The Melancholy Duke

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland was no stranger to melancholy, the malady of princes. “Highest aucthoritie”1 took its toll on his health, which seems to have taken a turn downward from the early years of Edward VI’s reign. Dudley had been a “dashing commander at sea”2 and a fearless3 soldier of great strength: On one occasion during the Pinkie Campaign in 1547 he fought his way out of an ambush and, spear in hand, chased his Scottish counterpart for some 250 yards, nearly running him through. On the same campaign, when the Duke of Somerset, on grounds of his own superior rank, declined the Earl of Huntly’s challenge to decide the war by personal combat, Dudley immediately stepped in, offering himself for a duel in Somerset’s place – “but my Lord’s Grace would in no wise grant to it”.4

Civilian life being less attractive than martial exploits, Dudley’s absences from court and council became extended. He kept his chamber for weeks on end and received visitors in bed, being, for example, “troubled with a rheum in the head”, as Richard Scudamore observed in November 1549.5 Some complaints were real enough and have been diagnosed as a stomach ailment, possibly an ulcer. Doctors tried to stop his “inward bleeding”, and to “restore corrupted blood” as well as “the bloody flux from the lungs”.6 A French diplomat and eyewitness summarized in 1553 that the duke had suffered from instances of severe pain, and that one of his arms had been rendered useless, probably by an injury.7

From the later 1540s John Dudley suffered from repeated attacks of illness and melancholy.

Whatever the causes, his ill-health never prevented him from doing serious business and from attention to detail. And so some historians – by no means all – have suspected that John Dudley may have been a victim to hypochondria. In October 1552 the “falling of the uvula” troubled him so much that he was “forced to keep my chamber for it is now a fortnight since it began to fall and continueth worse and worse so that I can scarcely eat any meat for it”.8 By December and January he was obsessed with “cure and medicine”, suffering from what may have been a heavy cold: “my health daily worsens, neither close keeping, furs nor clothing can bring any natural heat to my head and I have no hope of recovery.” – “I fear to be sick as I burn hot as fire; so did I yesterday … having great pain in the nether part of my belly. But feeling no such grief now, the heat is nevertheless fervently upon me.”9

Thus in the autumn and winter of 1552/1553 the Duke of Northumberland experienced a long time of recurring illness and melancholy, as is evident from his frequent letters to Secretary Cecil, who had won his complete trust. The duke keenly felt his unpopularity. Radical reformers who owed him their positions were preaching about covetous men in high places instead of collaborating in the reorganization of the church for the crown’s benefit. John Knox, whom he had picked up in Newcastle and made a court preacher (and in vain had offered a bishopric), had even questioned the duke’s own faith, to his very face: “he cannot tell whether I am a dissembler in religion or not”. King Edward, though, wholeheartedly supported “these new obstinate doctors”.10

In these circumstances Edmund Dudley came to mind; even though it had not been safe to name any of his grandsons after him, he was unforgotten:

my poor father, who, after his master was gone, suffered death for doing his master’s commandments, who was the wisest prince of the world living in those days, and yet could not his commandment be my father’s [dis]charge after he was departed this life; so, for my part, with all earnestness and duty I will serve without fear, seeking nothing but the true glory of God and his Highness’ surety: so shall I most please God and have my conscience upright, and then not fear what man doth to me.

So, in the early days of 1553 the duke’s mood was not as cheerful as the season required. Feeling misunderstood, he made some valid general points:

Forasmuch as it seemeth to me, yesterday, by your friendly persuasions for my coming to the court, that the same, with some others my friends, either did not thoroughly understand mine estate, or might judge in me some great negligence for being so long absent, I have thought good with these further to declare unto you, that whosoever do think that for any respect I do now withdraw or absent myself from the King’s affairs, saving for lack of sufficient health, he judgeth me wrong.

Albeit, I must needs think that if all things were considered in me, as I am able to declare by myself, and easy enough to be judged of others, mine absence might be the better borne; but this moveth me to remember the Italian proverb, which, though it become me not to say of myself, yet the saying is true, that of a faithful servant shall become a perpetual ass. So, though I were able to bear the burden, I trust my Lords do not mind so to use me once, if my body were as healthful as any man’s. I assure you, both for the King’s honour and my poor estimation, it is high time for me to seek away to live of that which God and his Highness hath sent me; and to keep the multitude of cravers from his court, that hangeth now daily at my gate for money, so long have I passed forth this matter in silence and credit, that shame almost compelleth me to hide me. What comfort think you may I have, that seeth myself in this case after my long travail and troublesome life, and towards the end of my days?

And yet, so long as health would give me leave, I did as seldom fail mine attendance as any others did; yea, and with such health as, when others went to their sups and pastimes after their travail, I went to bed with a careful heart and a weary body; and yet abroad no man scarcely had any good opinion of me. And now, by extreme sickness and otherwise constrained to seek some health and quietness, I am not without a new evil imagination of men. What should I wish any longer this life, that seeth such frailty in it? Surely, but for a few children which God hath sent me, which also helpeth to pluck me on my knees, I have no great cause to desire to tarry much longer here. And thus, to satisfy you and others whom I take for my friends, I have entered into the bottom of my care, which I cannot do without sorrow:

but if God would be so merciful to mankind as to take from them their wicked imaginations, and leave them with a simple judgment, men should here live angels’ lives; which may not be, for the fall of Adam our forefather procured this continual plague, that the one should be affliction to the other while we be in this circle, out of which God grant us all his grace to depart in his mercy. And so I leave, wishing the good unto you that your own self can desire.

At Chelsey, the 3rd of January 1552 [1553].
Your assured loving friend,

To my very loving friend,
Sir Wm. Cycill, Knight

1 Alford 2002 p. 12
2 Loades 1996 p. 85
3 Hoak 2004
4 Loades 1996 p. 100
5 Ives 2009 p. 125
6 Skidmore 2007 pp. 236 – 237
7 Ives 2009 pp. 311, 125
8 Skidmore 2007 p. 236
9 Ives 2009 pp. 124 – 125
10 Tytler 1839 pp. 148, 153


Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Edward VI, 1547–1553. Revised Edition. (ed. C. S. Knighton, 1992). HMSO.

Alford, Stephen (2002): Kingship and Politics in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge 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.

Hoak, Dale (2004): “Edward VI (1537–1553)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Ives, Eric (2009): Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Wiley-Blackwell.

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.

Tytler, P. F. (1839): England under the Reigns of Edward VI. and Mary. Volume II. Richard Bentley.

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
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