Sir Richard LEE of Hook Norton, Knight

Born: BEF 1548, Hook Norton, Oxon, Dane John, Canterbury, & London

Died: 1608

Father: Anthony LEE (Sir)

Mother: Anne HASSELL

Married 1: Mary BLUNDELL (dau. of John Blundell of Finmere and Steeple Barton) (w. of Gerald Croker)


1. Son LEE

Married 2: Alice KEMPE (dau. of Thomas Kempe and Cecily (Catherine) Cheney) (w. of James Hales) 1589

The details in this biography come from the History of Parliament, a biographical dictionary of Members of the House of Commons.

Richard Lee of Hook Norton, Oxon.; Dane John, Canterbury; and the Savoy, London. Born BEF 1548, illegitimate son of Sir Anthony Lee of Quarrendon, Bucks. by Anne, dau. of Richard Hassall of Hassall and Hankelow, Cheshire; half-bro. of Sir Henry and Robert Lee. Married first Mary, dau. of John Blundell of Finmere and Steeple Barton, Oxon., widow of Sir Gerald Croker of Hook Norton, by whom he had one son, d.v.p.; and secondly, 1589, Alice, dau. of Sir Thomas Kempe of Olantigh, Wye, Kent, wid. of Sir James Hales of Dane John, Canterbury. Kntd. 1 Jun 1600. Freeman, Canterbury 1590, common councilman by 1593; j.p. Kent from c.1591, q. from c.1592; constable, Harlech castle 1600; Ambassador to Russia 1600-1; ranger of Canterbury park by 1604.

Lee's father was in Henry VIII's service. Lee himself was born before his father married Anne Hassall in 1548, when he was still married to Sir Henry Wyatt's daughter Margaret. At his death his father left Lee either a lump sum of £100 or £5 a year in land and 200 ewes, a choice he would not have been able to exercise himself since he was still an infant. Both Lee's marriages were to wealthy widows. The first of these, Lady Croker, brought him the lease of two manors at Hook Norton, Oxfordshire. But difficulties soon arose when Sir Gerald Croker's son John claimed them as his inheritance, and lengthy proceedings in the court of wards and in Chancery ensued. The case dragged on after the death of Lee's wife, despite the Queen's attempts to arbitrate and the intervention of the Privy Council. During Lee's absence abroad in 1582, the Earl of Leicester took a hand in the matter, probably using the opportunity to further his own interests. The anonymous author of the 1584 libel known as Leycester's Commonwealth accused him of oppression in ‘his dealing with Mr. Richard Lee, for his manor of Hook Norton’. The outcome of the case is not known, but by 1591 the Crokers were in possession of both manors once more and Lee seems to have been on friendly terms with them again. Perhaps his second marriage diminished his interest in the dispute.

Through this marriage to Sir James Hales's widow, he acquired the manor known as Dane John or the ‘Dungeon’ in Canterbury, and went to live there. He soon began to play an active part in civic and county affairs. He joined the Canterbury council, became a freeman of the city, and was chosen as one of its Members in 1593. In the House, the burgesses for Canterbury were appointed to a committee concerning kerseys on 23 Mar 1593. Perhaps the most important work with which Lee himself was concerned was the scheme for improving navigation on the river Stour, made possible as a result of the large sum of money left to the city by John Rose. At about this time he acquired the lease from the dean and chapter of Canterbury of the manor of Great Chart, Kent, but he refused to renew it when they asked for a higher rent shortly afterwards. He also possessed the manor of Archer's Court in the parish of River, Kent. Though Lee was a widower once more in 1592, he continued to live in Canterbury. Much of his time was spent at Sir Henry Lee's house at Woodstock and he also rented three rooms from him at the Savoy, London, for £1 a year.

Little is known of Lee's other activities before his important journey to Russia in 1600. It is clear from his own statements and from those of others that he had been there before perhaps his 1582 overseas journey was a Russian voyage but the absence of early Muscovy Company records restricts our knowledge. In 1600 he claimed that he had served the Queen for thirty years, but the only recorded incident was when he fought as a volunteer against the Armada, probably under Lord Henry Seymour in the Rainbow. During the 1590s he became attached in some way to the Earl of Essex. He was unable to join the Earl's French expedition in 1591, as he had hoped to do, and his letter wishing Essex a successful voyage was penned in friendly terms.

Lee's choice as Ambassador to Russia in 1600 appears to have originated with the Muscovy merchants, who were so anxious to confirm their trading rights in Russia that they contributed over £2,000 to the enterprise. As early as Mar 1599 his name had been suggested to the Queen, but she deferred a decision on the matter, and it was only after Sir Henry Lee and Sir Edward Wotton, amongst others, had pleaded his suitability, and Lee himself had pressed his qualifications upon Cecil that the appointment was confirmed in the spring of 1600. Lee came to court on 1 Jun ‘with thirty men in livery’, was knighted and received his instructions. He was told to ‘use all means you can to advance the trade of our merchants and to procure them all conditions for safety and profit which you can’. He was also to discover the truth of a rumour that a marriage was being planned between the Tsar's daughter and an Austrian archduke; if possible he was to suggest a marriage alliance with England instead. The Ambassador set sail by mid-Jun, with ten ships and a personal entourage of nearly fifty men. After a hazardous voyage he reached Archangel on 30 Jul, but was so ill that he could proceed no further for some time. One of Boris Godounof's courtiers met him and recited a long panegyric on the Tsar's virtues. Lee remained for about ten months in Russia, being well received and entertained. He reported to Cecil that an embassy was expected from Germany and that the Russians were disturbed that English merchants were paying tolls to their enemies, the Danes, in order to sail into the Baltic. James Hill, an English agent, reported that Lee's ‘carriage here in her Majesty's affairs has been such as that in these parts our country has gotten great honour thereby’; but Thomas Smythe, a later Ambassador, speaks of his reputation of ‘standing on his priority in matters of etiquette’. He returned through Novgorod and Pskov and reached Reval in May 1601. From Gravesend on 25 Jul he told Cecil that he was anxious to report to the Queen on his mission and had fresh news about the war in the Netherlands.

The embassy was not a success: the merchants did not acquire the right to trade with Persia through Russia, as they had hoped, and the marriage scheme came to nothing. From Lee's own point of view it was disastrous. The Muscovy Company refused to meet his expenses, saying he had gone beyond his instructions, and the Queen would not recompense him, so that he was left in financial difficulties until the end of his life. Pleas to Robert Cecil were fruitless, but the income of the constableship of Harlech castle, passed on to him by his brother, was of some help. He never fully recovered his health. As early as 1592 he had journeyed to Spa in Belgium for health reasons, and he went there again in 1608.

In 1602 he was at Oxford for the opening of the new library founded by his friend Sir Thomas Bodley and was there robbed of two jewels worth 200 marks. He gave some Russian books to the new library and in his will left it a magnificent ‘tartar lamb’ coat given to him by the Tsar. It is thought that the coat was intended as a present for Elizabeth, and retained because she would not give him his expenses.

He died 22 Dec 1608, and was buried on 4 Jan at Hardwick, Buckinghamshire, next to his mother, as he had requested. He had been outlawed for debt, and his will reveals the gravity of his financial position. Part of his land had been forfeited to the Crown, and he owed Sir Henry Lee £400. He left small sums to his nephew Samuel Hales and his step-son John Croker, ‘from whose houses I have had my last means to live and nothing but hindered from my own friends’. He also remembered ‘my worthy friend’ Sir Nicholas Bacon. He was able to leave £2 a year to maintain a poor scholar at two Oxford colleges. His only child, a son, died young.
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