John Dudley Speaks on the Scaffold

After a day’s postponement, which they had used to reconcile themselves to the Catholic faith, on 22 August 1553, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, Sir John Gates, and Sir Thomas Palmer were led out of the Tower of London to be beheaded at nearby Tower Hill. The eagerly anticipated event was watched by a crowd of an estimated 10,000 people. There survives an unusually high number, four or five at least, of independent versions of Northumberland’s scaffold speech; differing only slightly in contents, they testify to his celebrity status at the time, however unpopular he may have been. His return to the old faith and his denunciation of the new was an opportunity not to be missed, so there was an “official” version of the duke’s “confession” which was printed by John Cawood on the orders of Queen Mary. It soon became the basis for several Latin, French, German, and Italian editions, and thus the speech came to circulate more widely on the Continent than it ever did in England.

A letter by the London merchant William Dalby of 22 August 1553 gave a brief summary of what was said in town about John Dudley’s last performance:

This present daye the duke of Northumberlande, sir John Gates, and master Palmere, came to executione, and suffered deathe. The duke’s confessyon was in effecte but lytle, as I hard saye; hee confessed himselfe worthie to dye, and that he was a greate helper in of this religion which is false, thearfore God had punished us with the lose of kinge Henry 8, and also with the lose of king Edward 6, then with rebellione, and aftere with the swetinge sicknes, and yet we would not turne. Requiringe them all that weare presente to remember the ould learninge, thankinge God that he would vutsafe to call him nowe to be a Christyane, for this 16 yeares he had byne non. Theare weare a greate nomber turned with his words. He wished every man not to be covetous, for that was a greate parte of his distruction. He was asked further yf he had any thinge moare to saye, and he said nothinge but that he was worthie to dye, and so was mo[r]e than he, but he cam to dye, and not to accuse any mane. And thus bouldly he spak, tyll he layd his head on the block.

Several versions of the speech survive in manuscript, one is a Latin translation, another an abstract; BL Harley MS 284 contains an English verbatim account, “The open confession of John Duke of Northumberland, who suffered at Tower Hill, 22nd of August 1553”:

Good people. Hither I am come this day to die, as ye know. Indeed, I confess to you all that I have been an evil liver, and have done wickedly all the days of my life; and, of all, most against the Queen’s Highness, [of] whom I here openly ask forgiveness (and bowed his knees): but not I alone the original doer thereof, I assure you, for there were some other which procured the same: but I will not name them, for I will hurt now no man. And the chiefest occasion hath been through false and seditious preachers, that I have erred from the Catholic faith and true doctrine of Christ. The doctrine, I mean, which hath continued through all Christendom since Christ. For, good people, there is, and hath been ever since Christ, one Catholic church; which church hath continued from him to his disciples in one unity and concord, and so hath alway continued from time to time until this day, and yet doth throughout all Christendom, only us excepted; for we are quite gone out of that church. For, whereas all holy fathers, and all other saints throughout all Christendom, since Christ and his disciples, have ever agreed in one unity, faith, and doctrine; we alone dissent from their opinions, and follow our own private interpretation of Scriptures. Do you think, good people, that we, being one parcel in comparison, be wiser than all the world besides, ever since Christ? No, I assure you, you are far deceived. I do not say so for any great learning that I have, for, God knoweth, I have very little, or none; but for the experience which I have had.

For I pray you, see, since the death of King Henry the Eighth, into what misery we have been brought; what open rebellion, what sedition, what great division hath been throughout the whole realm; for God hath delivered [us] up to [our] own sensualities, and every day [we] wax worse and worse. Look also in Germany, since they severed from the faith; unto what miserable state they have been brought, and how their realm is decayed. And herewith I have [braved] these preachers for their doctrine, and they were not able to answer any part thereof, no more than a little boy. They opened the books, and could not [reply to] them again. More than that, good people, you have in your Creed, Credo Ecclesiam Catholicam, which church is the same church which hath continued ever from Christ, throughout all the apostles’, saints’, and doctors’ times, and yet doth, as I have said before. Of which church I do openly profess myself to be one, and do steadfastly believe therein; I speak unfeignedly from the bottom of my heart. This good man, the Bishop of Worcester, shall be my witness (and the Bishop said, “Yea”). And I beseech you all bear me witness that I die therein. And I do think, if I had had this belief sooner, I never had come to this pass: wherefore I exhort you all, good people, take you all example of me, and forsake this new doctrine betimes. Defer it not long, lest God plague you as he hath me, which now suffer this vile death most worthily.

