John Dudley: Life Story

Chapter 3 : Legal Matters

Dudley took part in the coronation of Anne Boleyn on 1st June 1533. His role was to act as cup-bearer to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Despite the title, this was actually a very prestigious position – the Earl of Derby performed the same role for Queen Anne.

In the background of his increasing visibility in public life, was a constant stream of legal disputes. This was not necessarily unusual – the Tudor period was one of widespread and frequent litigation. Probably a majority of gentry and nobles were involved at some point in their lives in cases relating to land ownership which was complex, hard to prove and often subject to competing interests. But the number of cases in which Dudley was involved suggest he was a man very strongly motivated by wealth, and not over-scrupulous in how he obtained it.

The most significant of the land disputes involved Dudley, his step-father, Lord Lisle, and Dudley’s friend, Sir Edward Seymour. The case rumbled on for a number of years. The matter was extremely complex, and it is difficult to follow all of the ramifications. When Dudley’s mother, Elizabeth, Viscountess Lisle, died, whilst the Dudley lands reverted immediately to her son, her Lisle estates vested in her husband for the term of his life, with reversion to Dudley. As part of the settlement, Dudley was required to covenant that he would leave Lisle in possession for life.

Dudley sold the reversion of some of the Lisle lands (that is, the right to occupy them after the death of Lord Lisle) to his friend, Seymour. The voluminous paperwork required the signature of Lord Lisle, who signed the documents Seymour presented, foolishly without taking proper advice or reading them, but taking Seymour’s word that they reflected the agreement. In simple terms (the legal ins and outs occupied hours of argument) Lisle inadvertently signed away his life interest.  

The correspondence about the case suggests that Dudley was certainly aware of Seymour’s underhand action, but did nothing to help his step-father.  Lisle asked Cromwell to consult with the Duke of Norfolk, who was involved in the execution of Lady Lisle’s estate.

Another dispute arose over a further sale by Dudley of a reversion to William Hyde and his son. Dudley badgered Lisle to sign the necessary paperwork, although he himself had not observed the covenants he had made at the time of his mother’s death, claiming that he had been under-age when the arrangement was made, although it cannot have happened more than a few months before his twenty-first birthday.  On 27th June 1533, Cromwell offered to mediate in the Hyde dispute, which Dudley was sure would resolve the matter.

Lord Mountjoy, once Chamberlain to Katharine of Aragon, wrote to Cromwell regarding yet another financial dispute with Dudley. Robert Acton and Dudley owed Mountjoy 500 marks, repayable annually at £50. Neither Acton nor Dudley had made any payment, and Mountjoy was unable to enforce it by the usual means of having the debtors held in debtor’s prison at the Marshalsea, because the prison governor had allowed Acton his liberty.  Mountjoy requested Cromwell to call the governor to account for releasing Acton.

Clearly, Dudley was unfazed by the stream of cases against him. At the christening of Henry and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, in September 1533, he carried the christening gifts in front of the baby to the Queen’s chamber. His colleagues for this role were the Queen’s uncle, Lord Thomas Howard, the Lord FitzWalter and the Earl of Worcester.

Shortly afterward, Dudley was granted the position of Vice-Chamberlain. The Council also made a note to consider the validity of Dudley’s claim to his mother’s Barony of Lisle.

In late 1533, Lord Lisle was appointed as Deputy of Calais. His second daughter, Dudley’s half-sister, Elizabeth Plantagenet, remained in England, living with Dudley and his expanding family. These reasonably cordial personal relations between Dudley and Lisle did not stop Lord Lisle continuing to complain of the wrong done to him by Dudley and Seymour. In early 1534 he wrote to Cromwell that he would remit it to his arbitration, but was hurt that Dudley had behaved so badly towards him, when he had treated Dudley more like his own son, than a mere step-son.

The case was eventually compromised in 1535 with the ruling that although, strictly, Lisle had no right to have the income for a life interest, as he had signed the documents, Seymour had handled him ‘very craftily’.  Seymour was obliged to pay an annual rent to Lisle, although less than the amount claimed.

Dudley responded to Lisle’s complaints by taking a very hard line, determined to protect his long-term land interests. When Lisle sold a parcel of wood from the Painswick estate to a Mr Button, Button could not fell the timber and carry out his business, because Dudley threatened Lisle’s tenants with dispossession when he took over if they purchased any of the wood. Lisle’s friend, Sir William Kingston, warned Lisle that such threats would prevent anyone doing business with Lisle.