As the nine-year-old Edward VI rode through London on the way to his coronation in Westminster Abbey in February 1547, he paused for a while to watch a man perform on a tightrope strung from the steeple of St Paul’s. He might have been advised to study the man who rode ahead of him too. That man was Edward’s newly appointed Lord Chamberlain, John Dudley, and when it came to ambition, the Dudley family were the premier high-wire artists of sixteenth-century England.
Indeed, as Joanne Paul shows in this riveting account of the family’s rise and fall, theirs is a shadow history of the Tudor century. The mere fact of their ascent is revealing about the Tudor’s penchant for creating a kind of client aristocracy, dependent on royal favour, and the two dynasties are so closely intertwined that the Dudleys found themselves more than once with the crown itself in reach.
The family’s rise began under Henry VII. Edmund Dudley already had a successful legal career when Henry VII appointed him Speaker of the House in early 1504. By September he was on the king’s council and charged with collecting money on the king’s behalf. Henry knew his man; Dudley knew the law – and how to use the king’s authority to bend it. In less than four years, he raised some £220,000 for his king, increasing crown income by over half.
Dudley’s methods varied, but most were dubious. He used informers in the law courts and elsewhere to run what looks very much like a protection racket. He was no respecter of title: targets included the Bishop of London, squeezed for £500, and Lord Abergavenny, taken for an eye-watering £70,000. But it was cases like that of the haberdasher Thomas Sunnyff and his wife Agnes which brought Dudley most popular opprobrium. Dudley tried to extort £500 from the couple on the basis of trumped-up infanticide charges. The persecution was relentless: both husband and wife spent long periods in at least three London prisons, including the Tower, over several years.
Thomas Sunnyff was still in the Tower in April 1509 when, three days after the death of his master, Dudley was imprisoned there himself. Dudley, ever methodical, had his account books brought to him to right the wrongs he had done, line by line. But it was too late. To court popularity and acting in the style to which he would become accustomed, Henry VIII had him beheaded for treason. That was a trumped up charge too.
When Edmund died, his son and heir John was six years old. Much later John would remember how “my poor father suffered death for doing his master’s commandment”, but the thought never seems to have quelled his own ambitions. He made his mark first soldiering in France under Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and was knighted at Beauvais aged just 19 in November 1523.
John Dudley’s hinterland is little known; perhaps there was no hinterland there. He was cultured enough to introduce the Italian loggia to English architecture; but he spoke neither Latin or Italian, and the strong sense is of a man too intent on climbing to pay much attention to the view. It seems characteristic of him that at Easter 1540, as a courtier named Sir Andrew Flammock lay dying of the plague in Dudley’s own house, Dudley thought it timely to write to Thomas Cromwell asking for Kenilworth Castle, then in Flammock’s keeping, for himself.
Unfortunately for Dudley, Flammock made a full recovery. But the apparent brazenness masked a skilled politician: despite clear sympathies for the protestant cause, he was friendly enough with Mary Tudor for her to be godparent to several of his children, and the falls of neither Anne Boleyn nor Cromwell halted his rise. He was trusted by Thomas Cranmer with delivering information about Katherine Howard’s infidelities to Henry VIII, a delicate task if ever there were one. In the first few months of 1543, John Dudley, now Viscount Lisle, was promoted to Lord Admiral, appointed to the Privy Council and made a Knight of the Garter.
Perhaps brazenness was part of his appeal, politically. You knew what you were getting. Contemporaries noted how conveniently timed his illnesses and withdrawals from court could be. Certainly, he was not a man much pricked by conscience: when Anne Askew, like Dudley a protestant, was condemned as a heretic, Dudley was one of her interrogators. “It is a great shame for you to counsel contrary to your knowledge,” she told him, incredulous. She was burned at the stake regardless.
When Henry VIII died in January 1547, Dudley was one of the most powerful men in England. He wasn’t about to stop now. Having supported his erstwhile friend Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and uncle to the king, in becoming Lord Protector during Edward VI’s minority, Dudley led the charge in overthrowing and, later, executing him.
But brazenness has its limits. Whether or not the dying Edward VI was responsible for drafting the ‘device for the crown’ that put his cousin Lady Jane Grey first in line for the throne, Dudley, now Duke of Northumberland, seems to have regarded himself as its enforcer. “Traitor!” he raged against Sir Edward Montague before the Privy Council in June 1553, a few weeks before the king’s death. “In the quarrel of that matter I would fight in my shirt with any man living.” That Montague was an old man of seventy may have made the threat less impressive, but no doubt his fellow councillors got the message well enough. But was it merely Dudley’s good fortune that a few weeks earlier on 21 May 1553, Lady Jane Grey had married Dudley’s eldest available son, Guildford? Surely not.
There is perhaps the suggestion that the higher he climbed, the more his essential solidity of mind escaped him. Mary Tudor, eyeing his overthrow of Seymour, described him as “the most unstable man in England”. He had discovered a gift for turning sometime friends into enemies. Perhaps the game became too subtle for him. Perhaps there was no such thing as friendship. Certainly everything he had built slipped away from him. Dispatched by the Privy Council to fetch Mary from Norfolk after the death of her brother and the declaration of Jane as queen, his power seemed to weaken with every mile he made from London. His fellow councillors betrayed him and declared for Mary; his own troops ebbed away. He was brought back a prisoner and publicly shamed on his entrance to London.
