The Execution of Edmund Dudley

On April 24, 1509, just three days after Henry VII died, “yerely in the mornyng the morow after Saint George day by thavis of the king and his councell were taken Sir Richard Empson knyght and Mr Edmund Dudeley esquire and sent as prisoners to the Tour of London.” The young king, Henry VIII, had decided to signal to the people that his reign would be much different from his father’s, and his first step was to arrest his father’s notorious, unpopular officials, Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley.

Life had been good for Edmund Dudley. He was a grandson of John Sutton, Baron Dudley, who when he died as an octogenarian had managed to serve Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III and to receive an annuity from Henry VII. Born around 1462, Edmund Dudley trained as a lawyer and entered Parliament. His talents attracted the notice of Henry VII, who eventually made him the president of his council. It was his zeal in collecting revenue for the king, however, that made him and Empson hugely unpopular and that would lead to disaster for them.

Edmund Dudley married twice. His first wife, Anne, was the daughter of Thomas Windsor of Stanwell, Middlesex; she bore Edmund a daughter, Elizabeth, who married William Stourton. (Elizabeth and William’s son, Charles, was hanged for murder in 1557, arising out of a personal dispute.) Edmund’s second wife was Elizabeth Grey, sister of John Grey, Viscount Lisle. By her he had three sons, John, Andrew, and Jerome.

Like other servants of the crown, Edmund had taken full advantage of the opportunities for profit such service offered, and he had grown wealthy in the king’s employ. His house in Candlewick Street in London sat at the corner of Cannon Street and Walbrook. An inventory taken of Edmund’s goods in August 1509, after his conviction for treason, listed the contents of a Hall, a Great Parlor, a Little Parlor, a Counting-House, a Square Chamber, a Little Chamber within the Square Chamber, a Little Square Chamber (N.B.: not to be confused with the Little Chamber within the Square Chamber), a Little House for the Bows, an Armor Chamber, a Gallery Next to the Great Chamber, a Great Chamber, a Great Wardrobe, a Little Wardrobe, a Closet without the Little Wardrobe Door, a Low Gallery by the Garden, and a Great Chamber. There was also a “Lady Litton’s Chamber,” a Buttery, and a Kitchen. His goods included several “French chairs,” tapestries, carpets, doublets of crimson velvet, black satin, and purple satin, gowns lined with fur, a riding gown of black velvet, a great coffer with two lids, cushions, a cup of silver and gilt, enameled with images of kings, a gilt cup with the Dudley arms, a basin with the arms of Edmund’s second wife, a book of statutes, a little printed book in French, two other books, seven pieces of imagery embroidered for the months of the year, and a closh board covered over with a green cloth. Edmund had a young daughter and three small sons living in 1509, but there are no signs of these children’s belongings in the inventory. Perhaps by then Edmund Dudley’s wife and children had left the house and had been allowed to take their possessions with them.

The charge against Dudley was that on April 22, he had “conspired with armed force to take the government of the King and realm.” The charge seems absurd; Dudley had thrived under the reign of Henry VII and surely must have been hoping to do the same under that of his son, whom he had once given a gold ring set with a pointed diamond. S. J. Gunn suggests that Dudley and Empson might have actually summoned armed men to London, either out of fear of their political enemies or in anticipation of political instability following the death of the first Tudor king. “[S]teps they had taken with no thought of treason were, as so often in the politics of Henry VIII’s reign, twisted into the stuff of which indictments were made.” Despite the trumped-up nature of the charge, Dudley was convicted on July 18, 1509.

Having imprisoned and convicted Edmund Dudley, Henry VIII dithered about what to do with him. Languishing in the Tower, Edmund busied himself with drawing up a list of people whom he believed had been unjustly dealt with by the late government and in writing a treatise entitled The Tree of Commonwealth, in which he depicted the state as a tree upheld by roots of godliness, justice, truth, concord, and peace. He also plotted to escape from the Tower, but said in his will that he intended to do it only if his attainder “had passed both Commons, Lords, and King.” In his will, he was at pains to exonerate two of his servants, Thomas Michell and William Franke, who were in danger because of his “lewd demeanour” for attempting to break out of the Tower. They “did but their duty as servants,” he wrote, and had refused to assist his escape.

In August 1510, Henry VIII finally gave the order to execute his father’s officials, possibly because the king had heard complaints of Dudley and Empson while the king was on progress that year. Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson were executed on Tower Hill on August 17, 1510, in what G. J. Meyer termed “a cynical act of judicial murder, done purely for political and propaganda purposes.” Dudley was buried at London Blackfriars, Empson at London Whitefriars.

