1553: The Emperor and the Vanquished Duke of Northumberland

Sacred, Imperial Majesty: It has pleased the Divine Mercy, after the many and serious afflictions suffered for many years past by the kingdom of England through its wicked and impious rulers, to give it comfort with the bestowal of that Sovereign to whom the Crown rightfully belonged, and on whom, for her goodness, all worthy men wished it to devolve. The wise counsels and prudent directions of your Majesty were the means by which this was achieved; and it seems to me that after God, to Whom all praise and honour are due, all Englishmen owe special and unending gratitude to your Majesty, and must pray the Divine Goodness to make use of the same instrument that It was pleased to employ in its happy incipience, for the accomplishment of that which is yet lacking in the perfecting of the holy undertaking.

Thus, in August 1553, Reginald Pole congratulated Charles V on recent events in England. The successful accession of Mary I had come as a surprise to many, not least to the envoys of the great powers, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain and the Kingdom of France: ‟I have witnessed the most sudden change believable in men, and I believe that God alone worked it“, wrote Antoine de Noailles.1 The various diplomats, though certain that the overwhelming majority of the English people favoured Mary, had nevertheless been confident that Queen Jane would successfully be established, after all ‟the actual possession of power is a matter of great importance, especially among barbarians like the English“ (Simon Renard).2

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

More than six years earlier, shortly before Edward VI’s accession in January 1547, the retired former Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, had commented that Edward Seymour (Edward’s uncle) and John Dudley (the Lord Admiral) were most likely to lead the regency government – ‟there are no other nobles of a fit age and ability for the task“.3 After Henry VIII’s death Charles V saw Mary Tudor as the only legitimate child of the late king. His pretext not to accept a now openly heretical English government was that Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour had been a schismatic one; only when Mary herself recognized her brother did the Emperor silently give in.

The use of the Protestant Book of Common Prayer became law in 1549, the Habsburgs extracting a guarantee for Princess Mary to privately hear mass from the Protector, Edward Seymour. The question then arose of what constituted ‟private“. In any case Mary allowed flocks of Catholic worshippers to attend her mass. In early 1550, after John Dudley had supplanted the Protector, he took up the issue with her and insisted that she give up public mass in her residences. Any bowing to a ‟defective law“4 was out of the question on her part and she requested the Emperor’s help to escape to the Continent. However, when Charles indeed had sent a ship, she changed her mind in the last minute. Next she had a meeting with Edward and his Council in which she was told that it was not the nature of her faith but her disobedience to the law that was at issue.5 Dudley clashed personally with the princess when she denounced the councillors as unpatriotic and compared them unfavourably with Henry VIII:

How now my Lady? It seems that your grace is trying to show us in a hateful light to the King, our master, without any cause whatsoever.6

Mary lost no time to talk the Imperial ambassador de Scheyfye into threatening with war:7 The Privy Council remained relatively unimpressed, and Dudley told the envoy that at 14 Edward was as much a king as at 40.8 By late 1551 Edward seemed to have lost interest in Mary’s mass, and some form of modus vivendi was reached between her and the government.

Most of ambassador de Scheyfye’s informants were people with a stake in subverting a heretical regime – and there emanated a stream of fanciful reports from that quarter about the country being on the brink of civil war.9 Encouraged by these, and keen on improving her trade interests, the Regent of the Netherlands, Mary of Hungary, thought it worthwhile to take possession of an English port. From the Emperor’s viewpoint it would be safest to take over England altogether. If only some young adventurer could be found who would gladly undertake the work of liberation: ‟It seems that there are three persons who might try their fortune, conquer the country, and marry our cousin … under colour of taking the king out of the hands of his pernicious governors“. Even better, Charles mused in October 1551, ‟if they had already got rid of the king we could intervene with the pretext of avenging him, or some other excuse easily to be devised.“10

France and the Empire had been at war for the better part of the century, so that apart from the vexatious religious question there was the more vital one of England’s position between the rival powers. John Dudley had had but little choice than to end his predecessor’s expensive wars with France and Scotland. Boulogne (conquered by Henry VIII in 1544) was sold back to France and the border with Scotland was for the first time exactly agreed upon. John Dudley balanced successfully on a tightrope between the warring great powers. King Edward was engaged to Elisabeth de Valois, later Queen of Spain, but there was no military alliance with France. So, when both powers requested English assistance for their wars against each other, their demands were politely rejected and England remained neutral, offering to be a mediator in peace talks instead. In early 1553 Edward sent Sir Andrew Dudley, brother of John, to the Emperor, who embraced the English envoy and declared that he would gladly make peace but for the French king’s duplicity.

