The Unjust Unpopularity of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

On 25 May 1553, Lady Jane Grey married Lord Guilford Dudley, the fourth son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, at the insistence of the dying King Edward VI. Although the whole thing was young king’s idea, poor Northumberland was cast as a criminal mastermind using a union between Lady Jane and his son to grab the throne. What tosh.

At any rate, it is a good day to present this guest post and defense of the maligned Northumberland, written by the talented Christine Hartweg, author of John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey’s Father-in-Law.

Take it away, Christine!


John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, chief minister of Edward VI and father-in-law of Lady Jane Grey, appears as the pantomime villain in many books, both fiction and non-fiction, popular and academic.

He is the bad duke alongside the good duke of Somerset. Somerset became “good” only in 1555, and so Northumberland became automatically bad. Meanwhile, the good duke/bad duke style of history has become a byword for bad history. And after all, the two dukes had many things in common, although it could be argued that the good duke ruled badly, while the bad duke ruled with a decent amount of success. True, Northumberland eventually had Somerset executed, but then Somerset had previously executed his own brother. Yet the cliché remains, it is simply too convenient to give up. John Dudley is still the bad guy.

John Dudley Duke of Northumberland_Penshurst

To a great extent, this is due to the fact that Somerset died a Protestant (executed by a Protestant regime), while John Dudley died a Catholic (executed by a Catholic regime). As it turned out, Somerset entered Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as one of the latter, while John Dudley also appears there, as the apostate who was deceived by Mary’s government into believing that his life would be spared if he returned to the Catholic church.

The theme had been set by Lady Jane Grey, whom he had helped to place upon the English throne. Jane, 17 years young and a Protestant, came to grief in consequence, and her remarks about John Dudley to a dinner guest at the Tower of London (her prison) have coloured most accounts of the duke:

But what will ye more? Like as his life was wicked and full of dissimulation, so was his end thereafter. I pray God, I, nor no friend of mine, die so. Should I, who [am] young and in my few years, forsake my faith for the love of life? Nay, God forbid! Much more he should not, whose fatal course, although he had lived his just number of years, could not have long continued. But life was sweet, it appeared; so he might have lived, you will say, he did [not] care how.

Streatham lady jayne grey

It may well be the case that John Dudley found “the life of a dog”, as he called it, better than death, and he indeed wrote in his last letter:

O my good lord remember how sweet life is, and how bitter ye contrary.

To a secular modern audience this should not come as a surprise. Still, many Victorian and 20th century historians have embraced Jane’s charges wholeheartedly and uncritically, and for some reason they have always known that John Dudley’s religion was a fake. He is usually condemned as a time-serving cynic. But is this charge true of John Dudley?

John and his wife (Jane) belonged to the evangelical circles around Anne Boleyn, and John even proposed reformed clergy for vacant positions to the queen. His eldest son, Henry, was taught by the French religious refugee, Nicholas Bourbon, a Boleyn protégé who remembered the Dudleys as a model couple of reformed Christianity when he was back in France.

When Henry VIII intervened in Scotland in the early 1540s, he sent John Dudley as Warden General to negotiate and oversee operations. In this function, John suggested to the Earl of Arran, the Scottish regent, that

yt wold not do amisse, yf your lordship did lett slipp emonges the people in this tyme, the Bible and New Testament in Englishe, wherby they may perceyve the truthe, … and if you have non in your own tonge, I will help to gett you som out of England.

He sent his letter to Arran enclosed in a letter to his superior, Henry VIII’s best friend and commander-in-chief, the Duke of Suffolk, and thus literally under the nose of a very powerful and religiously conservative man. John clearly was not afraid to take some risk in spreading the gospel.

By the last months of Henry’s reign he was well known as a reformer, and his wife was among the supporters of Anne Askew, the outspoken ex-housewife who came into conflict with the authorities over her reformed views. John and Jane Dudley had also become good friends of Henry’s last queen Katherine Parr and her brother William, even before Katherine had married Henry. John Dudley and William Parr visited Anne Askew in prison (before she was tortured), in an attempt to talk her into conforming to the Henrician church. The answer they got was that

it was a great shame for them to counsel contrary to their knowledge. Whereunto, in few words, they did say, that they would gladly all things were well.

When Henry VIII died a few month later, John was among the chief councillors of the new king, the nine-year-old Edward VI. Edward was the Duke of Somerset’s nephew and so it was agreed that Somerset should act as the boy’s regent. He and Archbishop Cranmer introduced the Common Prayer Book and other Protestant reforms that considerably changed the country. John Dudley was not much involved in these proceedings, though he supported them. His brother Andrew, meanwhile, while stationed in Scotland distributed the Tyndale Bible and “other good English books”.


In late 1549, John Dudley and other councillors toppled Somerset as Lord Protector and John became de facto regent. Protestant reforms continued in full swing and one radical cleric, Bishop John Hooper, hailed John Dudley as an “intrepid soldier of Christ”. Like his sovereign, the young Edward, John seems to have had a certain fondness for the likes of John Hooper and John Knox, but his pragmatic nature was also much annoyed by their endless controversies. Furthermore, he did not get on well with Archbishop Cranmer, whose planned canon law reform he finally derailed in 1553, also for pragmatic reasons. He would not allow Cranmer to build a quasi-independent church, nor would he introduce the death penalty for adulterers or mass burnings of “heretics”.

