John Dudley was probably born in London in about 1504, the oldest son of Edmund Dudley, a lawyer and councillor of Henry VII’s. His mother was Elizabeth Grey, daughter of Viscount Lisle.
Edmund Dudley, together with his colleague, Richard Empson, was extremely unpopular – bearing the brunt of wide-spread resentment of Henry VII’s financially repressive regime. When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, Edmund and Empson were made scapegoats to draw discontent away from the Crown. They were found guilty of treason and executed in 1510. John Dudley’s mother was soon afterwards married to the young King’s half-uncle, Sir Arthur Plantagenet.
Dudley himself became the ward of Sir Edward Guilford. He probably took up residence in the Guilford household in Halden, near Tenterden, in Kent where he was brought up alongside Sir Edward’s daughter, Jane, to whom he was married in around 1524. They were a devoted couple, and produced a family of eight girls and five boys.
In 1523, Dudley took part in a military campaign in France, led by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, the King’s brother-in-law. He acquitted himself well and was knighted. A couple of years later, on the death of his mother, he came into possession of those parts of his father’s estates that had been restored to the family in 1512, on the intercession of Guilford, whilst his mother’s lands (she had inherited the barony of Lisle) were to remain the property of his step-father, now Viscount Lisle, for life.
This arrangement led to friction with his step-father, as the competing claims of maximising the income from the lands versus protecting their long-term value were not easily reconciled. Lord Lisle was by no means a good business man, whilst Dudley was sharp and ruthless.
During the 1520s, Dudley made various financial arrangements that resulted in litigation and there are indications that he was willing to pursue his debts by means of intimidation. Whether by fair means and foul, he built up a considerable estate in the Midlands, centred on Dudley Castle.
His public duties increased as well – he was in the retinue of Cardinal Wolsey on a diplomatic mission to France in 1527, sat on numerous Commissions for the Peace in several counties and took part in Anne Boleyn’s coronation in 1533. He also entertained Anne and Henry during the autumn of 1535 at Painswick in Gloucestershire, whilst they were en route to Sudeley Castle.
During the 1530s, Dudley was on excellent terms with both Thomas Cromwell, and the Earl of Hertford, brother to Jane Seymour who followed Anne Boleyn as Queen who were both influential with Henry. Dudley began to receive grants of land and was granted the post of Master of the Armoury on the death of his father-in-law. Like his friends, he seems to have favoured reform in religious matters, although that did not preclude him requesting the King’s daughter, the Lady Mary, to stand as godmother to at least one of his children.
In late 1536, the Pilgrimage of Grace gave Dudley the opportunity to show his loyalty by bringing a force of 200 men to the King’s army. Shortly after, the rebellion having been crushed, Dudley was appointed as Vice-Admiral. From the start, he seemed to relish navy life, soon mastering the technical detail and showing an aptitude for thinking ahead of the enemy.
During his period, first as Vice- and then as Lord Admiral, Dudley’s duties centred on the prevention of piracy, particularly by foreign vessels, and keeping the Channel clear of French or Imperial invaders. From 1542, England was more-or-less in a state of continual warfare with Scotland, and frequently with France, which necessitated a vigilant navy. It was during this period that Dudley, now Viscount Lisle, saw the great warship the 'Mary Rose', sink in front of his eyes, as he led the navy against a French attack in 1545.
Also during these years of warfare, Lisle was appointed as Lord Warden of the Marches – a land-based military role that he again seems to have fulfilled very capably before handing it on to his friend, Hertford. Other activities included diplomatic missions to the Imperial court in Spain.
In January 1547, Henry VIII died. Lisle was named in the King’s will as one of the Councillors appointed to govern on behalf of his nine-year-old son and successor, now Edward VI. Lisle supported his friend Hertford’s bid to dominate the Council and take the role of Lord Protector. Hertford granted himself the Dukedom of Somerset, and Lisle became Earl of Warwick.
For the first year or so of Edward’s reign, Somerset and Warwick worked well together and between them concluded a major military victory in Scotland – the Battle of Pinkie. But it soon became apparent that their relationship was deteriorating. It has been suggested that from the outset, Warwick sought to stir up trouble between Somerset and his younger brother, Sir Thomas Seymour, presumably with a view to them destroying each other, and leaving him to fill Somerset’s shoes.
Thomas Seymour did not need to be given much rope to hang himself – he was, as the King’s sister, the Lady Elizabeth, observed ‘a man of much wit, but very little judgement’. Somerset signed his death warrant, which led to some revulsion against him – even in a bloodthirsty age, execution of a brother was deemed extreme.
