Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A Tale of Two (Tudor) Sisters

Looking over Umberleigh fields from north

Only a partial story actually. It's a long time ago and only one sister told her side of it. The other one was, and remains, silent. But it's a window opened on to another lost her/storical world - what a breath of fresh air after the blind-alley forays I've tried to make over the last year or so into the background of  Anne Dowriche, a woman writer who was born some twenty years after these events: I found a lot about her and her poem The French Historie,  but nothing personal, nothing intimate, nothing more than the facts and dates and places I could find through digging into the archives - which were mostly in any case about her male relatives and acquaintances.

With Jane and Thomasina Basset it is a different story. Neither of them would have even dreamt of being considered  to be a 'writer'; anything but, I would guess, because the chances are that neither of them could read or write. But what is left of Jane's 'writings', in the form of her six letters written to her step-mother Lady Honor Lisle in 1533, from her beloved home at Umberleigh in north Devon hint at intriguing, compelling stories - several of them actually - but the one that interests me most is that about her, probably younger, sister, Thomasina. Yes the story might only be a little fragment of the whole, but the lively and eccentric style of its teller/writer make it seem almost modern in its conjuring up of a dramatic scenario - someone running away from their home in the middle of the night.

    If you drive through Umberleigh  now you just would never know, let alone imagine, that the place was at one time and for many centuries, a site of great significance.
Another photo of fields inUmberleigh area

Hard to believe that in this area there are the archaeological remains of a multi layered and complex part of lived history. Very little – if anything – is evident as you drive along the A377 following the river Taw’s sylph and snake-like bends. Yet, if you scan the aerial landscape on google maps you can see how intricate the field markings are around this part. Here, at Umberleigh there was an ancient chantry chapel; a large manor; perhaps at one time even a palace ‘overshadowed by tall trees’ (see Beatrix Cresswell).

You can read the letters by the Bassets though. It was in the so-called Lisle Letters, edited by Muriel St Clare Bryne, that I first found about the existence of the correspondence and the family. You can find more information in the excellent abridged version. The letters are dense and reveal far more than a partial description of the participants’ world; at times you can almost catch a shape, a scent, a sensation, as though someone out of that world is stepping across the field of vision.

Lady Lisle was born and brought up in the west country, the daughter of Sir Thomas Granville of Stowe just over the border, in north Cornwall. Honor or Honora married, as his second wife, Sir John Basset. The Basset family had inherited Umberleigh in a previous generation and through Honor’s second marriage to Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, illegitimate son of Edward IV, they became intimately and immediately connected with the royal line.

Honor Lisle’s letters sent to and from Umberleigh are not extant, but as Bryne comments, ‘We can often guess at the tone and tenor of these lost letters from the summaries given by their recipients’. Honor had four step-daughters. It is Jane, The eldest, probably a ‘spinster in her forties’, the ‘most enjoyable’ – and seemingly eccentric and crusty - one, who writes to her step-mother about life at the Umberleigh estate, where she removed to in 1533, after her parents left for Calais, where her step father was to be Deputy Lieutenant: ‘She loved her old home at Umberleigh and begged for two rooms in it, and pasture for one cow in order to live there with her unmarried sister Thomasina’. Jane herself put it like this: ‘for there is no place that I would be fain be in it’. Jane probably did not write her own letters, but even given that she worked with an amanuensis, the originality and colourfulness of her language come across. Jane’s ‘roots were in Umberleigh, where she had been born and bred’. There she was ‘surrounded by rich relatives and family connections with comfortably-off households’. So much for the dense intricacies of the extended Tudor family.
   We can piece together many fragments about them as well as glean details of Jane’s daily existence at Umberleigh. Her Uncle and Aunt Hatch lived at Woolegh (now Wooleigh or Woolly), a few miles south-west of Umberleigh and half way between Beaford and Great Torrington on the B3220. A little further away just over the border into Cornwall at Week St Mary was Marrais, where Jane’s sister Margery Marres and family lived. Anne Courtenay, the other married sister, lived at Upcot, not too far from Umberleigh. It appears as though Jane and Thomasine sometimes alternated between visiting the two sisters. It was to Upcot that Jane went when she first returned to Devon in 1533; she left there ‘for cause of sickness’ and after a brief spell at Umberleigh, was to ‘ride to my brother Marrys with my sister Thomasine’. There were also the Barrys or Berys, cousins at Dowland or and Winscott, which is just south of Dolton. There were Bellewe cousins at Alverdiscote and Paslewes at Horwood and other family members at Orleigh.
Jane had the dream of a comfortable life at her beloved home, yet was bothered by a persistent and perpetual fly in the ointment, the Vicar of Yarnscombe, John Bonde, who had been appointed by Lady Lisle to oversee the Umberleigh estate on her absence. He and Jane were constantly feuding and there was evidently no love lost between the two of them, but if Bonde was a nuisance to Jane, it was the escapades of her sister Thomasina that seem to have given Jane the greatest headache. Her letter, probably written 13th September 1535, telling of the disappearance of her sister in the night is presented with a flurry of words suggesting her combined fury, annoyance and emotional turmoil:

