Ralph Sadler

Anne Boleyn

Ralph Sadler, first son of Henry Sadler, was born in 1507. His father worked as a steward for Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset. As a young man he met Thomas Cromwell and by 1521 he had entered his service.

His biographer, Gervase Phillips. has pointed out: "Although Sadler does not appear to have attended university his patron ensured that he had an excellent education, learning Latin, French, and Greek and acquiring familiarity with the law. The most valuable lessons of all, however, came when, at about nineteen, he began to serve Cromwell in a secretarial capacity, learning about counsel, administration, finance, and politics.... Sadler was one of Cromwell's intimates by 1529, being appointed an executor of his will. People began to turn to him for favours, knowing his influence with his master." (1)

Sadler married Ellen Mitchell in around 1535. She worked as a laundress in the Cromwell household. There were seven surviving children. Sadler later discovered that Ellen was already married to Matthew Barre, a London tradesman. Therefore, the marriage was bigamous and that his children were illegitimate.

Ralph Sadler & Thomas Cromwell

Sadler helped Thomas Cromwell deal with the prosecutions of Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in 1535. This brought him to the attention of Henry VIII and he joined his staff as a gentleman of the king's privy chamber. Cromwell also arranged for him to become member of the House of Commons for Hindon, Wiltshire. After the marriage of Henry VIII to Jane Seymour Sadler became the queen's secretary. (2)

In January 1537 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Scotland. He also carried out an investigation of "sedition-mongers" following the Pilgrimage of Grace. in April 1540 Sadler and Thomas Wriothesley were both appointed as Privy Councillors. (3)

Henry VIII was angry with Thomas Cromwell for arranging the marriage with Anne of Cleves. The conservatives, led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, saw this as an opportunity to remove him from power. Gardiner considered Cromwell a heretic for introducing the Bible in the native tongue. He also opposed the way Cromwell had attacked the monasteries and the religious shrines. Gardiner pointed out to the King that it was Cromwell who had allowed radical preachers such as Robert Barnes to return to England. The French ambassador reported on 10th April, 1540, that Cromwell was "tottering" and began speculating about who would succeed to his offices. (4)

Quarrels in the Privy Council continued and Charles de Marillac reported to François I on 1st June, 1540, that "things are brought to such a pass that either Cromwell's party or that of the Bishop of Winchester must succumb". (5) On 10th June, Cromwell arrived slightly late for a meeting of the Privy Council. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, shouted out, "Cromwell! Do not sit there! That is no place for you! Traitors do not sit among gentlemen." The captain of the guard came forward and arrested him. (6) Cromwell was charged with treason and heresy. Norfolk went over and ripped the chains of authority from his neck, "relishing the opportunity to restore this low-born man to his former status". Cromwell was led out through a side door which opened down onto the river and taken by boat the short journey from Westminster to the Tower of London. (7) Ralph Sadler was also arrested and taken to the Tower.

Thomas Cromwell was convicted by Parliament of treason and heresy on 29th June and sentenced him to be hung, drawn and quartered. He wrote to Henry VIII soon afterwards and admitted "I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness that I am not able to answer them all". He finished the letter with the plea, "Most gracious prince I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy." Henry commuted the sentence to decapitation, even though the condemned man was of lowly birth. (8) On 28th July, 1540 Cromwell was executed on Tower Green. However, Sadler's life was spared and he was released.

The Execution of Catherine Howard

Henry VIII married Catherine Howard on 28th July 1540. Catherine was said to be poorly educated, selfish and foolish. It appears that she got on badly with Mary, who, she said, failed to treat her with the same respect as her two predecessors, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves. It did not help that Mary was three years older than her stepmother, and that she "was well-educated, beautifully mannered and the daughter of Spanish royalty."

Sadler, with the support of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was one of those who gathered enough evidence to ensure Catherine's execution in February 1542, in an effort to discredit Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, the two men who had brought down Thomas Cromwell. According to Gervase Phillips: "He was a ruthless participant in this process, co-ordinating much of the inquiry into the queen's conduct and doing his utmost to transform a case of treason into a purge of those who had orchestrated Cromwell's downfall. In this, he and his allies, Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, being prominent among them, were unsuccessful. War now loomed with France and Scotland. Henry needed the services of both Gardiner, for his diplomatic talents, and Norfolk, a proven military commander, although their influence at court was diminished." (9)

Thomas Wolsey
Ralph Sadler by Hans Holbein (1535)

In December 1542 Ralph Sadler was sent to Scotland by Henry VIII following the birth of Mary, the daughter of James V of Scotland, who died soon after she was born. Sadler distrusted her mother, Mary of Guise, and her French connections, and supported the candidacy of James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, to become the next ruler while Mary was a child. The plan was then to marry Edward, the five-year-old son and heir of Henry, to Mary. "Despite his lack of personal authority, Arran was duly appointed regent in preference to the queen mother. His feeble intellect, docile nature and lack of realism - which became steadily more pronounced - did not displease the English, who glimpsed the possibility of seizing Scotland without recourse to war." (10)

