The Execution of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland and Earl of Warwick

Posted By claire on August 22, 2010

On this day in history, the 22nd August 1553, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland and Earl of Warwick, was executed after being found guilty of treason for his part in the plot which had seen Edward VI appoint Lady Jane Grey as his heir and deny his half sister Mary’s right to the succession. The plot backfired when Mary rallied support, Jane’s forces mutinied and key member of Jane’s council swapped sides. On the 19th July, just 13 days after Edward VI’s death, Mary I was proclaimed queen and Lady Jane Grey’s short reign was brought to an end. The “usurper” and those who had supported her were imprisoned in the Tower to await trial for high treason.

On the 18th August 1553, John Dudley was found guilty of treason and condemned to death. His execution was due to take place on the 21st August on Tower Hill but the waiting crowd were to be disappointed. Instead of being led to the scaffold, Dudley was escorted to the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula where he, the man who had done so much to further the cause of Protestantism during the reign of Edward VI, recanted his Protestant beliefs and converted to Catholicism. At mass, Dudley addressed the congregation, saying:-

“My masters, I let you all to understand that I do most faithfully believe this is the very right and true way, out of which true religion you and I have been seduced these sixteen years passed, by the false and erroneous preaching of the new preachers.”1

Dudley was to be sadly disappointed if he thought that this speech and his return to the Catholic fold would save him. He even wrote a desperate letter to the Earl of Arundel, begging him to intercede with the Queen on his behalf, but Mary did not spare him. At 9am on the morning of the 22nd August, Dudley was taken to mass and then back to his lodging to await the hour of his execution. He was then escorted to the scaffold where he addressed the huge crowd which had gathered, confessing his guilt and begging forgiveness but adding:-

“And yet this act wherefore I die, was not altogether of me (as it is thought) but I was procured and induced thereunto by other[s]. I was I say induced thereunto by other[s], howbeit, God forbid that I should name any man unto you, I will name no man unto you, and therefore I beseech you look not for it. … And one thing more good people I have to say unto you … and that is to warn you and exhort you to beware of these seditious preachers, and teachers of new doctrine, which pretend to preach God’s word, but in very deed they preach their own fancies, … they know not today what they would have tomorrow, … they open the book, but they cannot shut it again. … I could good people rehearse much more … but you know I have another thing to do, whereunto I must prepare me, for the time draweth away.”2

Linda Porter writes of how an eye witness report suggests that Dudley “held out hope of reprieve right till the last moments”3:-

“And as the bandage [blindfolding his eyes] was not well fitted when he was about to stretch himself upon the beam, he rose again upon his knees, and surely figured to himself the terrible dreadfulness of death. At the moment when he stretched himself out, as one who constrained himself and willed to consent patiently, without saying anything, in the act of laying himself out… he smote his hands together, as one who should say, this must be…”4

John Dudley’s life was taken by one blow of the axeman’s axe.

“So passed from this world one of the most enigmatic men of Tudor England. A competent rather than brilliant soldier but a politician of great skill and resolution, he was undone by one supreme error of judgement.”5

Guildford Dudley, the son he had married off to LadyJane Grey, followed him to the scaffold on the 12th February 1554, but the rest of his family were spared the axe. His son Ambrose became Elizabeth I’s Master of the Ordnance in 1558, was created Earl of Warwick in 1561 and from served as a privy councillor. Dudley’s younger son, Robert, Earl of Leicester, was Elizabeth I’s favourite and her “sweet Robin” and her “Eyes”. He held many offices during Elizabeth’s reign but died in September 1588, shortly after England’s victory over the Spanish Armada. John Dudley would have been happy that neither of his sons suffered for their support of his activities in 1553 but, instead, went on to become key figures in Elizabeth I’s government.

