LEE, Sir Richard (1501/2-75), of Sopwell, Herts.

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. 1501/2 s. of Richard Lee of Sopwell by Elizabeth, da. of Robert Hall I of Ore, Suss. m. 1537 Margaret, da. of (Sir) Richard Grenville I of Stowe in Kilkhampton, Cornw., 2da. Kntd. 11 May 1544.1

Offices Held

?Page of King’s cups by July 1528; surveyor, Calais 8 Aug. 1536-42; receiver-gen. ct. wards Mar. 1544-Jan. 1545; surveyor, King’s works by 1545-1 May 1547, Berwick 6 Jan. 1558-29 Sept. 1567; j.p. Herts. 1543-61, q. 1562-d.; commr. benevolence, Herts. 1544/45, musters 1546, chantries, Essex, Herts. and Colchester 1546, relief Herts. 1550; bailiff, liberty of St. Albans, Herts. by d.2


Sir Richard Lee’s father married a kinswoman (probably a niece) of Henry VII’s minister Edmund Dudley, and may have owed to this connexion his post of yeoman of the jewel house. As the date of his death is unknown, it was perhaps he and not his son who, as page of the King’s cups, was granted an annuity of £6 from the lands of Shrewsbury abbey in July 1528, although the post may be thought of as one more appropriate to a young man than to a middle-aged one. Even more important for Lee than his father’s court connexion was to be the friendship of Thomas Cromwell. How or when he met Cromwell is not known, or whether his father was still alive in 1532, when Cromwell became master of the jewel house. He is, however, mentioned in two letters, probably of 1533: in one of these Cromwell’s servant John Price says that he has written about Ely to his master ‘by my fellow Richard Lee’, while the other, also about Ely, refers to ‘an honest man one Richard Lee a freemason whom you [Cromwell] right well know’. Perhaps the son and grandson of masons and starting life as an artificer, Lee was by 1535 a surveyor who oversaw Cromwell’s building works at Hackney and was commended to Cromwell for his diligence. By 1534 he was bailiff and lessee of Sopwell priory, which was to become, after the Dissolution, the nucleus of his large estate near and in St. Albans. With another of Cromwell’s servants, Ralph Sadler, who also became a great Hertfordshire landowner, Lee seems to have been friendly from an early date and to have remained so; in 1536 Sadler commended Lee to the governor of Calais as his friend and fellow, and much later Lee married one of his two daughters to a son of Sadler.3

Lee’s first major appointment was to the surveyor-ship of Calais on 8 Aug. 1536. The post carried a salary of £20 a year, a house in Calais with an annuity of £10, a staff of servants paid by the crown, and considerable patronage and other scope for personal enrichment. Lee may have served in Calais before, for a list of the ‘spears’ there, at a fee of £20 a year, includes his name: this appointment perhaps lapsed when he became surveyor. The next ten years of his life were chiefly devoted to the fortification and defence of Calais, and he seems at first to have won general approval for his zeal and efficiency. Between July and October 1537 he married Margaret Grenville, a union opposed both by her father and by the deputy of Calais, Viscount Lisle, whose first wife had been Edmund Dudley’s widow and whose second was an aunt of Sir Richard Grenville. Grenville’s opposition was to Lee’s modest birth and limited means; as Grenville explained to Cromwell, he was so deep in debt that he needed to profit from his daughter’s marriage and could certainly not endow her. Eventually Grenville agreed to give Lee 100 marks ‘at a convenient time’, which turned out to be in 1550, when he made his will. It was Cromwell who virtually forced the marriage through, presumably at Lee’s request. By October 1537 Lee was able to report to Cromwell that he was reconciled with Grenville, but Lady Lisle’s animosity endured; she was apparently a strong papist, while Grenville and Lee were both Protestant in sympathy. In January 1538 Lisle’s servant Hussee commented on Grenville’s alleged ill will towards Lisle, ‘If anything come that way it is by the surveyor whom I trust no farther than I do see’, and added, ‘He is very great with Mr. [Thomas] Wriothesley’. Lee periodically travelled to England and in March 1538 he acted as surveyor to Wriothesley for some private building plans; this connexion, useful to him even before 1540, was to prove much more so after the fall of Cromwell. In December 1538 Lee obtained a crown grant of Sopwell priory for £808; Wriothesley had been asked to help him obtain this, but his own presence in England probably ensured his success. Lee excused himself to Cromwell in February 1539 for his delay in returning to Calais, which was perhaps occasioned by this purchase. In May 1539 Cromwell received a complaint that the council governing Calais was papist in outlook and that the deputy had forbidden the reading of the Bible at mass; the council examined Protestant suspects with great severity but Catholics with leniency, and when Lee protested at this partiality he was no longer summoned to attend the examinations. While Cromwell lived, however, his position in Calais was secure and he entertained Gregory Cromwell there in December 1539 in a manner that earned him the young man’s commendation.