John Dudley died a traitor’s death. Did he, like his father, die for serving his prince all too well? Perhaps. “For my own part, with all earnestness and duty I will serve without fear, seeking nothing but the true glory of God, and his highness’s surety,” he had written to the young William Cecil in the winter of 1552. But, as Paul notes, it is impossible to distinguish between self-service and loyalty to the crown in Dudley’s response to the succession crisis – the point being, I think, that Dudley had created a situation in which the two were synonymous.
Edmund Dudley’s fall put his family in financial peril. John dragged down his sons with him. In the Tower as John died were his sons Ambrose, Guildford, Robert, his namesake John and Harry. Guildford and Lady Jane would follow the father to the executioner’s block. The younger John fell ill and was released to die at home a few days later. One of the strengths of Paul’s book is the emphasis it places on key women in the Dudley family history. Here, it is Jane Dudley, John’s wife, who mobilised support in the circles of female power and patronage in the Privy Chamber of the new queen Mary, and likely did much to save her remaining sons’ lives.
A dynasty’s strength resides in its ability to propagate itself. Unlike the Tudors, John and Jane had no difficulty having children. Keeping them alive was another thing. Jane went through thirteen childbirths; when she died early in 1555, only five of them were still alive, and three of those were under sentence of death in the Tower. Jane, like her late husband a protestant, understood the need for expediency when it was required. Among those Jane sweetened with gifts in her will, written in late 1554, were powerful figures around Philip II of Spain, now Mary’s husband.
Released in January 1555, Robert Dudley and his two surviving brothers would have no qualms courting the support of Philip themselves, to the extent of campaigning in France with him, perhaps thinking of their father’s successes thirty-odd years before. It cost them dear: the youngest of them, Harry, was shot while attempting the capture of Saint-Quentin. He had paused to adjust his hose. As Paul makes clear, the price of ambition was high.
Aside from their military and political reality, sieges and strongholds were useful metaphors in Tudor England; one of Henry VIII’s great tournaments in the 1520s made great play with a theatrical Castle of Loyalty in the tiltyards at Greenwich. The Dudleys laid siege to power in almost every decade of the century. What did power – in the shape of successive princes – demand in return?
If the answer seems obvious for Edmund and John, it is less so for the leading figure in the next generation, Robert. The general outline of his relationship with Elizabeth is well known: he was rumoured to have helped her financially during the reign of her sister, and their names were being linked almost as soon as she came to the throne. As early as April 1559, not six months into her reign, Robert Dudley was said to have access to her chambers day and night. He was, of course, already married. The sudden death of his wife Amy Robsart in September 1560 – alone in the house, she broke her neck falling downstairs – struck everyone as remarkably convenient. “The investigation of a death was a community affair,” Paul writes of Robert’s efforts to exonerate himself through an open and honest inquiry. But what part of the Dudleys’ lives had ever been private?
Robert doesn’t seem to have given up hope of marrying Elizabeth until the 1570s. If a family survived through its children, as any dynast knew, what did he think he was doing pursuing her for nearly twenty years? Was the lure of the crown itself – and the opportunity to redeem the death of his father and his brother, Guildford – too great? Perhaps. “Is there nothing in the world next to [Elizabeth’s] favour that I would not give to be in hope of leaving some children behind me, being now the last of my house,” he wrote to his mistress.
Or was he afraid of Elizabeth’s wrath if he married? That is certainly true; when he eventually married Lettice Knollys in 1578, they contrived to keep it secret for a year. He produced one illegitimate child, and another, with Lettice, who did not live long. What had Elizabeth demanded of him? You might say that he sacrifice the most precious thing he knew: fatherhood, succession, the very life of his family.
One result of the Dudley’s extinction is that they had no control over how they were memorialised. The field was wide open to their enemies and it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that historians began to re-evaluate their careers. Paul tells the Dudley’s story with great verve; it was a particular pleasure to learn more about Jane Dudley and Robert’s sister Mary, who married Henry Sidney and whose position as a confidant to Elizabeth gave her great influence. As the Tudor family history attests, women’s lives were central to sixteenth century English politics. The Dudley women sustained the family no less than the men.
Paul’s narrative style is filmic, cutting quickly from scene to scene and picking out details that bring the moment vividly to life. Here and there transitions jar, but the technique’s benefits far outweigh any occasional discontinuities: the century’s complex, exhausting history is concisely and compellingly told.
The challenges of a dynastic history are different to those of an individual biography, particularly, as here, where the subjects’ inner lives are largely inaccessible. You are left with the politic selves, the performance of power, of marriage, of entertainment, of domesticity even. Paul places particular emphasis on the role of ritual in political life, on ceremonies of marriage and coronation, funeral rites, jousts and other court entertainments, and so on, and pays close attention to the wording of oaths, blessings and prayers – that is, to expressions of belief and commitment that are at once public and private, spiritual and political, formulaic but deeply felt.
The effect, for this reader, is to underscore the indivisibility of the personal and the political for ambitious men and women in the period, which is to say how almost every thing was spectacle, a kind of performance. “The slightest slip seems a fall,” Robert once noted in a rare moment of self-reflection. Even the intimate terrors of childbirth, visited more than once here, remind us that a secure succession was everything, that a newborn child carried all sorts of weights and expectations almost from the moment of conception. “A child of great parentage but far greater hope” ran the epitaph for Robert’s only legitimate child, dead at three. He was named for his grandfather, John.
Such hopes they had, the Dudleys. So much blood and sacrifice. And all for nothing in the end.
This is a much extended version of a review that first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Literary Review.
Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.