Sadler, Sir Ralph (1507–1587), diplomat and administrator
by Gervase Phillips

Sadler, Sir Ralph (1507–1587), diplomat and administrator, was probably born in Warwickshire, the first son of Henry Sadler, administrator, of Warwickshire and Hackney, Middlesex. His father was a steward of Sir Edward Belknap until 1521, when he acquired a house in Hackney. He then became steward of Tilty, Essex, for Thomas Grey, second marquess of Dorset. Thomas Cromwell was Dorset's attorney by 1522 but his association with Henry Sadler probably predates this.

Education, early years, and early diplomatic career, 1507–1540

Ralph Sadler entered Cromwell's service by 1521. 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. He was involved in drafting and writing Cromwell's voluminous correspondence and gained valuable firsthand experience of great affairs from the late 1520s. He also took an increasingly prominent role in handling household business. 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.

Sadler also met his wife through his connection with the Cromwell household. He married Ellen, or Helen (d. after 1545), daughter of John Mitchell, of Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, by 1535. However, the marriage was bigamous because she was the wife of Matthew Barre, a London tradesman and a drunkard, originally from Sevenoaks, Kent, who had abandoned her and their two children. She enquired after Barre but eventually presumed him dead. She then found employment as a laundress in the Cromwell household, where she met Sadler, about 1530, and the couple married soon afterwards. Unfortunately Barre was not dead. Sadler was unaware until 1545 that his marriage was bigamous and that his children were illegitimate. There were seven surviving children in all: three sons, Thomas (c.1536–1607), Henry (c.1538–1618), and Edward, and four daughters, of whom the names of three are known, Anne (d. 1576), Jane (d. in or after 1587), and Dorothy (d. in or after 1578).

Sadler's duties as secretary to Cromwell, including involvement in the examinations of Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, brought him to the attention of Henry VIII. In 1535 he became clerk of the hanaper of chancery. In the following year he was named a gentleman of the king's privy chamber and began his parliamentary career, being returned as MP for Hindon, Wiltshire, through Cromwell's patronage. He was well known as Cromwell's messenger at court and was placed in the privy lodgings as a means of countering the Boleyn party. He was entrusted in January 1537 with a diplomatic mission to Scotland, ostensibly to protect the interests of Margaret Tudor, the dowager queen. Beyond this aim the opportunity existed for Anglo-Scottish rapprochement, for a conciliatory approach from England might lessen French influence at the Scottish court. This appointment was to mark the beginning of Sadler's long association with Scottish affairs.

Travelling through the north of England in the wake of the Pilgrimage of Grace, Sadler wrote to Cromwell of sedition-mongers among the local gentry and of rebellious commoners, whose loyalty could be secured only by a show of royal force. His chief task while in the north was to secure the arrest of leading members of the Percy household, who were prime movers, in the king's mind, of the rebellion. This achieved, Sadler moved on to Edinburgh, arriving in mid-January. He was able to placate Margaret and to dissuade her from her ill-advised intention to flee to England. James V was in France at the time, busy with the final arrangements of his marriage to Madeleine de Valois. Sadler pursued the Anglo-Scottish rapprochement with the Scottish king himself, having an audience with him at Rouen on about 1 April, and then later in the year travelled once more to Scotland for further talks. For the time being James seemed well disposed towards Henry and the lingering threat of hostilities between England and Scotland receded temporarily. Yet this diplomacy had been only a partial success, failing to establish a basis for a lasting peace, and relations between the kings soon deteriorated.

