John Dudley, the eldest of three sons, was born in 1501. His father, Edmund Dudley, was a government official working for Henry VII. In July 1506 he was appointed as president of the king's council. It has been argued that his role was to manage the king's use of a miscellaneous range of opportunities for financial exploitation of his greater subjects. "He sold offices, wardships, and licences to marry the widows of tenants-in-chief; pardons for treason, sedition, murder, riot, retaining, and other offences. In less than four years he collected some £219,316 6s. 11d. in cash and bonds for future payment." (1)
Dudley was extremely unpopular and when Henry VII died in April 1509 he was dismissed from office. The following year Henry VIII ordered his executed for corruption and it was carried out on 17th August 1510. It has been claimed that the new king had made this decision as a "gesture that would win him easy popularity and signal the advent of a new and more relaxed reign." (2)
John Dudley was placed in the care of Edward Guildford (c.1479-1534), a well-connected esquire who was rewarded by being given some of the family lands. His biographer, David Loades, has pointed out that little is known of his childhood: "There is no direct evidence of that upbringing, which seems to have been entirely conventional. As an adult Dudley was literate in English, but claimed to have no knowledge of Latin, which probably means that he had forgotten the little he had learned. He had no conventional intellectual skills, and it is unlikely that his interest in cosmography and navigation was acquired as a child. He was almost certainly taught at home by a tutor, which was the normal education provided for the son (or ward) of a substantial gentleman, and probably shared his lessons with Guildford's own children, Richard and Jane. Consequently, instead of following his father in the study of the law he followed his guardian to become a soldier and courtier." (3)
In 1514 Edward Guildford became master of ceremonies for Henry VIII's jousts, a very responsible and high profile position at court at that time. In this position Guidford was able to promote the career of John Dudley. In 1521 he was selected to serve under Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in a visit to France. In 1522 was given a minor command with the garrison at Calais. The following year he accompanied Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and the royal army against France. On his return he became a well-known jouster in the king's court. (4)
John Dudley married Edward Guildford's sixteen-year-old daughter, Jane, in 1525. Over the next few years Jane gave birth to at least ten children. Along with his patron, John Guildford, he remained a loyal supporter of Henry VII. "By 1530 Dudley was an active and successful courtier, but he always seems to have been guided by his own reading of Henry's mind rather than by allegiance to any particular court party. This had its risks, but avoided dependence upon intermediaries for favour." (5)
After the death of Edward Guildford on 4th June 1534 Dudley took over his father-in-law's parliamentary seat as knight of the shire for Kent and his mastership of the Tower of London Armoury. In 1536 he supported Thomas Cromwell in his struggle with the Boyleyn family. In February 1537 he was appointed a vice-admiral and given the task of protecting the country from foreign invasion.
Dudley retired from front-line politics for a few months after the fall of his patron Cromwell. However, by 1541 he was back supporting Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his investigation of Catherine Howard. A leading religious reformer he was unaffected by the arrest and imprisonment of his stepfather, Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle, on suspicion of Catholic sympathies. On 3rd March 1542, Lisle died in prison, and nine days later Dudley was created Viscount Lisle. Over the next couple of years Dudley formed an alliance with Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.
Henry VIII died on 28th January, 1547. The following day Edward and his thirteen year-old sister, Elizabeth, were informed that their father had died. According to one source, "Edward and his sister clung to each other, sobbing". Edward VI's coronation took place on Sunday 20th February. "Walking beneath a canopy of crimson silk and cloth of gold topped by silver bells, the boy-king wore a crimson satin robe trimmed with gold silk lace costing £118 16s. 8d. and a pair of ‘Sabatons’ of cloth of gold." (6)
Edward was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist Edward VI in governing his new realm. It was not long before his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. Thomas Seymour (Lord Sudeley) was furious that his brother had risen so far so fast. To increase his power he secretly married Edward's stepmother, Catherine Parr. Edward wrote in his journal: "The Lord Seymour of Sudeley married the Queen, whose name was Catherine, with which marriage the Lord Protector was much offended." (7)
The Duke of Somerset was a Protestant and he soon began to make changes to the Church of England. John Dudley, who was granted the title, Earl of Warwick, fully supported Seymour in these reforms that included the introduction of an English Prayer Book and the decision to allow members of the clergy to get married. Attempts were made to destroy those aspects of religion that were associated with the Catholic Church, for example, the removal of stained-glass windows in churches and the destruction of religious wall-paintings. Somerset made sure that Edward VI was educated as a Protestant, as he hoped that when he was old enough to rule he would continue the policy of supporting the Protestant religion.