Notes and Sources

  1. The Sisters Who Would Be Queen, p118 of US Hardback Edition and p130 of UK hardback edition
  2. Wkipedia page on John Dudley, citing Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553 Clarendon Press, p270 and Jordan, W.K. and M.R. Gleason (1975): The Saying of John Late Duke of Northumberland Upon the Scaffold, 1553 Harvard Library pp45-47
  3. Mary Tudor:The First Queen, Linda Porter, p223
  4. Ibid., p223 citing Guaras, The Accession of Queen Mary, p109
  5. Ibid., p223


12 Responses to “The Execution of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland and Earl of Warwick”

  1. Anne Barnhill says:

    I don’t know why but I like John Dudley. In The Uncrowned Kings of England by Derek Wilson, John Dudley really was trying to do as Edward Vi asked in ursurping Mary’s crown and giving it to Lady Jane Grey. That particular book revisits the Dudley men and makes a good case that they were all loyal and true servants of their king/queen. Any man who can create a strong family and such virtuous men as Robert must have had osmething going for him. Anyway, I do like him!

  2. miladyblue says:

    I wonder, if Mary had spared him, if he would have gone on and served in Elizabeth I’s government, or if Elizabeth might have had to have him imprisoned, because he was a tricky fellow.

    Was he any relation to the minister named Dudley, whom Henry VIII executed at the beginning of his reign?

  3. Claire says:

    Yes, his father was Edmund Dudley, a man who had been prominent during Henry VII’s reign and one of the men Henry VIII wanted rid of when he came to the throne. This is what Edmund Dudley’s wikipedia page says:-

    “When Henry VII died in April 1509, Dudley was imprisoned and charged with the crime of constructive treason. Dudley’s nominal crime was that during the last illness of Henry VII he had ordered his friends to assemble in arms in case the king died, but the real reason for his charge was doubtless his unpopularity stemming from his position in the Council Learned. He was attainted and after having made a futile attempt to escape from prison, Dudley was executed on the 17th or 18th of August 1510.”

    Robert Dudley had a bit of a bad reputation because his brother, father and grandfather had all been executed as traitors to the crown.

  4. Carol says:

    I also like John Dudley. I feel that he has often been blamed most unfairly for the events that followed Edward’s death. He was carrying out the wishes of the monach, which I think he believed was the correct course of action. I too have read Derek Wilson’s book Uncrowned Kings of England. He makes a very good case for the loyalty and support of this remarkable family to The Tudor Dynasty.


  5. Michelle Mader says:

    I would argue the point Ms. Barnhill makes of the Dudley having been true to their rulers. Is that why they were branded as traitors? Generationally? My impression of John Dudley is that of a not-too-bright Machiavellian manipulator, who used his son and the Lady Jane Grey to usurp Mary’s throne, thereby gaining power and riches for himself, justifying his actions with religious platitudes. Besides the fact that the men in his family had a strange way of ending up beheaded as traitors, Dudley was well aware that forcing Lady Jane to accept the crown would doom her as well as his own son, Guildford if things went south. It’s horrifying to think of how selfish parents were…how willing they were to give up their children to further their own ends. Obviously, marriage was a political game for anyone close to the court, as it had been for hundreds of years. However, John Dudley threw his son to the lions, and plotted with Lady Jane’s parents to throw her in as well. This went beyond political machinations. Parents gambled on gaining control of the throne with their children as the poker chips! Not only could the marriage end up being a 40 yr distasteful arrangement for Jane and Guildford, but if the fathers’ plan came apart, oh, well, too bad…the child you have raised for the last 17 years will walk up the scaffold to be beheaded. Oops. Further, after Mary claimed her throne and the newlyweds were in The Tower, the fathers fomented unrest and rebellion with the aim of getting Jane back on the throne. Helloooo? I’m not sure how “brilliant” John Dudley really was. Even the simplest of people would know when to leave well enough alone. Mary was willing to forgive Jane…but the parents of Jane and Guildford ensured Mary would have to deal with rebellion as long as these young people were alive. Good job, there, John.

  6. Carol says:

    II would disagree with Michelle Mader, although, of course, respect her point of view.
    The fact that members of the family were branded traitors does not, in my opinion mean that they were in fact traitors. A lot of trials were just show trials quite often at that time of day. In other words the verdict had already been decided upon in advance.

