In 1528 Honor Basset found herself in need of a husband. John Basset had just died at the age of 66 and Honor, an ambitious woman from an ancient Cornish family, knew only too well the advantages that a good marriage could bring, not just for her but for her children too. It is unlikely however that even Honor could have imagined how high one of her daughters, Anne Basset, would reach and how close her family would come to the throne.
This is a tale of powerful Cornish families, the complicated machinations of court politics and the importance of fat quails.
“A curious story of the one Cornish girl who came near to being Queen of England”A. L. Rowse
Positions of Power
The middle of King Henry VIII’s reign was a tumultuous time for England and its people. In 1533 Henry had divorced Katherine of Aragon and made a shocking split from Rome. His subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn had been short and turbulent, culminating in her execution in 1536. Then just a few days after having one wife’s head removed Henry married another – Jane Seymour, the woman that would give him his longed for son and heir, Edward.
It was during this time that Honor met and married her second husband, Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, and moved with him from Cornwall to Calais. In this Honor, who had been born at Stowe manor near Kilkhampton in Cornwall in c1493, the daughter of Sir Thomas Grenville, had made the ultimate power move.
The Grenvilles were one of Cornwall’s great families, able to trace their history in the west back to the Norman Conquest, and Honor, an only child, had inherited her father’s estate after his death in 1513. Her lands combined with her first husband Sir John Basset’s were extensive, she knew the importance of marrying up.
But while John Basset had been a powerful man, Sheriff of Cornwall and landed gentry, owning great swathes of land in Cornwall and Devon, including the Manor of Tehidy, Arthur was most definitely an improvement. With him Honor, now known as the Lady Lisle, and her children were moving into the highest reaches of Tudor society. Arthur Plantagenet was the illegitimate son of King Edward IV and King Henry VIII’s uncle. His royal blood was an open secret at Court but his illegitimacy made him less of a threat to the monarchy. Arthur had been in service to the Crown since 1503, first for Henry VII and now for Henry VIII. He was a trusted member of the household and the king was particularly fond of him, calling him “the gentlest heart living”.
Despite Honor’s undoubted ambition it seems that her second marriage was actually a loving one too. Arthur was described as “very good looking, open-handed, generous, always with money troubles and at the same time rather carefree.” The couple wrote charming love letters to each other, many of which survive in a remarkable archive known as ‘The Lisle Letters’. Indeed, much of what we know about this family’s lives and affairs comes from those letters.
“[The letters] gave many delightful impressions of [Honor’s] life, her circle and the ordinary people of the time. It was interesting to read of Cornish notabilities and of the conditions of life in the West Country. There are simple country letters from Clowance where the St Aubyns lived and who sent her a barrel of puffins or a barrel of conger eels. Similarly she would send down to them preserves which she had made with her own fair hands . . .”A. L. Rowse, Cornish Guardian, 12th Jan 1939
The Basset Girls
With Sir John Basset Honor Grenville had seven children, three boys, John, George and James, and four girls, Phillipa, Katherine, Anne and Mary. The Lisle Letters tell us that the three youngest Basset girls, Katherine (b c1520) Anne (b c1522) and Mary (b c1523), had travelled to Calais with their mother and new step-father in 1533, where Arthur Plantagenet was the King’s Lord Representative until 1540.
After their arrival the girls had been sent to a local abbess for their education. Then in November 1533 12 year old Anne went to live with the well connected Rouaud family in Pont de Remy, a few miles along the River Somme from Abbeville.
The idea was that little Anne Basset would learn to speak fluent French, the fashionable language of the age, as well as perfecting her manners and accomplishments. Basically she was to learn all that she needed to know to move successfully within high, and hopefully royal, society.
Dozens of letters exchanged by the two families survive from that time, mostly discussing Anne’s health and progress, and there are also letters between Anne and her mother talking a great deal about clothes!
I was very glad of the coming of John Smyth [the letter carrier], being greatly desirous to hear good news of you. Madame, I must not omit to advertise you of the goodly entertainment made me by Monsieur and Madame. Had I been their natural daughter they could not better nor more gently have entreated me. I very much wish that my sister [Katherine?] might be here with me in these parts.
Madame, and it might please you, I would heartily desire you to send me some demi-worsted [wool?] for a gown, and a kirtle of velvet, and also some linen to make smocks, and some hosen and shoes. I send you back again the gold ornaments which I brought with mem because I know not how to make use of them here. I heartily beseech you that it may please you to send me some others. I have need of three ells [unit of measurement meaning literally length of a forearm] of red cloth to make me a cloak with a hood of satin.