Edward VI died on 6 July 1553, having named as his successor Lady Jane Grey, John Dudley’s daughter-in-law. With the benefit of hindsight it became clear that it had all been a grandiose plot by the Duke of Northumberland (as he was since October 1551). The Habsburg ambassadors had sensed for years that he had been engaged in one. In November 1550 the story was that he was going to divorce his wife and marry the 17-year-old Lady Elizabeth, ‟with whom he is said to have had several secret and intimate personal communications.“11 The same tale was again abroad in May 1553, the time of the young Jane and Guildford’s wedding; now Elizabeth and the Duke were to ‟claim the crown for the house of Warwick as descendants of the House of Lancaster“ (by his mother, John Dudley descended from the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick). Curiously, de Scheyfye reported Lady Jane Grey’s marriage without having any suspicions, although he knew her place in the royal family tree and succession. By mid-July, the Habsburg regent at Brussels was talking of King Guildford and the Emperor was anxious to know: ‟How many more sons has this Duke and are they well thought of?“

Against Dudley’s expectation Mary Tudor started to assemble supporters in East Anglia, and a campaign against her became necessary if the Queen Jane project was to be a success. Even the day before Dudley started out with troops, on 13 July, a handful of privy councillors met behind his back with the Imperial ambassadors – perhaps to sound their prospects in case they changed sides. By 19 July 1553 they had made up their minds that Northumberland was a tyrant and informed the ostensibly surprised ambassadors.

Northumberland was at Cambridge with his army, having passed a tranquil week, when on 20 July he received a letter from the Council in London which said that they had declared for Queen Mary. As told by his colleagues, Northumberland proclaimed Mary himself at the market-place and waited for his arrest the next morning. A true general, he knew when the war was over and dissolved the army. He also told a friend that Mary was a merciful woman.12 As the ambassadors acknowledged: ‟This was a marvellous spectacle, for the Duke had his arms in his hands, and must have been mindful of the past, the remorseful memory of which might well have been enough to throw him into despair and cause him to plunge England into a tumult.“13

The Emperor Charles V

By 25 July John Dudley was sitting in his Tower cell, and on 6 August the Imperial envoys informed their master that ‟the accusations against the Duke are being made out with all possible diligence, and inquiries are being conducted into the nature of the late King Edward’s illness. It is found that his big toes dropped off, and that he was poisoned.“ Two days later they reported that ‟the proceedings against the Duke of Northumberland and his accomplices … are being pursued with diligence. He was confronted with them and examined, and he has confessed generally most of the indictments against him. He has not yet declared who was the author and instigator of his practices.“ Meanwhile Queen Mary, ‟for fearing that the Duke of Northumberland might fall a prey to despair in his prison“, was thinking of sending him a priest ‟to comfort him“. Yet Charles V was impatient: ‟Send us every detail that comes to your knowledge of the depositions made by the Duke of Northumberland, especially on the death of the King and on the intrigues, correspondence and intelligence between him and France or other countries.“

A week after Edward’s death Northumberland had sent his cousin, Sir Henry Dudley, to Henri II to make sure of a recent offer of French assistance in the case of an Imperial invasion. Henry Dudley was arrested on his return to Calais and questioned in the Tower in mid-August. He revealed – ‟without torture“14 – that King Henri had assured to come in person should the Emperor dare to intervene, a story confirmed by a congratulatory French letter to Queen Jane. This fitted so excellently into the Habsburg paranoia about everything French that Simon Renard later confused it with his wonted propaganda: Northumberland had promised all English possessions on the Continent as well as Ireland to the French, he told Prince Philip in September.15 On a separate note the ambassadors were full of disbelief and indignation that the Duke had also sent embassies to the King of Denmark, Maurice of Saxony, and even to King Ferdinand, the Emperor’s brother.16

Back in August the French threat was still the main theme, though: ‟It is clear that the French and the Duke’s adherents will … encourage a revolt if possible, to trouble the Queen’s affairs; and we hope she may adopt a twofold remedy: first, that she will not persist in pushing matters of religion forward and will wait for the assembling of Parliament; secondly, that justice will be dealt out to the Duke of Northumberland, as we hear is to be done before the end of this week. When he and his accomplices have once been punished, the plottings will cease.“

The prisoners having ‟confessed all the crimes imputed to them, except the poisoning“,17 all was ready for the great tribunal. The Spanish resident merchant Antonio de Guaras was an eyewitness: ‟On the eighteenth of this month of August, the Duke of Northumberland was brought to trial, and as your Lordship knows, these proceedings are here conducted with great dignity. A stage was erected in the great hall of Westminster, very majestic and richly tapestried, and in the midst of it a rich canopy, and under this a bench with rich cushions, and carpets at its foot.“ Guaras obviously still wondered at these English niceties, for in his home country in such cases the prisoners would have been dispatched with el garrote in some dark corner.

