The Botolf Conspiracy

On 19th May, 1540, Viscount Lisle was arrested on charges of treason. Soon after this, his wife, Honor Lisle was also arrested, along with their daughters. He was not convicted and was slated to be released after two years, but the time in the Tower had taken its toll and he died on 3rd March 1542, a couple of days after he was pardoned.

The illegitimate child of Edward IV, Arthur Plantagenet was a trusted servant of King Henry VIII and was a member of the Privy Council. He was entrusted with the running of Calais and named the Deputy of Calais in 1533. Blessed with a loving wife (as evidenced by the famous Lisle Letters), and a loving family, not to mention recognition by the King, and a good life in Calais, Lisle kept out of the political turmoil of King Henry VIII’s court for the most part.

Lisle’s bad time started when he hired Sir Gregory Botolf as his domestic chaplain in April 1538. From this point on, his fortunes would dramatically and inevitably fall as he found himself caught unaware in the middle of one of the least talked about but most viable conspiracies of Henry’s reign. Gregory Botolf or Gregory Sweetlips (as described by a contemporary chronicle), was a soft spoken, charming and educated young man. He convinced several of Lisle’s servants and a few others in Calais to help him in the plotting, including Clement Philpot, John Woller, Edmund Brindholme, James Castyll, Philip Herbert and John Browne.

The story stands thus – Botolf offered Cardinal Reginald Pole that he would help in capturing Calais for the Pope. We have no evidence whether or not Pole actually was involved in this harebrained scheme, or whether the Catholic Botolf merely used his name to create some mischief. However, Botolf convinced a few other men serving in Lisle’s household to lay a siege to the city of Calais. The idea was to have Clement Philpot, another chaplain of Lisle’s household, whom Botolf had sweet talked into helping him, go with a dozen men on the specified night to overwhelm the guards at The Lantern Gate while Botolf and his men would scale the walls of the city, break open the door, pour into the city, and meet up with Philpot who would already be inside. Sounds effective!

In Philpot’s own words, here are a few parts of his deposition where words come gushing out during his interrogation.

Details dialogue in which Sir Gregory said that Philpott knew he had been to Rome but did not know why he went; if he could speak with confidence he would tell all. Philpot, wishing to “knowe the bottom of his stomach,” promised on the faith of a Christian not to betray him. Sir Gregory said if he were hardy and constant he should not lack substance or gold, and that if England had not a scourge in time, they would be all infidels; and continued:—“I shall get the town of Calais into the hands of the Pope and Cardinal Pole; this was the matter that I went to Rome for; and I have consulted with the Holy Father the Pope and with the Reverend Father Cardinal Pole, who is a good Catholic man as ever I reasoned with; and when I had declared everything of my mind unto them, no mo but we iij together in the Pope’s chamber, where we reasoned upon many matters, I had not a little cheer of the Pope and Cardinal Pole and all the Cardinals, as the Pope himself did command me to have; and after this at all times I might enter the Pope’s chamber at my pleasure and speak with him.” Sir Gregory said that “in the heringes time they do use to watch in the Lanterne Gate, where as there be in the watch-house about a dozen persons:” these Philpott should at a time appointed with a dozen chosen persons come upon and destroy, and then keep the stairs. Meanwhile Sir Gregory would scale the wall over the gate, only 18 or 20 feet, and once on the leads there was only a little door to break up. He would have with him 500 or 600 men, mostly gunners, whose pieces should shoot 4 shots, and all who resisted would be destroyed without mercy. They should be well able to keep the town, for they would have aid soon after both by sea and land.

Clement Philpot lost his nerve at the last moment and blurted out all about the plot to the Calais Commissioners and Cardinal Pole denied these allegations when it came right down to it later.

However, while in Ghent, Botolf had mislaid some incriminating letters, which came into the hands of Thomas Wyatt, who sent it to Calais. Botolf was pursued by a royal sergeant who managed to get him imprisoned on a petty charge of theft, merely because there was no instant way to hold him in a foreign country. He was sent to England and imprisoned in the Tower, and Philpot, Woller and the others soon joined him.

Sir Gregory says also that there was a consultation between the Pope, Pole, and him, and they found this enterprise could not be brought to pass unless they got the captain of Risebank to take their part: And Sir Gregory told me that he hoped to make me captain of Risebank within this half-year if money would buy it.

 My own favourite part of the story shows how devious Botolf was. The following is an excerpt from the Lisle Letters and shows how he got rid of John Browne so that he could plot in peace with Philpot.

At Gravelines, Botolf got rid of Browne by sending him to watch the Dunkirk road for ‘a man in a russet frieze cloak,’ who needless to say, never appeared.

 Poor Browne did not have much luck in Ghent either.

… he sent Browne on ahead to find a lodging and wait at the door till he came. Browne tried all along the street Botolf indicated, but could find no lodging, so waited there for him, ‘and he came not’. then he combed the city, looking for him till five o’ clock, and could find him nowhere, ‘and had no money but half a groat and a styver.’ Eventually he found him by chance coming out of a tailor’s. Botolf abused him until Browne said that his own master never spoke to him like that …

At the same time as all this drama was taking place, there appeared a very fanatical preacher in Calais called Adam Damplip, who was condemned by Lisle as a heretic. Byrne speculates that Lisle was implicated in this plot because it would take the King’s attention away from the heresy charges and would nullify Lisle’s testimony against Damplip and others involved in the heresy charges. G.W. Bernard, on the other hand, claims that there was some element of truth to these charges, and even if Lisle himself was not guilty, his arrest was according to standard procedure in an era where masters were responsible for their servants.

The entire conspiracy is reputed to be a result of the Cromwell – Norfolk wrangling, and both sides used Lisle as a pawn in their power games. Schofield speculates that Cromwell, knowing that his days are numbered, chose to take his enemies down with him. Lisle was no one’s enemy, but the fact that all this drama took place under his nose must have made Henry very suspicious. Lisle’s daughter, Mary, also secretly married a Catholic Frenchman without royal permission, which must have ruffled some feathers.

Lisle sat on a meeting with the King, and was honourably treated, just days before his arrest, which points towards a genial relationship between the King and Lisle, but nevertheless there does not seem to be a lot that could have been done otherwise, when the plot burst into the open.

The danger to the kingdom was real, and as G.W. Bernard aptly puts it,

Lisle’s arrest was not a question of someone having ‘anything to gain’, but of the king fearing he had a great deal to lose.


BHO: Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 15: 1540

G. W. Bernard: Thomas Cromwell and Calais

John Schofield: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell – Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant

Muriel Byrne: The Lisle Letters – An Abridgement

4 thoughts on “The Botolf Conspiracy

    • I really love this story. What made me laugh was that Byrne claims that while everyone else of the plotters perished, Botolf escaped due to a legal technicality. I have not been able to find any details about it yet, but it will be fun to know what it was.

    • Thanks Emma. I was not sure because Byrne claims that he was let off on a technicality while elsewhere I found that he was executed with the others, but name was not mentioned. Do you have a source, please?

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