Madame, commending me very humbly to your good favour, I pray our Lord to grant you in health very good life and long . . .
Your most humble and very obedient daughter, Anne BassetLetter dated 11th May 1534, from Pont de Remy
Anne did very well with the Rouaud family, the lady of the house, Jeanne, became very fond of her, even naming her own daughter after her. She wrote that Anne was a “gentlewoman of such good conditions” and that it was a pleasure to instruct her. Katherine and Mary Basset, Anne’s sisters, did join the household too and all the girls were well thought of, quick and accomplished, though it seems that Anne was always considered the wittiest and the prettiest.
Anne Basset spent three years with the Rouaud family and then, aged 15, she was ready to return to her family and make plans for her “preferment unto the queen”.
From the Lisle family letters we know that Honor had been trying to place her two daughters, Katherine and Anne, in King Henry’s court since the time of Anne Boleyn’s reign as queen. The upper echelons of Tudor society were very much about who you knew, having the right ears listening in the right places and people on your side ready to drop in a good word at just the right moment. And much of this ‘influence’ seems to have depended on how well you could butter courtiers up with letters and gifts.
“Between government officials and men in positions of discretion at court gift-giving was a relatively formal process, with gifts of wine, wildfowl, and venison predominating. The consumable nature of those presents could serve to safeguard reputations, since there would be no trace of the gift remaining, even if its intent were less than honourable. The intimate aspect of gift exchange was primarily reserved for the women in sixteenth-century society, since they were less confined by considerations of public duty and personal honour and thus had more opportunity to express friendship and intimacy freely.”Cheryl Bacon, Influence, Image & Intimacy – Gift Giving in Tudor England, 1987
Gift-giving was a means by which to curry favour and influence, a way of getting yourself and your cause noticed. In order to achieve your goals life in the Royal court was like a game of chess, all the pieces had to be in the right place at the right time and Honor by all accounts was not adverse to a little gentle manipulation. Sometime in 1534/35 she had sent the then Queen Anne a caged bird, a linnet, which apparently delighted her with its constant singing, and then Honor sent a small lapdog named ‘Purkey’ which her majesty was said to have been very fond of and offered her personal thanks to the Lisles.
But Honor’s next gift apparently backfired. Her husband, Arthur, Lord Lisle, had been sent two marmosets from Brazil, the Lady Lisle thought they were “gentle and pretty beasts” and hoped to gain favour by sending one to Queen Anne. The gift went down like a lead balloon, reportedly “the Queen loveth no such beasts” – perhaps because her predecessor Katherine of Aragon famously owned a pet monkey.
Sadly, no position became available for either of the Basset girls amongst Queen Anne’s ladies in waiting.
(Without trying to sound clever or flippant Lord Lisle did send Anne Boleyn one more ‘gift’ – he dispatched the French executioner she requested to cut off her head with a sword, rather than suffer beheading the English way, with an axe.)
One of the most common form of gifts extended in Tudor England, beyond animals, jewellery and money, was food. The Tudors loved to live well and eating was a huge part of that. Friends and acquaintances seemed to have frequently sent each other presents of beer, wine, and all manner of meat and fish.
And when the King’s new wife, Jane Seymour, developed a particular craving during pregnancy a ripe opportunity opened up for Honor to achieve her goal.
The Importance of Fat Quails
Lord Lisle had plenty of quails. He would purchase them in vast quantities from the men who caught them in the countryside around Calais. When he needed a favour he would send quails; some delicate information – send quails; or if he had to apologise for the late payment of an enormous tailors bill, he would send baskets of quails.
Since Jane Seymour’s marriage to the king in May 1536 Honor had been petitioning various couriers to help her find a position for her daughters in the new queen’s household but without success. Then one year later, on 20th May 1537, the following letter arrived from England for Lord Lisle from Sir John Russell.
Right honourable and singular good lord, I heartily commend me unto you. My lord, the king commanded me to write to you for some fat quails, for the queen is very desirous to eat some but here be none to be gotten. Wherefore my lord I pray you . . . send some with as much speed as may be possible, but they must be very fat! . . .
At Hampton Court, 20th day of May.
The pregnant queen had developed a particular craving for the little bird’s meat and the king, never one to not have exactly what he wanted when he wanted it, was most unhappy that none were available at Hampton Court.
Three days later another letter arrived in Calais, this time from John Husee. He had been approached by Russell who explained that he had written two letters to Lisle requesting quails and that Husee should write too to emphasise the importance of sending the birds as soon as possible.
