John Dudley: Life Story

Chapter 18 : Duke of Northumberland

None of these day to day financial problems had much effect on the court and that summer the King entertained a French embassy, which came to talk further of the potential marriage to Elisabeth of Valois. The upside, in Warwick, and probably, Edward’s mind, of such a treaty would be the isolation of Lady Mary. With England and France in alliance, the Emperor would be far less likely to interfere on behalf of his cousin.

Warwick took the opportunity to pass a resolution in Council to prohibit the celebration of Mass in Mary’s household. He co-opted the Catholic Earls of Arundel and Derby to the meeting, although they were not generally allowed anywhere near the Government, to make them complicit in the decision, their only other option being open rebellion. Mary’s chaplains were sent to the Tower and she was forced to acquiesce. She did not, however, accept any recitation of the Prayer Book services in her house.

The Emperor’s continued threats were met by Warwick with the statement that Edward, now old enough to take part in business, was adamant. Somerset continuing to argue for Mary to hear the Mass was confronted by with an outburst: ‘the Mass is either of God or of the Devil. If it is of God, then it is but right that all our people should be allowed to go to it; but if it is not out of God…why then should not [it] be proscribed to all?’

This was too much for Somerset who began discussing with Arundel the possibilities for removing Warwick. Sir Thomas Palmer, changing sides, claimed that Somerset was planning to have Warwick and the Marquis of Northampton assassinated. Warwick bided his time before striking, gathering more support through another round of title and honours.

The Marquis of Dorset took the title of Duke of Suffolk (vacant since the death of his wife’s half-brothers); Paulet, Earl of Wiltshire; Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and Warwick, to give him equality with Somerset, graciously accepted the title of Duke of Northumberland – the name by which he is known to posterity.

Somerset became uneasy – he sensed that Northumberland was preparing to act, but could obtain no information, even from former colleagues, such as Sir William Cecil.  In October, a few days after the King’s fourteenth birthday, Somerset was arrested and sent to the Tower. The public in general were sceptical of the claims that Somerset intended to take control of London and the Isle of Wight – believing, despite his inept rule, that he had genuinely cared for the good of the commons against the nobles. The majority, according to the Imperial Ambassador, put his arrest down to Northumberland’s ‘covetousness’.

Northumberland examined Somerset himself, before the formal trial, which took place on 30th November 1551. Again, Northumberland was present. He protested against any charges involving threats to himself not to be taken as treason. Rather than seeing this as magnanimity, commentators thought it a ploy to garner sympathy.  Astonishingly, in an age when few treason trials resulted in acquittals, the twenty-two peers present on the jury found Somerset not guilty of treason, although he was condemned to death for lesser crimes.

In time-honoured fashion, Somerset requested forgiveness from Northumberland and others and requested that his family be taken care of. Northumberland, perhaps concerned at the level of support Somerset had found amongst both nobles and commons, hesitated to take the final step.

If Edward had any compunction about the treatment of his uncle, it is not apparent from his journal, although the Imperial Ambassador reported that he was ‘grieved’ about it. Somerset remained in the Tower over a festive Christmas, whilst Northumberland considered his next move. He resolved to dispatch his former greatest friend, and now greatest rival, once and for all. Edward, willingly or not, signed the death warrant and Somerset was executed on 22nd January, 1552.

Northumberland took the opportunity to have some of Somerset’s supporters executed – ensuring the jury was locked in until it returned guilty verdicts on four men, including Somerset’s brother-in-law, Sir Michael Stanhope. Arundel and Paget were side-lined, with the latter being accused of corruption and appropriation of public funds. It would have been difficult to find a member of Edward’s Council not guilty of having his hands in the royal coffers!

Edward seems to have been strongly influenced by Northumberland. He probably enjoyed the Duke’s flattery and his assurances that everything was being managed in accordance with Edward’s wishes – a welcome change from Somerset’s tendency to treat his nephew as a child. The young King was surrounded by Northumberland’s connections and allies, chief amongst whom was Sir John Gates, his wife’s brother-in-law, and Sir Henry Sidney, his son-in-law.  It was said by a French commentator that all of the men of the Privy Chamber, who had daily access to Edward were ‘creatures of the Duke’.

As part of the charade that Edward was autonomous, Northumberland would visit him secretly at night and brief him on what he ought to say at the next Council meeting – thus enabling the fourteen year old to impress the other Councillors with his wisdom.

Sir John Dudley

Sir John Dudley

Family Tree