    John Dudley was in fact a man of considerable ability. He was a first class Lord Admiral and King Henry had thought highly of him. Eric Ives has said of him in his book Lady Jane A Tudor Mystery and I quote “If it had not been for the final debacle, his name would now be remembered alongside Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell and William Cecil”. He also goes on to say that “Northumberland was many things, but traitor he was not”.

    He also states that the trial reeked of hypocrisy for almost all of the jury had sworn allegience to Jane Grey, so in which case they were just as guilty as John Dudley.

  7. Christine says:

    I am sorry but “John” was dead for half a year when Jane’s father supported Wyatt’s rebellion (which was not in support of Jane, as Mary’s government claimed in order to send Jane and Guildford to the scaffold). Suffolk was not even charged with treason in August 1553, as weren’t so many others: The Earl of Huntington (who was in the field with Northumberland); William Cecil (most trusted secretary of Northumberland), Sir Henry Sidney (son-in-law and intimus of both John Dudley and King Edward), and so on. William Parr, Marquess of Northampton and brother to Catherine Parr was at least convicted but could walk free after two months in jail, though he was one of the closest “conspirators”. In contrast all five sons of John Dudley plus one brother (who was on a diplomatic mission abroad when Edward died) were condemned to death. The youngest son was killed as we know. The eldest son died from the effects of prison as historians keep telling us (though without specific evidence); the second youngest was killed by a cannonshot when fighting for Philip of Spain, paying back the sons’ due for their release from the Tower in late 1554. All this is customarily called mercy; selective mercy is the same as injustice, however. It’s certainly not justice.

    As regards the “plot” to deprive Edward’s half-sisters of the Crown, most specialists of the period (including all biographers of Edward since 1970) agree that it this was Edward’s very own initative. So Edward was presumably the only King of England to engage in plots. Even Henry VI of England ruled personally from before he was sixteen, why should a Tudor king be unable to do so: because his successor would not even allow him a personal belief of his own; surely he would have turned a Catholic exactly on his eighteenth birthday (this is how David Loades very convincingly describes Mary’s view to her brother) .

    A very important fact is that copies of Edward’s handwritten “devise” came to the attention of historians only in the 18th century and, not fitting into the preconceived picture, were sometimes suspected to be forgeries. As late as 1950 Prof. Bindoff tried to argue that this was so. This was so embarrassing that it is never mentioned these days.

    Thank you Claire for the Guaras quotation. However, what in it is indicative of Dudley waiting for a last minute reprieve I cannot see from the quote. This is another typical example of how biographers create bias.

  8. Claire says:

    I think that the Guaras quotation was suggesting that Dudley got up again, expecting that his execution would be halted. We know that he wrote to the Earl of Arundel asking him to intercede with the Queen on his behalf and the Queen did not answer so I think he would have been hoping until the last that Mary would be merciful and pardon him, particularly as he had recanted his Protestant beliefs and returned to the Catholic Church.

    I agree with you about Edward. He may well have been influenced by those around him but he was responsible for his “devise”. His devise was just as legal as Henry VIII’s will which returned his daughters to the succession.

    I also, like Christine, have to disagree with Michelle on the point “Further, after Mary claimed her throne and the newlyweds were in The Tower, the fathers fomented unrest and rebellion with the aim of getting Jane back on the throne.” John Dudley was executed just a month after Mary had seized the throne and Wyatt’s Rebellion did not take place until the beginning of 1554. Henry Grey, Jane’s father, was involved, but John Dudley was dead. The uprising aimed at putting Elizabeth on the throne and did not involve Lady Jane Grey.

    Yes, I agree, it was a show trial. Leanda de Lisle writes of how Dudley observed at his trial that several of the judges present had also signed the oath backing Edward VI’s will and that “he had done nothing without their authority and by warrant of Queen Jane under the Great Seal.” Those judging him shared his guilt.

