its esoteric importance to the historian. Ever since Cromwell was ‘rediscovered’, there have been doubts whether the survival of his correspondence did not distort the picture in his favour. Well, here we have another extant correspondence, centring upon a man who tried to keep in touch with all the influential figures: and yet the predominant importance of Cromwell, his crucial role, come across quite as startlingly as in what remains of his own archive. Miss Byrne’s reaction to the Lord Privy Seal is very interesting. She evidently started with the conventional dislike of him, enlarged by her justified contempt for Cromwell’s biographer, Merriman; when first she looked at the letters she expected to find the ruthless, bloodthirsty and inhuman servant of royal whims – the King’s hired assassin – whom a hostile tradition had so carefully constructed. But unlike some others she preserved an open and honest mind, with the result that Cromwell soon grew for her into the person he actually was: a statesman with real and even elevated purposes, a man of genuine understanding and affability, a tower of strength to those who sought his help. If both the Lisles were capable of exasperating him by their mixture of innocence and importunity, he seems to have remained patient and at their service – not a service which would bring him much substantial reward or political advantage. And if in 1540 he used Lisle in that desperate attempt to keep his own footing and head, he cannot, on the conclusive evidence of earlier relations, have done so without regret. Moreover, he manoeuvred in such a way that if he won he could easily rescue Lisle, who would inevitably be saved if he lost. Appropriately, though in a manner unusual for that reign, the intriguer went under while the victim escaped. A good moral ending which should not make one forget that England, disastrously deprived of Thomas Cromwell, would hardly have missed old Arthur Plantagenet.

No review can do full justice to all that these six volumes contain, but a word must be said about the contribution of the publisher. These are beautiful volumes enhanced by handsome printing, elegant binding, imaginative endpapers, well-reproduced illustrations and many expensive facsimiles. The Chicago University Press has indeed done Miss Byrne proud, and Miss Byrne deserves to see the results of those endless and painful labours come forth, in her 86th year, in such splendid guise. Despite such criticisms as this review has ventured to offer, it is to be hoped that all students of Tudor history, Tudor language and literature, and indeed Tudor life, will do the little work required to overcome the handicaps of the arrangement. All, one hopes, will acquaint themselves with the world of the Lisles, and some (one trusts) will think the money well spent that acquires a private copy. The excellent index will give all of them every assistance, but a healthy bank balance will not come amiss.

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