Sadler was favoured by Henry and began to acquire patronage. In March 1536 he received the reversionary lease of Walthamstow, Essex, for forty years. He was elected knight of the shire of Middlesex in 1539. In January 1540 he returned to Scotland, with a gift of six geldings, charged with promoting the cause of religious reform and with denouncing David Beaton, cardinal and archbishop of St Andrews, as an instrument of Paul III and Charles V. The mission was particularly important to Cromwell, who desperately needed a foreign policy success to restore his battered credibility following Henry's dissatisfaction with his marriage to Anne of Cleves. The king's infatuation with Katherine Howard gave Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk, and Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, the opportunity they needed to engineer Cromwell's downfall. Sadler was made welcome in Edinburgh but found that the Scottish nobility was largely composed of young men. James, lacking such counsellors as served Henry, relied upon his bishops and clergy. The geldings, as Sadler was well aware, were unimpressive animals and a disappointment to the Scottish king when he presented them on 19 February. The advice Sadler was instructed to offer on how best to raise revenue on royal lands was tactless, since it implied criticism of James's ability to rule and reflected Henry's heavy-handed approach towards his nephew. The extent of Scottish anti-clericalism was wholly overestimated and James had no sympathy for the reformation. Improvising on his instructions Sadler proposed a personal meeting between Henry and James. He left Edinburgh in March, convinced that James had agreed to this, and conveyed that opinion to Henry. Yet James would not leave his realm; Henry travelled north to York in 1541, where he awaited James for two weeks before realizing that the meeting would not take place. Humiliated, Henry initiated military preparations on the border. Sadler's mission failed through a combination of unrealistic expectations and clumsy diplomacy.

Principal secretary and privy councillor, 1540–1547

Nevertheless Cromwell seems to have defended his position well for a time and this was to Sadler's benefit too. Sadler was knighted, probably on 18 April 1540, and was appointed, along with Sir Thomas Wriothesley, as principal secretary. Furthermore he was also a protonotary of chancery from 1537 and sat on the privy council, which gave him sufficient influence and security to survive his patron's fall. However, because of his association with the disgraced royal servant and his sympathies for religious reform, it is likely that in January 1541, in the wake of Cromwell's execution and Henry's marriage to Katherine, Sadler was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. Yet the king found him too valuable, for Sadler was capable and industrious. His habit of dating his letters by the hour as well as the day gives an insight into a gruelling schedule; he often rose by 4 a.m. and was rarely in bed before midnight. In order to be close to Henry, being the king's secretary as well as the principal secretary, and therefore working within the privy lodgings, he acquired a house at Hackney, Middlesex, and had accommodation at Hampton Court, Westminster Palace, and Whitehall Palace. Yet he remained politically marginalized for some time. He had not accompanied Henry and his favoured advisers as they travelled north in summer 1541. Dramatic revelations of Katherine's alleged adultery were, however, to transform his political fortunes once more.

Sadler was one of those who gathered enough evidence to ensure Katherine's execution in February 1542 and to discredit Norfolk and Gardiner before the king. 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. Sadler, in contrast, was appointed master of the great wardrobe from 1543 to 1553. This meant that he was much concerned with the logistics of the royal household, giving him the necessary skill and experience for involvement in pay and supply during war. Additionally, he received other notable administrative appointments, becoming a recognized financial expert. He was a chamberlain or receiver of the court of general surveyors by 1545, commissioner of musters for Hertfordshire in 1546, and steward of Hertford and constable of Hertford Castle from 1549 to 1554. He was JP for Hertfordshire from 1544 and of the quorum for Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire from 1547.

James's death on 14 December 1542 provided the opportunity for achieving dynastic union between England and Scotland by the marriage of Edward, prince of Wales, and Mary, queen of Scots. Sadler was Henry's resident ambassador in Scotland, charged with engineering this union, and arrived in Edinburgh on 13 March 1543. His initial objectives were to have Mary removed to England and to persuade Scotland's governor, James Hamilton, second earl of Arran, to advance the reformation. The trust that Henry placed in Sadler is indicated by the king's desire that Lady Sadler be appointed as Mary's governess. This was entirely impractical, as Sadler tactfully informed him; having no experience of court life herself his wife could hardly be expected to provide a suitable upbringing for a queen. Discussions of such future arrangements were, however, soon irrelevant because of the situation that developed in Scotland. French ships were already delivering munitions on a regular basis, and a powerful party inimical to English interest was forming around Beaton. Sadler identified three main factions: Arran and his allies, whom he judged sympathetic to England and to the reformation; Beaton, Mary of Guise, and the clergy, who looked to France; and a body of neutrals, whose loyalties would ultimately lie with the strongest party. In this assessment Sadler erred. Unwilling to make concessions to Catholic interest, and placing far too much trust in those he believed to be religious allies, he proved unequal to the complexities of Scottish factional politics. Arran did, initially, give every indication of good faith. In order to win Sadler's support he claimed (probably falsely) that his own name headed a black list of prominent heretics drawn up by James. On 1 July at Greenwich his ambassadors agreed a treaty of peace and dynastic union through marriage. However, it was already apparent to Sadler that Arran's position was far from secure, with Cardinal Beaton's followers threatening to rebel. Henry urged him to give every encouragement to Arran to honour the treaty; he himself made offers of troops, money, and even the crown of Scotland itself in an effort to ensure the governor's continuing loyalty. Despite this, Arran was neither a champion of religious reform nor a servant of English interests. Sadler learned on 5 September that Arran had joined the cardinal in Stirling. Frustrated and furious, he railed against the Scots, ‘under the sun live not more beastly and unreasonable people than here be of all degrees’ (LP Henry VIII, 18/2.175).

There was much that was commendable in Sadler's conduct of affairs in Edinburgh. He favoured peace over war and argued that England's cause would be best served by the distribution of bibles and copies of the New Testament rather than by coercion. His position was made more difficult by Henry's aggressive posturing; talk of English garrisons in Scotland only confirmed the suspicions of many Scots that dynastic union would lead to subjugation. In the aftermath of Arran's defection the extent of Scottish hostility became all too apparent. Several attempts were made on Sadler's life and he was forced to flee Edinburgh on 10 November, first to the Douglas stronghold of Tantallon Castle, Haddingtonshire, and from there by sea to England on 12 December.

During the course of his long absence from London, Sadler was replaced, on 23 April 1543, in his office of principal secretary. He was, however, appointed treasurer for the war against Scotland and in this capacity accompanied Edward Seymour, first earl of Hertford, on a punitive expedition to Edinburgh in May 1544. This was well organized and brutally effective, delighting Henry but serving in the long term only to strengthen the Scottish will to resist. Sadler continued to work closely with Hertford, accompanying him once more across the border on a second bloody foray in September 1545. His transformation from diplomat to military administrator solidified his friendship with Sir William Paget, his replacement as principal secretary. Through Paget's endeavours he recovered some political influence at court, and in October 1545 took his place at the council board after an absence of over two years. Yet he was confronted with an unexpected crisis on his return to London. One of Wriothesley's servants overheard a drunken Barre boasting in November that he was Lady Sadler's husband. Barre was seized and interrogated, and the truth of his claims established. Sadler's only recourse was to parliament, of which he was MP for Preston, Lancashire. The experienced privy councillor had little difficulty securing passage of a private bill, passed on 24 December, that legitimized his children. Lady Sadler, however, remained legally Barre's wife and it may have been years before Sadler's marital status was regularized. Sadler was deeply attached to his wife and ‘took his matter very heavily’ (HoP, Commons, 1509–58, 251).

Sadler's position at court facilitated the purchase of 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. He was principally living at court or in London during these years. His estate at Standon, Hertfordshire, acquired in 1544, where he built a great mansion, provided something of a refuge for his wife and himself, not only from the scandal of 1545 but also from the court's revels and masks, which they seemed to find distasteful. This distancing from court life, combined with his problematic marital status, may explain why Sadler never rose to the highest political office. He was, however, a trusted and efficient royal servant. In the final months of Henry's reign he worked alongside Sir Richard Rich in an examination of the procedure of the revenue courts and in the collection of debts due to the crown. 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.

Service under Edward VI and Mary I, 1547–1558

On Henry's death, on 28 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. Sadler supported Hertford's elevation as duke of Somerset and lord protector, overthrowing the provisions of Henry's will, and was confirmed as a privy councillor in reward. He accompanied the English expedition under Somerset into Scotland in the capacity of high treasurer of the army in September. At the battle of Pinkie on 10 September he demonstrated that his role went beyond that of administrator. During the combat he was noted for his ‘ready forwardness in the chiefest of the fray’. In the aftermath it was Sadler who, ‘with much travail and great pains’ restored order to the army (Pollard, 128). The experience seems to have made a lasting impression on him; his tomb was decorated with helmets, weapons, and a standard, all said to be trophies of Pinkie. Somerset personally created him a knight-banneret on 28 September.

