SIR RALPH SADLER, SADLEIR, or SADLEYER (1507-1587), diplomatist, born in 1607 at Hackney, Middlesex, was the eldest son of Henry Sadleir, who held a situation of trust in the household of a nobleman at Cillney, Essex. The son, as is shown by his correspondence, received a good education, and knew Greek as well as Latin. At an early age he was received into the family of Thomas Cromwell, afterwards Earl of Essex, whose increasing favour with Henry VIII proved highly beneficial to his ward’s fortunes.
It was probably soon after Cromwell’s elevation to the peerage, 9 July 1536, that Sadler was named gentleman of the king’s privy chamber; for on his tombstone he is stated to have entered the king’s service ‘about the twenty-six year of his reign’, not the tenth, as Sir Walter Scott erroneously relates. So high an opinion did the king form of his ability and character that in 1537 he sent him to Scotland — during the absence of James in France — to inquire into the complaints of the Queen-dowager Margaret against the Scots and her son, and to discover, if possible, the exact character of the relations of the king of Scots with France. Shortly after his return to England he was also sent to the king of Scots, who was then at Rouen, preparing to return to Scotland with his young French bride. His object was to bring about an understanding between the Scottish king and his mother. He was so far successful that, shortly afterwards, the Queen-dowager Margaret informed her brother that her ‘son had written affectionately to the lords of his council to do her iustice with expedition.’1
In January 1540 Sadler was again despatched to Scotland on a mission of greater importance. Although his ostensible errand was merely to convey a present of horses to King James, he was specially directed to make use of the opportunity to instil into him distrust of the designs of Cardinal Beaton, and his ambition to arrogate to himself supreme political power; and to advise the king to follow the example of his uncle, and, instead of ‘trafficking in cattle and sheep,’ to increase his revenues by taking such ‘of the possessions ‘ of the monks — who ‘occupy a great part of his realm to the maintenance of their voluptie, and the continual decay of his estate and honour’ — as ‘might best be spared.’2 The young king seems to have been perfectly frank. He was sincerely desirous to be on friendly terms with his uncle of England; but he had no intention whatever of adopting his ecclesiastical policy.
Shortly after his return to England Sadler was appointed one of the king’s two principal secretaries of state, the other being Thomas Wriothesley. He was knighted probably on the anniversary of the king’s coronation, and on 14 May 1542 he was granted armorial bearings.
After the rout of Solway Moss, which was followed by the death of James V on 16 Dec. 1542, Sadler was sent by Henry to reside in Edinburgh, with a view to preventing the revival of the influence of Beaton by arranging for the marriage of the young Princess Mary of Scotland with Prince Edward of England. When the Scottish parliament agreed that a ‘noble English knight and lady’ should be established at the Scottish court — for the training of the young princess for her future position — Henry proposed that Sir Ralph Sadler and his lady should undertake this duty. To Sadler the proposal was probably the reverse of agreeable, and he represented to the king not only that a journey to Scotland would be dangerous to his wife in her then delicate condition, but that, not having ‘been brought up at court,’ she was unfitted for the duties with which it was proposed to honour her. Other arrangements were therefore made; but it was soon found impossible to carry them out. All along the Scots had been influenced more by considerations of expediency than by a sincere desire for an English alliance; and Sadler discovered that no absolute trust could be placed in any of the rival parties, who were only sincere in their desires for each other’s downfall. ‘There never was (he lamented) so noble a prince’s servant as I am so evil intreated as I am among these unreasonable people; nor do I think never man had to do with so rude, so inconsistent, and beastly a nation as this is.’3 Beaton’s influence, which he endeavoured to overthrow, revived. The seizure of certain Scottish merchantmen and the confiscation of their cargoes by Henry, on the ground that they were carrying provisions to France, roused the slumbering antipathies of the nation, and compelled the governor to save himself by an alliance with the cardinal. The house of Sadler was surrounded by the populace of Edinburgh, and he was threatened with death in case the ships were not restored. While walking in his garden he narrowly escaped a musket-bullet; and, having prayed Henry either to recall him or permit him to retire to a stronghold of the Douglases, leave was granted him in November to go to Tantallon Castle, and in December he was escorted by Sir George Douglas, with four hundred horsemen, across the border. On the outbreak of hostilities he accompanied the Earl of Hertford in his devastating raid against Scotland, as treasurer of the navy; and he also accompanied the expedition to the borders in the following spring.
In accordance with the directions of Henry VIII, who died on 28 Jan. 1547, Sadler was appointed one of a council of twelve to assist the sixteen executors to whom was entrusted the government of the kingdom and the guardianship of the young king, Edward VI. Having been already intimately associated with Hertford, afterwards duke of Somerset, it was only natural that he should favour his claims to the protectorate of the realm; and he again accompanied him in his expedition against Scotland as high treasurer of the army. At the battle of Pinkie, 10 Sept. 1647, he displayed great gallantry in rallying the English cavalry after the first repulse by the Scottish spearmen, and he was made, on the field, one of three knight bannerets.
On the succession of Queen Mary Sadler retired to his country house at Standon, not intermeddling with state matters until her death; but though not a member of the privy council, he attended the meeting at Hatfield, 20 Nov. 1558, at which arrangements were made for Elizabeth’s state entry, and issued the summons to the nobility and gentry to attend it. A keen protestant, like Elizabeth’s minister, Cecil, and of similarly puritanic temper, he became one of Cecil’s most trusted agents. With the Earl of Northumberland and Sir James Crofts, he was in August 1559 appointed a commissioner to settle the border disputes with Scotland; but the appointment of the commission was merely intended to veil purposes of higher moment, of which Sadler’s fellow-commissioners knew nothing.
