Tudor of the month: John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

Portait of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland at Knole
Portait of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland at Knole. Credit: National Trust Images

How did a traitor’s son rise to become the most powerful man in Tudor England? Melita Thomas of Tudor Times investigates…

Portait of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland at Knole
Portait of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland at Knole. Credit: National Trust Images

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland is one of the Tudor villains we all love to hate. His unbridled ambition is held responsible for the death of his sixteen-year-old daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, whilst even before the attempt to put her on the throne as his puppet, he was considered a tyrant and a bully. But there is more to him than that – he was a capable soldier, sailor, administrator and loving family man.

Dudley’s youth was overshadowed by the execution of his father, Edmund, when he was six. Edmund had been one of Henry VII’s most trusted Councillors, but was reviled for the efficiency with which he extracted money from the king’s subjects. To purchase instant popularity, Henry VIII, on his accession, had Edmund charged with treason and executed.

Dudley’s wardship was granted to Sir Edward Guilford, whilst his mother remarried. Both events were positive for John – the Guilford family were in high favour and his new step-father was none other than Arthur Plantagenet, the King’s half-uncle.
Guilford was Master Armourer to the King and gave Dudley excellent military training. In 1523, he joined the Duke of Suffolk in a campaign in France where he distinguished himself and was knighted. Now Sir John, he married Guilford’s daughter Jane. Brought up together, they formed a genuine attachment which lasted throughout their lives and produced at least thirteen children.

By the early 1530s Dudley was on excellent terms with Thomas Cromwell, and also with Sir Edward Seymour. Like them, he was a reformer in religion. Also like them, he displayed a strongly acquisitive streak.

Henry VIII recognised talent, and granted Dudley several military posts. He was a successful Lord Warden of the Marches, campaigning effectively against Scotland. His real talent, though, was as Lord Admiral. He diligently carried out his duties, taking a minute interest in the ships and the men, understanding the skills and talents of those around him, and mounting punitive raids against pirates, and French warships.

At Henry VIII’s death, Dudley was a Privy Councillor, and still a close associate of Edward Seymour, a friendship which was now his most valuable possession. Seymour was uncle to the new king, Edward VI, and, although Henry had envisaged a Regency Council of equals, Seymour, re-titled Duke of Somerset, swiftly took the mantle of Lord Protector.

Dudley was granted the Earldom of Warwick, and for a year or so was Somerset’s right-hand-man. He was described as ‘[having] such a head that he seldom went about anything but he conceived first three or four purposes beforehand’.

In 1549, rebellion broke out. Warwick was sent to Norfolk to suppress revolt, which he did with admirable efficiency at the Battle of Dussindale. A physically brave man himself, he honoured courage and offered generous terms to the defeated men who had put up a good fight.

In the wake of the rebellions, Somerset lost power, and Warwick moved quickly to become the dominant presence on the Council. With the King growing up, Warwick was careful to involve him in discussions, if not actual decision-making. Edward seems to have hero-worshipped the strong commander and been influenced both by him, and by Warwick’s friends and family who were appointed to most of the positions in the King’s Privy Chamber. But Edward also had a mind of his own, shown most obviously in religious matters, the King having become a zealous Protestant.

Warwick was granted the Dukedom of Northumberland. Shortly afterward, he engineered the final downfall of Somerset, who was executed in January 1552. Following this, Northumberland became ever more powerful, and the other members of the Council were side-lined.

By spring 1553, Edward was in failing health. He drew up his ‘Devise for the Succession’ to bypass his half-sisters’ rights of succession to the throne, allegedly because they were illegitimate, but, in Mary’s case, because she would reverse the Protestant Reformation of his reign. The Devise named Lady Jane Grey, the King’s cousin, and a committed Protestant, as his heir.

Northumberland had a son, Guilford, who was shortly afterward married to Lady Jane – but whether Northumberland promoted Edward’s idea from the start, or whether he just took the opportunity when it was presented cannot be proved. Edward certainly thought it was his own plan, and despite being only fifteen and gravely ill, brow-beat the Lord Chief Justice and many of the judges into accepting his Devise, even though as an endeavour to overturn a Parliamentary Act, it was probably outside the king’s powers.

On Edward’s death, Northumberland swiftly took control of Lady Jane, and she and Guilford were conveyed to the Tower of London to await her coronation. A small force was sent to capture Mary before she learnt that her brother was dead. But Mary, forewarned, raced to her castle at Framlingham. She had herself proclaimed queen, and sent imperious orders to the Council to proclaim her in London.

The coup had not gone according to plan, and it was obvious an army would be needed to subdue Mary. Jane refused to let her father lead it, and insisted, backed by the Council, that Northumberland should take command. He reluctantly agreed and marched out of London, depressed that the crowds were sullen and no-one wished him ‘god-speed’.

Meanwhile, volunteers were pouring in for Mary. Even the royal ships, once under Northumberland’s command, declared for her, whilst Northumberland’s former colleagues had turned their coats and proclaimed her queen.

Northumberland reached Cambridge, but it was obvious that he would receive no reinforcements, and that, even if he were to risk civil war by a pitched battle, he had little hope of success. He proclaimed Mary in the market place and, shortly afterward, was arrested and returned to the Tower, this time as prisoner. Convicted of treason, he was executed, having recanted his Protestant faith and returned to the Catholic church.


A note on the portrait of John Dudley: This portrait is part of the National Trust collection at Knole in Kent – Knole has an enviable art collection collated by John Frederick, 3rd Duke of Dorset. The historic house, which dates to the 17th century and was once an archbishop’s palace, has recently reopened following a £20 million refurbishment. For more information, visit: nationaltrust.org.uk

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