SADLER, Sir Ralph (1507-87), of Standon, Herts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Family and Education

b. 1507, 1st s. of Henry Sadler of Hackney Mdx. m. bigamously by 1535, Ellen, da. of John Mitchell of Much Hadham, w. of Matthew Barr, at least 3s. inc. Henry and Thomas 4da. Kntd. 1538; kt. banneret 1547.

Offices Held

Clerk of hanaper from 1535; gent. of privy chamber 1536, ambassador extraordinary to Scotland 1537, 1540, 1542; prothonotary in Chancery from 1537; P.C. 1540-53, from 20 Nov. 1558; principal sec. 1540-3; master of gt. wardrobe 1543-53; treasurer, war against Scotland 1544, 1547, of northern army 1569-70; receiver, ct. of gen. surveyors by 1545; duchy of Lancaster steward of Hertford and constable of Hertford castle 1549-54, 1559-87; warden of east and middle marches l559-60; chancellor of duchy of Lancaster from 1568; custodian of Mary Queen of Scots 1584-5.

J.p. Herts 1544-53, from 1559, q. and custos rot. from c.1562, ld. lt. 1569; j.p. Glos. 1547-53; eccles. commr. 1572.1


Of obscure birth, Sadler entered successively the service of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII and Edward VI. These two Kings granted him manors in Berkshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Middlesex, and extensive estates in Gloucestershire formerly belonging to the bishops of Worcester. During Mary’s reign he was in retirement. With the accession of Queen Elizabeth he resumed his political career under the protection of his old friend Sir William Cecil, their friendship surviving Cecil’s becoming the Queen’s chief minister. It was to Sadler’s care that Cecil committed his son, Thomas, when the young man had his first taste of army life with the Earl of Sussex’s army in 1569.2

Sadler’s position in Hertfordshire gained him a county seat in every Elizabethan Parliament in his lifetime, even when, as in 1584, there could have been little hope of his attending. As a Privy Councillor and a knight of the shire he was automatically a member of all the major Commons committees throughout his parliamentary career.

The only mention of Sadler’s name in the 1559 journal refers to his sending five bills to the Lords, 2 May. During that summer Sadler was in Berwick with Sir James Croft, under a commission to arrange a peace on the borders of Scotland. He was to supply the Scottish rebels with money ‘so as the Queen should not be a party thereto’. In September he wrote to Cecil, complaining of Lord Dacre, who was in communication with Mary of Guise:

What the cause is why he should send to her we know not, but what he is you know; and to say our opinions to you, we think he would be very loth that the Protestants in Scotland, yea, or in England, should prosper, if he might let it.

In return Cecil asked for his advice about replacing the wardens of the marches. His suggested appointments were not made but in October Sadler himself was appointed warden of the east and middle marches during the absence of the Earl of Northumberland, who had been called to court. He continued to act as paymaster to the Scottish protestants, distributing £3,000 in French coin to disguise its origin, and managed a network of agents to infiltrate the organization of the lords of the congregation, and to survey the fortifications of Leith so that the rebels could be advised how to capture it from the French. Sadler’s advice that Leith be taken quickly was no doubt what persuaded Cecil to urge open intervention upon the Queen. Eventually Sadler was authorized to supply the Scots with powder and ammunition from Berwick, while the Queen would defray the cost of the campaign. It was another thing actually to get the money. In November he wrote

long delay of the sending thereof may be a hindrance; and when it is here, in our opinions, it may stand the Queen’s Majesty in as good stead as if it were in her highness’s coffers.

By December he wanted to leave:

If I be grieved with it, you cannot blame me ... And if you mean to keep me still in this country, you must have better consideration of my charges, or else I shall beggar myself in this service. For I assure you, my horse-meat will eat up the one half of my entertainment, all things here be so unreasonably dear. Wherefore, sir, I beseech you, have me in remembrance, for I complain not without cause.

The Queen owed £12,000 at Berwick, the soldiers were unpaid, and lack of money would bring all to nought:

What is £20,000 more or less in a prince’s purse, specially to be employed where such an advantage may be taken as is now likely to be had in this case, whereby, in my poor opinion, it must needs follow, either that these two realms shall be conjoined in perpetual unity, or at the least, to breed such an enmity between the French and the Scots, as the French shall never have opportunity greatly to annoy us by the way of Scotland.

