The Last Will of Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland

As I forewarned you a few posts ago, we’re beginning to move into Tudor territory! But I think you’ll find this will, and the story behind it, a moving one.

Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland, was born Jane Guildford around 1509. By the time she was sixteen or so, she had married her father’s ward, John Dudley (born 1504), whose father, Edmund Dudley, had had the dubious distinction of being one of the first people executed by Henry VIII. Despite John’s unpromising start in life, he rose high in Henry VIII’s service and even higher in that of his young son, Edward VI. By 1551, he had become the Duke of Northumberland. (We’ll be talking about Northumberland more on this blog in the months to come; hence this abbreviated discussion of him now.)

Meanwhile, Jane had borne her husband thirteen children. By the time of Edward VI’s death in July 1553, only seven of Jane and John’s children were alive: five sons and two daughters. The youngest son, Guildford, had married Lady Jane Grey. Their match, and Northumberland’s attempt to divert the succession from Mary Tudor to Jane Grey, proved to be the undoing of Northumberland. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, along with all five of his sons, by the victorious Mary. Jane Dudley herself spent about a week as a prisoner in the Tower before being released. She set off to meet Queen Mary, who was making her way to London, to beg for the lives of her sons and most likely her husband as well. Mary, however, was in no mood to receive Northumberland’s wife. She refused to give Jane an audience and ordered her to return to London.

Literally sick with her fears for her husband , Jane wrote a letter to Anne Paget, begging her to urge her own husband, William, Lord Paget, and two of Mary’s intimates, Gertrude Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter, and Susan Clarencius, to speak to the queen for Northumberland’s life. Jane also asked that Lord Paget be a good lord unto Jane’s “powere v sones,” explaining, “nayture cane noe othere wyss doe butt sue fore theme although I doe nott so meche care fore theme as fore there fathere who was to me & to my mynd the moste beste gentylmane that evere levynge womane was mached w’all.” If anyone did speak to Mary on Northumberland’s behalf, though, it was a futile gesture: Jane’s “moste beste gentylmane,” whom she had known since she was a child of three or four, was beheaded on August 22, 1553.

Though Jane’s five sons remained in the Tower under a death sentence, Mary was inclined to mercy now that Northumberland was dead. Unfortunately, Wyatt’s Rebellion changed her mind. On February 12, 1554, Guildford Dudley and his wife, Lady Jane Grey, were executed.

The Duchess of Northumberland had lost her husband and her youngest son in just a space of a few months. Shattering as these losses must have been, she managed to exert herself on behalf of her four surviving sons, all still in the Tower; as early as October 1553, the Spanish ambassadors had reported, “The Duchess of Northumberland is doing her utmost to secure a pardon for her children.” Though she herself was probably an evangelical in outlook, she tried to ingratiate herself with the queen by petitioning that her sons be allowed to hear mass. When Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain brought a host of Spaniards to court, the duchess lobbied them on behalf of her sons. By the autumn of 1554, her efforts finally bore fruit. John Dudley, her oldest son, was released in October 1554, but he was ailing: he died on October 21, 1554. By January 1555, however, her remaining three sons–including the Robert Dudley who was to become the favorite of Elizabeth I–had been freed, though all remained under attainder for the moment.

Jane had one bright spot in her life in 1554: her daughter Mary, the wife of Henry Sidney, bore a son, Philip Sidney, on November 30, 1554. (Philip Sidney became the well-known author of Astrophil and Stella and A Defence of Poesy.) Jane served as the little boy’s godmother, but she would not live to enjoy her grandchild or the company of her freed sons, for her health was failing. She died either on January 15, 1555, the date in postmortem inquisitions, or on January 22, 1455, the date on her tomb.

In the weeks before her death, Jane wrote her will with her own hand. Fittingly, given her family’s recent history, she left forty shillings each to the prisoners of Newgate, Ludgate, the King’s Bench, and the Marshalsea. She asked for a modest funeral, explaining that she would prefer that her debts be paid and the poor given unto “then any pompe to be shewed upon my wreched carkes.” Whoever trusted to the transitory world as she had, the duchess added, “may happen have an overthrowe as I hadd.”

Though Northumberland’s goods had been seized, Mary had allowed Jane to retain many of the luxuries she had enjoyed in the days before her husband’s downfall. Jane thus was able to give her two daughters and her surviving sons’ wives, who included the ill-fated Amy Dudley, gowns of rich material. Jane also remembered a number of her own relations and those of her husband: Northumberland’s younger brother Andrew, his disabled brother Jerome, and his half-sister Bridget all received gifts. Bridget’s gifts included three pairs of linen ruffs and a pair of “night sleeves” of calico cloth. Jane’s other gifts to her family members included beds, chairs, coffers, sheets, cushions, and Turkish carpets.