    I don’t think that Dudley had any idea that Jane and Guildford would be doomed. Edward VI had named Lady Jane Grey as his lawful successor and she had the support of the Privy Council. How was he to know that the Catholic Mary would be successful in rallying support and seizing the throne? He did not purposely throw them to the lions. Also, as far as using your children as poker chips, that was what Tudor children were for. They were political pawns and arranged marriages for wealth and status were the norm.

  9. Far from throwing his children to the lions, Northumberland specifically pleaded after he was condemned to death that Mary be merciful to his children: he asked “that her majestie wilbe gratyous to my chilllder, which may hereafter do hir grace gode service, concydering that they went by my commaundment who am their father, and not of thier owne free willes.” (Chronicle of Queen Jane, edited by John Gough Nichols, p. 17). I suspect that one of the reasons for his last-minute religious conversion was that he hoped it would soften Mary toward his children.

    Northumberland’s widow, Jane, outlived her husband by just about 18 months, but she devoted those months to trying to get her sons freed from prison.

  10. lisaannejane says:

    i think Edward and his advisors were out of sync with the rest of the country and made too many changes to religion far too quickly. Edward was only around for six years so the memory of Henry probably overshadowed the country and I think most people were still thinking of religious practices as how Henry left them. I thought Cramner would have had more common sense and would have realized that just because he and the King were ready to make more religious changes, the rest of the country probably needed extra time. When Edward died, people were expecting Henry’s will to be put in place because Henry’s memory and rule overshadowed that of his son’s. Mary had both Catholic and Protestant supporters probably because people were not expecting Henry’s will to be replaced and Edward did not have the time to be seen as the real king. I don’t think any of Edward’s advisors wanted to face reality and deal with how people perceived the changes made and how they felt about it. I can’t really sympathize with Dudley and even Cramner. They played a political game and lost. Some of Jane’s supporters got lucky and lived while some didn’t, like Dudley. Sounds like typical Tudor politics.

  11. Emma says:

    Dudley was trying to gain power for himself when he married his son to Jane Grey. He tried to convince her to make his son, Guildford, the king, but she refused. He had not expected her to refuse. She had not even wanted to be queen.
    His ultimate goal in life was to get more power. Even before his execution, he claimed that the had converted to Catholicism (undoubtedly, he was expecting to be pardoned by Queen Mary). He tried to undermine the Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector Edward Seymour, to become Lord Protector himself. (I can’t say that Seymour was much better off… he made himself Lord Protector.)
    I have realized that in this story, there is no “good guy” or “bad guy.” Everyone was simply living for himself. Queen Mary did wrong in killing Dudley, for sure, but Dudley had done wrong himself.

  12. Jill says:

    I have so enjoyed reading everyones intellegent thoughts on this subject. I too have mine but they are not so lofty and informed. I agree that all the children were pawns. Queen Mary was a religious extremist as was her mother. It was the way many women and men were raised back then. She, like many religious fanatics even today feel they must save us from ourselves and banish the none believers. She certainly earned her title of Bloody Mary, as do the terrorist extremists of today.

    It was good that Elizebeth became queen. She changed the dynamics of the times where men held all the power and woman were mere pawns. I also see how the events with Tom Seymour taught her an early and very strong lesson. She understood that she, in her position, could not give her power to a man or all would be lost. Sad though that she never could enjoy that kind of relationship for fear of being used. I do not envy any woman of those times.

    The Dudley men, the Seymour men, and others, were power hungry. Even though many wish to defend them, it seems they were doing much to further their own cause. Poor Edward. I have no evidence to enforce my opinion that Edward was done in. It just feels that way to me. How badly his father wanted a son, yet when he had one he didn’t take the time to make him powerful by being involved in his upbringing. It may have made all the difference…. ah, but what of history?

    And as a final comment, I find it so interesting as to how lewid the times were. The more I read the more it creeps me out how unsafe were the times for all concerned from the lowest peasant to royalty.

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