Somerset's programme of religious reformation was accompanied by bold measures of political, social, and agrarian reform. Legislation in 1547 abolished all the treasons and felonies created under Henry VIII and did away with existing legislation against heresy. Two witnesses were required for proof of treason instead of only one. Although the measure received support in the House of Commons, its passage contributed to Somerset's reputation for what later historians perceived as his liberalism. (8)
In 1548, Thomas Seymour (Lord Sudeley) sought to win Edward's affection and gain acceptance as his intimate adviser. He regularly visited Edward's bedchamber. When the Duke of Somerset discovered what was happening he "put a special watch on all doors leading into the king's privy chamber in order to prevent Sudeley's clandestine entry". One night Sudeley found the door to Edward's bedchamber bolted; enraged, he shot dead the king's barking dog. Somerset was given copies of letters that Sudeley had been passing to Edward. "Somerset found such correspondence intolerable" and "arranged for Sudeley's attainder in parliament and execution" on 20th March 1549. (9)
During the early part of the 16th century large numbers of farmers changed from growing crops to raising sheep. This involved enclosing arable land and turning it into pasture for sheep. Sheep farming became so profitable that large landowners began to enclose common land. For hundreds of years this land had been used by all the people who lived in the village. Many people became very angry about this and villagers began tearing down the hedges that had been used to enclose the common land.
Popular rebellions and riots began in Cornwall in 1548 and spread through more than half the counties of England over the next few months. Some of those involved demonstrated against Somerset's religious programme. "The new vernacular liturgy contained in the Book of Common Prayer was the most evident grievance of the Cornish rebels, but the other religious changes of recent years and opposition to enclosures were also important. Revolt began in Cornwall in April 1548 when the clergy and commoners resisted the removal of religious images from parish churches and killed a government official, while in Somerset weavers and other commoners pulled down hedges and fences." (10)
Edward Seymour urged compassion and on 14th June 1549, he persuaded Edward to pardoned all those people who had torn down hedges enclosing common land. Many landless people thought that this meant that their king disapproved of enclosures. All over the country people began to destroy hedges that landowners had used to enclose common land. As Roger Lockyer, the author of Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985), pointed out: "Somerset's championship of the common people won him their acclaim. It also promoted them to demonstrations which were designed to show their support for him, but which quickly developed into massive protest movements that no government could have tolerated or ignored." (11)
The most serious disturbances took place in Norfolk. In one case, Robert Kett, a large landowner in Wymondham, admitted that he had been wrong to enclose the common land. Kett also agreed to help the protesters persuade other landowners from enclosing public land. As Kett was a well-educated man, the crowd asked him to become their leader. Kett suggested that they should march on Norwich. On the way, other villagers in the area joined the march. By the time Kett reached Norwich, he had about 16,000 followers.
The mayor of Norwich refused to let Kett's army enter the city. However, Kett and his men, armed with spears, swords and pitchforks, successfully stormed the city walls. The English government were shocked when they heard that Kett and his rebels controlled the second largest city in England.