In August 1540, soon after Cromwell’s fall, Lee was in England. The comptroller and former marshal of Calais, Sir Edward Ryngeley an opponent of Grenville, his successor as marshal, and evidently of Lee also, lodged a series of complaints against him. He charged Lee with employing too many clerks and pocketing their wages himself, with wasting money by engaging workmen by the year instead of for the summer only, with creating unnecessary posts, presumably as sinecures for friends, and with failing to give necessary details of expenditure on materials and on journeys of his own to England. On 6 Nov. the Council, then headed by the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, approved Ryngeley’s conduct and sent Lee a list of complaints to answer, and some days later Sir Edward Wotton warned Lee, then in England, of further charges pending against him. As a dependant of Cromwell’s, Lee was naturally suspect to Norfolk and his supporters in the Council. Ryngeley was an illiterate who constantly suspected his own clerks of deceiving him and was even more suspicious of Lee. Whatever truth there was in the charges against him, it was doubtless Lee’s own competence as a military engineer and Wriothesley’s as his friend that saved him from disgrace or dismissal. In June 1541 Wriothesley asked the new deputy Lord Mautravers, who had heard ill reports of Lee, to favour him. Thereafter the fortification of Guisnes and Calais occupied Lee’s attention and the remainder of his surveyorship, which came to an end before the close of 1542, was relatively peaceful.4

Lee was granted an annuity of 100 marks in February 1542, and in May 1543 he paid the crown £254 for land near St. Albans; but most of the grants on which his wealth was to be founded were the result of his services in the years 1544-7. He was sent to the northern borders in January 1543 to examine the state of their fortifications. In the following year he accompanied the Earl of Hertford’s expedition against the Scots, as captain of pioneers, was present at the attack on Leith and Edinburgh and was knighted at Leith on 11 May 1544. He then went over to Calais, and thence to Boulogne, where he greatly distinguished himself in September and October. Early in 1545 Lee was absorbed in the defence of Calais and Boulogne, but later in the year he was in England, surveying the defences of Thanet, Yarmouth and Portsmouth. His return for Hertfordshire to the Parliament of 1545 he perhaps owed to the Earl of Hertford’s support although his friendship with Sir Ralph Sadler, his precursor in 1542, may have helped; presumably he found the House of Commons an uncongenial arena for his talents, for he never sat again. In March 1544 he had become receiver-general of the court of wards: his annual fee was £66 13s. 4d., but this was insignificant compared with the proceeds of the convention by which official funds were at the disposal of the receivers until called for by higher authority. Lee held the receivership for less than a year, during which time he paid over £3,250 to the crown for land in Hertfordshire and other counties; most of the land outside his home county he resold. A list of Lee’s sales and purchases in the years 1547-58 shows that he sold land valued at £228 a year and purchased other land worth £73 a year; since he did not sell much land in Hertfordshire it may be inferred that he disposed of other lands at a good profit. He also obtained important crown grants by way of gift, both from Henry VIII and, in pursuance of that monarch’s supposed intentions, in the following reign.5

Lee served in the Scottish war of 1547 as chief engineer for the fortifications and accompanied the Marquess of Northampton on his unsuccessful expedition against the Norfolk rebels in August 1549. He was occupied with the defence of the northern border throughout 1548, and again in June 1550, but after that his public service outside Hertfordshire was intermittent. The Protector Somerset’s reduction of Lee to tears during an interview with him in mid 1549 was the subject of a rebuke by Sir William Paget to Somerset. Lee does not appear to have been personally involved with the Duke of Northumberland, nor to have suffered by Mary’s accession to the throne. The Queen made repeated use of Lee’s military experience; he was sent to report on the fortifications of Dover in October 1553, served in the French campaign of 1557, and in January 1558 directed the fortification of Berwick with the help of 800 pioneers. Lee kept the surveyorship of Berwick under Elizabeth, but was licensed in January 1560 to stay elsewhere or go to Berwick at his option, in consideration of ‘his age and travail’. He surveyed Leith, Edinburgh and Inchkeith in 1559, and in the same year was sent on a mission to Antwerp. Recognized as England’s leading military engineer, Lee continued to occupy himself with Berwick’s defences and was periodically called on for other tasks, the most important being the defence of Le Havre in 1562, and the last—so far as is known—in 1573, when the Earl of Essex asked for him to be sent over to construct a fort near Belfast.6

