Who would have thought that Henry VIII had a maternal uncle whom he loved very much. He once said that Arthur had the kindest heart of anyone he knew.
Arthur Plantagenet was Elizabeth of York’s illegitimate half-brother. His mother was Elizabeth Lucie or Lucy or possibly Wayte. Thomas More describes her as a naïve girl who believed Edward IV’s blandishments. There were other mistresses and other children. History has not provided a clear list of which children belong to which mother or how long Edward’s various relationships lasted or indeed whether he was pre-contracted to any of them before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.
In any event, young Arthur was born in Calais and is mentioned in an exchequer account of 1477 – assuming that Edward didn’t have any other natural male sons kicking around Calais at that time, and then vanishes into historical mist and fog for a time or, depending upon which source you read, is brought up in Edward IV’s court. He emerges after the difficulties of 1483-1485 in Elizabeth of York’s household. On her death he moved into Henry VII’s household. He then appears to have been inherited by his half-nephew in 1509. He became an ‘esquire of the king’s bodyguard,’ and was apparently much loved by Henry – a dangerous position to hold as poor Arthur came to recognize.
In 1511 he married Elizabeth Dudley the widow of Henry VII’s tax collector. The position of husband having fallen vacant because young Henry VIII had executed his father’s two foremost tax collectors in a move guaranteed to win friends and influence people. Elizabeth also happened to be the daughter of Edward Grey, Viscount Lisle (who just happened to be the younger brother of John Grey of Groby who was married to Elizabeth Woodville prior to his death at the Second Battle of St Albans in 1461- making for a very complicated family tree.) Now would probably also be a good time to mention the fact that Elizabeth Grey is Robert Dudley’s granny – which just makes things even more incestuous when you consider Elizabeth I’s interest in that young man.
Back to Arthur: he turns up in the records on 8 February 1513 having obtained protection from his creditors- he seems to have been frequently troubled by there being too much month for his money- on the proviso of going to sea with an expedition to Brittany. The ship in which he sailed had a nasty accident with a rock and he was saved from death by something close to a miracle. Understandably he took himself off on a holy pilgrimage to Walsingham to give thanks for his safe return from the sea.
His experience didn’t stop him from returning to Europe where he joined his nephew on his European military adventure culminating in the Battle of the Spurs which was more of a skirmish than a battle whilst the real action was taking place at home on the English Scottish Border – the Battle of Flodden.
By the following year Arthur, who was in Henry’s good books, was Sheriff of Hampshire and a captain on the vice-admiral’s vessel, the Trinity Sovereign. He turns up at the Field of the Cloth of Gold and was one of the king’s carvers. He also seems to have played an important role in the life of young Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII’s natural son by Bessie Blount. In 1524 he became a Knight of the Garter. As is the way of these things he became a widower and remarried in 1528 to Honor Basset nee Grenville.
On March 24 1538 he was made Deputy of Calais and then things started to go very wrong. In addition to personal debt; there were the shifting sands of the king’s religious preferences and the faith of the locals; keeping Calais’s garrison fed and watered; keeping the local elite happy- and they frequently weren’t very happy and spent a lot of time trying to stab him in the back; keeping Cromwell informed as well as providing him with a new pet dog (no I’m not making that up – it’s all there in Arthur’s letters) and then there was keeping his wife happy and ensuring his children received an appropriate education. Ultimately things did not go well – there were simply too many plates to keep spinning. Arthur was summoned back to London in 1540 and sent to the Tower whilst his wife and daughters were kept under house arrest in Calais.
Rumour had it that it was Honor who was the traitor rather than her unfortunate spouse – whatever the case it seems to be agreed by Bishop Foxe (who didn’t like her- suspecting that she was a closet Catholic) and another chronicler that she lost her senses and never fully recovered them as a consequence of Arthur’s arrest and imprisonment.