Kett formed a governing council made up of representatives from the villages that had joined the revolt. It was a remarkable demonstration of self-government. Kett and his followers were convinced that their action was not only morally justified but also lawful, and that they would therefore win the approval of the government. The elected council then sent details of their demands to Edward VI. Somerset responded by calling for the rebels to abandon their protests and to return peacefully to their homes. He offered them a free pardon if they did so but warned them he would use force if they refused. Dale Hoak has described it as the "sixteenth-century England's greatest crisis". (12)
In August 1549 Somerset sent John Dudley and a large army to the area. He seized Norwich after several days of fierce street fighting. He then attacked Kett's camp at Mousehold Heath and several hundred of the rebels were killed. Seymour wrote to a friend in Italy: "Kett fled, and the rest of the rebels, casting away their weapons and armour and asking pardon on their knees... were sent home without injury and pardoned... Ket, with three other chief captains, all vile persons... are still held to receive that which they have deserved... We trust, truly, that these rebellions are now at an end." (13)
A special commission was set up to deal with the prisoners, of whom forty-nine were executed. Robert Kett was sent to London and was found guilty of treason and was hanged at Norwich Castle. (14) "Whatever sympathy Somerset might have felt for the Norfolk peasants, he behaved like any other Tudor ruler when it came to dealing with rebels." (15)
Edward Seymour was blamed by the nobility and gentry for the social unrest. They believed his statements about political reform had encouraged rebellion. His reluctance to employ force and refusal to assume military leadership merely made matters worse. Seymour's critics also disliked his popularity with the common people and considered him to be a potential revolutionary. John Dudley realised that Seymour was now in a weak position. Anka Muhlstein has argued that this "ambitious, determined and reckless man" decided to make his move. (16) Dudley, Henry Wriothesley, 2nd Earl of Southampton and Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, met in London to demand his removal as lord protector. (17)
Seymour no longer had the support of the aristocracy and had no choice but to give up his post. On 14th January 1550 his deposition as lord protector was confirmed by act of parliament, and he was also deprived of all his other positions, of his annuities, and of lands to the value of £2000 a year. He was sent to the Tower of London where he remained until the following February, when he was released by the Earl of Warwick who was now the most powerful figure in the government. Roger Lockyer suggests that this "gesture of conciliation on Warwick's part served its turn by giving him time to gain the young King's confidence and to establish himself more firmly in power". (18) This upset the nobility and in October 1551, Warwick was forced to arrest the Duke of Somerset.
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. He skillfully conducted his own defence and was acquitted of treason but found guilty of felony under the terms of a recent statute against bringing together men for a riot and sentenced to death. (19) "Historians sympathetic to Somerset argue that the indictment was largely fictitious, that the trial was packed with his enemies, and that Northumberland's subtle intrigue was responsible for his conviction. Other historians, however, have noted that Northumberland agreed that the charge of treason should be dropped and that the evidence suggests that Somerset was engaged in a conspiracy against his enemies." (20) Although the king had supported Somerset's religious policies with enthusiasm he did nothing to save him from his fate. (21)
As he was such a popular figure the authorities feared that Somerset's execution would cause disorder. On the morning of 22nd January, 1552, people living in London were ordered to remain in their houses. For added protection, over a 1,000 soldiers were on the streets of the city. Despite these measures large crowds gathered at Tower Hill. (22) He showed no sign of fear and he told those assembled that he died in the knowledge that he was "glad of the furtherance and helping forward of the commonwealth of this realm". (23) He also urged those present to follow the reformed religion that he had promoted. Edward VI wrote in his journal: "The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine in the morning." (24)
John Dudley now became the king's main adviser and in October 1551 he was granted the title, Duke of Northumberland. It has been claimed that the secret of his power was that he took the young king seriously. To be successful he "knew that he must accommodate the boy's keen intelligence and also his sovereign will". By this time the king clearly "possessed a powerful sense that he and not his council embodied royal authority". However, foreign observers did not believe that Edward was making his own decisions. The French ambassador reported that "Northumberland visited the King secretly at night in the King's Chamber, unseen by anyone, after all were asleep. The next day the young Prince came to his council and proposed matters as if they were his own; consequently, everyone was amazed, thinking that they proceeded from his mind and by his invention." Dale Hoak agrees and suggests that "Northumberland was skillfully guiding the king for his own purposes by exploiting the boy's precocious capacity for understanding the business of government." (25)
Christopher Morris, the author of The Tudors (1955) believes that by the age of fifteen he was exerting control over his kingdom: "There were sporadic rebellions, but they were less dangerous than the risings against Henry, and they were all put down. The machinery of government was monstrously misused but it did not come to a standstill. England was to have a corrupt and an unjust government but not an ineffective government. There was a seemingly untroubled point of rest in the very centre of the storm. It was the mind of a small orphan boy who was the last Tudor king of England. And yet we know his mind better than that of any other Tudor, for we have his own full journal of his reign. It might be called the first of all English diaries. On certain matters, notably the trial of Somerset, the boy's journal is much the best surviving evidence. It is arguable that potentially Edward was the ablest of all the Tudors." (26)
In April 1552 Edward fell ill with a disease that was diagnosed first as smallpox and later as measles. He made a surprising recovery and wrote to his sister, Elizabeth, that he had never felt better. However, in December he developed a cough. Elizabeth asked to see her brother but John Dudley, the lord protector, said it was too dangerous. In February 1553, his doctors believed he was suffering from tuberculosis. In March the Venetian envoy saw him and said that although still quite handsome, Edward was clearly dying. (27)
According to Philippa Jones, the author Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010): "Early in 1553, Dudley... began working to persuade the King to change the succession. Edward VI was reminded that Mary and Elizabeth were both illegitimate, and more importantly, that Mary would bring Catholicism back to England. Dudley reasoned that if Mary were to be struck out of the succession, how could Elizabeth, her equal, be left in? Furthermore, he argued that both the princesses would seek foreign husbands, jeopardizing English sovereignty." (28)
Under the influence of the Lord Protector, Edward made plans for the succession. Sir Edward Montague, chief justice of the common pleas, testified that "the king by his own mouth said" that he was prepared to alter the succession because the marriage of either Princess Mary or Princess Elizabeth to a foreigner might undermine both "the laws of this realm" and "his proceedings in religion". According to Montague, Edward also thought his sisters bore the "shame" of illegitimacy. (29) Coming under the influence of the Lord Protector, Edward selected Lady Jane Grey to succeed him. A few days later she married Guildford Dudley, the fourth son of the Lord Protector.
