BASSETT, James (c.1526-58), of Umberleigh, Devon and London.

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

Constituency

Dates

Oct. 1553
Apr. 1554
Nov. 1554
1555
1558

Family and Education

b. c.1526, 3rd s. of Sir John Bassett of Umberleigh by 2nd w. Honor, da. of Sir Thomas Grenville of Stowe in Kilkhampton, Cornw., bro. of George. educ. Reading abbey 1534; Calvy college, Paris, Aug. 1535-6; private tuition in Paris and St. Omer 1536-8; College of Navarre, Paris 1537-8; bp. of Winchester’s household 1538. m. by June 1556, Mary, da. of William Roper of St. Dunstan’s, Canterbury and Eltham, Kent, and Chelsea, Mdx., 2s.1

Offices Held

Gent. of the household of Stephen Gardiner, bp. of Winchester, 1538-55, of the privy chamber 1553-d., of King Philip’s privy chamber 1554-d.2

Biography

It was through his mother’s second marriage to Arthur, Viscount Lisle, deputy of Calais, the younger son of an old and distinguished Cornish family, that James Bassett came early into contact with an influential, educated and Catholic society. Thanks to the interest shown by his mother in her son’s progress, the Lisle Papers record his upbringing in detail, from his first schooling until he entered the household of the bishop of Winchester.3

Although the abbot of Reading considered him a ‘towardly child’, who ‘plyeth him to his learning both Latin and French’, Bassett did not make great progress in his education there or with his first tutor and school in Paris, where he seems to have been unhappy and ill-treated. In August 1536 he was taken away and sent for a few months to a master at St. Omer, before returning in December to Paris. There he paid a visit to Sir John Wallop, who pronounced him the ‘jolliest and wisest child’. By August 1537 he had learned to dance, sing and write, and in the autumn was sent to the College of Navarre to learn Latin. There he was said to have worked conscientiously, but in February 1538 he wrote to his mother complaining that his previous letters had been dictated by the master, who censored his pupils’ correspondence. Both his tutor and the friends and servants of his stepfather dismissed the complaints, but his mother continued to worry, so the following August Bassett was allowed to leave for England with Stephen Gardiner, with whom he was to spend the next 13 years, and one of whose executors he was to be.4

During 1537-8 Lord and Lady Lisle had made efforts to obtain a living for Bassett. Even though Cranmer refused a dispensation for him to hold a benefice, a prebend was found for him in September 1538. John Hussee, Lisle’s factor, considered that Bassett was ‘meeter to serve the temporal powers than the spiritual dignities’ and that his ‘pregnant wit’ would secure him advancement at court. After Lisle’s fall in 1540 the idea of an ecclesiastical career was abandoned.5

Educated in France and under Gardiner, with a mother who was called by Foxe ‘an utter enemy to God’s honour’, and a stepfather under suspicion of papistry, it is no surprise that Bassett grew up an enthusiastic follower of the old faith. He remained steadfast to Gardiner on the bishop’s imprisonment in 1547 and worked hard for his release, even petitioning Parliament to that effect. In 1551 the bishop named Bassett one of his proctors at his trial, where he took a considerable part in the examinations. Bassett was himself imprisoned for a short time in October 1551 and on his release went to Flanders ‘because he would the better preserve himself not to be intangled with the schism’.6

On Mary’s accession Bassett returned from his self-imposed exile: Gardiner, now lord chancellor, welcomed him back, retained his services, and named him for minor appointments in the Queen’s Household and later in King Philip’s. Bassett enjoyed the trust of Mary and her consort, and on two occasions he was sent to Brussels with important despatches for Philip, who granted him a pension of 1300 crowns and gave presents to his wife at their wedding and to their son at his christening; in gratitude Bassett called his elder son Philip. Bassett was also a friend of Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon. On the earl’s departure from England he became one of his trustees, and regularly corresponded with him until his death at Padua in September 1556. As an intimate of the King and Queen, he advised Courtenay on his behaviour towards them and mediated in his favour.7

As Bassett’s fortunes rose at court, so did his position as a landed gentleman. His services to the crown were rewarded in March 1555 with a lease of lands formerly belonging to Sir Peter Carew, and in the following May with a grant of the manor of Torrington, Devon. A year later he secured a lease of many of the extensive lands of his nephew and ward, Arthur Bassett; and in 1558 he and Ralph Cholmley paid over £2,000 for Devonshire property. The growth of his landed wealth and his position at court are reflected in his election as knight of the shire for Devon in Mary’s last three Parliaments and in his own parliamentary patronage.8

At the beginning of Mary’s reign Bassett had been returned for two of Gardiner’s episcopal boroughs, Taunton (from which manor he drew a £4 annuity) and Downton, where his name was inserted by a different hand on the indenture. Little trace has been found of his activity in the House, but there can be no doubt that he was an interested observer since he kept others informed about what happened there. In May 1554 he ended a report from Mary to the imperial ambassador on the recent Parliament with his own observation that ‘never did session end with a better grace’. Six days after the opening of the Parliament of 1555 he wrote to the Earl of Devon about its (so far) satisfactory progress and correctly opined, ‘I think we shall have a short Parliament’. In the first session of the last Parliament of the reign he was evidently allowed to borrow from the clerk of the Parliaments the bill for the Countess of Sussex’s jointure after it had passed both Houses, since the solicitor-general noted on its dorse: Mr. Bassett, I have perused the bill. I pray you preserve it to be signed. [Edward] Griffin.9

Bassett’s marriage to Mary Roper drew him into the circle of friends and kinsmen of Sir Thomas More. Like most of her relations she was a learned lady, ‘very well experted in the Latin and Greek tongues’, who had translated Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, as well as other works of the early Fathers. Rastell’s edition of More’s English works, published in 1557, included her translation of her grandfather’s Treatise on the Passion. Bassett himself, despite the vicissitudes of his early education, was a fluent linguist, and a contemporary considered him endowed with ‘all spiritual and bodily gifts’, so they were probably well-matched.10

The marriage was short-lived, however. Bassett was only just over 30 when he made his will on 6 Sept. 1558. He bequeathed his ‘dear and well-beloved wife’ jewels, half his goods, his house in Chelsea and a life interest in his lands. He left small gifts to three of his sisters, lamenting that his ‘ability’ was ‘now but small’, and that if his debts had not been so great he would ‘better have remembered them’. To his unborn child (Charles) he left the lease of his house near the Savoy. Except for £20 to the Black Friars of Smithfield and provision for his servants, he ordered the residue of his goods, together with the wardship of his nephew and all his leases in Devon, to be sold to pay his debts. He appointed his father-in-law, William Rastell and Ralph Cholmley as his executors, and his nephew James Courtenay (his fellow-knight in November 1554) and the dean of St. Paul’s as overseers. Bassett died on 21 Nov. 1558 and was buried five days later at Blackfriars, Smithfield, hardly living to see the new reign which could have brought for him only renewed exile or imprisonment, as it did for his two sons.11

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: Roger Virgoe

Notes

  • 1. Aged 24 ‘or thereabouts’ in January 1551, Foxe, Acts and Mons. vi. 231. Vis. Devon, ed. Vivian, 45; Vis. Kent (Harl. Soc. xlii), 82; LP Hen. VIII, vii. ix, xi-xiv.
  • 2. Foxe, vi. 231; CPR, 1554-5, p. 48; CSP Span. 1554, p. 297 where his christian name is mistakenly given as Francis.
  • 3. LP Hen. VIII, v-xiv.
  • 4. Ibid. vii-x