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Saturday, 10 July 2010


This is about as far back as I go – John Sadleir was my 11x great grandfather, and understandably details of his life are a bit sketchy. I know his year of birth (approximately) and the names of his older brother and his father (Ralph and Henry of Hackney respectively). That’s about it really. Oh, and he commanded a company of men at the Siege of Boulogne in 1544. Even here it’s a little vague – there were two sieges of the French town that year.

France was supporting Scotland in a war with England, so England joined forces with Spain to attack France. It was literally an unholy alliance – Henry VIII of England had just broken away from the Church of Rome, dissolving all the English monasteries and inventing the Church of England with himself at its head. Spain and France, both devoutly Catholic countries, were natural allies; and Spain’s king was also the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Henry VIII, Francis I and Charles V,
players in the campaign season of 1544

But war is a pragmatic business, and Spain could see huge political and economic advantages in attacking and weakening France. In any case France’s king, Francis I, had made an earlier and even more unholy pact with the Ottoman Turks (who were Muslims) to attack Spain; and one can well imagine, ringing up and down the diplomatic corridors of the time, the pained cries of “well he started it!”

Henry VIII’s commitment to the joint Anglo-Spanish advance on Paris was less than whole-hearted. Of a promised 40,000 men he sent about 16,000. The English army landed at Calais in early 1544, reached Boulogne on 19th July, and never really got much further.

At Boulogne, bombardment quickly won England the lower town, and the upper town fell by September to fiercer fighting. The town castle itself held out bravely until it was mined by English engineers; on 18th September the surviving 1600 Frenchmen of the original defensive force of 4000 surrendered. Henry VIII entered the town in triumph preceded by  the Lord Marquis Dorset carrying a naked sword, while trumpeters lined the town walls like a scene from Hollywood.

The First Siege of Boulogne
(detail from an engraving by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm)

This is probably the siege that John Sadleir was involved in. Henry returned to England and left orders for the town’s defence by the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk – who promptly disobeyed the king. They left a garrison of 4000 men in Boulogne and headed back towards England with the rest of the English Army.

Meanwhile, France and Spain had overcome their differences and made a Peace Treaty together. Now both the English garrison at Boulogne and the English army at Calais were trapped and heavily outnumbered by the combined Catholic forces. The French set about retaking Boulogne and after a successful surprise attack on 9th October they very nearly did. Unfortunately the undisciplined French troops began prematurely looting and celebrating, thereby blowing their chances of victory. Instead, they settled in for the rather longer Second Siege of Boulogne.

For the next six years, England held on precariously in both Calais and Boulogne. Neither Henry nor Francis could muster the military forces required to resolve the situation decisively, and in the end an Anglo-French treaty in 1550 allowed France to buy Boulogne back.

Henry, who died in 1547, spent his declining years waiting for a French counter-attack and invasion which never happened. Instead, the Scots took advantage of his distraction by Europe to intensify their irritating border raids on northern England. And six years after his death his daughter Mary I (Bloody Mary) returned England to the Catholic Church which he had so defiantly left twenty years earlier.

Bloody Mary Tudor
burnt 280 Protestants at the stake
including five bishops

John Sadleir was a bit of an under-achiever compared to his brother Ralph, a major statesman and key political figure under four monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. Ralph should have a whole blog to himself, but no doubt I’ll return to him here from time to time in the future!


  1. Congratulations, it is a great text.

  2. I do not agree with your speculation that John was as you say: "a bit of an under-achiever compared to his brother Ralph." There is just nothing known of his life after his participation in the siege of Boulogne. Who knows?

  3. Yes, it's a fair point, that we know very little of John Sadleir's achievements. But we know so much of Ralph's, and they are so impressive, that it's hard to imagine John's outshining them. But thanks for pointing it out!
    Colin Salter

  4. It was good to learn about the origins of the Sadleir/Sadlier name. A cousin of mine traced the geneology back to these 2 brothers, absolutely amazing. It would have been nice to know who they married and who their children were


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