Sir Henry Lee (1533–1611) was Queen Elizabeth I’s self-appointed champion. The family originated from Buckinghamshire although his mother was a Wyatt from Kent. As is usual with the Tudors, Lee was related somehow or other to some very important people including the queen herself as well as to William Cecil and to Robert Dudley. He was also man who served all the Tudors from the age of fourteen beginning with Henry VIII without being slung in the Tower for his pains.
In 1554 he married Anne Paget to avoid the Tower or worse. She was the daughter of William Paget. Paget’s early patron was Stephen Gardener – the family were Catholic. Paget went on to support the Earl of Somerset during the minority of Edward VI so found himself in the Tower when Somerset fell from power and when he managed to extricate himself from that bind he promptly got himself into another one when he signed the document that set Henry VIII’s will aside and put Lady Jane Grey on the throne. It seems odd then that Lee would marry the man’s daughter but Paget was a survivor and he was swift to seek a pardon from Queen Mary. By 1556 he would be Lord Privy Seal. From Lee’s point of view Paget was a man of influence and he was also a Catholic which was quite important because Lee was a Protestant. Anne Paget and Henry Lee were not happily married. It can’t have helped that their two sons died young. There was also a daughter from the marriage.
Paget retired from court life when Elizabeth I became queen in 1558 but Sir Henry Lee found himself in the ascendant. The year after Elizabeth became queen he was sent to France on official business thanks to William Cecil (could that have been a case of who you know rather than what you know?) He did what all Tudor gentlemen were required to do: i.e. went to war against the Scots and became an MP. The picture at the start of the post is in the ownership of the National Portrait Gallery. It was painted in about 1568, probably when Lee was on a trip to Antwerp. The blackwork lover’s knots and armillary spheres could be a reference to his loyalty to Elizabeth though art historians are more perplexed about the pose of the ring through the red cord. In 1569 he was part of the force that put down the Northern Rebellion. As well as being the royal champion – a position he held from 1559 until 1590 he also became the master of the armoury (he was master of the armoury during the Spanish Armada), master of the leash and Constable of Harlech Castle. Despite this and his relationships with men such as Dudley and Cecil, not to mention his friendship with Sir Philip Sydney, Lee does not really seem to have played a very important political role in the shifting tide of Tudor court life. Lee’s role was more about providing the entertainment – up to 8,000 people attended the Ascension Day jousts (40 days after Easter Sunday) that he organised. He was also regarded as something of a peacemaker – it was he who tried to persuade the Earl of Essex to seek Elizabeth’s pardon in later years. In 1580 he even managed to get a loan out of the queen – perhaps he shouldn’t have been trying to build four stately mansions at the time.
Perhaps Elizabeth wouldn’t have been so keen on lending money if she had realised that her new lady-in-waiting, Anne Vavasour, would one day lead her royal champion astray – she being at least thirty years his junior. In 1584 , three years after Anne disgraced herself by becoming pregnant by the earl of Oxford, Lee jousted against Anne’s brother Thomas. Anne would be described as Lee’s “dearest dear.” Lee clearly wasn’t too bothered by the feud that the Vavasour and Knyvet families were running agains the Earl of Oxford on account of Anne’s meteoric fall from grace. And, in all fairness, we don’t know when Anne and Lee began their relationship. It is only in 1590 that Anne Vavasour turns up in the Ditchley records but as Simpson explains the purchase of Ditchley in 1583 could be explained not only as a home located in reasonable proximity to an important official role (Steward of Woodstock) but also as a home for his lady-love. By 1585 Lee was living separately from his wife as identified through the will of Anne Paget’s mother. The 1592 Ditchley Portrait is usually regarded as Sir Henry Lee’s apology to Elizabeth for living with a married woman – not that she seems to have held it against him.
When Lee died he left a will that made provision for Anne. One of the witnesses was Edward Were, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Oxford. The will and an explanation of it can be read here: http://www.oxford-shakespeare.com/Probate/PROB_11-117_ff_326-8.pdf
Simpson, Sue. Sir Henry Lee (1533–1611): Elizabethan Courtier
By Sue Simpson
Another erudite and fascinating slice of well-researched history, thank you!