Jane remembered with deep gratitude the Spaniards who had helped her. To Don Diego de Acevedo, she left a bed and other gifts, “beseching hym even as he hath in my lyf tyme shewed hym self lyke a father and brother to my sones, so I shall requyer hym no lesse to doo nowe their mother is gone.” Ruy Gomez received a silver box; Jane prayed “hym to be good to my sonnes.” To the Duchess of Alva Jane left her green parrot, adding “I have nothing worthy for her elles.”

The Lady Paget to whom Jane addressed her impassioned letter in 1553 received a “high-backed gown of wrought velvet,” while her husband was given a black enameled ring. Susan Clarencius received a tawny velvet jewel coffer.

Among Jane’s most prized possessions were several elaborate clocks. Don Diego de Mendoza received “my litle booke Clocke that hath the sonne and the mone wythin yt.” The Queen’s high steward received a clock with “planettes and the chime to yt belonging whiche is at the Clockemakers in Southwarke.” Poignantly, Jane left her daughter Mary a clock “that was my lorde her fathers, praying her to kepe yt as a Jewell.” Elsewhere, Jane alludes to “my very owne Lande by my lorde my dere Husbandes giftes.”

Jane did not forget her servants; she asked that her executors see her debts paid and “my servants discharged that hath in my howse served me honestly sence my lorde departid.” A number received individual bequests; those not named were to receive two years’ wages and a black coat.

Despite her wishes for a simple funeral, Jane was buried in some style on February 1, 1555. The chronicler Henry Machyn, who apparently provided goods for funerals and thus had a natural interest in the ceremonies, noted, “The first day of February was buried the Duchess of Northumberland, at Chelsea, where she lived, with a goodly hearse of wax and pencels and escutcheons, two banners of arms, and four banners of images with many mourners and with two heralds of arms. There was a majesty and the valence and six dozen of torches and two white branches, and all the church hanged in black and arms and a canopy borne over her to the church.” Janes’s tomb can still be seen today at Chelsea Old Church.

Finally, there is a rather odd Princes-in-the-Tower theory, propounded by Jack Leslau, which holds that Jane’s father, Edward Guildford, was actually Edward V, and that the younger prince survived under the guise of John Clement. Proponents of the theory have suggested that DNA testing be done to confirm whether the two men were related. Any such testing on Jane herself would be against Jane’s express wishes, for in her will, she specifically asked that she lie undisturbed: “nor in no wise to let me be opened after I am ded: I have not loved to be very bold afore women moche more I wold be lothe to com into thandes of any lyving man be he phisicion or surgion.”


Calendar of State Papers, Spanish, vols. 11-12.

S. J. Gunn, “A Letter of Jane, Duchess of Northumberland, in 1553.” English Historical Review, November 1999.

David Loades, ‘Dudley, John, duke of Northumberland (1504–1553)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [, accessed 29 Aug 2010]

Henry Machyn, A London Provisioner’s Chronicle. Online here.

National Archives PROB 11/37/194.

9 thoughts on “The Last Will of Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland”

  1. Fascinating post about a woman I knew absolutely nothing about (I can't remember if I even knew the first name of Robert and Guildford Dudley's mother!) I love wills, and this is a really interesting one.

  2. I agree with Kathryn that it is great to hear about a woman I haven't really heard anything of until now. And it is interesting to learn about the oft-forgotten mothers behind some of the powerful movers and shakers of court during these tumultuous periods. How hard it must have been on them to witness the downfall of members of their families and then have to rally to save the rest. Thank you for sharing her story with us.

  3. I know something of the life of Jane Dudley, but had not heard the theory of her father being Edward V – fascinating!

  4. The elaborate carving in the Beauchamp Tower, carved on the orders of Jane's husband, is stunning. There are a couple of 'Janes' carved into the wall in that tower as well, and it's often been speculated that this refers to Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland, rather than Jane Grey/Dudley. I always think that the Duke would surely have had an elaborate carving created for hs wife, although he could have carved it himself.

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Anjere! I hope to go to the Tower in November–and this time I'm taking pictures!

  6. I've just added another post about the Tower – I love the place! I had a strange encounter of sorts with George, Duke of Clarence :>

  7. Gulp, gulp. A Dudley Duke of Northumberland?. Whatever happened to the Percys originally de Percy whose former ancestral home prior to the Norman Conquest was Perci in Normandy? I am happy to report that the Percy family still rule the roost at Alnwick Castle which features on your blog to this day.

    As I’ve said my stance has always been the logical so can I be permitted to make an educated guess in the matter of your latest opus. Lady Jane Grey?

    As I understand you’re about to visit the Tower in November. Well I do hope that you appreciate that as anybody who knows the City knows one can’t access the Tower without accessing the City first. And it’s one of the factors that has enabled me to render all the theories about what might have happened to the Princes in the Tower redundant.

    As regards the City itself there’s not one street the origin of whose name I don’t know about. Take Cannon Street whose name has nothing to do with artillery but candles and Mincing Lane, which derives its name from the term 'minchen’. It’s the same term which gave Munich(Munchen in German)its name.

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