SADLER, Ralph (1507-87), of Hackney, Mdx., Standon, Herts. and Lesnes, Kent.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Family and Education

b. 1507, 1st s. of Henry Sadler, prob. of Warws. and Hackney. m. bigamously by 1535, Ellen, da. of John Mitchell of Much Hadham, Herts., w. of Matthew Barr, at least 3s. inc. Henry and Thomas 4da. Kntd. 18 Apr. 1538, banneret 10 Sept. 1547.3

Offices Held

Clerk of the hanaper 1535-d.; gent. the privy chamber by May 1536; ambassador to Scotland 1537, 1540, 1542; jt. (with John Godsalve, Gregory Railton and Francis Kempe) prothonotary, Chancery 1537-?d.; principal sec. Apr. 1540-Apr. 1543; PC 1540-53, 1566-d.; master of gt. wardrobe 1543-53; j.p. Herts.1544-7, 1558/59-61, Glos. 1547, q. Herts. 1562-d.; chamberlain or receiver, ct. gen. surveyors by 1545; commr. musters, Herts. 1546, loan 1546, 1562, goods of churches and fraternities 1550, relief, Herts. and London 1550, eccles. causes 1572; duchy of Lancaster steward of Hertford and constable of Hertford castle Dec. 1549-54, 1559-87; warden of the east and middle marches 1559-60; custos rot. Herts. by 1562-d.; chancellor, duchy of Lancaster 1568-d.; ld. lt. Herts. 1569.4


Ralph Sadler’s father was probably a Warwickshire man, like his master Sir Edward Belknap, and only acquired his house at Hackney in 1521, after Belknap’s death and at about the time he became the 2nd Marquess of Dorset’s steward at Tilty, Essex. Cromwell was already acting as Dorset’s attorney by 1522, but his acquaintance with Henry Sadler probably began earlier. The inscription on Ralph Sadler’s tomb states that he ‘was brought up with Thomas Cromwell’, and Sadler himself in later life spoke of Cromwell as ‘him that hath hitherto from the years of discretion nourished brought up and advanced’ him. No evidence of Sadler’s education at a university or inn of court has been found, but he clearly had a good education, for he knew French and Latin and had some Greek and a working knowledge of the law. By 1526 he had become a valuable agent for Cromwell and by 1529 was sufficiently intimate with his master to be appointed an executor and beneficiary of his will. In the same year it was Sadler who successfully negotiated in London to secure Cromwell a seat in Parliament. Like Cromwell, Sadler stood by Wolsey and in June 1530 Cromwell urged Wolsey to thank him for his support.5

Sadler’s only master for the next four or five years was Cromwell. His work was not only secretarial but included assistance with routine legal business and the running of Cromwell’s household. His part in writing the enormous mass of Cromwell’s letters, drafts and tracts gave him a knowledge of his master’s, and hence of national, affairs which his own talents later enabled him to turn to advantage. By 1534 Sadler’s position was important enough for that inveterate suitor Viscount Lisle to seek his favour and for him in return to recommend a friend to Lisle for a post at Calais. In May 1534 Sadler obtained his first grant of public office, the reversion to the office of prothonotary in Chancery. Appointed gentleman of the privy chamber in May 1536, Sadler had become known at court as Cromwell’s messenger. On 10 Nov. 1535 John Whalley reported to Cromwell a conversation with Henry VIII, ‘Mr. Sadler standing by’, and on 11 Jan. 1536 Sadler himself wrote from the court at Greenwich to Cromwell reporting a long conversation of his own with the King.6

In March 1536 Sadler received a reversionary lease for 40 years of a manor at Walthamstow, Essex, the first of the many grants which came his way under Henry VIII and which were to make him one of the richest commoners in the kingdom by 1547. A letter of Sadler’s to Cromwell, probably dating from 1537, confirms the assumption that Sadler owed his appointment as gentleman of the privy chamber to Cromwell’s desire to increase the number of his agents at court. The inclusion of Sadler’s name for Hindon in a list of boroughs and nominees prepared by Cromwell, seemingly in anticipation of the Parliament of 1536, makes it likely that he then began a parliamentary career that was to extend over half a century. The three boroughs belonged to the see of Winchester and in 1536 Bishop Gardiner was ambassador to Paris. It was probably also Cromwell’s backing which secured Sadler his seat in the Parliament of 1539. When in 1542 he was first returned for Hertfordshire, Sadler was already principal secretary, holder of other important offices and a considerable landowner in the county. On his appointment with Thomas Wriothesley as secretary in April 1540 he was able to continue his attendance in the Commons during the last session of the Parliament of 1539 (and to seek election to that of 1542) because the King set aside the recent Act (31 Hen. VIII, c.10) requiring the secretary to sit in the Lords and allowed them to sit alternate weeks in the Commons. In 1545 it was probably royal favour that secured him the nomination for Preston, a duchy of Lancaster borough. He had been in Scotland or the northern marches for most of that year and may not have had time to make arrangements for his candidature in Hertfordshire, where the senior knight was his friend Sir Richard Lee. Perhaps Sadler did not intend to sit in Parliament in 1545 at all, but was constrained to do so in order to forward the private Act for regularizing his marriage.7

Sadler’s most important service was in diplomatic missions to Scotland under Henry VIII, of which he has left voluminous and often vivid record in his correspondence. His first mission to that kingdom, during which he was given audience by Queen Margaret, took place in January and February 1537. His charge performed to the King’s satisfaction, Sadler was despatched in March to France, where he remonstrated on the King’s behalf with James V at the way his mother was treated in Scotland; Sadler was apparently back in London by 15 Apr. He visited Scotland again in the summer of 1537 and possibly in 1538, and instructions were prepared for him to go there in April 1539. He would have missed the first session of the Parliament of 1539 if he had gone but his wife’s illness caused a change of plan and he was with her in Kent on 28 May. His next mission, in 1540, was the result of the seizure in England of the papers of a French envoy to Scotland, including an anti-English letter of Cardinal Beaton, and Sadler was instructed, inter alia, to try to weaken the cardinal’s influence. He arrived in Edinburgh on 17 Feb. 1540 but the negotiation was foredoomed to failure, as Sadler recognized in his reports to Cromwell. He was not blamed for this but his appointment as joint principal secretary in April 1540 brought an interruption in his series of missions abroad.8

Sadler’s last and most important mission to Scotland under Henry VIII began in March 1543, against the background of the King’s journey to York in 1541 for the meeting with James V which never took place, the war of 1542 and Arran’s temporary deposition of Beaton. He was instructed to secure a peace treaty that should include the marriage of Prince Edward and Mary, heir to the throne of Scotland. The virtual failure of this mission was ensured by Sadler’s own partiality to the Scottish Protestants and his mistrust of all Catholics on principle. He shared Henry VIII’s false optimism about the prospect of the proposed marriage and under-estimated the extent to which dislike of subjection to England cut across factional differences in Scotland. A treaty was concluded on 25 Aug. 1543 but was repudiated by the Scots in December; by that time England was actually at war with France and virtually so with Scotland. Sadler’s position degenerated from that of ambassador to that of enemy agent and he became the victim of popular feeling against England; several attempts were made on his life before he was extricated on 10 Nov. from Edinburgh.9

Appointed steward of royal lands at Anstey, Hitchin and Standon, Hertfordshire, probably after the death of Jane Seymour, Sadler was living at Standon by September 1539. He became keeper of Standon manor and park three months later, and obtained first an estate tail in the property, in December 1540, and finally the fee simple, for £450, in 1544. Other important grants were Stratford priory, Middlesex, in February 1539; the huge complex of Yorkshire lands that had belonged to Selby abbey in August 1540, part of a complicated transaction that resulted in their sale shortly afterwards; and in March 1542 a block of lands in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire centred on Temple Dinsley, and formerly the possession of the Knights of St. John. Sadler asked Cromwell, probably in April 1539, to obtain for him Robertsbridge abbey in Sussex, but it was already promised to another. The last favours he owed directly to his former master were his appointment as principal secretary and his knighthood.10

Cromwell went to the Tower in June 1540 and, according to Foxe, Sadler alone dared to carry to the King his letter begging for mercy. Sadler himself was imprisoned in the Tower on 17 Jan. 1541 but six days later he attended a Privy Council meeting, having presumably cleared himself. He is generally believed to have been of the Protestant party in the Council and certainly took a leading part in the examination of Catherine Howard and her relatives in November 1541. The exceptional size of the grants obtained by him in 1541-3 suggests that his skill, his knowledge of affairs and his leading position as secretary made his support valuable to the rival factions in the Council. He sold Lesnes, Kent, which seems at one time to have been his principal residence, in February 1541. During the earlier part of 1541 he was with the Council in London and probably lost influence at court, but his position improved after November. Much of 1542 he spent in Hertfordshire, occupied in raising the benevolence. He was in Scotland in 1543, and lost the secretaryship in April; the keepership of the great wardrobe granted him in May was perhaps meant to compensate him materially for the loss of political influence thus sustained. In December 1543 Sadler asked to be recalled from Scotland, but he remained there, or in the border regions, perhaps with some intervals, until April 1545. Appointed treasurer for the Scottish war in February 1544, he was a signatory with the 5th Earl of Shrewsbury and Bishop Tunstall to numerous despatches to the Council in London; he also worked closely with Hertford, as he had earlier done with Lisle, and it was in his name that the King intrigued with Scots nobles for the murder of Cardinal Beaton. When Sadler attended meetings of the Privy Council in October 1545, it was after an absence of more than two years. He shared in the rising influence of the Protestant party at court in the last two years of Henry VIII’s reign, and was one of the assistants appointed by the King’s will to advise the Councillors of Edward VI, receiving a legacy of £200. His close acquaintance and former service in the north with the Protector Somerset and the Earl of Warwick might have been expected to assure him a leading part in government under Edward VI; in fact, his active political career seems to have been interrupted before Henry VIII’s death, and was not to be resumed until after Elizabeth’s accession.11

During the last six years of Henry VIII’s reign, Sadler was named to various commissions, for taking the accounts of officials, for the sale of crown lands, the survey of the crown jewels, and the like. Perhaps the most important was that of December 1545, when he was appointed with Richard Rich to examine the procedure and the officers of the revenue courts and to collect debts due to the crown. The findings of this commission, and of another appointed soon after, led to the reorganisation in January 1547 of the courts of augmentations and of general surveyors; Sadler was a chamberlain or receiver of the latter court by 1545. A modern historian of these courts states that neither Rich nor Sadler ‘was imbued with the zeal of the reformer’. It is hardly surprising that Sadler was not, for he was himself the arch-pluralist of his time and his position made it easy for him to purchase land from the crown. By Henry VIII’s death he had become one of the largest landowners in Hertfordshire, with property in 24 other counties in England and Wales. He was assessed for the subsidy of 1546 on an annual income of £356.12

In 1545 Matthew Barr, whose apparent widow Sadler had married by 1535, reappeared and claimed his wife. Sadler was therefore obliged to have his children legitimized by a private Act (37 Hen. VIII, c.30). The archbishop of Canterbury and two bishops were commissioned on 28 Nov. 1545 to inquire into the validity of the marriage. After its introduction in the Commons by Sadler, the original bill was read twice in the Lords before a modified version was given a reading there on 15 Dec. and another four days later. It was then sent back to the Commons whence it was redelivered on 21 Dec. after which it was passed, becoming law on 24 Dec. (On 22 Dec. Sadler himself carried five bills to the Lords.) The Act, which also voided Ellen Sadler’s interest in the great complex of lands at Westbury-on-Trym, Gloucestershire, Sadler’s last major purchase under Henry VIII, makes it clear that she remained the lawful wife of Barr. Months, or even years, may have elapsed before Sadler was able to regularize his marital status, and this perhaps helps to explain the relative obscurity in which he lived for the ensuing two reigns. ‘Master Sadler took his matter very heavily’, Wriothesley reported to Secretary Paget in November 1545.13

Sadler remained a member of the Privy Council under Edward VI; he was treasurer for the wars in August 1545 and fought with great distinction at Pinkie, where he was created a knight banneret. Although Sadler is said to have been on better terms with Warwick than with Somerset, he never, so far as is known, became one of the former’s confidants. Either service in the north or lack of inclination kept him out of the Parliament of 1547. His standing in Hertfordshire may have been affected by the trouble about his marriage; the Council ordered the sheriff in January 1552 to arrange Sadler’s election as ‘the most fittest of any other person thereabouts’ to replace the deceased Sir Henry Parker, but he was not chosen. Sadler signed the warrant for Admiral Seymour’s execution in March 1549 and in August he served with the Marquess of Northampton against the Norfolk rebellion. In November he sided with Warwick against Somerset and in the following month was rewarded with two appointments in the duchy of Lancaster. He attended the Privy Council’s meetings regularly from October 1549 to May 1550 but after that his attendances became desultory. His last two attendances, at Westminster on 25 and 28 Mar. 1553, were perhaps the result of his presence in London for the Parliament of March 1553. He was returned, for only the second time, for Hertfordshire, presumably because Warwick, now Duke of Northumberland, was sure he could be relied on for support and would do nothing to risk his vast fortune; he carried bills to the Lords on 29 Mar. He signed the device settling the crown on Jane Grey, and was noted by Cecil as one of those expected to act on her behalf. He made one large purchase during these years, paying. £4,041 in December 1550 to the crown for lands scattered throughout the country, but he probably sold as much, including in July 1547 the lands of Waltham abbey, Essex, and land around Coventry, to (Sir) Anthony Denny and John Hales II. Hales later stated that Sadler had suffered very great losses through the fraud and craft of Northumberland. It is possible that Sadler did so suffer, by forced loans or sales to the duke, but he remained a very wealthy man until his death.14

After the resolution of the succession struggle in Mary’s favour, Sadler was confined to his house on 25 July 1553 but five days later he was ordered to present himself before the 12th Earl of Arundel. He sued out a pardon on 6 Oct., but later in the month he lost his mastership of the wardrobe to Sir Edward Waldegrave and in the following May his duchy of Lancaster offices at Hertford to Sir John Mordaunt. He seems to have retained his clerkship of the hanaper, accepting Francis Kempe as joint holder in 1557, and he was employed as a commissioner for the loan in 1557. On Elizabeth’s accession he was immediately restored to favour, attending the first meeting of her Privy Council on 20 Nov. 1558. During the reign he again served in Anglo-Scottish diplomacy and in May 1568 secured his last major office, that of chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster.15

Sadler made his will on 27 Apr. 1584 and died on 30 Mar. 1587.16

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: D. F. Coros


  • 1. LP Hen. VIII, x. 40 (ii) citing Cott. Otho C10, f. 218.
  • 2. E159/319, brev. ret. Mich. r. [1-2].
  • 3. Date of birth given in A. J. Slavin, Pol. and Profit: a Study of Sir Ralph Sadler 1509-47 , upon which much of this biography is based. Clutterbuck, Herts. iii. 28, 226-8; DNB; LP Hen. VIII, xx.
  • 4. Bull. 1HR, xxxviii. 31-47; LP Hen. VIII, xv, xviii-xxi; CPR, 1547-8, pp. 83-84; 1550-3, pp. 141, 394; 1553, pp. 354, 361; 1553-4, p. 326; 1563-6, pp. 226, 497; 1569-72, pp. 440-2; Somerville, Duchy, i. 324n, 604; Osborn Coll. Yale Univ. Lib. 71.6.41.
  • 5. Sadler Pprs. i. p. iii; Merriman, Letters, Thos. Cromwell, i. 60, 329.
  • 6. LP Hen. VIII, vi, vii, ix, x, xii.
  • 7. Ibid. x, xii, xv; Cott. Otho C10, f. 218; Elton, Tudor Constitution, 120-3,
  • 8. Hamilton Pprs. i and ii passim.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. LP Hen. VIII, xii, xiv, xv; EHR, lxxix. 778-83; Yorks. Arch. Jnl. xliv. 170-2.
  • 11. Foxe, Acts and Mons. v. 401-2; LP Hen. VIII, xvi, xviii-xxi.
  • 12. W. C. Richardson, Ct. Augmentations, 111-14; LP Hen. VIII, xx, xxi.
  • 13. HL Quarterly, xxviii. 131-43; LP Hen. VIII, xx; LJ, i. 273-5, 278-80, 282; Req.2/20/14.
  • 14. APC, ii. 120, 338, 408; iii. 39, 151, 231, 316, 403 seq., 458-9; iv. 3, 5, 6, 52-56, 157, 243-5; CPR, 1547-8, p. 225; 1549-51, pp. 265-73; 1555-7, pp. 191-2; Troubles conn. with the Prayer Bk. of 1549 (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxxvii), 85, 93; Chron. Q. Jane and Q. Mary (Cam. Soc. xlviii), 100; Lansd. 103(1), 1-2; Somerville, i. 604; CJ, i. 26; Holinshed, Chron. iii. 971.
  • 15. APC, iv. 307, 416; vi. 189; vii. 3; CPR, 1553-4, pp. 326, 421; 1555-7, p. 517; 1558-60, p. 380; Somerville, i. 395.
  • 16. PCC 23 Spencer; C142/215/259.