For medieval man the hour of death was much more important than the hour of birth. With death started, so to speak, another life, the wait for Judgment Day in purgatory; therefore masses for the dead had to be said, preferably on the anniversaries of their death, which thus had to be recorded. The growth of astrology in the 14th and 15th centuries changed things in so far as the constellation of the stars at the moment of birth acquired utmost importance, for the better making of horoscopes. The widespread celebration of birthdays grew out of Protestant objection against saints’ feast days – and thus people’s name days – and it came slowly. During the 16th century it was a rare phenomenon even among monarchs: The day of Elizabeth I’s accession was the feast day, not her birthday.
Modern historians, of course, need birth dates. During the 19th century they were sometimes simply fixed at a hypothetical date and in this form live on in genealogical standard works and encyclopedias, continuing to be repeated as fact in history books and family trees even if new material is found. An estimate based on a real source is wonderful – however, it can get complicated when too much material has survived. The case of Titian, one of the 16th century’s greatest celebrities, may serve to illustrate the dilemma: For centuries it was believed, in accordance with two 17th century accounts (one of them by a distant relative), that the artist was born in 1477 and lived to the ripe age of 99. Meanwhile, most scholars have arrived at the conclusion that his birth occurred around 1488–1490, a date based on remarks by his earliest biographers, Dolce and Vasari, who both knew him personally. He would then have been between 86 and 88 at his death in 1576. His death certificate states that he died at 103, however, and Philip II’s ambassador to Venice regularly changed Titian’s age in reports to his master as the years passed: in 1555 he was 85, in 1561 he was over 80, in 1564 almost 90. According to the ambassador’s successor he was once again 85 in 1567, and in 1571 the artist himself informed King Philip that he was 95!
The birth dates of Robert Dudley and his family are no less problematic; his own year of birth has variously been given as 1532 or 1533 in both old and new literature. A date (certainly wrong as regards the birthday) in 1533 has been inferred from a remark in William Camden’s 1615 Annals, while the birth year 1532 is substantiated by a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard. It can reasonably be assumed that Hilliard got the right year from his foremost patron – although things seem less clear with Sir Francis Drake, another case of too many sources. Interestingly, Emmanuel van Meteren, a historian who had known Robert Dudley for decades, believed he was born in 1525!
Documents giving their exact birth dates survive for both of Leicester’s sons. The elder, Sir Robert Dudley, was born on 7 August 1574 according to papers relating to his legitimacy case in 1604. The old Dictionary of National Biography, though, gave his birth date as May 1573, from a 17th century students’ register at Oxford University. The younger son, Robert Dudley, Lord Denbigh, was born on 6 June 1581 according to family papers rediscovered in 1992.1 Sadly, since then this date has often been ignored and so the entirely invented date of 1579 continues in many books – though some earlier writers did at least guess the correct year, relying on Philip Sidney’s devise in the accession tilts for the year 1581, which expressed his dashed hopes of inheriting his uncle’s fortune and title by changing his motto “Spero” (“I hope”) into a crossed through “SPERAVI” (“I have hoped”).
Regarding the birth dates of Robert Dudley’s brothers and sisters there is nearly hopeless confusion. Still, a recent biography of their sister-in-law Lady Jane Grey knows that Mary Dudley was “close to Jane in age” (about 16) in 1553, that her sister Katherine was 12, her brother Guildford 17, and Henry, her youngest brother, 16.2 For none of these claims is there a source, but the girls’ supposed ages seem especially odd. As regards Mary, the only thing known is that she was the eldest daughter and that in spring 1551 she married, quite possibly for love.3 According to the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography she was born between 1530 and 1535, although there is no reason why she could not have been born before 1530. The same dictionary gives the age of Katherine Dudley at her “marriage” in May 1553 as 15; once again there is no basis for this. Her mother’s will implies that she was still under 12 (the age of marital consent for girls) in January 1555, and she must have been one of two daughters named Katherine, born in 1543 and 1545, respectively,4 probably the elder. She would then have been only 10 in spring 1553, or even eight.