Lee was involved in a number of lawsuits arising out of his extensive purchases. A keen litigant, he was ready to exploit legal technicality to back up an otherwise weak case, and even attempted, in a chancery case, to avoid a lease prepared and granted by himself on the ground of a drafting error. He is alleged to have greeted a process-server for a poor widow who sued him in Star Chamber with the words: ‘Ye are a knave I will twig you I will be even with you all and thou art a very knave and she that sent thee is an old drab’. Henry Heydon, counsel for the widow in this case, was openly slandered by Lee in Westminster Hall in similar terms; Heydon sued Lee for £500 damages, but with what result is not known. Lee was for a long time in conflict with Sir Ralph Rowlett, a rich man and rival aspirant to the social primacy in St. Albans. The quarrel began in Henry VIII’s reign over the ownership of some Hertfordshire land and continued under Mary, when Lee was principal witness against Rowlett in a chancery action. In 1559 or 1560 Rowlett was sued for refusing a copyhold tenant licence to sell his land to Lee ‘in respect of certain displeasure and grudge which he seemeth to have and bear towards the said Richard Lee’. The quarrel reached its climax in January 1565, when the Privy Council ordered the attorney-general and others to investigate it; in consequence both Lee and Rowlett were briefly removed from the Hertfordshire bench.7

Lee was described in 1564 as ‘indifferent’ in religion, and he seems to have adapted himself with no difficulty but much profit to every religious change. No will of his has been found. During Elizabeth’s reign he made a large number of settlements and alienations of land by fine for the benefit of his daughters and a nephew. He had accumulated five manors and more than 14,000 acres in Hertfordshire, most of them around St. Albans, but the greater part of his land property there and in Bedfordshire had passed out of his possession by the day he died, 11 Apr. 1575. He was buried in St. Peter’s church, St. Albans, two weeks later. Of his two daughters and coheirs Mary and Anne, the first was married to Humphrey Coningsby, and the second to Edward Sadler, a younger son of Lee’s old associate Sir Ralph Sadler.8

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: D. F. Coros


  • 1. Aged 52 in 1554, C24/34/29. Vis. Herts. (Harl. Soc. xxii), 149; LP Hen. VIII, xii, xix.
  • 2. LP Hen. VIII, iv, xi, xviii-xxi; CPR, 1547-8, pp. 84, 231; 1550-3, p. 141; 1553, p. 354; 1557-8, pp. 12, 71; 1560-3, p. 438; 1572-5, p. 494; The King’s Works, iii. 395, 406, 416, 419.
  • 3. LP Hen. VIII, i, iv, vi, viii, ix, xi; C142/189/86; VCH Herts. ii, 413; Suppression of Monasteries (Cam. Soc. xxvi), 86; The King’s Works, iii. 13, 43; M. L. Robertson, ‘Cromwell’s servants’ (Univ. California Los Angeles Ph.D. thesis, 1975), 516-17.
  • 4. The King’s Works, iii. 352-3, 355-6, 363, 368, 373-4; Chron. Calais (Cam. Soc. xxxv), 135; LP Hen. VIII, xi-xviii; SP1/124, ff. 74-75.
  • 5. The King’s Works, iii. 13, 384, 386, 388. 392; J. Hurstfield, Queen’s Wards, 226; LP Hen. VIII, xviii-xxi; CPR, 1547-8, pp. 107-9, 202, 213; 1550-3, pp. 5-6; 1553, p. 94; Trans. St. Albans and Herts. Arch. Soc. (1936-8), 120-2.
  • 6. Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, 276; CPR, 1547-8, pp. 107-9, 202, 213, 228-30, 376; 1548-9, p. 90; 1550-3, pp. 5-6, 433; 1557-8, pp. 12, 71; 1558-60, pp. 44, 345; APC, iv. 356; vi. 243, 326, 393, 415, 429; M. H. Merriman, ‘Eng. and Fr. intervention in Scot. 1543-50’ (London Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1975), 226-7; W. K. Jordan, Edw. VI, i. 503; ii. 149; Cam. Misc. xxv. 32-33; I. Macivor, The Fortification of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumb, 9-10; An Eng. Garner, ed. Arber, iii. 76; Holinshed, Chron., iii. 971.
  • 7. St.Ch.2/8/286-9, 25/188; C1/105/135-6, 1141/37; 3/122/26, 171/13; 24/34/29; APC, vii. 183, 194.
  • 8. Cam. Misc. ix(3), 61; C142/189/86; J. E. Cussans, Herts. (Cashio Hundred), 289, 292-3.