John Dudley, like Somerset, was a member of the Privy Council appointed by Henry VIII to govern while Edward was a minor. Dudley, like Somerset, was keen to expand his power. However, in the initial years of Edward’s reign, the prominent figure was Somerset and until his success defeating the peasant rebellions in Norfolk, Dudley remained a secondary figure in government. However, Somerset’s removal from power in 1549, gave Dudley the opportunity he wanted to expand his own power base.
Dudley was a shrewd politician. He knew what was required to keep content as many people as was possible. Dudley gave the impression that he sympathised with the Catholics but also with religious conservatives. He gave the impression that he would work with the Privy Council whereas Somerset effectively bypassed it. While Dudley was cultivating these relationships, he also developed his friendship with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who had considerable influence in the Royal Household. Cranmer used his position to ensure that Dudley had immediate access to Edward VI. Dudley did what he could to ingratiate himself to the young king – something he did with success. By February 1550, he was sufficiently strong enough to get the conservatives expelled from the Privy Council. To ensure his control over the Council, he was appointed its Lord President. By the time of the execution of Somerset in January 1552, Dudley was General Warden of the North (which gave him huge military influence) and Duke of Northumberland. While in government, Dudley used his position to expand his own power but he also introduced a series of important reforms. Whereas historians tend to view Somerset as less than competent, Dudley is viewed as a competent and astute politician.
The most important lesson Dudley learned from Somerset’s mistakes was to develop a positive relationship with the Privy Council. Dudley wanted to control the Council but have it on his side. He allowed back onto it William Cecil and William Paget – both supporters of Somerset. However, Dudley was aware that both men were competent operators. He knew that Cecil and Paget would effectively thank him for bringing them back into the fold and, in theory, would work for him. Dudley also increased the number of men in the Privy Council to 33 – though he appointed his own men to it. In particular, Dudley appointed men with military experience so that he could ensure military support if it was needed. However, 33 men were too large a number for the Council to work effectively. Therefore, Dudley created a smaller inner circle within the Council, but he did ensure that the Council as an entity was the centre of government, thereby not alienating it as Somerset had done.
Dudley inherited a difficult situation. France had declared war on England in August 1549 in an effort to take advantage of the domestic problems England was experiencing. Dudley sued for peace with the French as he realised that it was a war England could not win. However, even this diplomatic move backfired as the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, distrusted England’s ‘new’ policy towards France. Charles was also angered that Dudley had aligned himself with the more extreme bishops, such as Nicholas Ridley and Hooper, who wanted to push the Church of England towards Calvinism. Charles had urged a policy of religious moderation and such a move was clearly not moderate in the emperor’s eyes. The one saving grace that Dudley had regarding Charles was that the emperor was barely in a position to pressurise England, as his standing in mainland Europe was far from strong.
The most pressing problem Dudley had to face was England’s chronic financial situation. To all intents England was bankrupt by the end of 1549. Somerset had fought wars that could not be afforded and sold off Crown lands that once gone, had no chance of adding anything more to the Treasury. By the end of 1549, the Royal Household had to borrow £50,000 a year simply to exist. Dudley resorted to debasing the coinage, which in the short term brought in £114,000 but was inflationary. Regardless of this Dudley had to borrow money from European bankers to the tune of £243,000. He restored to power William Cecil as Secretary of State, who, along with Sir Thomas Gresham, was empowered to sort out England’s economy. Both men persuaded the wealthy London trading companies to support government debt and Gresham was sent to the Netherlands with £12,000 a week to manipulate the stock markets in favour of the English market. In March 1552, the silver content in coins was restored to the 1527 level, all in an effort to restore confidence in the economy. By 1553, Dudley’s work had all but been resolved – though he did have to sell even more Crown lands. Dudley balanced the economy sufficiently to introduce a ‘privy coffer’ – a sum of money set aside for emergencies. “He displayed the ability to delegate authority, and skill in selecting the right people for the task.” (Nigel Heard)
Developing his fiscal reforms, Dudley wanted to streamline the way royal revenue was collected. His idea was to reduce the number of offices that collected royal revenue to just two – the Exchequer and the Office of Crown Lands – or merge everything into the Exchequer. This, Dudley believed, would reduce corruption, as he was well aware that money destined for the royal coffers was not getting there. These reforms were not introduced in the reign of Edward as a result of his early death, but they were introduced in the reign of Mary I.
Dudley also handled with skill the social issues of the day. General inflation, unemployment and high food prices all threatened to destabilise society. Dudley used a two-pronged approach. On the one-hand he withdrew unpopular legislation such as the 154 Vagrancy Act. On the other, he tightened the legal control of officers in the regions. However, there can be little doubt that Dudley did try to relieve the distress felt by the poor. He vigorously upheld anti-enclosure legislation and the work of enclosure commissions was halted. Dudley also introduced legislation to stop excessive interest being charged on debts. To support this, he introduced more legislation to ensure that local officers supported the aged, the infirm and the disabled. While he could not hope to solve all of England’s financial problems, what Dudley did was sufficient to ensure that many believed that he did what he could to help the disadvantaged.
By mid-1552, Dudley seemed to have a position so powerful that no one could dispute his power. However, this power had one major weakness. It depended on Edward VI. If he died young, then his successor would be the Catholic Mary. She would have no truck with the religious reforms of Dudley and would have brought in her own men. Her ‘team’ would not have included Dudley. The early – and for Dudley untimely – death of Edward in July 1553 ended whatever chances he had of cementing his power.
Dudley’s attempt to put Lady Jane Grey, married to his eldest son Guildford, on to the throne was a dismal failure. Dudley failed to take into account that the people of England had a natural instinct to support a dynastic inheritance. This proved to be true with Mary. He was executed on August 22nd 1553.