He still encouraged reform, though, like the printing of John Ponet’s catechism for school children or the invitation by the privy council of Philip Melanchthon right at the end of Edward’s reign. His manoeuvres to put Jane Grey on the throne are usually seen as solely motivated by the desire to safeguard his rule; he would not have been sorry, however, to safeguard English Protestantism as well.

As he left London to fight Mary, he reminded his untrustworthy colleagues that it was “God’s cause” and “the fear of papistry’s re-entrance” that had moved them – “as ye have herebefore allways said” – to grant their “goodwills” to Jane’s enthronement.


When he was turned in as a prisoner at the Tower 12 days later, he suffered a nervous breakdown, according to the Imperial ambassadors. The new queen, Mary, soon sent him a Catholic priest lest he should “fall a prey to despair”. Before his execution he received visits from Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Bishop Nicholas Heath, who heard his last confession. John Dudley returned to the faith of his childhood.

In his last speech he warned his countrymen to beware “these seditious preachers, and teachers of new doctrine, which pretend to preach God’s word, but in very deed they preach their own fancies”. He also thanked God that he was now a Christian again, “for these 16 years he had been none.” Anticipating that people might doubt the sincerity of his conversion, he declared that what he said came from “the bottom of my heart, and as ye see I am in no case to say aught but truth.” – This did not make him any more popular with his latter-day critics, but one eyewitness informed his business partner that “Theare weare a greate nomber turned with his words.”


Thank you Christine!!

For a further defense of John Dudley, I recommend not only Christine’s excellent book, but also my nutshell book on Edward VI and the fictional (but magnificently researched) Her Highness, The Traitor by Susan Higginbotham.


2 thoughts on “The Unjust Unpopularity of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

  1. Thanks for sharing your expertise on John Dudley, Christine. I find him an intriguing historical figure. I would suggest the disagreements between Cranmer and Dudley late in Edward’s reign were far more complex than simple pragmatism in reason (at least on Cranmer’s side of things). That aside, they were strong allies during Henry’s reign and come together in the end in an attempt to prevent Mary Tudor’s ascension to the throne. I would suggest that in any society where there is inherent power balance and co-mingling between church and state, as during Edward’s minority, there will be “difficulties” no matter the personalities involved. Where the “good Duke” Somerset is concerned, fortunately for Dudley’s legacy, not many of today’s historians are singing his praises. I do believe, however, that there are issues people struggle with when considering John Dudley’s legacy (whether or not deserved): 1. His involvement in “matching” his son to a woman who would be named the heir to the throne in such short timeline to the marriage; 2. His refusal to allow Cranmer to visit Edward alone when the king was near death; and, 3. His conversion to Roman Catholicsm post-arrest (which you address here). I look forward to reading your book to learn of your thoughts and also learn more about Dudley’s life and legacy.

  2. John Dudley – Hero or Villain?
    Neither actually. Or, perhaps, both. He was, like all of us, a bundle of contradictions. As historians we take that as our starting point. If we don’t, we may end up trying to blame or exonerate – and that’s not our job. Having agreed that the duke was subject to all the impulses that flesh is heir to, we do, of course, have to make reservations. He was shaped by specific circumstances that we struggle to understand and evaluate. Let’s try to identify some of them.
    Dynasty: Dudley was conscious of his noble ancestry (and particularly the need to redeem the fortunes wasted by the senior line of his ancient house). Proximity to the Crown was important for both influence and material gain, as it was for the Howards, the Boleyns, the Seymours, the Parrs and all the leading political class.
    Loyalty: He served the monarch (even when the monarch was a minor) because that was the only guarantee of stability.
    Religion: ‘Cuius regio eius religio’ was the only principle that could ensure national unity. Dudley was not the stuff of which martyrs are made (How many politicians are?)
    Education: He was not a profound or original thinker, and certainly no theologian. But the lessons imparted by military and diplomatic service were well learned and he was an effective administrator (particularly of the navy).
    Politics: Like all his conciliar colleagues, he had to operate in the political vacuum left by the death of Henry VIII. It is seldom appreciated just what a challenge that was. Dudley lacked the legitimacy and ruthlessness to be a tyrant in a country that had known nothing but tyranny for 37 years.
    This was the man who was at the helm of a kingdom suffering economic, social and religious turbulence and lacking an established governmental structure. These are some of the considerations we need to get our heads round before we proceed to value judgements.
    – Derek Wilson (author of ‘Uncrowned Kings of England – the Black Legend of the Dudleys’)
    PS The confrontation with Anne Askew was embarrassing for Dudley. It took place at Greenwich Palace, where Anne was under investigation by the Council. The conservative caucus were hoping to implicate their evangelical opponents by association with the feisty heretic, so it was vital that Dudley and Co. maintain the charade of believing precisely what the king believed. Anne certainly did not make it easy for them!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *