Ambrose, Robert Dudley’s elder brother, may have been married to secret royal blood, we learn in a new book, Bessie Blount, by Elizabeth Norton. In recent years it has become fashionable to enlarge Henry VIII’s family of illegitimate children, Elizabeth Tailboys, daughter of Bessie Blount, being the most recent addition. Unlike her brother (or half-brother), the Duke of Richmond, Elizabeth was never officially recognized as Henry’s child, which is why her maiden name was that of the man her mother married when the affair with the king was over. In legal terms (at least) this man was also her father. And perhaps this is everything worth saying about the matter.
However, egalitarian and democratic societies seem to be endlessly fascinated by anything to do with royalty; therefore both readers and writers of popular biographies tend very much to emphasize the political significance of royal descent, whether legitimate, illegitimate, or secret. In the natural absence of positive evidence for the last, a conspiracy of silence among contemporaries is assumed and circumstantial evidence is looked for. But did it really matter to be a king’s bastard, let alone a secret one? Was every marriage with a royal cousin a conspiracy to gain the crown? Were not more ordinary prospects of enrichment, ties of kinship, friendship, and religion as important?
There can be no doubt about the dynastic paranoia among Tudor monarchs and their servants. For example, the Duke of Northumberland – nearly 70 years after the Battle of Bosworth – found that the Countess of Sussex, being imprisoned for witchcraft, should “be somewhat better tried and searched; the rather for that she is charged to have spoken and said that one of King Edward’s sons should be yet living” – King Edward’s sons meaning of course the Princes in the Tower.1 This letter was written on 30 May 1552, a few days after the death of Ambrose Dudley’s first wife; his father’s mind therefore was surely already engaged in finding him a new one. Northumberland’s choice fell on Elizabeth Tailboys.
This, according to Elizabeth Norton, points to Elizabeth Tailboys’ “royal background”;2 while she and Ambrose Dudley were relatives on their mothers’ side, “it is unlikely that this was sufficient in itself to recommend Elizabeth to such a prestigious husband; although reasonably wealthy, she was no match for her powerful and prominent cousin.”3 It is true that, as Norton says, Ambrose was “the future Earl of Warwick”. However, before October 1554 he was only the second son of the family, his brother John Dudley, Earl of Warwick being very much alive. For the spare rather than the heir, Elizabeth Tailboys, a baroness in her own right with landed possessions in Lincolnshire, was certainly a good catch.
Whether she was also a good match is another question, for she was a good decade older than her husband. They had no children, but she underwent a phantom pregnancy in 1555 after he had been released from the Tower with her help. Her petition to King Philip, received favourably, is again interpreted as a sign of her royal parentage and her “unusual level of royal access”.4 However, this ignores that the rest of the Dudley brothers had already gone free a few weeks earlier – their mother and their brother-in-law Sir Henry Sidney having lobbied the Spanish nobles around Philip, including in Spain itself, for about a year.5 Ambrose presumably was kept longer in prison because his eldest brother was dying and he became the family heir on the latter’s death.6 The last captive member of the Dudley family, Sir Andrew (Ambrose’s uncle), was released in January 1555 without any special intervention. Philip and Mary had clearly decided to close this chapter. Meanwhile, only weeks after Elizabeth Tailboys’ letter (which survives because it was written by Roger Ascham at her behest, petitions from other people may not have survived), Philip of Spain agreed to be godfather to the baby Philip Sidney, alongside the widow of “th’arche traitor”7 Northumberland. If “King Philip took a personal interest”8 in anyone of the Dudley family circle it was Sir Henry Sidney.
Elizabeth Tailboys and her husband received back their confiscated lands in 1555, but Ambrose’s participation in Philip’s campaigns left the couple deeply in debt. The accession of Queen Elizabeth dramatically changed the Dudley family’s prospects. Unlike Robert, Mary, and Ambrose, though, Elizabeth Tailboys seems not to have enjoyed her possible half-sister’s special favour, on the contrary, she was reminded to fully pay her taxes.9 She was evidently devoted to her husband and asked her brother-in-law for help in organizing his duties at court, a place Ambrose abhorred; he preferred to live in Lincolnshire on his wife’s estates, yet by April 1560 he had apparently thrown her out of the house. Unhappy, Lady Tailboys once again turned to Robert Dudley, asking him to help towards a reconciliation.10 If Elizabeth Tailboys was indeed Henry VIII’s daughter – and her husband knew about it – he was not impressed.
