Honor Grenville: From Cornwall to Calais

Honor’s journey took her from the far west of Cornwall to Calais and back again. She lived in country manors, royal castles, and garrison towns.

The numbers against the places correspond to those on the map here and at the end of this article.

Honor’s birthplace is uncertain but was probably at her father’s manor of Stowe, at Kilkhampton, Cornwall (1). Kilkhampton is a small Cornish town on the A39 between Newquay and Barnstaple and may have been in the possession of the Grenville family perhaps since as early as the twelfth century. Following her father’s death, Stowe and the other Grenville manor at Bideford, became the property of Honor’s eldest brother, Sir Roger Grenville.  

Sir Roger’s descendant, John Grenville, who received the Earldom of Bath at the Restoration in gratitude for his royalist support, tore down the old manor house and replaced it with a great Carolingian brick and stone house. Unlike its ancient predecessor, the new house survived only until 1739, at which time when it was demolished and sold for building materials.

Many of the components of the house were incorporated into other great properties in the West Country and elsewhere, most notably the Guildhall at South Molton in Devon. The chapel was transferred to Stowe House in Buckinghamshire. Despite the coincidence of family names of the owners of Stowe House, Grenville-Tempest, there is no evidence of relationship between the two families.

At the original location, there are some traces still of buildings and possibly a garden related either to the mediaeval house or to its successor. The farm of Stowe Barton is owned and leased by the National Trust, but is not open to the public.

Following her marriage to Sir John Basset in 1515, Honor became mistress of two significant manors. The first was Tehidy (2), on the Cornish coast, about 65 miles further west than Kilkhampton, near the town of Camborne which at the time was a small village but grew exponentially during the tin mining boom of the 18th century. Tehidy was Sir John’s main seat in Cornwall, and in due course was inherited by Honor’s grandson, Sir Arthur Basset.

Arthur wished to consolidate his holdings in Devon so he exchanged his interest in Tehidy with that of his uncle George at Umberleigh, and as part of the same arrangement gave Honor a life interest in the property. It was here that Honor spent the last years of her life. Sir George Basset of Tehidy’s descendants remained at the manor which was substantially rebuilt in the 19th century on the enormous fortune that the Basset’s gained from the mining of copper.

In 1916, the Bassets, like many other landed families, were no longer able to maintain the house and estate and it was broken up. The house was transformed into a tuberculosis sanatorium but was destroyed by fire within two weeks of opening.

The grounds of the property are now known as Tehidy Country Park, and are maintained by Cornwall County Council whilst the remnants of the house have been incorporated into a new development. Perhaps Honor would be glad to know that the Basset family continues and that her descendant James Basset was one of the pages bearing the train of Queen Elizabeth II at her Coronation.

The other Basset home was Umberleigh Manor (3), about 10 miles south of Barnstaple at North Tawton in Devon. Umberleigh is further inland than Tehidy and was probably a more comfortable house in wintertime. It can be found today on the main Barnstaple to Exeter Road, the A377.

There is a theory that Umberleigh was once the Palace of King Athelstan but, so far as we know, there has been no archaeological work to substantiate this suggestion. The manor of Umberleigh passed via Johanna Champernowne into the hands of the Willington family, and thence to the Beaumonts and Bassets. Johanna built the fourteenth century chapel, traces of which can be seen in the barns attached to the Georgian house that replaced Honor’s home. Umberleigh House is in private hands, and not open to the public.

It was at Umberleigh that Honor’s first husband, Sir John Basset, died and was buried in Johanna Champernowne’s chapel. The tomb was moved to Atherington Church (4) after the chapel was demolished. On Sir John’s tomb is the only representation of Honor herself, a brass representation of Sir John with his first wife, Elizabeth Denys to his left and Honor to his right. The wives look identical and have matching outfits (of the style of the 1520s) so we can infer that there was no attempt to make a likeness.

Tomb Of Sir John Basset And His Two Wives – Honor On The Left Elizabeth On The Right
Tomb of Sir John Basset and his two wives - Honor on the left and Elizabeth on the right

Atherington Church, dedicated to St Mary, was built in the perpendicular style and retains a fifteenth century chancel and font as well as a mediaeval rood loft, which is a rare survival, as in 1561 orders were given for rood lofts to be removed from all English parish churches. There is also a carved screen dating from around 1540, commissioned from Roger Hill and John Down of Chittlehampton. The original quote was for £10 and the parishioners objected to the bill finally submitted which was for over £14.

As well as Sir John, Honor’s grandson, Arthur Basset, and his wife Eleanor Chichester, are buried in the church. The church is generally locked but apparently (we have not tried ourselves) a key can be obtained from the village shop.

Just how Honor, living in remote Cornwall, came to marry Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, is unknown. However, marry him she did and became mistress of a number of new properties, whilst retaining a life interest in the Basset estates.

During Honor’s life as Viscountess Lisle, she frequently used the deer park at Umberleigh as a source of gifts for friends or those to whom she wished to do a favour. To be permitted to hunt or to be given a gift of venison was considered to be a present of great value.

Lisle’s main seat was at Soberton in Hampshire (5), now situated on a bypass to the east of the A32, in the South Downs National Park, about 15 miles north of Portsmouth. It was part of the Lisle estates and therefore on Lisle’s death, passed to his stepson Sir John Dudley, who became Viscount Lisle. Soberton, too, was replaced in the eighteenth century, although there are still mediaeval barns that were probably part of the old manor. The old railway that once served the town is now part of the Meon Valley Walk. During her sojourn there, Honor made friends amongst the local gentry and also used her influence in the usual Tudor fashion to put forward individuals for places or obtain favours.

