If one for some reason watched the television series The Tudors, there is a risk that one believe Henry VIII had an uncle who was murdered in Urbino during some mission there. He didn´t
He did however have a maternal uncle, Arthur Plantagenet, who was the illegitimate son of Edward IV and to whom, in spite of their relatively large age difference, came to be close. This is the brief story of Arthur, who really deserve more than I am able to provide here.
It isn´t absolutely certain who the mother of Arthur was, the most often recurring suggestion is “the wanton wench” Elizabeth Wayte, and while the historian David Baldwin states that Arthur was called Wayte in his earliest years, it has also been suggested that she may be identical to one of Edward´s mistresses, Dame Elizabeth Lucy who was the mother of several others of Edward´s illegitimate children, or if she´s an entirely different woman. Another candidate that has been suggested as the mother of Arthur Plantagenet is Elizabeth Shore, while one of many who shared the King´s bed, maybe the most famous of them.
In any event, Arthur was born in Calais, still in English possession, sometime between 1461 and 1475 and spent his childhood at the court of his father, but it is not known who he spent the years directly after the death of his father.
His half-sister, Elizabeth of York, however, brought him to her household after her marriage to Henry VII and when she died in 1502 he moved to the household of Henry VII where he stayed until the old king died and was replaced by his son, Henry VIII. By all accounts, he was held in high esteem by his nephew, the new King, who called him “the gentlest heart living” and made him an Esquire of the King´s Bodyguard. In 1511 Arthur married Elizabeth Grey, widow after Edmund Dudley, and thereby paternal grandmother of Robert Dudley. In 1514 Arthur Plantagenet was appointed High Sheriff of Hampshire and from there went on to become captain of the Vice-Admiral´s ship Trinity Sovereign and rising to the position as Vice-Admiral of England in 1525.
Before then he had attended Henry VIII at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, been created 1st Viscount Lisle in 1523, selected to the Privy Council and made Governor of Calais and Warden of Cinque Ports.
It is during his time in Calais that Arthur Plantagenet – and his second wife Honor – maybe unwittingly make his imprint on history. It didn´t happen through some heroic act, and probably wasn´t paid much heed to then, other than Cromwell to some extent criticized him for it: he wrote a copious amounts of letters. The criticism directed at him was that Cromwell felt he paid too much attention to trivial things that had no importance to the machinations of politics. But without those letters, today known as “The Lisle Letters”, chances are much less would have been known about the time in which Arthur Plantagenet lived and worked.
The correspondence was between Lord and Lady Lisle and their family, court acquaintances, servants, their retainers and Lord Lisle´s agent in London, John Husee.
Of these letters, the amazing number of 3 000 survives today, the largest collection of letters from the period belonging to the same person, and has been of an enormous importance for historians and others interested to gain an insight to the period. The main reason for them surviving is a sad one.
In 1540, several members of the Plantagenet household was arrested for treason on the charges of plotting to surrender the town on Calais to the French. The actual plotters were all executed, but no evidence could be found against Arthur Plantagenet himself, even though his extensive correspondence had been seized and read by the crown. Even so, he was kept in the Tower for two years, and no longer being a young man, it no doubt took its toll on him. I recently read that Arthur eventually was allowed to move around the Tower walls. Looking out over the Thames, he saw his nephew and old friend, Henry VIII, travelling in the Royal Barge. Arthur raised his hands, waved and shouted.
The next day he had a visit to his cell from Henry´s secretary with the news that he was going to be free and be returned to his offices. This was however too much for the old man to handle and he had a heart attack.
Two days later, on March 3rd 1542, Arthur Plantagenet died.
His vast correspondence is now kept at The National Archives at Kew, and can be looked at by the public. The letters range from January 1st 1533 to December 31st 1540.
Sources: The Lost Prince, The survival of Richard of York – David Baldwin
The Lisle Letters, an abridged version – Muriel St. Clare Byrne
Letter to Honor Plantagenet, Lady Lisle, from George Rolle, Devon – The Lisle Letters, 6 vols, Muriel St. Clare Byrne