Edmund Dudley’s oldest son, John, six years old at the time of his father’s death, was put in wardship and eventually found favor with the king who had executed his father. His career under Edward VI brought him the dukedom of Northumberland and the virtual rule of England, while his ill-fated attempt to place Lady Jane Grey upon the throne earned him his own appointment with the headsman on Tower Hill on August 22, 1553, forty-three years after his father’s execution. On December 7, 1552, nine months before his own death, the Duke of Northumberland made his only recorded comment about his father: “And, for my own part, if I should have past more upon the speech of the people than upon the service of my master, or gone about to seek favour of them without respect to his Highness’ surety, I needed not to have had so much obloquy of some kind of men; but the living God, that knoweth the hearts of all men, shall be my judge at the last day with what zeal, faith, and truth I serve my master. And though my poor father, who, after his master was gone, suffered death for doing his master’s commandments, who was the wisest prince of the world living in those days, and yet could not his commandment be my father’s charge after he was departed this life; so, for my part, with all earnestness and duty I will serve without fear, seeking nothing but the true glory of God and his Highness’ surety: so shall I most please God and have my conscience upright, and then not fear what man doth to me.”

Sources:

J. S. Brewer, ed., Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII. Vol. 1. (online).

S. B. Chrimes, Henry VII. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.

Hugh Collins, ‘Sutton, John (VI) , first Baron Dudley (1400–1487)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8155, accessed 25 April 2011]

M. M. Condon, ‘Empson, Sir Richard (c.1450–1510)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8799, accessed 25 April 2011]

S. J. Gunn, “The Accession of Henry VIII.” Historical Research, October 1991.

S. J. Gunn, ‘Dudley, Edmund (c.1462–1510)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8147, accessed 25 April 2011]

C. L. Kingsford, “On Some London Houses of the Early Tudor Period.” Archaeologia, 1921.

G. J. Meyer, The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty. New York: Delacort Press, 2010.

Patrick Fraser Tytler, ed., England under the Reigns of Edward VI and Mary. London: Richard Bentley, 1839. Vol. 2.

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13 Responses to The Execution of Edmund Dudley

  1. Gregory House says:

    That was very interesting, I've always found the bill of attainder for Dudley very curious. I've seen it mentioned by some historians as a harbinger for the later executions by Henry of his opponents and potential rivals. I must admit to being uncertain about that claim. Perhaps this represented the actions of a court faction to remove rivals and influence the young king. Any way as I an enjoyable article.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I really enjoyed this post as I've always wondered about Robert Dudley's grandfather and the family's sad history. It's interesting how Henry VIII is being portrayed as mostly just a womanizing playboy when the more I read about his actions he comes across as this petulant and vindictive tyrant without much to admire. It's interesting he would choose to execute two of his father's close servants so early in his reign for something that seems so slight and could be easily explained away.

  3. Kathryn Warner says:

    Really interesting! I'd never heard this story before. Can only agree with Elizabeth's judgement of Henry as a petulant and vindictive tyrant!

  4. Susan Higginbotham says:

    Thanks, all!

    Gregory, I'm inclined to think that while the council might have borne responsibility for the arrest, the executions were all on Henry VIII's hands. The delay between arrest, trial, and execution gave Henry plenty of time to consider their fate on his own.

    Elizabeth and Kathryn, I am inclined to think too that his tyranny began at the very start of his reign, given the fact that Dudley and Empson posed no dynastic or political threat.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    I remember reading/hearing/watching something that mentioned Henry's obsessive fear about the powerful families that 'technically' had greater claims to the throne than the one his father had. It was mentioned alongside the de la Pole family and how Henry VII and VIII went to great lengths to make sure there was no possibility of their even catching a whiff of the throne – mostly through the extermination of the male line. I can't remember where I might have heard this, but history has shown he was fully capable of this.

    I also remember David Starkey pointing out in one of his books how Henry VIII had spent a vast amount of time with his mother, and I wonder if she could have ever mentioned something about her bloodlines versus that of her husband's? Clearly speculation, but it is fun, sometimes!

    • Mary Katherine Brand says:

      I am incredibly intrigued by this article and all your comments, as I have just recently discovered Edmund Dudley is my 11th grandfather on my mother’s side. Although I am not very familiar with the history of that era, I would love to learn more of my English heritage and explore the secrets of my family’s history. I find this all very fascinating. So with regard to this matter, Susan, is there potential through your site for continued conversation on the life of Edmund Dudley and those who preceded or succeeded him in death? Thank you for your postings.

      • boswellbaxter says:

        Sure there is, Mary! Sorry for the long delay in approving this comment; yours got mixed in with a lot of spam comments.

  6. I have just found out that Edmond Sutton Dudley 1462-1510 is my 15th great grand uncle, is there any way I can have a copy of this please as I would like to show it to my children & put it in my family file.
    Lesley harland

  7. Peter Whitla says:

    Thanks to all for insightful comments.

    I have an odd question. Does anyone know if a signature of Richard Empson exists on line? Despite Googling to extinction, I’ve failed to track one down.