I have no more to say, good people; but all those which I have offended I ask forgiveness, and they which have offended me I forgive them, as I would God forgive me. And I trust the Queen’s highness hath forgiven me: where as I was with force and arms against her in the field, I might have been rent in pieces without law, her Grace hath give me time and respect to have judgment.

And after he had desired all the people to pray for him, he humbled himself to God, and covered his own eyes with a cloth, and he suffered execution meekly.

The Spanish merchant Antonio de Guaras, who understood English well, was an eyewitness to both Northumberland’s trial and execution. Within a week of the latter he prepared his translation of what he had heard, for presentation to his patron in Spain:

And amid profound silence he spoke in substance these words, which I heard from being very near him. Sirs and friends, I have come to die as ye see, having been condemned by the law, and I declare and confess that I have grievously offended God, and I beseech you earnestly that ye would implore God for my soul, and if there be any here or absent whom I have offended I crave their forgiveness. And to this all the people answered, “God forgive you.” And when silence was made, he said, I have been condemned by the law to be drawn, hanged, and quartered: but the Queen’s majesty, whom I have so grievously offended, has shown this clemency that I should be beheaded, for which I thank her, and making so low a reverence that his knee touched the ground, he added, and I pray her to pardon me that God may. And he continued, that although it was true that he had been chief in bringing those things to pass for which he had been condemned, it was also true that he had done it by the instigation of many whom he would not name, and that he forgave them as he desired the forgiveness of God. And he begged the people that these should not be noted of any.

And pursuing his discourse, he said. Brethren, ye are not ignorant in what troubles this realm has been and now continues, as well as in part of the reign of King Henry, as from then until this day, all of which are notorious: and I wot well that there is no one of you but knows what has befallen us for having departed from the true Catholic church, and believed false prophets and preachers, who have persuaded us of their false doctrines, and have brought me as the chief offender in this and other things to the extremity which ye behold, as they have done to many others, as ye know. For which I ask God pardon, and declare to you that I die a true Catholic Christian, and confess and believe all that the Catholic church believes. And I warn you, friends and brothers, that none should believe that this great novelty and new conscience arises from being urged upon me by any (this he said lest any should think it was the Queen’s doing, or that he had been induced by some friend, or the Bishop of Worcester, who was with him as confessor), or that any have persuaded me in this: but I tell you what I feel at the bottom of my heart, and as ye see I am in no case to say aught but truth. And thus I charge and enjoin you straightly that ye give no credit to the preachers of such false doctrine. And consider, brethren, what I say, and do not forget that I charge you to have no let or shame in returning to God, as ye see that I have not, and to consider what is written in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints.” And I, though ignorant, could say more upon this, but you may reflect and consider it with an impartial mind.

And if this does not satisfy you, think upon the miseries in which so great a multitude has lived and died in Germany: one against another, and that they have been trampled down for having forsaken the Catholic faith, wherefore God has forgotten them as he has forgotten us. And if this does not move you to feel as I have declared to you, let each one make his private reckoning and consider how it has fared with him in his own condition. And if he is not utterly blind, I am sure that he will come into this my true knowledge: and therefore I again charge you to embrace what the Catholic church believes; which is what the Holy Spirit has revealed from generation to generation from the time of the Apostles until our days, and will continue until the end. And live peaceably, and be obedient to the Queen’s majesty and her laws, and do that which I have not done.