Although the war in Scotland dragged on Sadler returned to England. In March 1549 he signed the warrant for the execution of Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley, lord admiral, and, in the summer, served against the rebels in Norfolk and was present during the expedition of William Parr, marquess of Northampton, to Norwich, which ended in disaster on 1 August. 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. Financial retrenchment led to the disbanding of this military force by the duke of Northumberland (Warwick) in 1552 and Sadler was then employed as a commissioner to survey crown revenues, having substantial influence over new fiscal policy. Sadler claimed to have suffered considerable financial loss through forced loans and sales to Northumberland, but he remained both wealthy and a supporter of the duke's regime. However, he rarely attended privy council meetings after May 1550, although he was re-elected for Hertfordshire in March 1553, when Northumberland wanted reliable people returned as MPs. Sadler's annual income from land alone was at least £400 by 1552, and probably more. He spent £4041 on purchasing crown lands in December 1550 but also sold property on a large scale. He signed the letters patent for the limitation of the crown, altering the succession, on 21 June 1553 and ‘transacted affairs for’ Lady Jane Grey in Hertfordshire (BL, Lansdowne MS 103, fol. 2v).

The failure of Northumberland's coup d'état and the subsequent succession of the Catholic Mary I saw Sadler marginalized politically. 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 from 25 to 30 July, before suing out a pardon on 6 October. For the remainder of the reign he retired quietly to Standon, although his hard work as a commissioner of the forced loan in Hertfordshire in 1557 was noted gratefully by the privy council. He did not sit in any Marian parliament.

Restored to favour, 1558–1571

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 20 November 1558. He was MP for Hertfordshire in 1559, 1563, 1571, 1572, 1584, and 1586. He was also restored to his place on the quorum for Hertfordshire in 1559 and was named custos rotulorum by 1562. In August 1559 he was a member of a commission ostensibly engaged in settling border disputes but actually working with reform-minded Scots to counter French influence. Later in that year he accepted that most burdensome post, warden of the east and middle marches, partly in order to monitor developments in Scotland, and provided Sir William Cecil, principal secretary, with detailed reports. Acting as paymaster to the lords of the congregation he distributed £3000 to further their cause, while controlling agents who infiltrated their ranks and surveyed the major French fortifications at Leith. Despite the strength of the trace italienne style defences constructed by the garrison Sadler urged that the port of Leith should be seized quickly, and in 1560 an English army was dispatched to aid in the expulsion of the French. In the aftermath of the siege Sadler travelled to Leith and helped arrange the treaty of peace and alliance between England and Scotland signed in Edinburgh on 6 July.

Sadler, now in his fifties, did not actively seek these onerous missions and he seems to have abandoned any commitment to the idea of a union between the two countries. In 1563 a debate took place in the House of Commons over the question of succession, Elizabeth's marital status, and the position of Mary, queen of Scots. Sadler was adamant that, just as the people of Scotland had refused to accept an English king, so the English would reject utterly a Scottish monarch. In the session of 1566 he spoke once more on the question of the succession and on the necessity of granting a subsidy in order that Ireland be made ‘civil and obedient’ (HoP, Commons, 1558–1603, 139). In 1579 the proposed Anjou marriage attracted Sadler's ire and he warned of the risk of English subordination to Catholic France. Besides the vexed question of the succession he busied himself with parliamentary business: administering the oaths at the commencement of parliament in 1571 and 1572; taking bills to the Lords; and serving on committees dealing with such matters as church attendance and abuses by collectors and receivers.

Cecil wrote to Sadler on 27 April 1568, advising him that ‘as fishes are gotten with baits, so are offices caught with seeking’. The advice was well received and Sadler was appointed chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster the following month. This was the highest office he would hold during Elizabeth's reign and one for which he was considered to be particularly well qualified, being ‘well affected in religion’, ‘well experienced and expedite in hearing and dispatching of causes’, and ‘of good spirit, countenance and credit’ (Somerville, 325, 334). He retained the chancellorship for the remainder of his life, exploiting its tremendous opportunities for patronage. Allegations that he made extensive grants of lands and offices to his sons were strenuously denied in a letter to Lord Burghley (Cecil) in 1577. Yet he clearly used his influence in parliamentary elections. In 1584 Sadler found seats in parliament for no less than seventeen of his relatives and associates. One son, Henry, was MP for Lancaster in 1571, 1572, 1584, and 1586, and another son, Thomas, held the second seat for Lancaster in 1572. His three sons-in-law, Anne's husband, George Horsey, Jane's husband, Edward Bashe, and Dorothy's husband, Edward Elrington, were, at various times, returned for Aldbrough, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and Clitheroe, Preston, and Wigan, all in Lancashire.

