Was John Dudley Behind the Death of Thomas Seymour?

A key element of John Dudley’s Black Legend, often repeated to this day, is that he was responsible for “the hatred” between the Seymour brothers, Edward and Thomas, which resulted in the latter’s execution at the hands of the former in March 1549. The notion first appeared more than four years later, in the aftermath of Dudley’s spectacular downfall in the summer of 1553, and whenever it was recounted or alluded to it was from the perspective of hindsight, as a piece of moralité, such as in this early Elizabethan rendition:

After the death of Henry the Eight it appeared that the duke of North feared much the amity between the two brethren, the duke of Somerset [and] Sir Thomas Seymour, then Lord Admiral of England, seeking with all diligence to understand their humours; and so little by little to compass them both; as he did; and brought the matter so to pass that the one was condemned by act of parliament indicta causa; and the other condemned to death for suspicion of felony …; and so his aspiring head brought them both to confusion without … reason; who after died himself by the order of law without reason, wherein the scripture was fulfilled: look what measure you measure to others, the same shall be measured to you again.1

Thomas Seymour’s political antics, which included schemes to marry the Ladies Mary and Elizabeth and breaking into the king’s bedchamber, brought him to the scaffold in 1549

Among the earliest narratives containing John Dudley’s alleged manipulation of the Lord Protector was that by the Spanish merchant Antonio de Guaras, who claimed Seymour’s death came about “by the contrivance of Dudley, who upheld and counselled Somerset in all things”. This statement has sometimes been used by modern writers to argue Dudley’s guilt and Somerset’s innocence (or, most recently, that of his wife).2 It is easily overlooked, though, that Guaras represented the opinion at the court of Queen Mary,3 not the realities of 1549. His account is trustworthy for the events of August 1553, which the author witnessed himself, but as its main purpose is to celebrate Mary’s triumph over the forces of evil and heresy it is again a morality tale, that of the rise and fall of the monstrous Duke of Northumberland, who between 1546 and 1553 engineers the downfall of the Howards, the executions of the Earl of Surrey, of Thomas Seymour, and of the Duke of Somerset, until finally, fearing Edward’s coming of age, he also poisons the king (“The poor innocent languished for seven months.”).4

At Mary’s court John Dudley was the obvious hate figure, not least in the eyes of the queen herself who even declined to collect Edward VI’s last parliamentary subsidy in full, declaring it had only been raised because of the Duke of Northumberland’s greed. It is not surprising therefore that two of Mary’s court poets, in their condemnations of Dudley, should have included the charge that he destroyed Thomas Seymour;5 especially as Mary had been on excellent terms with the Somersets ever since the protector’s removal from power in 1549. This was also the reason why Princess Elizabeth, when desperately writing for her life in 1554, chose to remind her sister:

I have heard in my time of many cast away, for want of coming to their Prince: and in late days I heard my Lord Somerset say, that if his brother had been suffered to speak with him, he had never suffered: but the persuasions were made to him so great that he was brought in belief he could not live safely if the Admiral lived.6

Other than sometimes claimed, this letter does not refer to Elizabeth’s “conversation with Somerset”,7 but rather gives her impression of what she claimed to have overheard, the message to her sister being that she should not listen to “evil councillors”. This was a commonplace of the mirror of princes literature. The last phrase in Elizabeth’s letter indeed bears an uncanny resemblance to earlier gossip that had accused the Duchess of Somerset, “who pressed the matter, and said to her husband: ‘My lord, I tell you that if your brother does not die he will be your death.’”8

Why “Edward by the grace of god Duke of Somersett” – a de facto king9 – should have been unable to speak with his imprisoned brother whenever he wished remains a mystery. Later, the Duke of Northumberland certainly had long talks in the Tower with the imprisoned Duke of Somerset, and Queen Elizabeth likewise visited the condemned Duke of Norfolk there in 1572. If Somerset really made the excuse that he would have spared his brother had he not been hindered by others to see him (and there is no pre-1554 source that would indicate he regretted his brother’s fate), there are two possibilities: either he had a psychological problem, or, after his fall from power, he was trying to broaden his popular support by dropping hints. Evidence from both the French and the Imperial embassies make clear the ex-protector campaigned and intrigued against Dudley and his policies during 1550 and 1551, and there can be little doubt that this pattern of behaviour led to his final arrest and his execution in January 1552.10

Posthumously Edward Seymour became a Protestant hero, but the sin of fratricide did not look good on the emerging image of the “good duke”, as he became in a 1556 treatise by the exiled bishop John Ponet. Thomas Seymour, barely eligible for eternal salvation in a 1549 court sermon, had meanwhile become an innocent; to exonerate the protector, “those that conspired the death of the two brethren”11 had to step in as villains. Due to his “apostasy”, which contrasted conveniently with Somerset’s godliness, John Dudley was perfect for the role.