With the open intervention of England and the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk’s army, Sadler’s mission came to an end. He was appointed to the commission which negotiated the treaty of Edinburgh in the summer of 1560, but the actual negotiations were in the hands of Cecil and Edward Wotton.3

Sadler had no further public employment for some years. He was active, however, in the 1563 Parliament. He could have attended the subsidy committee; he was named to a committee on the continuation of Acts of Parliament (10 Oct. 1566); he spoke on the Queen’s marriage (18 Oct. 1566)—he had heard her say in the presence of divers of her nobility that she was minded to marry—and he attended the conference on marriage and the succession (31 Oct.). He was a member of the Commons delegation summoned on 5 Nov. to hear the Queen’s message on the succession. That he took an active part in the succession question at this time in and out of Parliament is beyond question, but it is difficult to be precise about the dates of his speeches. It was probably in the 1563 session that he attacked the title of the Queen of Scots to the throne of England on the ground that, though next in blood, she was an alien:

Why should we, for any respect, yield to their Scottish superiority, or consent to establish a Scot in succession to the crown of this realm, contrary to the laws of the realm, and thereby to do so great an injury as to disinherit the next heir of our nation?

In the session of 1566 he again spoke on the succession, but this time he was more concerned with the granting of a subsidy:

No man living would be more loath than I to set forth or to speak in the furtherance of anything in this place, which might seem to be chargeable or burdensome to my country. Great and weighty causes made a subsidy necessary ... When we see our neighbours’ homes on fire, it is wisdom to provide and foresee how to keep the smoke and sparks of the same as far from our own.

Money was needed so that Ireland could be made ‘civil and obedient’.

I shall not need to use any persuasions to move or persuade you thereunto. Indeed I will not go about to persuade you; the causes of themselves are sufficient to persuade you, being men of wisdom and judgment, men selected and chosen of the best and wisest sort of the whole realm; such as can discern and judge much better than I can, what is fit for good subjects to do in this cause.

It was not fitting to ‘mix or mingle’ the succession with the subsidy, ‘whereby we might seem, as it were, to condition and covenant with her Majesty’. Assuring the Commons that the Queen was not less careful of the matter than they were themselves, he concluded,

This is my poor advice; and, if all men here knew as much as I do, I think they would the sooner and the more easily, be persuaded to be of my opinion.

But during a Privy Council meeting at which the Queen was present, Sadler spoke of the consequences of delay:

If your Majesty should now end your Parliament, and leave your people void of hope, and desperate of this matter of succession, which is now so much urged and required at your hands; and so your nobles and commons go home grieved in their hearts and discontented, and, when they come home, their countrymen shall enquire of them what is done—for your highness may be sure that all men hearken to this matter—and some of them percase will advisedly answer, and some others percase, rashly and inadvisedly, will say ‘We have done nothing but given away your money: the Queen bath that she looked for, but she hath no care of us’—how your people’s hearts will be wounded with this!

On another occasion, perhaps in October 1579, Sadler spoke bluntly, attacking Elizabeth’s proposed marriage with Anjou. Sadler disliked the project because marriage to a Catholic would destroy the Queen’s credit with foreign protestants and because he was afraid of English subordination to France if Anjou became king.

There is another cause of inconvenience depending upon this marriage, and that is, that the same is universally misliked of throughout the realm. Which is a matter not to be neglected, for in mine opinion, it is not good to do things to the general discontent of the whole realm.4

Sadler captured only one high office during Elizabeth’s reign, the lucrative chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster, about which Cecil remarked ‘as fishes are gotten with baits, so are offices caught with seeking’. Sadler did the job conscientiously, though there were the usual charges that he distributed lands and offices to relatives. When he was forced to spend some time at Tutbury in 1585, he used the occasion to overhaul the administration of the honour, and to prevent dilapidation of woods and parks. He also went into the question of the services owed to the honour by the townships and parishes adjacent to it, with the intention of exacting them effectively. Sadler naturally exercised the duchy’s influence in parliamentary elections, nominating at Leicester, Liverpool, Higham Ferrers and elsewhere. His eldest son sat for Lancaster in 1572 and the youngest from 1571 until 1587, while his three sons-in-law, George Horsey, Edward Bashe, and Edward Elrington were returned at various times for Clitheroe, Preston, Aldborough and Wigan.5