Mary fled to England on 16 May 1568. Sadler was immediately appointed as one of three commissioners who met with a Scottish delegation at York to discuss her plight. It was, for Sadler, a perplexing issue and he demanded to know whether or not the Scottish queen should be bound by the abdication that had been extorted from her. However, when the English commissioners were confronted by the contents of the casket letters, of which Sadler sent a précis to Cecil, suspicions of Mary's guilt were seemingly confirmed. In effect, the proceedings were to be a trial of Mary in absentia but the volatile situation in the north led to the conference reconvening at Westminster in November. There it was possible for Elizabeth, ‘superior lady and Judg over the realm of Scotland’ (Alford, 175), to invoke the imperial power of the English throne to confirm James Stewart, earl of Moray, as regent, the crowning of James VI, and to detain Mary.

It took almost twenty years to bring Mary to trial; Sadler was involved in her case throughout, not just in the complex legal proceedings but in the responses to the conspiracies that her presence in England engendered. He found himself serving in a military capacity once more in 1569, accompanying Thomas Radcliffe, third earl of Sussex, lord president of the council of the north, as he suppressed the northern rebellion. For most of 1570 Sadler enjoyed a brief respite at Standon from his public duties, assuring Cecil that he had no wish to play the courtier. Yet the following year he was active in the aftermath of the Ridolfi plot, arresting Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, and investigating the extent of Mary's involvement in the conspiracy.

Final years, 1571–1587

Sadler concentrated on his parliamentary duties during the early 1570s. He sat not only on committees dealing with Mary but on others concerned with more mundane matters, such as the preservation of game, fraudulent conveyances, coining, and the fate of Arthur Hall of Grantham, Lincolnshire, whose presumptuous tracts were judged insulting to Elizabeth. Sadler was entrusted with the custody of Mary in August 1584, first at Sheffield, then at Wingfield, Derbyshire, and finally, in 1585, at Tutbury, Staffordshire. His attitude towards her was ambivalent. He had once held her in his arms when she was a baby and proved a sympathetic gaoler. He wrote to Elizabeth of Mary's integrity and loyalty in December 1584. The following year he allowed Mary to accompany him when he went hawking, a favourite pastime that alleviated the boredom of their situation to some degree. Yet in November 1586, having been discharged from his duties with Elizabeth's thanks, he spoke forcefully in parliament in favour of Mary's execution, denouncing her as the root cause of all conspiracies, who would, while she lived, never cease to be a threat to Elizabeth.

Sadler died on 30 March 1587, near his eightieth birthday, by repute one of the richest men in England. He bequeathed the bulk of his substantial landholdings, including Standon and Buntingford, Hertfordshire, to his eldest son and heir, Thomas Sadler. Henry Sadler received the manors of Hungerford, Berkshire, and Everley, Wiltshire. Jane Bashe was left a diamond ring and an annuity was arranged for an illegitimate son, Richard. Sadler himself was buried below a magnificent wall monument in St Mary's Church, Standon.



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BL, corresp. and MSS relating to embassies to Scotland, Add. MSS 31991, 32646–32657, 33591–33594 · BL, register of the signet, accounts, Add. MSS 35818, 35824 · NL Scot., corresp. as English ambassador in Scotland [copies] |  BL, corresp. with Cecil relating to Scottish negotiations · East Riding of Yorkshire Archives Service, Beverley, wardrobe account · NRA, priv. coll., accounts relating to Mary, queen of Scots


effigy on monument, St Mary's Church, Standon, Hertfordshire [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

by repute the the richest commoner in England

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Sir Ralph Sadler (1507–1587): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24462