Under Elizabeth, in the early 1560s, it was probably John Hales, the former chief ideologue of Somerset’s “social policy”, who jotted down notes on recent events for a history that was never written. The author had presumably been a member of Somerset’s household, in the function of a clerk, but he had never been a privy councillor. A fanatical Protestant and a hater of both the Dudley family and Somerset’s former right hand man William Paget, he wrote about the beginnings of the troubles between the duke and his younger brother:

How after it was concluded by the council that the duke of Somerset should be protector and governor of the king, the earl of Warwick [John Dudley] said to the admiral, Sir Thomas Seymour, that he should do well to move in council that his brother being protector, he might be the king’s governor, as though that office had not been granted when he knew certainly it was determined before, and promised the admiral all his help and furtherance, and that if he would it, he would declare it he meant as he said. The admiral accordingly did move it in the council which as soon as the duke heard, he suddenly arose and spake not one word, and so the council was dissolved. After, Warwick came unto the duke and said thus, your grace may see this man’s ambition. After such sort he procured and maintained hatred between the brethren, that so he might the rather dispatch one and at length the other, and in the end rule alone himself.

On the next page Hales started all over again, however, this time:

The cause of the falling out of the protector and the admiral was ambition of the admiral and the envy he had that his brother should be more advanced than he.

How immediately after King H. Death, he began to make bands to keep a great house, and how he conferred with divers of the government of the realm, and condemned his brother because of his simplicity. …

Of the hatred between the queen [Katherine Parr] and the duchess of Somerset, and how the duchess hated the admiral, and contrariwise, and how the admiral sought the disinheritance of her children and would have had the duke’s children by his first wife to be his heirs.

How the brethren were once pacified but the love continued not.12

Thus, in the space of two pages, several versions of the “falling out” of the brothers were offered.

It would not have been entirely unreasonable of John Dudley to suggest Thomas Seymour receive Edward’s governorship: Never before had a protector of the realm held both offices, and Somerset made Sir Michael Stanhope, his wife’s half-brother, de facto governor of the king, a position which had the potential of enormous influence and patronage. Thomas Seymour may well have felt that he, another uncle of the king, should be in such a position rather than Stanhope and his assistant Sir Richard Page, who were just relations of the Duchess of Somerset.13 Of course John Dudley may himself have coveted the office: At the time of Henry VIII’s death he and Edward Seymour were seen as the obvious candidates to lead the country, Seymour’s superior “qualification” being his position of uncle. More likely, though, Dudley regretted to part with his cherished post of lord admiral, which he had ceded to Thomas Seymour. If he did, he would have been disappointed to see it vacant between Thomas Seymour’s death and the protector’s own downfall, among the first acts of the new junta being his own re-appointment as lord admiral.

There is of course no evidence that such considerations played any part, the accusations against Dudley being all written under the impression of later events and preoccupied with his alleged lust for power for power’s sake. However, it would have been impossible for him to know the future and to plan from the outset of Edward’s reign to get rid of “the two brethren”. He always supported Somerset, until September 1549, and seems to have warned Thomas Seymour at some point,

using strong language to the Admiral, remonstrating with him that he had come to occupy such a high position through the favour of his brother and the council … ‘Be content, therefore.’ … These words, and threats he used besides, had such good effect that the Admiral went off at once and made up the quarrel with his brother.14

The common notion in the later sources that John Dudley was striving to divest Edward VI of uncles is wrong for yet another reason: Edward had a further Seymour uncle, Henry, who lived to a respectable age and whose help Somerset called upon during the council’s revolt in the autumn of 1549. Thomas Seymour was dead by then; it would be misleading, though, to believe that Somerset’s rule was undermined by Thomas’ removal, that was just another tradition informed by hindsight. His real problems were an empty treasury, a war in Scotland, and rebellions at home.

