John Dudley’s Last Letter: Is It Authentic?

John Dudley – Sloping shoulders, far too few buttons, and an unfinished neck region give this version of a lost original an air of caricature

On the eve of his execution for his attempt to place Lady Jane Grey – his daughter-in-law – on the English throne, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland was sitting in his cell in the Tower of London writing a letter to the Earl of Arundel, a man he had not always treated well. He begged him to intercede with Queen Mary for his life. Or was he? Northumberland’s biographer Professor Barrett L. Beer spoke of ‟one of the most pathetic letters of the sixteenth century“,1 while his later biographer, Professor David Loades, has described it as both ‟abject“2 and ‟very moving“3 in different publications in one and the same year. Like many sources of the era it survives only in transcript and is generally thought to be genuine.

A forgery cannot be ruled out, though,4 and it is intriguing that the transcript is believed to have been made from a letter found in the study of Mr. Dell, secretary to Archbishop Laud,5 the anti-Puritan primate who was executed in 1645 by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. This is significant because Robert Dudley, the Elizabethan Earl of Leicester and famous son of John Dudley, as the most notable patron of the Elizabethan Puritan clergy had been a bête noire to the very conservative Archbishop Whitgift, and because the episcopal Anglican High Church developed ‟a direct interest in discrediting“ Leicester’s posthumous reputation.6 This would explain the interest of churchmen in an embarrassing letter written by the Earl’s notorious father. Another puzzling aspect of the letter is its careful composition and its forceful if florid language, which is difficult to reconcile with a man in panic who, according to some critics, was unable to express himself coherently anyway. However, some of John Dudley’s undoubtedly authentic letters are written in excellent and forceful English, and it seems the style of the letter in question, while not the norm, is not untypical of the grandfather of Sir Philip Sidney.

On 18 August 1553 the Duke of Northumberland and his eldest son, the Earl of Warwick, were condemned to die a traitor’s death. The Duke asked for the sentence to be commuted so that he could have ‟that death which noblemen have had in times past, and not the other“. He also begged the Queen to be merciful to his children and that he may see a ‟learned man“ for the ease of his conscience.7 Queen Mary had already sent the Duke a Catholic clergyman some weeks before so that he might not ‟fall prey to despair in his prison“.8 This time she sent her new Lord Chancellor, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, himself recently released from the Tower. Northumberland had once struck the Bishop in the face (after the ‟heretic“ Anne Askew had been burnt at the stake on the contrivance of Gardiner); in later years he had been instrumental in depriving Gardiner of his bishopric, and it seems unlikely that any love was lost between the two men. The outcome of their encounters was that John Dudley renounced his hitherto markedly Protestant faith and was reconciled to the Catholic Church.

By their very nature the details of such confidential meetings must remain secret, yet a French contemporary reported that Dudley was sorry ‟that he had entered the Protestant sect … [and] that if God gave him the grace of longer life he would endeavour to amend these past faults“, and that he pleaded with Gardiner to ‟intercede with the queen to grant him life in some low and vile condition“.9 Strikingly, as we shall see the very last point appears also in his last letter as it would have in another to Gardiner, now lost. A late Elizabethan tale spread by the Jesuit Robert Parsons repeats as much when it has the Duke say to the Bishop: ‟I would do penance all the days of my life, if it were but in a mouse-hole – is there no hope of mercy?“ This story, designed to stress the saintliness of the ‟gentle Gardiner“, ends with both men in tears.10

The Protestant outrage at Northumberland’s ‟apostasy“ is encapsulated in Lady Jane Grey’s remarks about her father-in-law, which she made a week after his execution, at dinner:

‟I pray you,“ quod she, ‟have they mass in London?“ ‟Yay, forsooth,“ quod I, ‟in some places.“ ‟It may so be,“ quod she, ‟it is not so strange as the sudden conversion of the late duke; for who would have thought,“ said she, ‟he would have so done?“ It was answered her, ‟perchance he thereby hoped to have had his pardon.“ ‟Pardon?“ quod she; ‟wo worth him! He hath brought me and our stock in most miserable calamity and misery by his exceeding ambition. But for th’ answering that he hoped for life by his turning, though other men be of that opinion, I utterly am not; for what man is there living, I pray you, although he had been innocent, that would hope of life in that case; being in the field against the queen in person as general, and after his taking so hated and evil spoken of by the commons? And at his coming into prison so wondered at as the like was never heard … Who was judge that he should hope for pardon, whose life was odious to all men? But what will ye more? Like as his life was wicked and full of dissimulation, so was his end thereafter. I pray God, I, nor no friend of mine, die so. Should I, who [am] young and in my few years, forsake my faith for the love of life? Nay, God forbid! Much more he should not, whose fatal course, although he had lived his just number of years, could not have long continued. But life was sweet, it appeared; so he might have lived, you will say, he did [not] care how. Indeed the reason is good; for he that would have lived in chains to have had his life … would leave no other mean attempted. But God be merciful to us, for he sayeth, whoso denieth him before men, he will not know him in his Father’s kingdom.”11

Understandable though her outburst is, it cannot serve as factual evidence and says more about Jane herself than it does about John Dudley. She could not have known him well personally, nor had she been a witness to his last days – and according to her claims she had not been aware of a plot to put her on the throne, so she cannot be counted as an inside source as to its origins. It is revealing that she completely ignores the role of her own family in the proceedings, while her narrow-minded use of the gospel makes clear the bitterness of the religious conflict.

In keeping with Lady Jane’s opinion, the Habsburg ambassadors indignantly reported after the Duke’s execution that ‟the heretics … say he did as he did out of hypocrisy, in the belief that he might incline the Queen to show him mercy.“12 Within the next few years this leitmotif was taken up by authors like John Knox, John Ponet, and Theodore Beza in their propaganda war with the regime of Mary I. According to Beza, even Northumberland’s allusion to the Creed on the scaffold was worthless, coming from ‟him who is not even able to recite the articles of faith, or if so he falsifies them quite openly“, for in reality ‟he asked pardon of the Queen and not of God.“13 In Elizabethan times, John Foxe became convinced that Mary’s government had promised Northumberland his life for his return to popery, ‟the Papists … rejoicing not a little at his conversion, or rather subversion, as it then appeared.“14

John Dudley probably did hope for a pardon, and here his last letter (authentic or not) comes into play as proof of it. At Cambridge, having finally proclaimed Mary himself (an occasion at which he ‟so laughed that the tears ran down his cheeks for grief“), he said to the Vice-Chancellor Edwin Sandys that the Queen was a merciful woman and that he hoped for a general pardon.15 However, when he entered the Tower a few days later he was under no illusions about his fate: ‟when he reached his prison they say his only care was to have nobles to judge him, as is the custom in England, and that his remorse and evil conscience were astonishing.“16 Nearly a month later he could see that only very few people were being prosecuted for their part in elevating Jane to the throne, that many had climbed back into favour, and that even of those condemned so far only three men were scheduled to die – he being the only one of high rank. It is no wonder that hope replaced realism. This does not necessarily mean, though, that he was looking out for a reprieve until the last moment of his life. His last letter is often vaguely associated with this particular cliché; however, between his writing of it and his performance in the next morning there lies a night of many hours, and he delivered an elaborate scaffold speech from which it appears that he had made his peace with God and the world. Catholic observers like the Habsburg ambassadors or the Spanish eyewitness Antonio de Guaras had no doubts about the ‟most patient“ and ‟Christian death of the Duke“.17

It is in fact inherently unlikely that John Dudley’s return to the old faith was insincere, for true atheists were extremely rare in the 16th century. His last speech, as handed down in several rather similar versions, sounds honest, and though he clearly set out to please the government in what he said, he said a bit more than was suitable for that purpose. Antonio de Guaras, the Spanish merchant, understood English well:

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 … 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, … 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 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 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 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.18

Written perhaps 12 hours before, John Dudley’s last letter to the Earl of Arundel – the very man who had led the Privy Council in deserting Jane’s cause and had arrested the Duke at Cambridge – certainly was a last-ditch plea, yet it betrays no signs of panic. Here we have a veteran statesman who, struggling to be resigned to his fate, had by no means lost his nerves and had yet not quite given up:

Honourable lord, and in this my distress my especial refuge; most woeful was the news I received this evening by Mr. Lieutenant, that I must prepare myself against tomorrow to receive my deadly stroke. Alas my good lord, is my crime so heynous as no redemption but my blood can wash away the spots therof? An old proverb there is and that most true that a living dog is better than a dead lion. O that it would please her good grace to give me life, yea, the life of a dog, that I might live and kiss her feet, and spend both life and all I have in her honourable service, as I have the best part already under her worthy brother and her most glorious father. O that her mercy were such as she would consider how little profit my dead and dismembered body can bring her, but how great and glorious an honour it will be in all posterity when the report shall be that so gracious and mighty a queen had granted life to so miserable and penitent an object. Your honourable usage and promises to me since these my troubles have made me bold to challenge this kindness at your hands. Pardon me if I have done amiss therein and spare not I pray your bended knee for me in this distress, ye God of heaven it may be will requite it one day on you and yours. And if my life be lengthened by your mediacion and my good Lord Chancellor’s (to whom I have also sent my blurred letters) I will vow it to be spent at your honourable feet. O my good lord remember how sweet life is, and how bitter ye contrary. Spare not your speech and pains for God I hope hath not shut out all hope of comfort from me in that gracious, Princely and womanlike heart; but that as the doleful news of death hath wounded to death both my soul and body, so that comfortable news of life shall be as a new resurrection to my woeful heart. But if no remedy can be found, either by imprisonment or confiscation, Banishment and the like, I can say no more but God give me patience to endure and a heart to forgive the whole world.

Once your fellow and loving companion, but now
worthy of no name but wretchedness and misery,


1 Beer 1973 p. 159
2 Loades 2004b p. 135
3 Loades 2004a
4 Loades 1996 p. 269; Loades 2004b p.143
5 Beer 1973 p. 214
6 Adams 2004
7 Tytler 1839 pp. 225 – 226
8 CSP Span 8 August 1553
9 Ives 2009 p. 118
10 Chapman 1962 p. 165; Ives 2009 pp. 118, 310
11 Chronicle of Queen Jane pp. 25 – 26
12 CSP Span 27 August 1553
13 Jordan and Gleason 1975 pp. 50 – 54
14 Loades 1996 p. 271; Beer 1973 p. 159
15 Chapman 1962 p. 148; Ives 2009 p. 242
16 CSP Span 27 July 1553
17 Guaras p. 109; CSP Span 27 August 1553
18 Guaras pp. 105 – 107
19 Loades 1996 p. 269

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

The Chronicle of Queen Jane. (ed. J. G. Nichols, 1850)

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

Adams, Simon (2004): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford 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.

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 (2004a): ‟Dudley, John, duke of Northumberland (1504–1553)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

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

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

First published on 14 May 2011 at


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
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