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Book Review 317: The Lisle Letters

April 26, 2014 - Harry Eagar
THE LISLE LETTERS: An abridgement by Bridget Boland. 436s pages, illustrated. Chicago.

Two big collections of private letters were saved from England's past. The Paston letters, although interesting, are thoroughly medieval and seem strange and remote. The later Lisle letters (1533-40) come from the beginning of the English Renaissance and are recognizably modern in some respects.

For example, the anxiety of rich Manhattanites to bribe their children into top preschools is not much different from the anxiety of the Lisles to get their son into the best school (in Paris) or their daughters into the best lady's (preferably the queen's) household.

In other respects, the Lisles were still medieval, such as their habit (shared with Australian aborigines) of regarding everything as food. My favorite episode concerns the seal.

It was a time when if you happened to acquire a live seal, you could give it to a friend who you could expect would take it in good part. And, since society was bound together by elaborate skeins of exchanges of goodies, you could pass the seal on to someone else whom you wished to curry favor with.

So with Lord Lisle, although care of the seal was left with his long-suffering agent in Westminster, John Husee, who was to give it to a lord that Lisle wished to ingratiate himself with. Regrettably, the lord had removed to the country, and the seal ate six penny’orth of fish a day, while Husee’s pay was only eight pence.

Husee stood it as long as he could but eventually had the seal baked and shipped into the country. A dead seal was nearly as gracious a gift as a live one in those days.

It is surprising how much cooked food, even such things as fish pies, was shipped from town to town as gifts. The Lisles were in Calais, where Lord Lisle was deputy governor, and in good weather a pie could be delivered overnight from London, and the weather was cool (it was the start of the Little Ice Age), but still, people must have had strong stomachs back then.

However, the big traffic was dogs. Nobody could have enough dogs, and Lisle was mostly an emitter. As governor of England’s last continental town, he had access to scarce breeds and he was constantly asked to find someone a dog or better yet a couple (also falcons).

One went to Queen Anne Boleyn and was a comfort to the isolated, lonely, frightened teenager until it died in a fall. This volume is well-annotated by Muriel St. Clare Byrne, who edited the 12-volume complete edition, but we do not learn whether the pooch was a victim of politics or misadventure.

The reason we have these letters is that Lisle’s papers were seized in furtherance of a religious and political persecution. Lisle ended in the Tower of London. He was released when his tormenter, King Henry’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell, fell but died the next day.

And so ended the male line of the Plantagenets, because (unlike the small fry Pastons) Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle, was the son of a king. Henry would have murdered him, as he did his aunt and cousins, except that Arthur, as a bastard, was no threat to the Tudors.

It seems remarkable how loyally and calmly Lisle served his king, but evidently Lisle was a forgiving and tolerant man in an age where tolerance was a crime and forgiveness rare.

His wife, Honor, also comes across as an attractive personality, desperately trying to give her elderly second husband a male heir.

But the hero, to Boland, is Husee, patient, forebearing, wiser than his master, astute in maneuvering in a totalitarian state. The letters, and the book, end on a sad note for Husee.

 
 

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