The tone of the letter almost seems panicked.
“. . . the effect of those letters was for fat quails for the Queen’s Highness, which her Grace loveth very well, and longeth not a little for them and he [Russell] looked hourly for your lordship’s answer with the said quails, so that his mind is that with most speed your lordship send 2 or 3 dozen . . . those same must be very fat . . . I will speedily see them conveyed unto Hampton Court . . . in case your lordship has none fat in Calais then do not fail with all speed to send to Flanders for them, for so the King willeth and his only trust is in your lordship . . . Her Grace is great with child and shall be opened-laced with stomacher by Corpus Christi Day at the farthest . . .”
The Lisles had something the king and queen desired, I can just imagine Honor’s delight!
The fat quails were set in motion.
Anne Basset – the Queen’s Lady
“It is the third of the Basset daughters who cuts the most brilliant figure . . . in the general opinion Anne was esteemed the prettiest and wittiest, the beauty of the family and altogether the best equipped to venture into the more exalted circles to which her mother’s second marriage had made it easier for them to find an introduction.”Muriel St Clare Byrne, The Lisle Letters, 1983
The baskets of quails arrived in Hampton Court from France on the 24th May 1537 (a fairly quick turnaround by anyone’s standards). And over the next few days John Husee kept Honor informed by letter of the progress at court. The birds it seems had worked their magic.
As Queen Jane was tucking into the juicy roasted quail two friends of Lady Lisle and no doubt recipients of many gifts, Lady Rutland and Lady Sussex (who was also Honor’s niece) seized the moment to have a word in the Royal ear. Both ladies were trusted members of the queen’s household, so when they just happened to mention where the delicious birds had come from and Honor and her lovely daughters it had the desired effect.
The queen agreed to see Katherine and Anne and choose one of them to join her ladies.
” . . . her Grace made grant to have one of your daughters and the matter is thus concluded that your ladyship shall send them both over, for her Grace will see them first and know their manners, fashions and conditions, and take which if them shall like her grace best . . . it shall please your ladyship to exhort them to be sober, sad, wise, and discreet and lowly above all things . . .”Letter from John Husee to Lady Lisle, 17th July 1537
The two girls were sent from Calais to Hampton Court, their first time in England for four years, and in September 1537 Anne Basset was sworn in as one of Queen Jane’s ladies in waiting. A few days later Jane began her confinement in her bedchamber, in preparation for giving birth. The plan had come together in the nick of time.
If there is one thing we know about King Henry VIII its that he was a bit of a ladies man, though fairly unlucky in love. Beside his six wives Henry is known to have had a whole string of mistresses. Unlike other monarchs who were very open, even proud of their extramarital affairs, he was a very private man, preferring to keep his liaisons a secret only known to his private circle of courtiers.
The first mistress was said to be Ann Hastings in 1510, who became close to the king while Katherine of Aragon was pregnant. Then came Jane Popincourt, a French noblewoman in 1513 and Elizabeth Carew, daughter of Sir Nicholas Carew in 1514.
One of the most infamous was Bessie Blout, who is said to have given birth to the king’s illegitimate child in 1519, a boy named Henry Fitzroy. Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne, is also rumoured to have given him at least one child and Henry may have dallied with Mary Shelton, Anne’s cousin, too in 1535 while they were still married.
But around the time of Jane Seymour’s confinement and subsequent death King Henry is said to have become infatuated with Anne Basset.
Anne Basset – Wife No Four?
It was almost a prerequisite for the ladies in waiting to be attractive and we know that within just days of being sworn in as Queen Jane’s Maid of Honour Anne Basset had already caught the king’s eye.
Sir, the King’s Grace, not two days past talked of you and your children, amongst which I advised him of your daughter that last came out of France, his Grace thought Mistress Anne Basset to be the fairest . . .”Letter from Peter Mewtas, Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to Lord Lisle, 9th October 1537
We know that Anne, then 17 or 18 years old, attended the christening of the new royal baby, Edward, and when her mistress, the queen, died at Windsor a few weeks later she had a place in the funeral cortege.
There were rumours that Anne was a ‘great comfort’ to the king during his period of grieving. Indeed, while the other members of Jane’s household were dismissed within days of her death Anne remained at court, supposedly at the King’s request. A letter written by John Husee to Lord Lisle survives in which he informs her step-father that “the King’s Grace is a good lord to Mistress Anne and hath made her grant to have her place whensoever the time shall come.”