Ralph Sadler was appointed master of the great wardrobe in 1543. This placed him in charge of pay and supply during war. During this period he became a recognized financial expert. Other posts included chamberlain of the court of general surveyors, steward of Hertford and constable of Hertford Castle. (11)

Supporter of Edward Seymour

On the outbreak of the war against Scotland, Sadler was appointed treasurer and in this capacity accompanied Edward Seymour, first earl of Hertford, on a punitive expedition to Edinburgh in May 1544. Sadler continued to work closely with Seymour, accompanying him once more across the border on a second bloody foray in September 1545. (12) During this period he was transformed from diplomat to military administrator.

Sadler's position enabled him to purchase crown lands and by 1547 he owned property in twenty-five counties in England and Wales. His annual income from land alone was £372 13s. 4d. by 1545–6. Sadler built a great mansion on his estate at Standon, Hertfordshire. By this this time he was highly valued by Henry VIII as a trusted and efficient royal servant. "He played a leading role in the reorganization of the courts of augmentations and of general surveyors and he was responsible for the systematic organization of the privy council's growing archive of documents." (13)

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On Henry's death, on 28th January 1547, Sadler was one of the privy councillors deputed to arrange the late king's funeral in his capacity of master of the great wardrobe. Thereafter, and in accordance with Henry's instructions, he was appointed one of the assistants to the sixteen executors of the regency council who acted as guardians to Edward VI and were entrusted with the government of the realm. He received a £200 bequest in Henry's will.

Edward was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist Edward in governing his new realm. It was not long before his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. Sadler was one of Seymour's main supporters. Thomas Seymour (Lord Sudeley) was furious that his brother had risen so far so fast. To increase his power he secretly married Edward's stepmother, Catherine Parr. Edward wrote in his journal: "The Lord Seymour of Sudeley married the Queen, whose name was Catherine, with which marriage the Lord Protector was much offended." (14)

Sir Robert Tyrwhitt attempted to discover if Elizabeth, Katherine Ashley, and Sir Thomas Parry were involved in what was described a "marriage plot" with Thomas Seymour. However, they all refused to confess and Tyrwhitt reported, "They all sing the same song and so I think they would not do, unless they had set the note before." However, without confessions, Tyrwhitt was forced to release Ashley and Parry but Seymour was charged with 39 articles of treasonable activities, including that he "had attempted and gone about to marry the King's Majesty's sister, the Lady Elizabeth, second inheritor in remainder to the Crown." (15)

Thomas Seymour was examined on 18th and 23rd February but refused to answer unless his accusers stood before him. (16) Seymour demanded an open trial to face his accusers but this was denied. To prevent his brother, Edward Seymour, from showing leniency, the Council gained permission to act without the Lord Protector's authorization. Ralph Sadler was one of those who signed his death warrant. On 20th March, 1549, Seymour was beheaded on Tower Hill. Even on the scaffold, Seymour refused to make the usual confession. Bishop Hugh Latimer commented: "Whether he be saved or no, I leave it to God, but surely he was a wicked man, and the realm is well rid of him." (17)

John Dudley, Earl of Warwick

In January 1550, Ralph Sadler, abandoned Edward Seymour and joined his critics such as John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick, Henry Wriothesley, 2nd Earl of Southampton and Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, and demand his removal as Lord Protector. (18) Seymour no longer had the support of the aristocracy and had no choice but to give up his post. On 14th January 1550 his deposition as lord protector was confirmed by act of parliament, and he was also deprived of all his other positions, of his annuities, and of lands to the value of £2000 a year. He was sent to the Tower of London where he remained until the following February, when he was released by the Earl of Warwick who was now the most powerful figure in the government. Roger Lockyer suggests that this "gesture of conciliation on Warwick's part served its turn by giving him time to gain the young King's confidence and to establish himself more firmly in power". (19) This upset the nobility and in October 1551, Warwick was forced to arrest the Duke of Somerset.

Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. He skillfully conducted his own defence and was acquitted of treason but found guilty of felony under the terms of a recent statute against bringing together men for a riot and sentenced to death. (20) "Historians sympathetic to Somerset argue that the indictment was largely fictitious, that the trial was packed with his enemies, and that Northumberland's subtle intrigue was responsible for his conviction. Other historians, however, have noted that Northumberland agreed that the charge of treason should be dropped and that the evidence suggests that Somerset was engaged in a conspiracy against his enemies." (21) Although the king had supported Somerset's religious policies with enthusiasm he did nothing to save him from his fate. (22)

As he was such a popular figure the authorities feared that Somerset's execution would cause disorder. On the morning of 22nd January, 1552, people living in London were ordered to remain in their houses. For added protection, over a 1,000 soldiers were on the streets of the city. Despite these measures large crowds gathered at Tower Hill. (23) He showed no sign of fear and he told those assembled that he died in the knowledge that he was "glad of the furtherance and helping forward of the commonwealth of this realm". (24) He also urged those present to follow the reformed religion that he had promoted. Edward VI wrote in his journal: "The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine in the morning." (25)

As Gervase Phillips points out, Sadler's support of John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick, was well rewarded: "He backed John Dudley, earl of Warwick, during the October coup against Somerset. Although not a close adherent of Warwick, or a regular attendee at the council board, Sadler was clearly a trusted supporter of the new regime, partly because of his discretion and partly because he was a notable protestant. In late 1550 he was given command of a company of fifty men-at-arms maintained on a semi-permanent footing as gendarmes, a prestigious duty normally associated with a member of the nobility." (26)

Ralph Sadler lost power following the arrest of the Earl of Warwick. (27) During the reign of Queen Mary I he lost most of his offices, including privy councillor and master of the great wardrobe, was removed from the commissions of the peace, and was briefly under house arrest before obtaining a pardon on 6th October 1553. For the remainder of the reign he retired quietly to Standon.

Ralph Sadler & Elizabeth I

Sadler's political career resumed at the accession of Elizabeth I and he was among the first to be admitted to her Privy Council on 20th November 1558. He was MP for Hertfordshire between 1559 and 1586. He also worked as an advisor to Sir William Cecil, concerning policy over Scotland. He helped to arrange the treaty of peace and alliance between England and Scotland signed in Edinburgh on 6th July, 1560.

Sadler was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in May 1568. According to Robert Somerville, the author of The History of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1265–1603 (1953) Sadler was particularly well qualified for the post, being "well affected in religion", "well experienced and expedite in hearing and dispatching of causes", and "of good spirit, countenance and credit". (28) In 1584 Sadler found seats in the House of Commons for no less than seventeen of his relatives and associates. (29)

Ralph Sadler died on 30th March 1587. His published will suggested he was one of the richest men in England.

Primary Sources

(1) Anka Muhlstein, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart (2007)

Henry... sent Sir Ralph Sadler, a trusted envoy who knew Scotland well, to examine the situation in general and the infant queen in particular. The baby was disrobed in his prescence, and the widowed queen, Mary of Guise, proudly remarked that she was a robust child who would one day be as tall as her mother. Sadler, who acknowledged this, addressed himself to the crucial question of who would govern the kingdom during Mary Stuart's minority. The Englishman, who distrusted Mary of Guise and her French connections, supported the candidacy of the Earl of Arran, a direct descendant of James III's sister and, thus, second in line of succession. Despite his lack of personal authority, Arran was duly appointed regent in preference to the queen mother. His feeble intellect, docile nature and lack of realism - which became steadily more pronounced - did not displease the English, who glimpsed the possibility of seizing Scotland without recourse to war: it would be sufficient to marry the Queen of Scotland to Edward, son and heir of Henry VIII. The future king was five, the queen only a few weeks old, but no matter.

The Earl of Arran consented to this idea, and the requisite agreements were signed. The two parties solemnly committed themselves to the marriage. In view of the youthful fiancee's age it was agreed that she would remain in Scotland until she turned eleven, at which time she would be married by proxy and come to England. Meanwhile, Henry VIII proposed to send an English tutor to Scotland to live with Mary. He and his wife would attend to the little girl's health and wellbeing and, later on, to her education. It went without saying that the English king promised to respect the Scottish kingdom's independence both before and after her marriage.

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(1) Gervase Phillips, Ralph Sadler : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 357

(3) Gervase Phillips, Ralph Sadler : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) Howard Leithead, Thomas Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(5) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 638

(6) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 148

(7) Howard Leithead, Thomas Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 79

(9) Gervase Phillips, Ralph Sadler : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Anka Muhlstein, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart (2007) page 49

(11) Gervase Phillips, Ralph Sadler : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(12) Barrett L. Beer, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(13) Gervase Phillips, Ralph Sadler : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(14) Philippa Jones, Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) page 46

(15) The Robert Tyrwhitt Commission of Enquiry (February, 1549)

(16) G. W. Bernard, Thomas Seymour: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(17) Philippa Jones, Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) page 61

(18) Barrett L. Beer, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(19) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 92

(20) Jennifer Loach, Edward VI (2002) pages 101-102

(21) Barrett L. Beer, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(22) Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1958) page 37

(23) John Guy, My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (2004) pages 212-215

(24) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 92

(25) Edward VI, journal entry (22nd January, 1552)

(26) Gervase Phillips, Ralph Sadler : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(27) Christopher Morris, The Tudors (1955) page 113

(28) Robert Somerville, The History of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1265–1603 (1953) page 325