According to Elizabeth Norton, Robert Dudley may have been more appreciative. When finally wedding his old flame Lettice Knollys he was marrying “into the Carey family”, it is implied to profit from Elizabeth’s fondness for them (because they were not just her cousins on her mother’s side but Henry VIII’s secret children also).11 Now, as he knew very well, from the queen’s viewpoint he could not commit a greater sin than marry, and he paid the price. If he had wanted to advance himself through marriage he anyway did not need Henry VIII’s secret illegitimate grandchildren: French, German, Dutch princesses, yeah, Mary Queen of Scots herself had been on offer, and for once at Elizabeth’s suggestion; for over a year Robert Dudley resisted considerable pressure to woo her.
It is intriguing that just at the same time that Northumberland must have been considering his son Ambrose’s options for a second marriage, he was also engaged in matching his son Guildford with the daughter of the Earl of Cumberland. Margaret Clifford was a grandniece of Henry VIII and in the royal succession, behind the three Grey sisters, Jane, Katherine, and Mary. Edward VI ostensibly wished the union, as appears from letters of 4 July 1552;12 in January 1553 Cumberland appointed commissioners to negotiate a marriage settlement, whose articles survive.13 In contrast to Ambrose’s marriage with a supposed daughter of Henry VIII this marriage proposal did elicit cynical comments, from a servant of the executed Duke of Somerset, Elizabeth Huggones:
She tould also the night before at supper for newse that my lord Guilford Dudleye should marrye my lorde of Cumberlandes daughter, and that the Kinges majestie should devise the marriage. ‘Have at the Crowne with your leave’, she said with a stoute gesture.
Of course she later retracted her words:
And, moreover, she beinge examined of the laste article, concerninge the marriage of the lord Guilforde Dudleye with the earle of Cumberland’s daughter, she deposeth that she hearde it spoken in London (but by whome she now remembreth not) that the Kinges majestie had made such a marriage; and so she tould the first night she came to Eocheford at supper, showinge herselfe to be glad thereof. And so she thought that all her hearers were also glad at that marriage. But as concerninge these wordes, ‘Have at the Crowne with your leave’, she utterly denieth to have spoken them, or any other like; and deposeth that she never spake nor thought any such matter, nor meant evell of any man, by any of her aforesaid wordes.14
If Northumberland was so keen to marry his sons into royalty, why did he not suggest Ambrose as a husband for Lady Margaret? True, Ambrose would have been some seven years older than Margaret, while Guildford was almost her age; but Ambrose’s brother John, Earl of Warwick at 19 had also married the Duke of Somerset’s daughter, who was between five and seven years his junior. The fact remains that Northumberland pursued the “royal” match with Margaret Clifford for his second youngest son at a time he was seeking a new bride for his second eldest.
Elizabeth Huggones’ opinion notwithstanding, the duke’s principal aim in all likelihood was an alliance with one of the great noble houses of England’s North. During the royal minority he needed to stabilize his regime by building a united front among the ruling classes.15 A similar aim lay at the root of the matrimonial alliance between Northumberland’s youngest daughter Katherine and Lord Hastings, the heir of the Earl of Huntingdon. It is often claimed that the duke once more had no other purpose in mind than to marry into the royal house (this time into the Plantagenets), for “Huntingdon had never been close to Northumberland”, in the words of Leanda de Lisle.16 The last statement could not be further from the truth, for Huntingdon had been an ally of the duke for years,17 and letters and inventories demonstrate: Huntingdon and his teenage son Hastings were regular house guests of the Dudleys and as early as 1550 the younger John Dudley moved in the earl’s household, playing cards or dice with him and giving his servants presents.18
Yet it is more attractive to claim that John Dudley was an “outsider”, desperately wanting “to marry into the royal family”, for example “the Grey family”.19 In this scenario even his youngest son Henry’s match to Margaret Audley at some unknown date is subsumed under a category of supposedly six conspirational May marriages of 1553, for was not Margaret a niece of Lady Jane Grey’s father, the Duke of Suffolk? Yes, she was, but she was also a rich heiress and she had as little royal blood as her uncle; furthermore, Northumberland, on his mother’s side, was himself a Grey, a second cousin once removed of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. This detail is not once mentioned by de Lisle in a book otherwise obsessed with kinship as a key factor.
