John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland was a Tudor soldier and politician who became Chief Minister in the reign of Edward VI. John Dudley is most associated with the attempt to get Lady Jane Grey onto the throne of England on the death of Edward. The failure of this led to the execution of Dudley.
John Dudley was born in 1502. His father was Edmund Dudley who had served Henry VII as finance minister. However, Edmund was found guilty of constructive treason in 1509 and executed in 1510. A Bill of Attainder had been imposed on the Dudley family, which all but ended any influence it may have had. However, this was lifted in 1512 and allowed members of the Dudley family to function as normal. John Dudley grew up in the service of Henry VIII as a soldier, sailor and politician. Like his father, John made a name for himself serving the king.
In 1543, Dudley was appointed Lord High Admiral and one year later he led an attack on Scotland. In 1545, he commanded the Channel fleet against French invasion threats in June and August of that year. Dudley was also one of the more vocal Protestants in the King’s Council and he headed the Protestant opposition to the influence of the Catholic Duke of Norfolk.
In the days leading to Henry’s death and Edward’s accession, the Norfolk family and his supporters were outmanoeuvred by Dudley. The Protectorate that guided the young king was dominated by Edward Seymour who formulated a close working relationship to Dudley. Political issues were left to Seymour while military ones were dealt with by Dudley. In September 1547, Dudley did a great deal to boost his reputation when he led an army that defeated the Scots at Pinkie.
Dudley used his reputation and support within the army to ruthlessly suppress any social ills that plagued England. In August 1549 he put down Ket’s rebellion at Dussindale in East Anglia.
Dudley was a skilled political schemer. Though he appeared to have a working relationship with Edward Seymour, it was Seymour who had the opportunity to have more of an influence over the young king purely because he was near him more frequently. To reverse this, Dudley had to remove Seymour from his position. This he did over a number of years. In doing this, Dudley had one major advantage – Seymour had made many enemies in the King’s Court whereas Dudley was seen as the successful military figure who had shown nothing but loyalty to his king and country. He was rewarded with a number of significant government positions.
In 1549, Dudley was appointed Lord Admiral. In 1550 he became Grand Master of the Household. In the following year he became the Duke of Northumberland and in 1551 Dudley was appointed Earl Marshall of England. The rise of Dudley was mirrored by the fall of Seymour who in 1551 was executed for conspiracy. Dudley was now the most powerful figure in the land and in a position where he could exploit his two goals – increased wealth and increased power.
Dudley had little time for the poor of England and he did all he could to ensure they were ‘kept in their place’. Any unrest was ruthlessly suppressed and Dudley constantly supported the rights of the propertied class over the poor. He repealed laws that were against enclosure. A shrewd financier, Dudley realised the importance of a sound coinage in the country and he did what he could to modernise the government structure of the country and its financial administration. This was a long-term project and it was the reign of Elizabeth that most benefited from this. Dudley also believed in the importance of a strong navy for the country and he started the building of the naval dockyard in Chatham, Kent.
Dudley was a Protestant. However, whether he was a Protestant for spiritual reasons is difficult to know. At the time it was thought that Dudley supported the Protestant faith as it allowed for the secularisation of Church property. It is known that Dudley wanted to greatly increase his wealth and Church land was extremely valuable at this time. A great deal of Church land was taken and there is little doubt that Dudley prospered from this.
A number of very important changes did occur within the Church. In 1550, Parliament ordered that all images should be removed from churches and in 1552 the 2nd Act of Uniformity removed any vestiges of Catholicism when the 2nd Prayer Book by Thomas Cranmer was introduced. On June 12th 1553, Cranmer’s ’42 Articles’ received the Royal Assent, which effectively put into place the Protestant Church. All this would have had the backing of Dudley.
If Dudley craved wealth and power, he had both in great amounts in the later years of the reign of the young king Edward. However, Edward had never been robust with regards to his health and the legal heir to him was Mary.
Mary had been brought up by her mother, Catherine of Aragon, to be a strong Roman Catholic whose spiritual loyalties lay in the Vatican with the Pope. The succession issue was a major problem for Dudley when it was clear that the king’s health was failing.
Using his influence over the king and almost certainly playing a religious card, Dudley persuaded the king to sign a document on June 21st 1553 that excluded both Mary and Elizabeth from succeeding to the throne on accounts of their illegitimacy. Edward put onto paper his wish that his successor should be Lady Jane Grey who just one month earlier in May had married Guildford Dudley, the fourth son of Dudley. The expansion in Dudley’s influence and potential wealth had this come into being is difficult to estimate – but politically he would have been all but untouchable. However, there was one major weakness in this plan – it had to work. If it failed, the consequences for anyone associated with it were obvious.
Such was the sensitivity of Dudley’s scheme that he managed to keep Edward’s death secret from most people for three days. In this time he put into being the plan that he had been so careful to construct. On July 10th, 1553, Lady Jane Grey was announced as the legal successor to Edward VI.
Dudley’s plan had one two major flaws – both involving Mary. Dudley had not bargained for the instinctive reaction of the people to support the person who they saw as being the legitimate heir to the throne. Secondly when Dudley announced Jane’s succession, he had failed to secure Mary. She fled to East Anglia – the region where Dudley had ruthlessly put down the Ket rebellion. It was an area where there was little support for the man who had done nothing to help the rural poor and where most were conservative and would have had an instinctive loyalty to the daughter of Henry VIII. Having ‘lost’ Mary, Dudley’s supporters in London started to abandon him and he became a very isolated figure.
On July 20th, 1553, Dudley surrendered to the authorities in Cambridge. He was put on trial for treason. There was little doubting the decision of the court as the evidence was overwhelming. John Dudley was executed for treason at Tower Hill on August 22nd 1553.