Reverting to Sadler’s parliamentary activities: there is no record of his speaking in 1571. He administered the oaths at the commencement of the Parliament (2 Apr.), took bills to the Lords (22, 28 May) and served on committees dealing with church attendance (21 Apr.), promoters (23 Apr.), abuses by receivers and collectors (23 Apr.) and the river Lea (26, 28 May). He again administered the oaths at the beginning of the 1572 Parliament (8 May). He is recorded in the journals as speaking only once during all three sessions of this long Parliament, when he made a minor intervention on tale tellers (11 June 1572). The subjects of his, committees were the Queen of Scots (12 May 1572, 28 May, 6 June), fraudulent conveyances (3, June), the Earl of Kent (4 June), Tonbridge grammar school (28 June), coining (15 Feb. 1576), wine (21 Feb.), slanderous libels (3 Feb. 1581), preservation of game (18 Feb.), disputed returns (24 Feb.) and London merchants (2 Mar.). He took part in some of the tidying up at the end of this session, taking bills to the Lords (8 Mar.) and being appointed to the committee to deal with the imprisoned Arthur Hall and report any action taken to the next session of Parliament. No mention of Sadler has been found in the journals of the 1584 Parliament, and it is highly unlikely that he attended at all, for he was at Wingfield guarding Mary Queen of Scots. On 26 Nov. Walsingham wrote to him there, saying, in an aside as informative about the attitude to Parliament as it is about Sadler’s whereabouts, that she had ‘no time to resolve herself’ over a certain matter ‘by reason of the Parliament’. In his last Parliament Sadler’s activities were minimal—he was, after all, nearly 80. He was put on the committee to consider Arthur Hall’s claim against Grantham (2 Dec.) and, as a senior knight of the shire he was automatically on the subsidy committee (22 Feb. 1587). His last recorded speech, suitably enough, was made on Mary Queen of Scots (3 Nov. 1586). He had, it is said, held her as a baby in his arms, and, apart from his duchy office, his public employment after 1569 had been concerned almost entirely with her. After her flight to England in May 1568, he was appointed to the commission which sat at York to negotiate a settlement between Mary and her subjects. In the following year he had been with the Earl of Sussex to suppress the northern rebellion which Mary’s arrival had provoked. His letters to Cecil during this expedition are like those of 1559. There were reports on officials involved in the army and the administration of the northern counties, and assurances of Sussex’s integrity in spite of the insinuations of his enemies. About the condition of the north, Sadler had this to say:

Her Majesty will hardly believe that the force and power of her good subjects in this country should not increase and be able to match with the power of the rebels. But ... there be not in all this country ten gentlemen that do favour and allow of her Majesty’s proceedings in the cause of religion, and the common people be ignorant, full of superstition and altogether blinded with the old Popish doctrine, and therefore do so much favour the cause, which the rebels make the colour of their rebellion, that though their persons be here with us, I assure you their hearts, for the most part, be with the rebels.

He was recalled in January 1570 and able to live quietly at Standon for a few months. That August he assured Cecil that he had no wish to play the courtier. But the next year he was one of the Privy Councillors appointed to examine the bishop of Ross about Mary’s complicity in the Ridolfi plot. That September he reluctantly undertook the arrest of the Duke of Norfolk, with whom he had been friendly since the Scottish campaign of 1560. Finally, in August 1584, Sadler was appointed Mary’s custodian. He soon came under her spell, writing to Elizabeth 7 Dec.:

I find her much altered from that she was when I was first acquainted with her. This restraint of liberty, with the grief of mind which she hath had by the same, I think hath wrought some good effect in her. And if she do not greatly dissemble, truly she is much devoted and affected to your Majesty ... Thus she sayeth and protesteth afore God; and as it is the part of an honest man to judge the best of all princes, so do I think that she hath an intention and meaning to perform that she sayeth, which upon proof and trial, time will discover and make manifest.

Sadler had to endure the trouble of two moves, from Sheffield to Wingfield, 2 Sept. 1584, and from Wingfield to Tutbury, 13 and 14 Jan. 1585. By March 1585 he had been caught out taking her hawking, ‘a sport which I have always delighted in’. He had sent for his hawks and falconers, ‘wherewith to pass this miserable life which I lead here’, the Queen of Scots had ‘earnestly entreated’ him that she might go abroad with him ‘to see my hawks fly’, and he had allowed it three or four times, ‘thinking that it could not be ill taken’. He would rather

yield myself to be a prisoner in the Tower all the days of my life, rather than I would attend any longer here upon this charge. And if I had known, when I came from home, I should have tarried here so long, contrary to all promises made unto me, I would have refused, as others do ... For a greater punishment cannot be ministered unto me than to force me to remain here in this sort, being more meet now in mine old and later days to rest at home to prepare myself ... and to seek the everlasting quietness of the life to come ... and if it might light on me tomorrow, I would think myself most happy, for I assure you I am weary of this life; and the rather for that I see that things well meant by me, are not so well taken.