Guaras observed that the ‟judges, or the most of them, were those whom Northumberland had left in the Tower with Lady Jane.“ The Duke, ‟making three reverences down to the ground, … came with a good and intrepid countenance, full of humility and gravity.“ His peers ‟beheld him with a severe aspect, and the greatest courtesy shown him of any was a slight touch of the cap.“ However, when he confessed the misdeeds he was accused of, many ‟out of compassion at beholding him in the misery into which he had brought himself by the ambition of reigning, and all grieving for their own sakes for the stain they had contracted by the offence they had committed against the Queen by consenting to his treason, even though by constraint, as has been said, many could not refrain from tears.“ Northumberland ‟implored all that they would beseech the Queen’s majesty not to think upon his iniquities, but upon her exceeding clemency, though saying that he knew his offence to be so grievous that he deserved no mercy. He requested that two or three of the Council would come to confer with him in prison upon important secrets“.

To the great delight of Queen Mary John Dudley was willing to abjure his Protestant faith in a ceremony in the Tower Chapel before many invited witnesses. He also used the occasion to personally ask the Lord Protector’s sons’ forgiveness for the death of their father, Edward Seymour, which he confessed to have ‟falsely procured“.18 The next morning, 22 August 1553, Dudley was led out of the Tower before the assembled crowds. Guaras was impressed: ‟And the Duke … having taken place upon the scaffold, approaching the railing, begged with much humility and great dignity to speak to the people, as is the custom. And amid profound silence he spoke in substance these words, which I heard from being very near him.“

Guaras’ version of what John Dudley said resembles a number of other accounts, one of which was officially printed and distributed, not least in the Emperor’s dominions:

Good people, all you that be here present to see me die … I am a wretched sinner, and have deserved to die, and most justly am condemned to die by a law. And yet this act wherefore I die, was not altogether of me (as it is thought) but I was procured and induced thereunto by other[s]. I was I say induced thereunto by other[s], howbeit, God forbid that I should name any man unto you, I will name no man unto you, and therefore I beseech you look not for it. …

And one thing more good people I have to say unto you … and that is to warn you and exhort you to beware of these seditious preachers, and teachers of new doctrine, which pretend to preach God’s word, but in very deed they preach their own fancies, … they know not today what they would have tomorrow, … they open the book, but they cannot shut it again. … And I verily believe, that all the plagues that have chanced to this realm … hath justly fallen upon us, for that we have divided ourselves from the rest of Christendom … Have we not had war, famine, pestilence, the death of our king, rebellion, sedition among ourselves, conspiracies? … And if this be not able to move you, look upon Germany, which since it is fallen into this schism, … is by continual … discord, brought almost to utter ruin and decay. Therefore, lest an utter ruin come among you, by provoking too much just vengeance of God, … be not ashamed to return home again, … and so shall you bring yourselves again to be members of Christ’s body. … Look upon your creed, have you not there these words: I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, which is the universal number of all faithful people, professing Christ, dispersed through the universal world: of which number I trust to be one. I could bring many more things for this purpose, albeit I am unlearned, as all you know, but this shall suffice. And here I do protest unto you good people, most earnestly, even from the bottom of my heart, that this which I have spoken is of myself, not being required … by any man, nor for any flattery, or hope of life, … but I have declared this only upon mine own mind and affection, for discharge of my conscience, and for the zeal and love that I bear to my natural country.

