On August 22, 1553, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, died upon the scaffold at Tower Hill for his attempt to divert the succession from Mary Tudor to Lady Jane Grey. His reputation remained poor for centuries to come and only in the past few decades has undergone a much-needed reappraisal by historians.
I came to quite like the duke when I was researching my forthcoming novel. Here are ten reasons why:
- Dudley was a loyal brother to his younger brothers and to his younger half-sisters, looking after their interests and those of their spouses. In 1538, for instance, he wrote to his stepfather, Arthur Plantagenet, when he became concerned that his sister Elizabeth was being treated unfairly. He helped to promote the career of his younger brother Andrew and took responsibility for his brother Jerome, who was mentally or physically disabled.
- Dudley had a dry sense of humor. Writing to excuse himself for not being able to bring some goldsmith’s work back from France to his wife, he explained, “I assure you this journey hath been extremely chargeable, after such sort as I think I shall be fain to hide myself in a corner for seven years after.”
- Dudley helped to save a lady’s leg. In July 1548, he wrote, “I am urgently written to by a lady who, having been destroyed by bad London surgeons, has been eased by the surgeon of Boulogne. Please have my lord [protector] let him remain or she may lose a leg.” (This lady has been confused with John’s own wife, but the new edition of The Calendar of State Papers identifies her only as “a lady.”).
- Dudley was an indulgent father. When his son John fell into debt, he wrote, “[T]herefore you should not hide from me your debts, whatsoever they be, for I would be loathe but you should keep your credit still with all men. And therefore send me word in any wise of the whole sum of your debts, for I and your mother will forthwith see them paid.”
- After William Parr, Marquess of Northampton, suffered an embarrassing defeat during the Norfolk Rebellion, Dudley, the more experienced soldier, was put in charge. Sympathizing with his humiliated friend, he offered to serve either jointly with Northampton or under his command: “Wherefore, if it might please his Grace to use his services again, I shall be as glad for my part to join with him, yea, rather than fail, with all my heart to serve under him, for this journey, as I would be to have the whole authority myself; and by this means his Grace shall preserve his heart, and hable [enable] him to serve hereafter, which, otherwise, he shall be utterly in himself discouraged [to do].”
- Though Dudley crushed the rebellion, he treated the survivors with restraint, telling the local gentry, “There must be measure kept, and above all things in punishment men must not exceed.”
- Having removed his former friend, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, from power, Dudley nonetheless attempted to reconcile with Somerset. He restored Somerset to the council and married his son to Somerset’s oldest daughter. The effort failed and Somerset began to plot to have Dudley himself arrested, a scheme which instead led to Somerset’s own final downfall. Sending his former friend to the block seems to have weighed on Dudley’s conscience to the very end: on the day before his own execution, he asked forgiveness of Somerset’s sons.
- Condemned to die, John Dudley begged the queen to spare the lives of his children: “considering that they went by my commandment who am their father, and not of their own free wills.”
- John Dudley’s wife, who had known him since she was around three and he was seven, loved him dearly. Begging Lady Paget to intercede with the queen’s ladies to spare his life, she described him as “the most best gentleman that ever living woman was matched withall.”
- Following John Dudley’s execution, his former servant, John Cock, later Lancaster Herald, begged the queen for his head so that he could give it burial at the Tower (instead of the head being displayed). Queen Mary granted him the head and the body, which Cock buried between Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and Katherine Howard.
- Bonus: John Dudley, with a consideration for future historical novelists that was rare at the time, named two of his sons Ambrose and Guildford and one of his daughters Temperance, thereby doing his bit for the noble cause of variety in Tudor first names. Of course, he also named two of his sons Henry, two of his daughters Katherine, and one of his daughters Mary–but hey, nobody’s perfect.