In fact, Anne stayed at court all through 1538 and 1539. Henry bought her a horse “and a saddle for it” and in October 1539 when she is unwell Anne writes to tell her mother that the king had arranged for her to visit a cousin so that she could have fresh air and country walks.
In another letter that December she tells Honor that the king so enjoyed the quince marmalade and “conserve of damson” that Lady Lisle made for him that he had asked Anne to tell her to send him more. Tellingly she also writes:
“And for the good and motherly counsel your ladyship doth give me, concerning my continuance in the King’s favour, I thank your ladyship most lowly therefore, trusting God shall no longer spare me life than I shall therein continue. For I acknowledge myself most bound to his Highness of all creatures. If I should therefore in any way offend his Grace willingly, it were pity I should live.”Anne Basset to Lady Lisle, 22 December 1539
We can only guess at how Honor had advised Anne, how she had suggested that her daughter might stay in the King’s favour. However, disappointingly for Lady Lisle, but perhaps fortunately for Anne, her relationship with the king was not to be.
Again we can have no real clue what Anne Basset’s feelings were when Anne of Cleves arrived at Court on 4th January 1540 and became the king’s fourth wife two days later. It must have been something of a let down, especially since we do know that she attended the wedding and after became one of the new queen’s ladies. But perhaps our Anne was aware that this was a political marriage, that Anne of Cleves was not Henry’s choice, she was a means to an end, a way of forming an alliance with her powerful, protestant brother William, Duke of Cleves.
And when the marriage was annulled just six months later, and the queen’s household again dispersed, Anne Basset again remained at Court.
There is some implication that Henry tried to briefly rekindle his romance with the young Mistress Basset in 1540 but that her sister Katherine may have scuppered her chances of marriage to the monarch. Katherine is said to have made some indiscreet comments about the king, something along the lines of “how many wives will this man have?” She was overheard and it somehow got back to Henry. He then fairly quickly turned his attention to Catherine Howard (and the rest is history).
In Service of Queen Mary
Anne Basset wasn’t going anywhere however. She held her post at Henry’s court not only during the reigns of Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves but she was also a Maid of Honour to Catherine Howard and to Katherine Parr. After the King Henry’s death in 1547 she was granted an annuity for her services to the Crown by the new king, Edward VI.
Anne was then absent from Court for about six years and it is possible that she returned to Cornwall during that time to be with her mother who was by then living back at Tehidy.
But after King Edward’s death, when Queen Mary took the throne in 1553 Anne, then aged about 33, returned to the royal household and was appointed Lady of the Privy Chamber. It is possible that during her earlier years at Court Anne had come to know the young princess, Henry’s eldest daughter, well and had been invited to return by her. The new queen, also know as Bloody Mary or Mary Tudor, was said to very fond of Anne, and even attended her wedding to Walter Hungerford, at one time MP for Bodmin, in 1554. The ceremony took place at Richmond Palace and Queen Mary, who took charge of the entertainments, “showed herself very pleasant, commanding all mirth and pastime.” The queen gave Anne Basset a grant of lands worth £5000, an enormous sum, as a wedding gift and her new husband Walter was knighted soon after their marriage.
But sadly wedded bliss, if it was that, was not to last. Anne died just three years later in 1557 of unknown causes. Some sources suggest she gave birth to two children during her marriage, neither of which survived.
But Anne Basset though short was extraordinary. She died a wealthy woman in her own right, with an exemplary reputation, after some 20 years at court as the close companion of five queens and the favourite of one of the most famous British kings that ever lived.
When I started writing this piece I thought it was about a young Cornish woman that had caught the eye of a king but it ended up being about so much more than that. It is about the pitfalls, peculiarities and machinations of life in the Tudor Court . . . and about a rather pushy mother.
Honor Basset, or Lady Lisle as she became, was not to everybody’s taste. Some called her overbearing and a busybody but I just see her as a determined woman who knew what she wanted, and in a world where women were so vulnerable to the whims of men she resolutely tried to advance herself and secure her children’s position.
When Honor died at Tehidy in 1566 at the grand age of 73 she had seen her own lands and fortunes grow enormously and reputedly kept a close, watchful eye on every detail of her estates’ business. Her sons had become great and powerful men and her daughters had married well, one had even found herself within touching distance of the English throne. Honor had also artfully managed to navigate the treacherous currents of the Tudor Royal Court (her husband, Arthur, had been accused of treason and died in the Tower in 1542 but that’s another story) and had passed that skill on to her children.
Lady Lisle, Honor Grenville/Basset/Plantagenet, was laid to rest somewhere in Illogan Churchyard. Anne Basset’s burial place is unknown.