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Saturday, 18 September 2010


My 12x great grandfather John Sadleir commanded a company at the siege of Boulogne in 1544. Which is pretty impressive, until you meet his brother, my 13x great uncle Ralph Sadleir. Ralph served under four English monarchs from Henry VIII (for whom he was Secretary of State) to Elizabeth I (who appointed him Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster). As a man serving in such high public office, Ralph had a hand in many events of national importance.

Portrait of a Man, by Hans Holbein, painted in 1535
and considered a possible portrait of Sir Ralph Sadleir (1507-1587)

His state papers contain details of his roles in the suppression of two rebellions and as ambassador for many years to Scotland. They were edited and published in Edinburgh 222 years after his death by a descendent, Arthur Clifford, with historical notes by none other than Sir Walter Scott. The two thick volumes of them are a priceless collection of first hand accounts covering 50 years, 1537-1587, from Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries to Elizabeth’s execution of Mary.

Ralph first entered royal service in 1518, at the tender age of 11, under the patronage of Thomas Cromwell, earl of Essex. Cromwell himself was then under the patronage of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey fell from grace for opposing Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon; Cromwell rose by facilitating it, and Ralph rose with him. Cromwell fell very suddenly from grace in 1540 when he was blamed (and beheaded) for Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, and Ralph kept on rising.

Thomas Cromwell (c1485-1540) by Hans Holbein, painted in c1533

He was perhaps lucky that Henry died only seven years later, before Ralph had time to fall from grace himself. In the event, Henry still regarded Ralph highly enough to appoint him to the Council of Regency for his underage heir the future king Edward VI. As a favourite of Henry and official protector of Edward, Ralph was now pretty well set up for life.

Ralph must have had mixed feelings about the execution of his mentor Cromwell. Not only did he owe Cromwell his elevated position in court; the earl of Essex was also godfather to Sadleir’s first two sons. The letter survives, quoted in the State Papers, in which Ralph asks Thomas to act as such for the second boy:
“Syr, after myn humble comendacions … it is so, that my wyfe, after long travaile, and as payneful labour as any woman could have, hathe at the last brought furth a fayre boy; beseeching you to vouchsafe ones agayne to be gossip unto so poore a man as I am, and that he may bear your name. Trusting ye shall have more rejoyse of him then ye had of the other; and yet ther is no cause but of gret rejoyse in the other, for he dyed an innocent, and enjoyeth the joyes of heven …
“At Hackney, this Saturday, at iii of the clocke at after none, with the rude and hastie hand of
Your most assured and faithful serante duringe his lyf,
Rafe Sadler.”

Gossip originally meant godparent. The child did indeed take Thomas’ name – in 1603 Sir Thomas Sadleir, Ralph’s son and now sheriff of Hertfordshire, entertained James VI of Scotland for two nights. James was en route from Scotland to London to become James I of England, succeeding Elizabeth I who, 16 years earlier, had beheaded his mother Mary Queen of Scots.

As evidence of happier times in Mary and Elizabeth’s fractured relationship, Mary had invited Queen Elizabeth (with King Charles IX of France) to be King James’ gossip. And although James could not be expected to remember it, the father of his Hertfordshire host in 1603 had been present at his birth in 1566.

Mary, Queen of Scots, her infant son who later became James the First, and Sir Ralph Sadleir, painted by Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846), a historical artist of whom Charles Dickens wrote:

“No amount of sympathy with him and sorrow for him in his manly pursuit of a wrong idea for so many years … ought to prevent one from saying that he most unquestionably was a very bad painter, and that his pictures could not be expected to sell or to succeed."

Present whereabouts of the painting, and indeed the authenticity of the scene it depicts, unknown.

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