Mass In The Morning or What Did Northumberland’s Sons Make of His Recantation?

On 21 August 1553, instead of proceeding towards the prepared scaffold outside the Tower of London, a handful of convicted men walked towards the Tower Chapel St. Peter ad Vincula, there to celebrate mass with ‟all the … rites and accidents of old time appertaining“ before an assembly of invited witnesses. The five men were John Dudley Duke of Northumberland, his brother Sir Andrew Dudley, their old comrade-in-arms Sir Thomas Palmer, William Parr Marquess of Northampton, and Sir Henry Gates:

When the time came the prisoners should receive the sacrament, the duke turned himself to the people and said, first, these words, or such like, ‘My masters, I let you all to understand that I do most faithfully believe this is the very right and true way, out of the which true religion you and I have been seduced these 16 years past, by the false and erroneous preaching of the new preachers, the which is the only cause of the great plagues and vengeance which hath light upon the whole realm of England, and now likewise worthily fallen upon me and others here present for our unfaithfulness. And I do believe the holy sacrament here most assuredly to be our Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ; and this I pray you all to testify, and pray for me.’ After which words he kneeled down and asked all men forgiveness, and likewise forgave all men.1

The scathing comments of his daughter-in-law Jane on the duke’s return to ‟popery“ are well-known (and have been gleefully quoted countless times). What would have been the thoughts of his five sons who from their prison would have been able to watch the small company go to mass?

The eldest, John, a young man of 22 who had been convicted alongside his father, went to mass on the next morning. In the Chronicle of Queen Jane, which was written by an unidentified Tower resident and probable eyewitness,the young Earl of Warwick and Sir John Gates make their appearance as condemned men to receive the sacrament for the last time.2 At the occasion the officiating priest told them that they not only had to accept the host as Christ’s true body of flesh and blood, but that they had also to repent their former heretic ways sincerely. He then continued:

I would ye should not be ignorant of God’s mercy, which is infinite; and let not death fear you, for it is but a little while, to wit, ended in one half-hour. What shall I say? I trust to God it shall be to you a short passage (though somewhat sharp), out of innumerable miseries into a most pleasant rest; which God grant.

The mass finished, ‟the Earl of Warwick was led to his lodging, and Sir John Gates to the lieutenant’s house“. Sir John was the elder brother of the Henry Gates who had received the sacrament the previous day, and was actually executed with the Duke of Northumberland within the next hour, while the young Earl of Warwick was spared. Was Warwick aware that he had been pardoned before hearing mass? Why were John Gates and the young Warwick not present at the much more public ceremony the day before?

John Gates was an ardent Protestant who may have played a key role in placing Lady Jane Grey on the throne. The younger John Dudley, inclined to learning and the sciences, like his brothers was raised in a climate of reformist views, and one of the books in his remarkable small library was ‟a tragedie in english of the unjust supremacie of the bushope of Rome“. Perhaps both these men had needed a day longer to convince themselves to recant their Protestant beliefs.

In many narratives one can read that Warwick accompanied his father to mass before the latter’s execution, and that the two men took leave of each other with an embrace.3 Alas, from the above eyewitness account it is clear that Northumberland and Sir Thomas Palmer, the third man to be executed, ‟came forth“ only well after the young earl was back in his lodging, the Beauchamp Tower, again (it is also clear from that account that Northumberland and Palmer did not hear mass on that morning).

The misconception of a farewell between the duke and his son (or sons) is probably due to a fanciful late Victorian writer, Richard Davey, who claimed in a widely used book on Lady Jane Grey to have seen a manuscript in the ‟Brussels Archives, entitled, Les evenements en Angleterre, 1553-4“. According to this the Duke of Northumberland was allowed to take leave of his son Guildford, ‟whom he pressed again and again to his breast, sighing and weeping a deluge of tears, as he kissed him for the last time.“4 No-one except Davey seems ever to have come across this manuscript, which would not be surprising since author Leanda de Lisle has recently unmasked him as an habitual swindler and creator of ‟documents“.

It is thus unlikely that Northumberland had opportunity to meet his sons during his captivity. Perhaps not quite accurately, some historians have stressed that none of his children followed the duke in publicly recanting the Protestant faith in 1553;5 his widow certainly did not, although she remembered her husband with much love and seems to have understood his predicament and his decision without grudge. She even asked the Marian government in June 1554 to permit her sons to hear mass while in the Tower. Guildford was already dead by then, having declined the services of a priest at his execution – unlike his wife Jane he was not an object of official attempts to save his soul, however.

Lacking specific evidence, it is assumed that after their release the surviving brothers Ambrose, Robert, and Henry conformed to the official worship under Mary I. Robert, however, was certainly known as a hopeless ‟heretic“ to Spanish agents towards the end of her reign. After Elizabeth’s accession he was nevertheless prepared to help a number of Mary’s former servants, like her trusted lady Susan Clarencius and her now disgraced privy councillor Sir Thomas Cornwallis.6 Most intriguingly, he also seems to have sought the friendship of Bishop Nicholas Heath, who had heard his father’s last confession and had been with the duke on the scaffold. In early 1561 Lord Robert asserted to Philip II’s ambassador de Quadra that he was a ‟great friend of the archbishop of York, who is in prison“.7 Since Heath (who had refused to accept Elizabeth’s Act of Supremacy) was treated much better than other Marian bishops,8 Robert Dudley’s statement may have meant more than just cynical politics. Perhaps he really needed to know more about his father’s last hours.

1 Chronicle of Queen Jane pp. 18 – 19
2 Chronicle of Queen Jane pp. 19 – 20
3 Chapman 1962 p. 169
4 Davey 1909 p. 307
5 Loades 2004; Adams 2004
6 Porter 2007 p. 412; Wilson 1981 pp. 99 – 100
7 CSP Span I p. 197; Rodriguez-Salgado and Adams 1984 p. 339
8 Rodriguez-Salgado and Adams 1984 p. 339

Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. Volume I. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899). HMSO.

The Chronicle of Queen Jane. (ed. J. G. Nichols, 1850). Camden Society.

Adams, Simon (2004): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Chapman, Hester (1962): Lady Jane Grey. Jonathan Cape.

Davey, Richard (1909): The Nine Days’ Queen: Lady Jane Grey and Her Times. Methuen & Co.

de Lisle, Leanda (2008): The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey. A Tudor Tragedy. Ballantine Books.

Loades, David (2004): ‟Dudley, John, duke of Northumberland (1504–1553)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Porter, Linda (2007): The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary”. St. Martin’s Press.

Rodriguez-Salgado, M. J. and Adams, Simon (1984): ‟The Count of Feria’s Dispatch to Philip II of 14 November 1558“. Camden Miscellany. Volume XXVIII. Royal Historical Society.

Sil, N.P. (2001): Tudor Placemen and Statesmen: Select Case Histories. Rosemont Publishing.

Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at
This entry was posted in 1553, errors & myths, family & marriage, Jane Dudley, John Dudley, religion, Robert Dudley, sources & historians and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mass In The Morning or What Did Northumberland’s Sons Make of His Recantation?

  1. Great post! I wonder too if young Warwick had been scheduled for execution and received a last-minute reprieve.

  2. Linda says:

    We cannot judge John Dudley. None of us has stood on a scaffold, with our precious sons next in line (perhaps) for the headsman’s axe. Only God knows his reasons for his recantation: did he truly believe what he said? We will never know. To paraphrase Queen Elizabeth I, “There is only one Jesus Christ, the rest is trifles.”

  3. It was interesting in the case of Sir Thomas Palmer because although he appears to have gone to mass he actually stipulated on the scaffold that he died a Protestant

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