Somerset soon had other problems. Two rebellions sprang up. They had different causes – the Prayer Book Rebellion in Cornwall and the West Country was triggered by the introduction of increasingly Protestant religion, whilst Kett’s Rebellion in East Anglia was incited by economic and agricultural woes. Warwick was given command of the royal forces sent to contain Kett and his men. On the outskirts of Norwich, he won a short, pitched battle with the rebels, known as the Battle of Dussindale. In an example of his admiration for courage he offered pardons to the last rebels standing, who had fought bravely.
Following this victory, Warwick was able to challenge Somerset for power. In a series of plots and counter-plots within the Council, Somerset was side-lined. Perhaps mindful of their old friendship – or reluctant to risk antagonising the King – Warwick argued against Somerset being executed, and allowed him back onto the Council. It was, however, only a matter of time before Somerset tried to return to centre-stage and he was found guilty of treason and executed.
Warwick, having initially aligned with some of the religious conservatives to oust Somerset, now showed himself as a committed reformer, even offering the radical John Knox a bishopric – and being affronted when it was refused. Under his auspices, the distinctly Protestant Prayer Book of 1552 was promulgated.
This led to a showdown with the King’s heir, the Lady Mary. Mary was committed to the old faith, and had refused to accept the changes in religion made since the death of Henry VIII. Somerset had been persuaded to allow her a personal exemption – encouraged by the threatening noises coming from Mary’s cousin, the Emperor Charles V – but Edward, supported by Warwick, was no longer prepared to tolerate her disobedience.
She was forced to discontinue the old services, although she could not be induced to listen to the new and it was obvious that should she ever become Queen, the religious changes would be speedily reversed.
At the beginning of 1553, King Edward, just fifteen, began to fail in health and the threat of Mary succeeding loomed larger. Edward, either spontaneously, or subtly influenced by Northumberland (to give Dudley his newest title) tried to subvert the 1544 Act of Succession by creating a ‘Devise for the Succession’ that sought to side-step both Mary and her half-sister, Elizabeth. Instead, the young King’s choice fell on their cousin-once-removed, Lady Jane Grey. Lady Jane, not much older than Edward, was an equally committed Protestant. Shortly after Edward made his wishes known, Northumberland arranged for Jane to marry his son, Lord Guilford Dudley.
As Edward’s health deteriorated rapidly in the early summer of 1553, it became obvious that he would not live long enough for a new Act of Succession to be brought into Parliament. The Lord Chief Justice and the Privy Councillors were induced to draw up his wishes for the succession in Letters Patent, and, when the King died on 6th July, they determined that Lady Jane would be proclaimed Queen.
The prime movers were Northumberland, Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, and the Marquis of Northampton (brother of the late Queen Katherine Parr). The other lords were less certain, but were persuaded, or bullied, by Northumberland into acquiescence. Jane was brought to the Tower in preparation for her coronation, and proclaimed as Queen throughout the country.
Messages had been sent to Mary and Elizabeth, purporting to summon them to Edward’s deathbed. Mary set out, but warned that her half-brother was already dead, she made a rapid decision to head for her East Anglian estates.
Once within her stronghold at Framlingham, she had herself proclaimed Queen, and sent urgent messages to the Council in London to do the same in London. They debated, but decided to press on with their coup and send an army to capture her.
There was debate over who should lead the force. Jane’s father, Suffolk, was an inept military commander, and only Northumberland had the skill and determination required. Reluctantly, he set out, reminding the Council that they were all responsible for the situation. As he marched out of London on the road towards Bury St Edmunds, he observed that not one of the crowd had wished him ‘God-speed’. Public opinion was firmly in favour of Mary’s claim.
By the time Northumberland and his oldest son had reached Bury, it was apparent that there was no support for the coup. Even the navy which he had once led declared for Mary. Northumberland fell back to Cambridge, and. deserted by many of his troops, bowed to the inevitable and proclaimed Mary as Queen, the tears apparently running down his face. In his absence, the Council had abandoned Jane, and sent their submissions to Mary, now proclaimed in London as Queen.
The Earl of Arundel, only ten days before one of Northumberland’s colleagues, arrived to arrest him and convey him to the Tower as a prisoner.
Northumberland was tried at Westminster Hall. The vast majority of his judges had been involved in the plot, but when he pointed this out to them, they studiously ignored it. He was sentenced to death for treason.
Before he died, he affirmed his faith in the Catholic religion he had once abandoned, but this could not save him, and he was beheaded forty-three years and one day after his father. His remains were interred in the Church of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower, along with those of his old rival, the Duke of Somerse, and Queens Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard.
His sons remained in the Tower for some time, one dying there, but the others were eventually released, and one of them, Robert, became Master of the Horse and the closest intimate of Elizabeth I.