King Edward VI died on 6th July, 1553. Mary, who had been warned of what Dudley had done and instead of going to London as requested by Dudley, she fled to Kenninghall in Norfolk. As Ann Weikel has pointed out: "Both the earl of Bath and Huddleston joined Mary while others rallied the conservative gentry of Norfolk and Suffolk. Men like Sir Henry Bedingfield arrived with troops or money as soon as they heard the news, and as she moved to the more secure fortress at Framlingham, Suffolk, local magnates like Sir Thomas Cornwallis, who had hesitated at first, also joined her forces." (30)
Mary summoned the nobility and gentry to support her claim to the throne. Richard Rex argues that this development had consequences for her sister, Elizabeth: "Once it was clear which way the wind was blowing, she (Elizabeth) gave every indication of endorsing her sister's claim to the throne. Self-interest dictated her policy, for Mary's claim rested on the same basis as her own, the Act of Succession of 1544. It is unlikely that Elizabeth could have outmanoeuvred Northumberland if Mary had failed to overcome him. It was her good fortune that Mary, in vindicating her own claim to the throne, also safeguarded Elizabeth's." (31)
The problem for Dudley was that the vast majority of the English people still saw themselves as "Catholic in religious feeling; and a very great majority were certainly unwilling to see - King Henry's eldest daughter lose her birthright." (32) When most of Dudley's troops deserted he surrendered at Cambridge on 23rd July, along with his sons and a few friends, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London two days later. Tried for high treason on 18th August he claimed to have done nothing save by the king's command and the privy council's consent. Mary had him executed at Tower Hill on 22nd August. In his final speech he warned the crowd to remain loyal to the Catholic Church. (33)
It was to be John Dudley, by this time Duke of Northumberland, who posed one of the biggest threats to Elizabeth's prospects of eventually occupying the English throne. For, as Edward VI lay dying in spring 1553, Northumberland encouraged the young king to attempt to alter the succession in order to prevent the Protestant Reformation from being undone by Mary Tudor, then next in line. Although religion was obviously the motive for the attempt, it was not an acceptable reason. A pretext was therefore sought in Mary's illegitimacy under English law, which could plausibly be said to debar her from inheritance. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, this argument militated as strongly against her claims as against Mary's. Edward VI's hopes therefore focused upon the third in line for the throne, Lady Jane Grey, the eldest granddaughter of Henry VIII's younger sister, Mary. (Henry VIII's will, which enjoyed statutory force thanks to the third Act of Succession of 1544, had passed over the Stuart line, descended from his elder sister, Margaret, in favour of the Grey line.) It was no coincidence that Jane was married to Guildford Dudley, one of Northumberland's sons.
