Sir Richard Lee's career

Richard Lee became a powerful figure during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, becoming their trusted military engineer, and acquiring estates both within and outside St Albans

Funerary helmet of Sir Richard Lee [courtesy St Albans Museums + Gallery]

From humble origins to royal engineer

Richard Lee is a St Albans personality whose name is known but few details reside in the public consciousness. And yet, his impact on our city was great and visible reminders of him still survive: his funeral helm, the replica of the lectern he looted from Holyrood Abbey, the remains of his second house at Sopwell. We know that Lee (1501/2 – 1575) rose from relatively humble beginnings to gain, through royal patronage, sufficient wealth to accumulate five manors and more than 14,000 acres in Hertfordshire, mainly around St Albans, including most of the abbey buildings (excepting the church and the Great Court) and Sopwell Priory. In both cases he demolished the structures he acquired. By 1564 he was so highly regarded that Queen Elizabeth I stayed at his home ‘at Sopwell, near unto our town of St Albans’. And yet, apart from loosely referring to him being a military engineer, writers struggle to explain his importance.

Surveyor to Thomas Cromwell

Lee became ‘the acknowledged English expert on military engineering’ with ‘a status and a reputation such as no man of his calling had enjoyed in the past’. [Note 1] Little is known of his background. However, by 1535 he was a building surveyor to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, who became his patron. From 1536-42 he was surveyor of England’s French possession of Calais.

Fortifying Calais: ‘the strongest town in Christendom’

Henry’s plan also included Calais. Between September 1538 and January 1547, £120,675 [2] was spent on the town and surrounding area. Lee directed extensive repairs and constructed new, formidable defences which drew much praise. The Duke of Norfolk told the French ambassador that Calais was the strongest town in Christendom.

In 1540 Lee corresponded directly with Henry VIII about fortifications. He acquired influential patrons after Cromwell’s fall including the Earl of Hertford. In 1544 on accompanying Hertford’s army to advise on capturing Edinburgh he was knighted. He also plundered Holyrood Abbey, taking an eagle lectern and a huge font. He gave the lectern to St Stephen’s and the font to St Albans abbey.

Victorian replica of the Dunkeld lectern, St Stephen’s Church, St Albans

Surveyor of the King’s Works

In 1544 Lee was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works with responsibility for royal palaces and fortifications. He made changes of great importance. Henry VIII’s earlier English coastal forts were revolutionary compared with the towering keeps of medieval times rendered obsolete by the advent of artillery. The coastal defences were low lying, squat gun platforms with round towers and bastions.

What Henry and his advisers did not realise was they had design flaws. The curved bastions with numerous gunports were structurally weak and their rounded nature meant that there was unflanked dead ground which assisted attackers in tunnelling to bring down the walls. These flaws could be overcome with the adoption of angular bastions. [3] Henry did not know this, but Lee did, having constructed angular bastions at Calais.

Lee ensured the fortifications along the Solent were given these new
features. From 1547 he was involved with what has been referred to as
England’s northern Calais – Berwick upon Tweed. This was his greatest work. It was complex, costly and difficulties arose with rival engineers. Most of Lee’s plans were ultimately adopted although at huge expense – £128,648 [4] – making his Berwick fortifications the costliest building project of Elizabeth I’s reign. [5]

By the 1560s Lee was suffering from ill health — Elizabeth I referred to ‘his age and travail’. By now recognised as England’s leading military engineer, he was sent to survey fortifications in Scotland, Antwerp, and Le Havre. He died in 1575 and was buried in St Peter’s church. As the foremost military engineer of his day, and the first English military engineer to be knighted, is he
not worthy of a Blue Plaque?


[1] H.M. Colvin (ed.), History of the King’s Works, 1485-1660, Vol. 3 (1975), p.356
[2] Around £50 million at 2017 prices. National Archives currency converter
[3] P. Harrington, The Castles of Henry VIII, (2007), p.52
[4] Around £35 million at 2017 prices. National Archives currency converter
[5] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sir Richard Lee

Richard Lee’s funerary armour at St Albans
Museum (© John Morewood)

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Society’s newsletter of May 2022.