Sadler was entrusted by Cecil with secret instructions to enter into communication with the protestant party in Scotland with a view to an alliance between them and Elizabeth, and, in order that the support of the leading protestant nobles might be assured, was empowered to reward ‘any persons in Scotland with such sums of money’ as he deemed advisable to the amount of £3,000.4 When the arrival of the French auxiliaries to the aid of the Scottish queen regent compelled Elizabeth to take an avowed and active part in support of the protestant party, the Duke of Norfolk was instructed to guide himself by the advice of Sadler in the arrangements he made with the Scots. At a later period Sadler was sent to the camp at Leith, and thus had a principal share in arranging the treaty of peace and of alliance with England signed at Edinburgh on 6 July 1560.
On 5 Nov. 1559 he had been appointed warden of the east and middle marches, in succession to the Earl of Northumberland, but with the termination of his secret mission to Scotland, he ceased for some years to be engaged in any formal state duties. On 10 May 1568 he, however, received the office of chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster; and in the same year the startling flight of the queen of Scots to England gave occasion for the employment of his special services. Much against his inclination (‘He had liever, he said, serve her majesty where he might adventure his life for her than among subjects so difficult ‘), he was appointed one of the English commissioners — the others being the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Sussex to meet with the Scottish commissioners at York to ‘treat of the great matter of the Queen of Scots.’
There can scarcely be a doubt that of the three commissioners, Sadler was the one specially trusted by Cecil. On 29 Oct. 1568 he sent to Cecil (from whom he doubtless had private advice) a précis of the contents of the casket letters, under three heads : ‘(1) the special words in the Queen of Scots’ letters, written with her own hand to Bothwell, declaring the inordinate and filthy love between her and him ; (2) the special words in the said letters declaring her hatred and detestation of her husband; and (3) the special words of the said letters touching and declaring the conspiracy of her husband’s death.’5 When the conference was in November transferred to Westminster, Sadler was also appointed a member of the enlarged commission. On the discovery of the Duke of Norfolk’s intrigues with the Queen of Scots, Sadler was entrusted with the duty of arresting him and conveying him to the Tower. He also, nominally as paymaster-general, but really both as adviser and superintendent, accompanied Sussex in his expedition to quell the rebellion on behalf of Norfolk and the Queen of Scots in the north of England; and after its suppression he was one of the commissioners appointed to examine witnesses in connection with the inquiry into the conspiracy.
Shortly after Norfolk’s execution he was sent to Mary Queen of Scots ‘to expostulate with her by way of accusation’ and on subsequent occasions he was sent on other errands to her. During the temporary absence of the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1580 he was, with Sir Ralph Mildmay, appointed one of her guardians at Sheffield; and when Shrewsbury, on account of the accusations of the Countess of Shrewsbury of a criminal intrigue between him and the Queen of Scots, was permitted, much to his relief, to resign his charge, Sadler was on 26 Aug. appointed to succeed him, the Queen of Scots being on 3 Sept. removed from Sheffield to Wingfield. He undertook the duty with reluctance, and on 2 Sept. wrote to the secretary, Walsingham, beseeching him to apply his ‘good helping hand to help to relieve’ him ‘of his charge as soon as it may stand with the queens good pleasure to have consideration of’ his ‘years and the cold weather now at hand’;6 but it was not till 3 Dec. that she promised shortly to relieve him, and effect was not given to the promise till the following April, when it was expressly intimated to him that one reason for the change of guardianship was that the Queen of Scots — whose more lenient treatment Sadler had repeatedly advocated —might ‘hereafter receive more harder usage than heretofore she hath done.’7 Sadler’s last employment on matters of state was a mission in 1587 to James VI of Scotland to endeavour to reconcile him — not a difficult task —to the execution of his mother. He died shortly after his return from Scotland, 30 May 1587, and was buried under a splendid monument, with recumbent effigy, in Standon church.
Sadler ‘was at once a most exquisite writer and a most valiant and experienced soldier, qualifications that seldom meet…. Little was his body, but great his soul.’8 He excelled rather as subordinate than an independent statesman. Although he did not attain to the highest offices of state, he amassed such wealth as caused him to be reputed the richest commoner of England; and, according to Fuller, the great estate which ‘he got honestly, he spent nobly; knowing that princes honour them most that have most, and the people them only that employ most.’ His despatches are written with such minute attention to details that they are among the most interesting and valuable of contemporary historical records.
Sadler married Margaret Mitchell or Barré. According to catholic writers she was a laundress, and he married her during the lifetime of her husband, Ralph Barré. The accusation seems to have been substantially correct; but when the marriage took place the husband, who had gone abroad, was supposed to be dead. In 1546 a private act of parliament was passed on Sir Ralph Sadler’s behalf, apparently to legitimise his children. He had three sons: Thomas, who succeeded him; Edward of Temple Dinsley, Hertfordshire, and Henry of Everley, Wiltshire; and four daughters, who all married. There is a portrait of Sadler at Everley.
Henderson, T. F. “Sir Ralph Sadler.”
Dictionary of National Biography. Vol XVII. Sidney Lee, Ed.
New York: The Macmillan Co., 1909. 598-601.