At 13 William Parr had been married to the 12-year-old Lady Anne Bourchier, heiress of the Earl of Essex; when the earldom became vacant in 1540, however, Thomas Cromwell secured the title for himself and Parr had to wait until his sister was Queen of England to obtain it. His wife, meanwhile, had eloped with a lover and started a family with him. Parr, who had no children of his own, obtained a formal separation but no divorce, a situation that left him unable to remarry. He hoped to change this after Edward VI’s accession, when a Protestant regime could no longer ignore that a divorce and remarriage of the wronged partner in cases of adultery was biblical and accepted by most reformers. Unfortunately, when Archbishop Cranmer finally decided in his favour, Parr had already married his lover Elizabeth Brooke secretly, and the prim lord protector expelled him from the privy council as well as ordered him to separate permanently from his new wife.
Treated ungenerously by Somerset after their victory over the Norfolk rebellion, it was little wonder that William Parr, Marquess of Northampton and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick joined with other lords in removing their arrogant superior from power. Naturally, both men were among the six new Lords of the Privy Chamber, and Northampton also received the office of Lord Chamberlain from Warwick, while the earl became Great Master of the Household. These positions enabled them to rule the court.
Dudley and Parr continued as good friends and it is revealing of their closeness that Somerset at one point in 1551 contemplated both men’s arrest (as a preliminary to Warwick’s ‟execution“).1 The two of course did not wait for this to happen, and it was Somerset who a few months later was arrested. At his trial the most spectacular accusations again concerned Northumberland and Northampton, as well as the latter’s brother-in-law William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke – the charges were so fanciful, though, that they had to be dropped; but Somerset was still convicted for felony. The problem now was what to do with him, whether to execute him or not. Northumberland repeatedly ‟talked with him a long time“, which made Northampton and Pembroke impatient and angry (William Parr may have wished to see his executed brother-in-law Thomas Seymour avenged, of whom he would allow no-one to speak ill) – the Imperial ambassador concluded that Northumberland ‟is sorely puzzled at present, and does not know how all this is to end.“2
Somerset’s trial and execution reinforced his role as popular hero, while Northumberland’s part became that of the bogey-man. His rule of the country progressed nevertheless; already two years earlier the Imperial ambassador had noticed who was in charge when he described a heated and fruitless discussion with Northampton – and Pembroke, ‟who knows no other language but his native English and can neither read nor write“. At some point the two became ‟more embarassed than before, and finally … said to me that they would communicate the business to Warwick, the Lord Admiral, and would afterwards give me their answer; from which it is clear that the said Warwick has the whip hand of them all, using for his own ends these Marquises and Master Herberts whom no one dares to contradict.“3
Northumberland usually dealt with the minutiae of day-to-day government by briefing William Cecil on council business. At the end of such a routine letter he gives a glimpse into his social life, and we are not surprised to meet William Parr:
My Lord Marquis hath been with me, I thank him; and some good fellows with him: we have been merry. To-morrow he departeth from me by five of the clock in the morning towards my Lord Cobham’s, who, as I understand from them this day, is in no little peril of life. Thus I leave, wishing to you the good that your own gentle heart can desire. At Otford, this last of May, at ten in the night.
In March 1551 parliament had finally passed a private bill which allowed Northampton to legalize his current marriage and at the same time to hold on to most of his first wife’s property and inheritance. Two years later the young king became fatally ill; it has been argued that Northampton ‟bittterly opposed“ the succession of Mary Tudor, as it would jeopardize both his new marriage and his position.5 He was around the king when Edward instructed the lawyers to draw up his will and when he talked Archbishop Cranmer into supporting his scheme, and the marquess and his wife were present to do homage to Queen Jane at Syon House on 9 July 1553. With other noblemen, Northampton accompanied Northumberland into battle against Mary, and he was the only aristocrat outside the Dudley family to be tried for high treason. At Westminster Hall on 18 August 1553,
he sank to his knees and spoke at length in palliation of his offence, saying he had been compelled by orders from the Council of the Lady Jane after her proclamation as Queen, sealed under the great seal of England, to follow the Duke in his undertaking; he could not disobey the orders without danger of committing the self-same crime and offence of which he was now accused for having taken up arms with the Duke against Queen Mary. He was not present when the late King Edward’s will was signed by the Councillors; he signed it after the King’s death. He gave other excuses too, which we could not gather because we did not understand the English language. He wept and implored grace and mercy.6
One of Northampton’s other excuses was that he had been away hunting during Jane’s entire reign.7 Nonetheless, he was convicted with Northumberland, and a few days later returned with him to the old faith in a public ceremony. His performance may not have been in vain for, unlike the duke, he was spared the axe. In his scaffold speech Northumberland insisted that he had not been alone in placing Lady Jane on the throne, and that he was not ‟the only original doer thereof I assure you, for there were several other which procured the same“.8 Was William Parr one of the others?
According to William Cecil, speaking of the marriage between Lady Jane and Lord Guildford, ‟the lady marquis of Northampton was then the greatest doer.“ It was perfectly normal for the wives of peers to engage in match-making, though, and it is possible that even Cecil (who would have known) associated the match with the succession only in hindsight.9 The Duke of Northumberland had been interrogated, of course, and ‟when he was asked if he had promoted the marriage of his son to the said Jane, and why he had done so, he replied that the marriage had been pushed forward by the Earl of Pembroke“, but he also mentioned the Marquess of Northampton and the Duke of Suffolk.10
After Dudley’s death the Imperial ambassadors summarized:
We are informed that the execution of the sentences passed on the rest of the prisoners was delayed in the hope of obtaining a pardon; and that the Marchioness of Exeter, … Dame Clarentius and the … Marquis’ first wife have sued for his pardon. They have told the Queen, in order to move her to pity, that he never ceases weeping.11
Friendship Broken and Renewed: Northampton and Leicester
Old Friends – John Dudley and William Parr
1 Jordan 1970 p. 90; Hoak 1980 p. 48
2 CSP Span 27 December 1551; CSP Span 31 January 1550
3 CSP Span 31 January 1550
4 Tytler 1839 p. 112
5 James 2004
6 CSP Span 27 August 1553
7 Skidmore 2007 p. 285
8 Loades 1996 p. 270
9 Strype 1824 p. 485
10 CSP Span 16 August 1553; CSP Span 4 September 1553
11 CSP Span 4 September 1553
Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 10 – 1550–1552 (ed. Royall Tyler, 1914): http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=972
Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11 – 1553 (ed. by Royall Tyler, 1916): http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=973
Alford, Stephen (2011): Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I. Yale University Press.
Hoak, Dale (1980): ‟Rehabilitating the Duke of Northumberland: Politics and Political Control, 1549–53“. In: Jennifer Loach and Robert Tittler (eds.): The Mid-Tudor Polity c. 1540–1560. Macmillan.
Ives, Eric (2009): Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Wiley-Blackwell.
James, Susan (2004): “Parr, William, marquess of Northampton (1513–1571)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Jordan, W. K. (1970): Edward VI: The Threshold of Power. The Dominance of the Duke of Northumberland. George Allen & Unwin.
Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.
Skidmore, Chris (2007): Edward VI: The Lost King of England. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Strype, John (1824): Annals of the Reformation. Volume IV.
Tytler, P. F. (1839): England under the Reigns of Edward VI. and Mary. Volume II. Richard Bentley.