The attainder and execution of Thomas Seymour in March 1549 was strongly backed by the nobility and parliament; still, it rested on Somerset’s will. He had developed a very peculiar government style in which the king’s councillors were only called in to lend their signatures to decisions already taken in the duke’s small circle of his own household servants (like William Cecil). Senior royal councillors were in an awkward position when dealing with the lord protector, whose “great choleric fashions” erupted “whensoever you are contraried in … that which you have conceived in your head.” So William Paget, who held a unique position of trust, reminded him. – “No man shall dare speak to you what he thinks, though it were never so necessary for you to know it.”15

Edward VI, on the right side at the window on the left, listens to a Lenten sermon by Hugh Latimer in 1549. The sermon would have featured a condemnation of the king’s uncle, Thomas Seymour.

It was again Paget who on 25 January 1549 reminded Somerset to order “the committinge of thadmiral and his complices”.16 John Hales later claimed that John Dudley lived in the duke’s house during the crisis, being “always at hand” until Seymour’s death, when he moved out; the implication is of course a sinister one.17 It is very unlikely, though, that Dudley was so physically close to the protector: If he was, it is odd that he wrote letters intended for the duke’s attention in March and April 1549 – at about the same time he is supposed to have urged Seymour’s execution on Somerset in person. Dudley never addressed his letters to the duke personally, but always to men like William Cecil and Sir John Thynne, Somerset’s “familiars”, even when suggesting solutions to policy and military matters that greatly alarmed him.18 The protector had become unapproachable by 1548/1549, as appears from William Paget’s desperate letters, but also from Dudley’s: “for my meaning towards his Grace, I would his Grace knew it as God doth.”19

Somerset consulted crown jurists about whether his brother’s doings amounted to treason: Two of three judges giving a negative answer, he arranged for Seymour’s attainder in parliament rather than for a trial; the resulting death sentence (for treason) he described as “indifferent justice”.20 The indiscriminate condemnation he left to Hugh Latimer, who preached a series of vitriolic sermons in front of the eleven-year-old king: in the first, Latimer urged on Thomas Seymour’s execution, denouncing his marriage to Katherine Parr as treason and likening her to one of King David’s concubines in the process.21 The late queen’s brother and brother-in-law were not amused; nearly a year later they would still not allow any criticism of Thomas Seymour:

The Marquis of Northampton then accused me … when I accused the late Admiral of robbery, wishing to palliate his actions, as he had married his sister, widow of the late King. … As for the Admiral, I asked him to tell me himself whether he had been blameless or not. He did not answer at once, but after a little thought he said: “I don’t blame him.” And then he began to get exceedingly angry. Then Master Herbert, the King’s Master of the Horse, who married another sister of the said Marquis, and who knows no other language but his native English and can neither read nor write, started shouting at the top of his voice. He is also in Warwick’s party, and he made it plain. I heard nothing but the words “my Lord Admiral”, and saw him make some strange gestures; but as I could not understand all he said I must presume that he wished to confirm the Marquis of Northampton’s defence of the late Admiral, and insisted that I should be sent to the Admiralty Court with my solicitations, the Earl of Warwick being now Admiral.

The political landscape having changed, it was clear to the Imperial ambassador that John Dudley, the Earl of Warwick, had “the whip hand of them all, using for his own ends these Marquises and Master Herberts whom no one dares to contradict.“22 Indeed, William Parr, Marquess of Northampton was Dudley’s old friend, and William Herbert’s importance in the new administration was evident: from the start Herbert sat with Warwick on key commissions, and on 11 October 1551 he rose to Earl of Pembroke, on the day Dudley became Duke of Northumberland. A few days later the Duke of Somerset was arrested, and when Northumberland wavered in his resolution to execute him it was Northampton and Pembroke who became alarmed and angry and pushed for it.23 Was there some element of revenge in their demands, retribution for Thomas Seymour’s death? That these men were opportunists does not mean they could not have had more archaic and irrational feelings as well. It seems almost unthinkable that Northampton and Pembroke, especially the former, would have maintained a close friendship with Dudley if they had suspected him of instigating their brother-in-law’s death.