my sister Thomasina is gone from me unto my brother Marrys, without any manner knowledge given unto me, in the the morning early before my rising, and, to say the very truth, asleep; and so there did ride with her the Smith, a little boy, and Mistress Thomasyne, sometime Thomas Seller, his harlot and now God’s holy vicar here in earth, … and here the said Thomasyne is covered underneath Jone Bremelcob, the which men think her well near as unthrifty as the other. Wherefore they have rid away my sister in hope and trust to rid me also, because they might the bolder keep forth their bawdy and unthrifty rule without any further trouble. And sithens my sister’s departing she hath sent for part of her clothing, the which she left behind her the which I do retain my keeping and will do until such time that I may know your further pleasure herein …

Earlier letters suggest that there may have been friction between the two sisters and that Thomasina may have been rather wilful. Other than that there is little that can be inferred about her character or life in or away from Umberleigh. In the first letter that Jane sends to her stepmother after she has arrived back in Devon, she adds a postscript:
Madam, as to my sister Thomasine, she is at a point with my Cousin Elizabeth Paslewew, for at Wyscott she will not be, howbeit my cousin Anne Barry would fain have her’.
     The description of the runaway sister is tantalising and leaves an unsolved tale of intrigue and mystery in its wake. Did Thomasina decide herself to leave, fed up with her perhaps more overbearing sister trying to run her life? Did she, as one later writer believed, elope? If so, she can’t have had much time to enjoy her new found freedoms, because within two years she was dead. Having been taken ill at her sister’s Margery’s home, she had asked to be moved to her cousin Barrys’ house at Winscott, Dowland and had died there in April 1536. Or, was Thomasina’s nocturnal escapade a planned conspiracy, as Jane herself implies – a determined drive on the part of the other members of the household, perhaps even backed by Lady Lisle herself? Bryne’s views certainly confirm this:

'They (Lady Lisle, and the Vicar, and Thomas Seller, and the smith and the little boy and the other Thomasyne whom Jane calls harlot) wanted to drive her [Jane] out from her lodging at Umberleigh, and thought to rid themselves of her by persuading Thomasina to desert …'

    The realities of this drama/Tudor family soap opera have to be left firmly with the respective characters in their graves, but there are enough little extra touches in these few letters to add sparks to the fire and there is no smoke without fire, as they say. Jane and John Bond’s letters display a lively game of cat and mouse. Jane’s letters list several complaints to her stepmother, including the main accusation that he and others intercepted her letters, including those she had sent and those sent her by her stepmother. One such missing letter is suggested when she writes in disgust to Lady Lisle about Bonde and Bremelcum:

‘… they had liefer that any brothel in this parts were here than I, and so the said woman that I wrote unto you is here daily and so she said unto her herself and defied also. And this good madame, doth grieve me very sore’.

Presumably the lady of dubious reputation who has invaded the privacy of Jane’s home is the same ‘harlot’ she refers to in her letter about Thomasine’s disappearance.

However, Jane’s own affairs were not necessarily that simple or virtuous – although we can in the main only deduce that from the letters sent by John Bonde, rather than from her own. For one thing, she owned a greyhound that ‘lieth upon one of the beds day and night, but it be when she holdeth him in her hands and that every time when she goeth to the doors’. Also, she had found a woman servant/companion who helped her to block up the entrance to the Manor – presumably to stop the Vicar and his companions from entering. There seem to have been shenanigans at the estate. Bonde tells Lady Lisle

‘I wot not what to say of her [Mistress Jane Basset]… She hath kept a woman servant, I know not to what intent, the which troubleth me very much … Mistress Jane’s servant put up the back door that lieth into park, by some subtle means the which put me in great fear to what intent it was done, etc.

For all the references made in these letters by Jane, Bonde and others about the many and various religious days in the yearly calendar, the people living in Umberleigh Manor mid 1530’s don’t sound a very holy-minded bunch, and indeed Jane is apparently the only person there to take much interest in the religious appurtenances of the estate, in particular, in its chapel. She writes to Lady Lisle ‘on the eve of the Holy Cross’

‘…Also I pray [you] to send me word what your pleasure shall be of your lamp in the chapel, for I ensure [you] he burneth never day in the week and scant holy days, except that I do light him [my]self. And I pray you send me work whether that I shall maintain your taper in the chapel of our lady of Alston, the which hitherto [I have done] …

    What a difference a few letters make! Jane Basset’s letters about the lives of some of the Basset/Lisle family provide ample material which invites the perceptive reader to re-invent their original lives and elaborate them with detailed interpretations. Sometimes the everyday mini-dramas of their lives don’t seem too different from those of our own.

    What I would give for just one letter in existence from Anne Dowriche, or even from someone in her family. The survival of the Lisle correspondence just brings home the stark reality that such evidence about women's lives from that early Tudor period is quite rare.  But on the other hand, who knows what other archival repositories might still exist somewhere which, if found, could reveal little fragments of a drama from other forgotten lives, at another now innocuous looking Devonshire site.

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