He was given a good conduct discharge within the month: ‘you have served us most faithfully, to your credit and our own singular contentment’.

So the ‘long and great discourse’ the old man made on Nov. 1586, at the beginning of the Parliament specifically called to sanction Mary’s death, is of more than usual interest. The baby he had dandled, the erstwhile hawking companion, was ‘the root ground of all’ conspiracies,

who living, there is no safety for our most gracious sovereign, into whose heart, God for his mercy, put a willingness (yea, even to the performance) to take away this most wicked and filthy woman by justice, who from the beginning hath thirsted for this crown, is a murderer of her husband (for I have seen by her own letter and hand to the Earl of Bothwell, with whom she wrought his death, to that end), and is a most detestable traitor to our sovereign and enemy to us all.

Mary was executed 8 Feb. 1587. Sadler died, aged almost or just 80, 30 Mar. 1587. Within these seven weeks he is said to have performed his last public service—travelling to Scotland to mollify the King of the ‘proud beggarly Scots’ (as he was used to call them), the son of ‘this most wicked and filthy woman’, for her having been put to death. But this is a canard, originating, it appears, from the introduction to the Sadler Pprs.—the ambassador was Robert Carey. The will Sadler made 27 Apr. 1584 was proved 26 May 1587.6

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. LP Hen. VIII, xx(2), pp. 412-13; Clutterbuck, Herts. iii. 28, 226-8; DNB; Lansd. 2, f. 34; 13, f. 48; 16, f. 78; APC, ii. 70; vii. 3; CPR, 1547-8, pp. 83-4; 1550-3, pp. 141, 394; 1553, pp. 354, 361; 1553-4, p. 326; 1558-60, pp. 156-7; 1560-3, p. 438; 1563-6, pp. 226, 497; 1569-72, p. 440; Somerville, Duchy, i. 333-4, 395, 604; Read, Cecil, 352; HMC Hatfield, i. 443; Bull. IHR, xxxviii. 31-47.
  • 2. Sadler Pprs. i. pp. xxi, xxii; ii. 33-4; CSP Scot. i. 248.
  • 3. Sadler Pprs. i. pp. vi, xvi, xxiv-xxv, 387, 391-2, 438-9, 451-3, 460, 470-3, 476, 480, 517, 527, 530, 533, 550-5, 596, 645-7, 651-4, 715-16; ii. 577-95; CPR, 1558-60, pp. 296, 380; 1560-3, p. 62; 1563-6, pp. 204, 308; Somerville, 395; Read, 154-6, 157, 158, 172, 174; P. Forbes, A Full View of Public Transactions, i. 460.
  • 4. Add. 33593, ff. 3-4; 33591; Sadler Pprs. ii. 548-52, 553-5, 556-61, 570-4; Neale, Parlts. i. 104-5, 137-9, 144-5; D’Ewes, 55, 80, 103, 124, 126; CJ, i. 61, 74, 77; Camb. Univ. Lib. Gg. iii. 34, p. 209; Read, 361.
  • 5. Somerville, i. 327, 333-4, 395; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 309; Sadler Pprs. ii. 146, 486-8; HMC 4th Rep. 339; Neale, Commons, 172-3, 224, 227-30; HMC Hatfield, ii. 148.
  • 6. D'Ewes, 124, 126, 155, 157, 159, 160, 165, 168, 176, 178, 183, 186, 187, 189, 205, 206, 212, 213, 219, 221, 222, 224, 225, 241, 247, 248, 249, 250, 251, 253, 254, 260, 262, 288, 290, 291, 292, 294, 299, 300, 301, 302, 303, 306, 343, 345, 353, 355, 356, 365, 368, 371, 393, 394, 395, 399, 407, 409, 410, 412, 413, 414, 415, 416; CJ, i. 85, 91, 93, 94, 98, 100, 101, 103, 106, 107, 121, 128, 129, 130, 132, 136; Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell's jnl., f. 63; Bodl. Tanner 78, f. 16; Sadler Pprs. ii. 41-4, 54-6, 57-60, 69, 74-5, 85-6, 88-9, 144, 146, 356-9, 381, 457, 460-2, 486-8, 538-9, 544; Read, Cecil, 407-8, 458-9, 460; Burghley, 40; CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 387, 422; HMC Hatfield, i. 167-8, 364, 450, 520, 521, 522; ii. 16, 17, 551; Murdin, State Pprs. 152; C142/215/259; PCC 23 Spencer; Trans. E. Herts. Arch. Soc. iii. 92.