John Dudley

  • 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

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