In the event, Mary Tudor reacted to this intrigue with unexpected vigour. As soon as she was certain of Edward's death, she headed for her landed estates in East Anglia and summoned the nobility and gentry to support her claim to the throne. Mary's support snowballed while Northumberland's melted away, and she achieved a bloodless victory. This first crisis of Mary's reign left Elizabeth safe enough. She was not Northumberland's main target in summer 1553, and therefore played a characteristic waiting game, gathering her own supporters at Hatfield. Once it was clear which way the wind was blowing, she gave every indication of endorsing her sister's claim to the throne. Self-interest dictated her policy, for Mary's claim rested on the same basis as her own, the Act of Succession of 1544. It is unlikely that Elizabeth could have outmanoeuvred Northumberland if Mary had failed to overcome him. It was her good fortune that Mary, in vindicating her own claim to the throne, also safeguarded Elizabeth's.
After Northumberland's surrender, the two sisters entered London together in August 1553, and Elizabeth for a while enjoyed a place second only to the queen at Court. As the Venetian ambassador noted, Mary at first treated her younger sister with every sign of respect. However, her first parliament regularised the legal uncertainties over the queen's own legitimacy, recognising HenryVIII's first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and in consequence condemning his union with Anne Boleyn as bigamous, and its offspring, Elizabeth, as a bastard. Now Mary had no further need of her support, and with the gulf of legitimacy between them spelled out, she spurned her sister with all the Tudor contempt of the true born for the base born.
Early in 1553, Dudley... began working to persuade the King to change the succession. Edward VI was reminded that Mary and Elizabeth were both illegitimate, and more importantly, that Mary would bring Catholicism back to England. Dudley reasoned that if Mary were to be struck out of the succession, how could Elizabeth, her equal, be left in? Furthermore, he argued that both the princesses would seek foreign husbands, jeopardizing English sovereignty.
The dice were loaded against Dudley. The majority of Englishmen were still, in some sense, Catholic in religious feeling; and a very great majority were certainly unbwilling to see - King Henry's eldest daughter lose her birthright. We must remember that Catherine of Aragon never ceased to be popular. Besides, most Englishmen feared France more than Spain. Dudley's Protestant reforms had been too rapid, too drastic and too patently cynical to win much popularity. The economic situation had not improved. Nothing had been done to reform the currency. Prices were still rising, and any attempt by the government to fix maximum prices only resulted in driving commodities off the market altogether...
Nor had Dudley many real friends even in the Council. He found it more and more necessary to visit the king by night, so as not be seen by colleagues who were jealous of his influence. He also found it more and more necessary to by-pass the Council and proceed by authority of the king alone. Lord Chancellor Rich resigned in protest; and the departure of so notorious a rat may be taken as a sign that Dudley's ship was sinking.
The scheme to make Lady Jane Grey Edward's heiress was so shameless that it had little chance of success. Ostensibly, the rights of Mary and Elizabeth were passed over on the grounds that the kingdom could not be entrusted to female rule; and both of them might conceivably be thought bastards. But at the last moment the words in the "Device" giving the succession to " the heirs male" of Lady Jane were changed to "the Lady Jane and her heirs male", thus openly making another female heir-apparent to the throne. This inconsistency, combined with forgery, was forced on Dudley because it had become clear that Edward would die before Lady Jane could have any heirs.
The person chosen to succeed Edward was the fifteen-year-old Lady Jane Grey, descended from Henry VII through the second marriage of his daughter Mary with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. The nearest protestant claimant was, in fact, Elizabeth, but she was ruled out on the nominal grounds that she might take as husband a foreign and papist prince. To avoid the same fate befalling Lady Jane she was ordered to marry Northumberland's fourth son, Lord Guilford Dudley. The marriage took place, much against Jane's will, on 25 May 1553. At about the same time Edward drew up his "device" in which he left the throne to Lady Jane and her male descendants: Mary and Elizabeth were both ruled out as illegitimate. The leading figures in the government - Councillors, judges and bishops - were called on to add their signature to the "device". Some tried to withhold their assent, but Northumberland and the King would not permit this.
Edward died on 6 July 1553, but the news was kept secret for three days until the Lady Jane could be proclaimed Queen. Mary was at Framlingham, in Norfolk, but no sooner did the news reach her than she raised her standard and called on all loyal subjects to rally to her. The eastern counties rose in support of Mary, and the Councillors at London, quick to scent the changing wind, proclaimed her Queen. The Duke, who had left the capital with a small force to bar Mary's progress, followed suit, for his army melted away. By the end of July he was a prisoner in the Tower, and on 3 August Mary entered London in triumph. The next day the Duke of Norfolk and bishop Gardiner were released from imprisonment in the Tower. The catholic reaction had begun.