One particular request that Honor made was for the Abbey of Bruton (6), near one of Lisle’s other properties, to be granted a fair. Bruton Abbey, which was an Augustinian house, was suppressed in 1539. The remains can still be seen in the town of Bruton in Somerset, positioned, as many abbeys were on a river, in this case the River Brue. The town is located on the A359 between Frome and Yeovil.

Remains Of Bruton Abbey
Remains of Bruton Abbey

Another place where we know that Honor spent time during her second marriage was Portchester Castle (7). This was one of the castles in the care of Lisle as Warden of the Cinque Ports. Portchester, which is on the northern side of the Portsmouth Harbour, was originally a Roman fort built towards the end of the third century A.D. The fort was substantially rebuilt during the Middle Ages, with the construction of royal lodgings in the late fourteenth century by Richard II where Honor and Lisle presumably stayed. The last major works to the castle were undertaken during the period of the Napoleonic wars, when it was used for housing prisoners of war. The castle is now in the care of English Heritage and is open to the public.

Portchester Castle © English Heritage
Portchester Castle © English Heritage

With her marriage to Lisle, Honor was now moving in royal circles and we know that she visited the Princess Mary at Richmond Palace (8) in April 1532. Richmond was one of the most important Tudor palaces, although only part of the gatehouse now remains. Richmond Park is one of the great London parks open to the public and a delightful place to visit on a summer afternoon. It may be accessed from the underground station of the same name.

As uncle to the King, and holding the ancient office of Chief Panter, Lisle was present at the coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn in Westminster Abbey (9) and we can probably assume that Honor was amongst the duchesses, countesses and other ladies who attended the Coronation feast. This must have felt quite extraordinary to a woman who had spent the first thirty-five years of her life in rural Cornwall.

During her years in Calais, Honor corresponded frequently with the Lisles’ agent, John Hussee. Hussee was usually based in London at the house of his father but because his father was frequently absent, letters were often left for collection at the Red Lion (10), on what is now Borough High Street in Southwark. Southwark was a busy village on the south side of the Thames, full of public houses, and often brothels. Although given the character of Hussee as it emerges from letters it seems highly unlikely that he would have patronised a house of ill repute. The location of the Red Lion is probably where the conference centre named Prospero House now stands.

From Calais, Honor was involved in organising the education of her son, John Basset V. It was arranged that he would be admitted as a member of Lincoln’s Inn (11), where he would study to be admitted as a member of the bar.

Lincoln’s Inn was, and is, one of the Inns of Court. It appears to be the oldest of the Inns, dating from at least 1422 although there was never any official foundation. The main part of the extant structure that John would recognise is the gatehouse, built between 1518 and 1521 at the expense of Sir Thomas Lovell. The Old Hall, initially built around 1489, went through a number of changes and facelifts including a major refurbishment and restructuring in the nineteenth century, so probably bears little resemblance to the building that John would have known.

Lincoln’s Inn is situated on Chancery Lane, in the Holborn district of London. Members of the public are able to walk through the gardens, called Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Gate Of Lincoln’S Inn © Matt Brown Of Lincoln’S Inn Via Wikimedia Commons
Gate of Lincoln's Inn © Matt brown of Lincoln's Inn via wikimedia commons

During the summer, plague and other epidemic illnesses were frequently a problem in London and Honor was concerned lest John be exposed to sickness by living close to the city. She therefore arranged for him to spend time with John Danastre, at his manor at Cobham (12) in Surrey. Danastre was a Bencher of the Inn, and later a Baron (Judge) of the Exchequer, so Honor could be confident that John was receiving a good education. Eventually, John found himself unwelcome at Cobham when Danastre’s mistress (referred to by John Hussee as a ‘dun cow’) thought he was taking too much resource away from her children.

With the enormous change in land ownership brought about by the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the Lisles hoped to gain some additional land and income. They negotiated for the grant of Frithelstock Priory (13). Frithelstock (pr. Frizzelstock) is in Devon, about ten miles from Umberleigh, just off the A368. The ruins, which adjoin the Parish Church, are the largest of a monastic foundation in the whole county. 

At the time of the grant, the Lisles were not able to gain as much benefit from it as they had hoped, as a twenty-one year lease had already been granted to Sir George Carew, who then alienated it to a local farmer. It was believed that the rent payable was significantly less than the income that the Lisles would have received by having it farmed on their own behalf. They were also disappointed that it was granted in tail only to any children they had together, or Lisle’s heirs male. As they had no children together, and Lisle had only daughters, it effectively became only a life grant.

The Lisles soon had more to worry about than their income. In 1540, Lisle was recalled to London, and arrested within a few weeks. He was never tried, but was committed to the Tower of London (14), where he languished for some two years. On 3rd March 1542, he was given the good news that Henry had meant to release him. Sadly, the shock was so great that he died of a heart attack within a few hours.

Honor retired to Tehidy, where she spent the remainder of her life. She died in 1566 and was buried in the Parish Church at Illogan (15).

Only the tower of the church Honor knew remains, retained to give a bearing to shipping on the treacherous Cornish coast. The rest of it was demolished and rebuilt in the mid nineteenth century to accommodate the hugely increased congregation that resulted from the mining boom.

The map below shows the location of the places associated with Honor Grenville discussed in this article.

Honor Grenville Map P21

Listen to our interview with Renaissance English History Podcast on Honor Grenville here