I could good people rehearse much more … but you know I have another thing to do, whereunto I must prepare me, for the time draweth away. … And after he had thus spoken he kneeled down … and bowing toward the block he said, I have deserved a thousand deaths, and thereupon he made a cross upon the straw, and kissed it, and laid his head upon the block, and so died.19

According to Guaras the condemned man’s blindfold had slipped down suddenly, so that ‟at the moment when he again stretched himself out, … he smote his hands together, as who should say, this must be, and cast himself upon the said beam, where the executioner struck off his head at a blow, and may our Lord be pleased to have him in His holy glory! And although his treasons were many and notorious, his end was that of a true and catholic Christian, and he took his death most patiently. … And your Lordship may be assured that the Duke’s confession has edified the people more than if all the Catholics in the land had preached for ten years.“

Simon Renard brought up some further aspects:

The Duke’s Christian death has been misinterpreted and denounced by the heretics, who say he did as he did out of hypocrisy, in the belief that he might incline the Queen to show him mercy. But small attention is paid to the sayings of heretics and misguided men, and the truth is generally accepted and recognised, namely that the Catholic manner in which he and his accomplices ended their lives, together with their final profession of faith and recantation will assist religious affairs here, and promote them better than can be expressed in this writing; and not merely in England, but in Germany, Italy and wherever it may become known. …

We have been told that the scaffolding on which the Duke was beheaded was first put up for his father, who lost his head at the same place and on the same day forty-five years ago, for similar crimes and ambition, having attempted to exclude the late King Henry VIII from the Crown and usurp it, after concealing for five or six days the death of the late King Henry VII for that purpose. This kingdom is so much subject to change and permutation that nothing can be said to be quite certain. Your Majesty will be judge whether it can be considered a reasonable thing that the fellow-conspirators who put their signature to the will, who after mutual consultation elevated Jane to the throne, issued orders to the people enjoining obedience to her, who wrote to Queen Mary the letters containing plain evidence of rebellion, contempt and evil intentions, … should be appointed judges of the suspect and the guilty.20

The Emperor had followed the proceedings against the Duke with fascination, and personally demanded an accurate account of what he said on the scaffold.21 It is of interest what John Dudley was ready to confess and what not, whether in interrogations or in public. His family meant everything to him, and at his trial he asked ‟that her Majesty may be gracious to my children, … considering they went by my commandment who am their father, and not of their own free wills“. So, the fact that his five sons were in government hands was probably an important incentive for him to meet the Queen’s wishes. Yet it is clear that, while not blaming anyone specific, Northumberland was not prepared to accept the sole responsibility for the ‟plot“ against Mary’s succession. Most experts believe that he was honest on this point, the evidence suggesting that ‟My devise for the succession“ originated with Edward and was one of his pet projects. The ambassadors summarized the case for the Emperor on 4 September 1553:

We have not been able to find out more about the trial of the Duke of Northumberland, and the answers he gave, than we have written already to your Majesty. The Queen sent us word that he made no confession as to the French intrigues or as to the charge of poisoning. The marriage of his son Guilford was promoted by the Marquis of Northampton, the Earl of Pembroke, the Duke of Suffolk and others; and it appears that it was thought best not to inquire too closely into what had happened, so as to make no discoveries that might prejudice those who assisted in the trial and the rendering of the sentences. …

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 … We have been told that the Duke of Northumberland’s sons will not be executed.

1 Loades 1996 p. 265
2 Loades 1996 p. 257
3 Beer 1973 p. 41
4 Loades 2006 p. 224
5 Starkey 2001 p. 105
6 Beer 1973 p. 112
7 Starkey 2001 p. 105
8 Loades 2004 p. 102
9 Loades 1996 pp. 167 – 168, 212 – 213
10 Loades 1996 p. 168
11 Starkey 2001 p. 101
12 Chapman 1962 p. 148
13 CSP Span 22 July 1553
14 CSP Span 16 August 1553
15 CSP Span 5 September 1553
16 CSP Span 27 August 1553
17 CSP Span 5 September 1553
18 CSP Span 27 August 1553
19 Jordan and Gleason 1975 pp. 44 – 47
20 CSP Span 27 August 1553
21 Jordan and Gleason 1975 p. 48


Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11 – 1553. (ed. Royall Tyler, 1916): http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=973

Calendar of State Papers, Foreign, Edward VI, 1547 – 1553. (ed. W. B. Turnbull, 1861).

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

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

Chapman, Hester (1962): Lady Jane Grey. Jonathan Cape.

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

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.

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

Loades, David (2006): Mary Tudor: The Tragical History of the First Queen of England. The National Archives.

Merriman, Marcus (2000): The Rough Wooings: Mary Queen of Scots, 1542–1551. Tuckwell.

Richards, Judith (2007): „Edward VI and Mary Tudor: Protestant King and Catholic Sister“. History Review. Issue 59. December 2007.

Starkey, David (2001): Elizabeth: Apprenticeship. Vintage.

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

First published on 5 March 2011 at thehistoryfiles.com


About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law" and I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.worldpress.com
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