What should not be overlooked is that Ambrose Dudley’s and Elizabeth Tailboys’ wedding day is as unknown as is Henry Dudley’s and Margaret Audley’s; the one thing reasonably certain is that the couples would have married at some point before the death of Edward VI on 6 July 1553. Because it was Guildford Dudley who married Jane Grey on 25 May 1553, and because this match has traditionally been interpreted as a bid for the throne, it is assumed that Ambrose – the elder brother – had meanwhile remarried, but there is no explicit source for this. There is no reason to see the Dudley-Tailboys and the Dudley-Audley marriages as anything else but “normal aristocratic unions”, and there are very good reasons to view the three marriages of 25 May 1553 as “routine actions of dynastic politics” as well.20
Following these, preparations began in early June, “at the king’s request”, for a match between Margaret Clifford and Sir Andrew Dudley, Northumberland’s younger brother. In the end this marriage was never concluded, but Sir Andrew had sent his most precious stuffs and jewels to the North as a pledge. Of course, at this particular time, the alliance may have been intended by Northumberland to strengthen his power in a crisis which was now imminent; but the Earl of Cumberland, having welcomed a match of his daughter with Guildford Dudley,21 may also have accepted Andrew Dudley as an alternative candidate. – Margaret Clifford lost her own place in the royal succession with the letters patent of 21 June 1553; only her heirs male should be able to ascend the throne. Stipulations as these stemmed from Edward’s original “Device”,22 and it would have been absurd for Northumberland to have masterminded or even insisted on them. Edward, in his last months, showed his capacity to assert his royal will.23
At whose suggestion Guildford Dudley became the husband of Lady Jane must remain speculation; Edward was once again enthusiastic about it, and afterwards a handful of aristocratic “culprits” were named, but no reporter had cared for such details before the young couple’s downfall. Public opinion had been absorbed with Northumberland’s designs on the crown for his own person, which, the emperor’s ambassador was convinced, the duke had been entertaining for at least three or four years. All along he had been “seeking to devise means” to poison the king and “to cast off his wife and marry my Lady Elizabeth”.24 The French ambassadors were even less preoccupied with royal blood: They actually suggested to Northumberland at the very end of Edward’s life that he take the crown for himself. The duke’s answer was that he was “unworthy of such an estate” and that he would “consider himself unfortunate to think of it”.25
1 Tytler 1839 p. 109
2 Norton 2011 p. 148
3 Norton 2011 pp. 148 – 149
4 Norton 2011 p. 145
5 Adams 2002 pp. 133 – 134
6 Adams 2004
7 Bellamy 2005 p. 151
8 Norton 2011 p. 145
9 Adams 2002 p. 134; HMC Bath V p. 140
10 HMC Bath V pp. 146, 147, 156, 166
11 Norton 2011 p. 149
12 Loades 1996 p. 226
13 Higginbotham 2012a with comments
14 Literary Remains I pp. clxvii, clxviii
15 Loades 2004
16 de Lisle 2009 pp. 92, 184
17 Cross 1966 pp. 9, 13
18 Loades 1996 p. 308; CSP Dom p. 239; HMC Second Report p. 102
19 de Lisle 2009 pp. 118, 92
20 Loades 1996 p. 239
21 Higginbotham 2012a with comments
22 Chronicle of Queen Jane p. 95; Ives 2009 p. 147
23 Hoak 2004
24 CSP Span 7 November 1550, 11 June 1553, 12 June 1553, 15 June 1553
25 Skidmore 2007 pp. 255 – 256
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Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11 – 1553. (ed. Royall Tyler, 1916): http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=973
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Higginbotham, Susan (2012b): “It’s A Boy! No, It’s A Girl! Some Seymour Birth Dates”. http://www.susanhigginbotham.com/blog/posts/its-a-boy-no-its-a-girl-some-seymour-birth-dates/
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MacCulloch, Diarmaid (ed.) (1984): ‟The Vita Mariae Angliae Reginae of Robert Wingfield of Brantham“. Camden Miscellany. Volume XXVIII. Royal Historical Society.
Norton, Elizabeth (2011): Bessie Blount: Mistress to Henry VIII. Amberley.
Skidmore, Chris (2007): Edward VI: The Lost King of England. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Stopes, C. C. (1918): Shakespeare’s Environment. Bell.
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