John Dudley: Life Story

Chapter 15 : Overthrow of Somerset

Somerset had lost the confidence of his colleagues. In August, a number of Councillors, including Warwick, and the religiously conservative Earls of Southampton and Arundel, sent secret messages to the Lady Mary, to test her appetite for becoming involved in a plot to unseat the Lord Protector. The princess declined involvement – she had no desire to be involved in the schemes of a pack of disloyal upstarts.

Warwick’s resentment was exacerbated when Somerset refused again to grant lands or offices to Warwick’s nominees and failed to pay the wages of the men who had marched against Kett. Somerset left London for a visit to Hampshire, and the Privy Council took the opportunity to plot against him.

By 4th October, Somerset had heard that Warwick and the religious conservative, the Earl of Arundel, were undermining him. Warwick gathered several hundred troops at Ely Place, his residence in Holborn. Meanwhile, Somerset raced back to Hampton Court to secure the person of the King. He announced that Warwick and the other lords were attempting to overthrow him to install the Lady Mary as Regent and hinting that Edward’s own life was in danger. 

Warwick and the other lords needed the backing of the citizens of London. Somerset, whilst preaching moderation in the matter of enclosures, and affecting to support the grievances of the poor, had disgusted many with his own extravagant lifestyle – including the building of the enormous palace of Somerset House. The Lord Mayor and his Aldermen were invited to Ely Place, where the Earls of Shrewsbury and Derby and Lord Rich were soon part of the disaffected group.

The Londoners agreed that they would defend the King, if necessary, but would not attack Somerset per se. Somerset had the support of many, particularly the lower classes who thought of him as ‘the Good Duke’, but he was unable to secure the Tower of London, and together with the King fell back to Windsor Castle.  The armies which had been gathered to suppress the Prayer Book Rebellion were under the command of Sir John Russell, and Sir William Herbert. These two men urged on Somerset the necessity of surrender, lest civil war ensue.

Somerset gave in. He made an official submission to the King, who wrote to the Lords, requiring them to make a ‘friendly determination’ with his uncle, pointing out that no-one was blameless and suggesting that, if they treated Somerset’s errors with rigour, the same sternness might be visited on them. Cranmer and Paget, too, pleaded for Somerset’s life.

The Duke himself wrote to Warwick, once his dear friend:

‘…I cannot persuade myself that there is any ill conceived in your heart…against me; for that …seemeth impossible that where there hath been from your youth and mine so great a frienship and amity betwixt us…now so suddenly there should be hatred…I never meant worse to you than to myself…’

The King was brought back to London, with Somerset under armed guard. He was stripped of the office of Protector and sent to the Tower.

With Somerset out of the picture, there was the usual jockeying for power. At first, it seemed that Southampton might rise to the highest place.  Traditional Catholic observances suddenly became fashionable again, but Warwick had managed to manoeuvre four of his closest allies, including his brother, Sir Andrew Dudley, into positions as Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, close to the King every day. He thus came to understand Edward’s thinking, and particularly his desire for religious reform to continue.

Despite being barely 11 years old, Edward was showing signs of a deep intellectual and emotional commitment to Protestantism, which accorded with Warwick’s own views – although it cannot reasonably be inferred that Warwick had a very strong religious ethos. The Parliament that opened in November 1549 seemed likely to pursue a Reformist agenda.

Nevertheless, Southampton continued to be courted. He assured the Imperial Ambassador that the Lady Mary, who at the personal suit of the Emperor had been permitted to continue hearing Mass in the old form, rather than adopting the Book of Common Prayer, would be allowed to continue in her traditional worship.

Feelers were again put out to the Lady Mary to make a bid for the Regency, which she again rejected – probably as much from conviction that the whole plan would go horribly wrong as from any desire to eschew the office – it would have been an opportunity for her to halt the evangelical cause.

Meanwhile, Warwick managed to block the appointment of another conservative to the Council, and engineered the appointment of a Protestant leaning Bishop, and Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset, husband of the King’s cousin, Frances, and father of the aforementioned Lady Jane Grey. Dorset had been an evangelical for at least fifteen years.