The team of Imperial ambassadors may or may not have been present at Northumberland’s execution; they certainly were not the day before, when he and other prisoners took the sacrament in the Tower chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Their excellencies, none of whom spoke English, naturally concentrated on what they wanted to understand:

He did not merely declare what is said above in the Tower, but repeated the same words on the scaffold, loudly, before the people. He recommended them to obey the Queen, whom he called good and virtuous, saying that she had attained the throne miraculously, by reason of her true right by inheritance, and that therein he acknowledged the hand of God. He exhorted noblemen and people to obedience; and declared that he had received no instigation or persuasion to make the profession, but was moved thereto by his own desire, calling to witness God and his confessor, who had ever heard the same from him. He added that a warning should be taken from the condition of Germany, where rebellion and troubles had followed upon the loss of faith and true religion. He made the sign of the cross, and kissed it before his death. He gave up all the money he had; his own and the Crown’s too. We do not know the amount yet; nor what else he may have said in private. He said several times over that ambition and avarice had brought him to the extreme of poverty and contempt.

The sayinge of John late Duke of Northumberlande, vpon the scaffolde at the tyme of his execution was printed on the government’s orders and is the fullest and most beautiful version of the speech. Charles V had specifically requested to be sent John Dudley’s words on the scaffold, so it is conceivable that care was taken to record what the duke had to say; some phrases, like his fondness of the word “fancy”, and the subtle humour certainly occur also in Dudley’s letters. What emerges from this version, as it did from de Guaras’, is Northumberland the patriot and statesman. He speaks of a universal church, for all people and peoples; he neither cares for the mass, nor for cantankerous preachers (he knew who he was talking about):

Good people, all you that be here present to see me dye. Though my death be odyouse and horrible to the flesh, yet I pray you iudge the beste in goddes workes, for he doth all for the best. And as for me, I am a wretched synner, & haue deserued to dye, and moost iustly am condempned to dye by a law. And yet this acte Wherefore I dye, was not altogither of me (as it is thoughte) but I was procured and induced therevnto by other. I was I saye induced therevnto by other, howbeit, God forbyd that I shoulde name any man vnto you, I wyll name no man vnto you, & therfore I beseche you loke not for it.

I for my parte forgeue all men, and praye God also to forgeue them. And yf I haue offended anye of you here, I praye you and all the Worlde to forgeue me: and moost chiefly I desire fogeuenes of the Quenes highnes, whome I haue most greuouslye offended. Amen sayde the people. And I pray you all to witness with me, that I depart in perfyt loue and charitie with all the worlde, & that you wyll assiste me with youre prayers at the houre of death.

And one thinge more good people I haue to saye vnto you, whiche I am chiefly moued to do for discharge of my conscience, & that is to warne you and exhorte you to beware of these seditiouse preachers, and teachers of newe doctryne, which pretende to preache Gods worde, but in very deede they preache theyr owne phansies, who were neuer able to explicate themselues, they know not to day what they wold haue to morowe, there is no stay in theyr teaching & doctryne, they open the boke, but they cannot shut it agayne. Take hede how you enter into straunge opinions or newe doctryne, whiche hath done no smal hurt in this realme, and hath iustlye procured the ire and wrath of god vpon vs, as well maye appeare who so lyst to call to remembraunce the manyfold plages that this realme hath ben touched with all synce we disseuered oure selues from the catholyke church of Christ, and from the doctryne whiche hath ben receaued by the holy apostles, martyrs, and all saynctes, and vsed throughe all realmes christened since Christ.

And I verely beleue, that all the plagues that haue chaunced to this realme of late yeares synce afore the death of kynge Henrye the eyght, hath iustly fallen vpon vs, for that we haue deuyded ourselfe from the rest of Christendome wherof we be but as a sparke in comparison: Haue we not had warre, famyne, pestylence, the death of our kinge, rebellion, sedicion amonge ourselues, conspiracies? Haue we not had sondrye erronious opinions spronge vp amonge vs in this realme, synce we haue forsaken the vnitie of the catholyke Churche? and what other plagues be there that we haue not felt?