Not even Somerset’s adherents blamed John Dudley for Thomas Seymour’s death, as is obvious from the remarks of Elizabeth Huggones, a former servant of the executed duke and his imprisoned wife, who very outspokenly had laid her master’s death at Northumberland’s door together with suspecting him of hankering after the crown (the king she had called an “unnaturall nephew”). In September 1552 she made things clear:

Being examined upon these words, ‘that she did only impute the death of the duke of Somerset to the duke of Northumberland, and no other man, who she thought was better worthy to die than he’, these words she utterly denieth, albeit, she saith that she then said she thought that those which were the procurers of the duke of Somerset’s death, his blood would be required at their hands, even like as the lord admiral’s blood was at the duke’s hands … And further, she saith, that next the duke of Somerset, who was her master, she hath borne greatest favour and affection to the duke of Northumberland’s grace of any other nobleman; and specially since her husband was his grace’s servant.24

Having denied her remarks about King Edward as well, Mistress Huggones could go free and a year later would have been pleased to see the Duke of Somerset’s blood required at the hands of the man who had procured his death. In August 1553 Northumberland was condemned for raising an army and being in the field against Queen Mary, but on the day before his execution, in a public ceremony where he returned to the Catholic faith, he asked to see Somerset’s teenage sons to ask their forgiveness for their father’s death, wich he confessed to have “falsely procured”. – “Nothing had pressed so injuriously upon his conscience”, he said according to one of the eyewitnesses.25 It is most unlikely that he would not have mentioned the undoing of Thomas Seymour as well, had he been guilty.

See also:
What the French Ambassador Never Wrote

1 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003b p. 123
2 Hoak 1976 p. 240; Skidmore 2007 p. 108; Warnicke 2012 p. 93
3 Hoak 1976 p. 240
4 Ives 2009 p. 107
5 Warnicke 2012 pp. 93 – 94
6 Original Letters pp. 256 – 257
7 Warnicke 2012 p. 94; Skidmore 2007 p. 107
8 Spanish Chronicle p. 164
9 Hoak 1976 pp. 153, 257
10 Hoak 1976 pp. 74 – 76
11 Hoak 1976 p. 240
12 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003a pp. 53 – 55
13 Hoak 2004
14 CSP Span 8 February 1549
15 Hoak 1976 p. 178
16 Hoak 1976 p. 190
17 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003b pp. 124 – 125
18 Alford 2002 pp. 81 – 82; Loades 2004 pp. 44 – 45
19 Loades 2004 p. 57; Hoak 1976 pp. 167 – 190
20 Hoak 2004
21 MacCulloch 1996 p. 408
22 CSP Span 31 January 1550
23 CSP Span 27 December 1551
24 Literary Remains I pp. clxvi – clxvii
25 CSP Span 27 August 1553; Hoak 1980 p. 203

Calendar of State Papers, Spain. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue.aspx?gid=136&type=3

Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England … written in Spanish by an unknown hand. (ed. M. S. Hume, 1889)

Literary Remains of King Edward the Sixth. (ed. G. J. Nichols, 1857). Roxburghe Club.

Original Letters Illustrative of English History. Second Series. Volume II. (ed. by Henry Ellis, 1827).

Adams, Simon; Archer, Ian; Bernard, G. W. (eds.) (2003a): ‟A ‘Journall’ of Matters of State happened from time to time as well within and without the Realme from and before the Death of King Edw. the 6th untill the Yere 1562“ in: Ian Archer (ed.): Religion, Politics, and Society in Sixteenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press.

Adams, Simon; Archer, Ian; Bernard, G. W. (eds.) (2003b): ‟Certayne Brife Notes of the Controversy betwene the dukes of Somerset and Nor[t]humberland“ in: Ian Archer (ed.): Religion, Politics, and Society in Sixteenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press.

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

Beer, B. L. (1973): Northumberland: The Political Career of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland. The Kent State University Press.

Hoak, Dale (1976): The King’s Council 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. Macmillan.

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.

Loach, Jennifer (2002): Edward VI. Yale University Press.

Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.

Loades, David (2004): Intrigue and Treason: The Tudor Court, 1547–1558. Pearson/Longman.

Loades, David (2008): The Life and Career of William Paulet (c.1475 – 1575): Lord Treasurer and First Marquess of Winchester. Ashgate.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid (1996): Thomas Cranmer: A Life. Yale University Press.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid (2001): The Boy King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation. Palgrave.

Skidmore, Chris (2007): Edward VI: The Lost King of England. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Smith, L. B. (2006): Treason in Tudor England. Politics and Paranoia. Pimlico.

Warnicke, R. M. (2012): Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners. Palgrave.

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 www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in errors & myths, John Dudley, letters, sources & historians and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Was John Dudley Behind the Death of Thomas Seymour?

  1. Quite brilliant blog – well done Christine.

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