Guildford Dudley is often said to have been born in 1536, or 1535, or 1534. As no documentary evidence of any sort survives, the reason for this “fact” seems to be his unusual Christian name, his mother’s maiden name. His grandfather Sir Edward Guildford died in 1534 and the idea is that since he was named after him, he must have been born soon after his death.5 However, one of his godfathers was Diego de Mendoza, a Spanish diplomat who stayed in England in 1537/1538, and an excellent case has been made that Guildford was born in those years rather than earlier, probably in spring 1537.6
The birth year of Robert Dudley’s elder brother John, the third son of the family, is given as c.1527 in the ODNB and as 1530 in some family trees in books. The first date is obviously inferred from his parents’ assumed marriage date around 1525, but there is no evidence to confirm the notion that the couple’s third son (but not necessarily the third child) must have been born only two or three years after that event. The year 1530, on the other hand, is given by at least one of the surviving manuscript pedigrees, one made for the Earl of Leicester. It is confirmed by a statement in John Dee’s dedication of his Mathematicall Praeface of 1570: “This noble earl died Anno 1554 scarce of 24 years of age”.
John Dudley, the later Duke of Northumberland, was described in a parliamentary statute of February 1512 as “not yet eight years old”, which indicates he was born between February 1504 and February 1505.7 Indeed, his two academic biographies from 1973 and 1996, as well as a doctoral thesis from 1927 about his “life and times”, accept 1504/1505 as the time of his birth. So does the ODNB, while The History of Parliament proposes a date between 1504 and 1506, “estimated from age at the restoration in blood in 1512 when he was ‘under the age of eight years’ and from his sale of property in 1527.” – Yet 40 years after these fruits of scholarship appeared in print, many books and encyclopedias, not least Encyclopedia Britannica, including its “regularly updated” online version, still claim that John Dudley was born in 1502, or even 1501. It will come as no surprise that there seems to be no basis whatsoever for these earlier dates.
John Dudley’s father, Edmund, is a trickier case: According to the 17th century antiquarian William Dugdale (and the ODNB) he was born in 1462, but an inquisition post mortem concerning his mother’s death on 12 October 1498 states Edmund was then “aged twenty six and more”; since this is to mean “more than twenty six and less than twenty seven” (rather than “any age over twenty six”), he would have been born between 13 October 1471 and 12 October 1472. His educational progress in the 1470s and 1480s at Oxford and the Inns of Court has been hypothesized on the basis of the year of birth given by Dugdale, while his public career in parliament and on peace commissions (jointly with his father) is traceable since 1491.8 And so, in that year, the eldest son of an influential gentleman and grandson of a major baron may or may not have been a very young MP.
1 Adams 2008a
2 de Lisle 2009 pp. 99, 92, 84, 114
3 Adams 2008b
4 Adams 1995 p. 44
5 Wilson 2005 p. 89
6 Higginbotham 2011; de Lisle 2013 pp. 261, 492
7 Loades 1996 p. 8
8 Loades 1996 pp. 1, 2; Gunn 2008
John Dee: The Mathematicall Praeface. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22062/22062-h/main.html
Genelogies of the Erles of Lecestre and Chester: U Penn Ms. Codex 1070. http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/medren/detail.html?id=MEDREN_4218616
Adams, Simon (ed.) (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.
Adams, Simon (2008a): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Adams, Simon (2008b): ‟Sidney, Mary, Lady Sidney (1530×35–1586)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Beer, B. L. (1973): Northumberland: The Political Career of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland. The Kent State University Press.
Chamberlin, Frederick (1939): Elizabeth and Leycester. Dodd, Mead & Co.
Cross, Claire (2008): ‟Hastings, Katherine, countess of Huntingdon (c.1538–1620)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
de Lisle, Leanda (2009): The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey. A Tudor Tragedy. Ballantine Books.
de Lisle, Leanda (2013): Tudor: The Family Story. Chatto & Windus.
Freedman, Sylvia (1983): Poor Penelope: Lady Penelope Rich. An Elizabethan Woman. The Kensal Press.
Görich, Knut (2011): Friedrich Barbarossa: Eine Biographie. C. H. Beck.
Gunn, S. J. (2008): “Dudley, Edmund (c.1462–1510)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Hale, Sheila (2012): Titian: His Life. Harper Press.
Haynes, Alan (1987): The White Bear: The Elizabethan Earl of Leicester. Peter Owen.
Higginbotham, Susan (2011): ‟How Old Was Guildford Dudley? (Beats Me).“ http://www.susanhigginbotham.com/blog/posts/how-old-was-guildford-dudley-beats-me/
Kelsey, Harry (1998): Sir Francis Drake. Yale University Press.
Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.
Loades, David (2008): ‟Dudley, John, duke of Northumberland (1504–1553)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Sugden, John (2006): Sir Francis Drake. Pimlico.
Warner, G.F. (ed.) (1899): The Voyage of Robert Dudley to the West Indies, 1594–1595. Hakluyt Society.
Wilson, Derek (2005): The Uncrowned Kings of England: The Black History of the Dudleys and the Tudor Throne. Carroll & Graf.