And yf this be not able to moue you, then loke vpon Germanye, whiche synce it is fallen into this scysme and diuision from the vnitie of the catholike church, is by continuall dissention and discorde, broughte almoost to vtter ruyne & decaye. Therfore, leste an vtter ruyne come amonge you, by prouokynge to muche the iuste vengeaunce of God, take vp betymes these contentions, & be not ashamed to returne home agayne, and ioyne youre selues to the rest of Christen realmes, and so shall you brynge your selues againe to be membres of Christes bodye, for he cannot be head of a dyfformed or monstruous body.

Loke vpon your crede, haue you not there these wordes: I beleue in the holy ghost, the holy catholik churche, the communion of saynctes, which is the vniuersall number of all faythfull people, professynge Christe, dispersed throughe the vniuersall worlde: of whiche number I trust to be one. I could bryng many mo[re] thinges for this pupose, albeit I am vnlearned, as all you knowe, but this shall suffice.

And heare I do protest vnto you good people, moost earnestly, euen from the bottome of my harte, that this which I haue spoken is of my selfe, not beynge required nor moued thervnto by any man, nor for any flattery, or hope of life, and I take wytnes of my lord of Worcestre here, myne olde frende and gostely father, that he founde me in this mynde and opinion when he came to me: but I haue declared this onely vpon myne owne mynde and affection, for discharge of my conscience, & for the zeale and loue that I beare to my naturall countreye. I coulde good people reherse muche more euen by experience that I haue of this euyl that is happened to this realme by these occasions, but you knowe I haue an other thyng to do, whervnto I must prepare me, for the tyme draweth awaye.

And nowe I beseche the Quenes highnes to forgeue me myne offences agaynst her maiestie, wherof I haue a singular hope, forasmuch as she hath already extended her goodnes & clemency so farre vpon me that where as she myghte forthwith without iudgement or any further tryall, haue put me to moste vyle & cruell death, by hanging drawing, and quartering, forasmuch as I was in the field in armes agaynst her highnesse, her maiestie neuertheles of her most mercyfull goodnes suffred me to be brought to my iudgement, and to haue my tryall by the lawe, where I was most iustly & worthelye condempned. And her highnes hath now also extended her mercye and clemencye vpon me for the manner and kynde of my death. And therefore my hoope is, that her grace of her goodnes wyl remyt al the rest of her indignation and displeasure towardes me, whiche I beseche you all moost hartely to praye for, and that it maye please God longe to preserue her maiestie to reigne ouer you in muche honour and felicitie. Amen, sayd the people.

And after he hadde thus spoken he kneeled downe, sayinge to them that were about: I beseche you all to beare me wytnesse that I dye in the true catholyke fayth, and then sayde the Psalmes of Miserere, and De profundis, and his Pater nostre in Latin, and sixe of the fyrste verses of the psalme, In te domine sperant endynge with this verse, Into thy handes O lorde I commend my spirite. And when he had thus finished his prayers, the executioner asked him forgeuenes, to whom he sayde: I forgeue you with all my harte, and doo thy parte without feare. And bowynge towarde the block he sayd, I haue deserued a thousand deaths, and thervpon he made a crosse vpon the strawe, and kyssed it, and layde his head vpon the blocke, and so dyed.

Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11 – 1553. (ed. Royall Tyler, 1916):

The Chronicle of Queen Jane and Two Years of Queen Mary. (ed. J. G. Nichols, 1850)

Antonio de Guaras: The Accession of Queen Mary. (ed. Richard Garnett, 1892)

Jordan, W. K. and Gleason, M. R. (1975): The Saying of John Late Duke of Northumberland Upon the Scaffold, 1553. Harvard Library.

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

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
This entry was posted in 1553, John Dudley, religion, sources & historians and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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