Unfortunately for Arthur there was a plot. His chaplain, Gregory Botolph had come up with the idea of handing Calais over to the Pope in the person of Cardinal Pole, who was of course, a Plantagenet and Arthur’s cousin. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury styled Arthur ‘cousin’ in her correspondence a fact which Henry VIII must have been aware. By now the Tudor monarch was ageing and vicious. Being a Plantagenet had become exceedingly dangerous to one’s health as Margaret Pole was to discover. Botolph managed to evade capture even though an act of attainder was passed against him. He evaded the king’s wrath, unlike his fellow conspirators – Edmund Brindholme, Clement Philpot and Adam Damplip- who presumably paid the full price for their treason – though I need to find confirmation of that.
There was no direct evidence against Arthur. So naturally he was released? Er, actually – no, he wasn’t. Arthur remained a prisoner in the Tower until 1542. It seems unfair that Arthur should have been rounded up as a consequence of Botolph’s misdemeanours as Arthur had spent considerable time and effort trying to get his chaplain a living, first in Lowestoft and then in Kettlebarston in Suffolk as demonstrated in his various letters. It seems even more unfair that Arthur who had served the Tudors most loyally should have been so poorly treated. At the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign a family member could be looked upon with warmth, especially one who could never make a claim on the throne because of his illegitimacy but by 1540 Henry VIII had contemplated forwarding the claims of his own illegitimate son so the bar-sinister wasn’t the protection it had once been. Arthur languished in the Tower – Cromwell fell, Katherine Howard was married and discarded, her various lovers executed along with the erstwhile queen.
In March 1541 Honor Plantagenet, Lady Lisle and her daughters were released. Their jewels were returned to them and £900 made available to cover their debts and transport them wherever they wanted. Honor ultimately returned to her home county of Cornwall where she died in 1566.
Arthur remained in the Tower, although he was allowed to walk upon the ramparts. According to one story Arthur saw his nephew sailing along the Thames in the royal barge, shouted and waved at him reminding henry that he’d locked his uncle up and left him there. As you might expect, this is anecdotal and not back by any concrete evidence. Arthur must have thought that things were looking up when his collar of the Garter was restored to him. Two months later Henry VIII sent him a diamond ring via the person of his secretary Sir Thomas Wriothesley– Arthur was possibly so overwhelmed by relief “immoderate joy” was the way that Holinshed phrased it that he had a heart attack. He died in the Tower, of old age rather than a sharp pain in the neck, and was buried there, leaving his wife distraught with grief whilst he himself became a footnote in Ambassador Marillac’s letter to Francis I. “Lord Lisle, formerly deputy of Calais, being out of trouble and his Order, honour and goods restored, died a few days afterwards.” (4 March 1542)
Papers were seized in Lisle’s house at the time of his arrest – 3,000 of them. They were mainly letters to him and his wife, ranging in date between 1533 and 1540, from ambassadors, princes, governors of French and Flemish frontier towns: he knew them through his role of courtier, politician and Deputy of Calais. There were letters to and from friends and agents in England; including one which suggests that sending Anne Boleyn a pet monkey wasn’t one of Arthur’s better ideas. There was also letters between him and his wife during visits of one or the other to England. Thomas Cromwell complained about Arthur’s letter writing. He said that Arthur wrote trivia that was of no political interest what-so-ever and to please get a grip on his meanderings. Of course, so far as historians are concerned they couldn’t disagree more. The Lisle Letters are one of the most important collection of Tudor documents that we have available to us. They can be purchased in six volumes or one abridged selection.
As an aside it is worth noting that Arthur’s daughter Frances was an ancestress of George Monck who famously, or infamously depending on your viewpoint, fought on both sides of the English Civil War
‘Henry VIII: March 1542, 1-10’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 17, 1542, ed. James Gairdner and R H Brodie (London, 1900), pp. 62-71 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol17/pp62-71 [accessed 18 January 2016].
Notes and Queries (1926) CLI (aug21): 129-130. doi: 10.1093/nq/CLI.aug21.129.
Plantagenet Ancestry: A Study In Colonial And Medieval Families, 2nd Edition