It’s not every day that you find that you live half an hour from a house that was created and owned by a major character in Tudor history. But when I discovered just how close Sutton House is, I couldn’t resist a visit. While there, I learned more about Sutton House’s creator — Sir Ralph Sadleir, Secretary of State to Henry VIII, and protégé of Thomas Cromwell — and discovered some of the secrets hidden within its walls…
If Sadleir’s name rings a bell, that’s because he features in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novel series about Thomas Cromwell, as well as many accounts of Cromwell’s rise to power. In Wolf Hall, Sadleir is renamed Rafe Sadler. He also features in the BBC series (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and the theatre production of the same name.
But back to the history: Sadleir created the house in 1535 while both he and his mentor Cromwell were on their way up the professional ladder. It was originally known as Bryck Place — its red bricks were a rarity in Tudor London — and, unlike today, it was surrounded by Hackney’s ‘green fields and clean air’.
Sadleir lived here with his wife Ellen (otherwise known as Helen or Margaret), who he met in 1530 while she was working as a laundress in the Cromwell household. The couple fell in love and moved to Bryck Place in 1535, a year before their first child, named Thomas after Cromwell, was born — Ellen’s bedroom is now marked with a child’s cot.
As Cromwell rose in status, so did Sadleir, and he gained the enviable position of Privy Councillor in 1540. After a brief spell in the Tower following Cromwell’s execution later in the same year, he managed to regain Henry VIII’s trust; the king would later add him to the council that would rule England during Edward VI’s minority.
During the first 10 years of their marriage, Sadleir’s wife Ellen was thought to be a widow; her husband Matthew Barre abandoned her and their two children. But Barre’s reappearance in 1545 led to Sadleir’s successful petition to Parliament for Ellen’s divorce from Barre on grounds of desertion — the first divorce of its kind.
Sadleir’s early beginnings in Thomas Cromwell’s household marked the start of his long and successful career in the Tudor court; after serving Edward VI until the young king’s untimely death in 1553, he supported the protestant Lady Jane Grey and was subsequently forced into semi-retirement during the reign of Mary I. However, he returned to favour when Elizabeth I became queen; he was on important royal business in Scotland when he learned of the reappearance of his wife’s husband.
So Sutton House has sociological significance as well as historical importance. Here’s what I got up to on my visit, and some hints at the secrets I uncovered…
I admired the beautiful wall panels (and the house’s original brickwork behind them)
I enjoyed the biggest slice of carrot cake in Hackney…
I found out what’s behind the secret door in the bedroom…
And spotted this fellow etched into the fireplace… but what was he drawn for?
I learned the perils of a Tudor kitchen (thankfully without the heat of one)
And learned why Sutton House is called a house of two halves…
Nearest station: Homerton / Hackney Central
Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday, 12pm-5pm (open daily in August, and on bank holidays)
Admission is about a fiver but National Trust members get in free: you can join National Trust here.
More information: Visit the National Trust website