On 24 June 1532 (or, possibly, 1533) Lady Jane Dudley, the wife of Sir John Dudley, gave birth to her fifth son, Robert. It was a holiday with much street celebration in England, the Feast of St. John the Baptist. It may also have been his father’s name day, so that baby Robert was arguably a very special present. Robert was either the fifth or the sixth child of his parents, depending on whether his sister Mary was older or younger than he. His eldest brother, Henry, was about seven in June 1532, while his mother was 23 or 24. Robert was to see the arrival of seven or eight more siblings, the last of which seems to have been born in early 1547, when he was 14.
Robert’s grandfather, Sir Edward Guildford, died when Robert was two. He had been a close friend of the king and, as Master of the Tower Armouries, had been responsible for His Majesty’s body armour. John Dudley now stepped into the post; he too was an old companion of Henry VIII, having served as a Knight of the Body since 1524. As Sir Edward’s ward he had grown up in the Guildford household, where, as a teenager, he became friends with John Leland, the antiquary, and Thomas Wyatt, the poet. They remained “good friends” for the rest of their lives.1
This was the intellectual climate of the Dudley household, and in 1576 Robert assured a friend that he had always adhered to the reformed faith, “you know I was ever from my cradle brought up in it.” – The Dudleys moved in the “evangelical” circles around Anne Boleyn; among the pupils of the French humanist Nicolas Bourbon was the ten-year-old Henry Dudley: “You, Oh queen, gave me the boys to educate”.2
Within a few months this world came crushing down; on 10 May 1536 Sir John Dudley informed Lady Lisle at Calais:
As touching the news that are here, I am sure it needeth not to write to you nor to my lord of them, for all the world knoweth them by this time. This day was indicted Mr. Norris, Mr. Weston, William Brereton, Markes [Mark Smeaton] and my Lord of Rochford. And upon Friday next they shall be arraigned at Westminster. And the Queen herself shall be condemned by Parliament.3
Back in France, Nicolas Bourbon exhorted the Dudleys “to continue to follow the banners of Christ”, and he praised Sir John’s happy family life: “the love and devotion with which you and your noble wife adorn the ties of sacred marriage”. – Their deep attachment is indeed borne out by surviving letters. Yet the Dudley household was never a dour or dull place, nor was Lady Dudley only concerned with her pregnancies and her offspring. In September 1537, when Robert was five, she “feasted” at the court, “with right good dishes and great cheer”, Anne and Katherine, the stepdaughters of Sir John’s own stepfather, Viscount Lisle, the Lord Deputy of Calais.4 Only a few weeks later “a book of the Quenes juelles” was compiled after Jane Seymour’s death in childbirth; among the items listed were some beads given to “Lady Duddeley”.5
In 1546, when John Dudley, now Viscount Lisle himself, travelled to the French court his wife requested him to bring back “some goldsmith’s work from Parys” – he claimed however to have bought so many presents already that he could not afford anymore, and anyway:
The great ladies of this Court which be young, and also the young noblemen, be exceeding rich in apparel. The ladies that be anything in years weareth neither goldsmith work neither jewels, nor none other but those which be duchess, marquess or princess.6
All this he did not write to his wife (“lacking leisure”) but rather to his colleague William Paget; after all, Jane Dudley was now 38 and “only” a viscountess.
Back in 1536 Sir John had made a private visit to Calais to see his stepfather. In case he had bought any presents for his wife and children all may have been lost, for he was robbed on his way home: some Frenchmen assaulted him “and took away his purse and letters.”7
Sir Edward Guildford had lived at Halden in Kent and it may have been here that Robert Dudley was born in 1532. He certainly would have passed part of his earliest years there. Though his father rented a London house at Holborn, he did not acquire a grand property of his own until well into the reign of Edward VI, when Robert was a young man. The Dudleys also possessed lands in Sussex, and by the 1530s Sir John had his eye firmly on Dudley Castle in Staffordshire. This ancient seat of his clan was owned by his second cousin, Baron Dudley, a man hopelessly in debt through his ancestors’ big spending and his own financial incompetence.8 John Dudley scratched up the huge sum of £7,500 through his City contacts and lent it to his relative who in turn mortgaged his castle to him. And Lord Dudley never paid a penny back; so Sir John foreclosed after half a decade, and thus came into possession of Dudley Castle, where he immediately started impressive building works. It is believed that Robert and his siblings and their mother mostly lived at the castle during the late 1530s. The new Renaissance wing was a beautiful structure:
a flight of steps leading up to a loggia fronted by a row of ionic columns … gave unto a porch from which a door led into the great hall, twenty-four metres in length … Morning and evening light streamed into this impressive space through large rectangular windows.9
Sir John also provided for more private quarters: a great chamber and four or five bed chambers located over the large kitchen and bakery, so the family had it always warm!
The other branch of the Dudley family were not amused by this change in their fortunes; their efforts to avoid the consequences of financial ruin (in the form of pleas to Henry VIII) having failed, they resorted to burglary: Lord Dudley’s brother Arthur, a priest, “wrongfully entered into the castle of Dudley and thereupon brake up certain chests and coffers, then being in the said castle, wherein remained divers evidences, charters, writings, court rolls, … etc. … and took them away with him and keepeth them in his possession and custody”. Unsurprisingly, he “at all times denied and utterly refused to return them”.10
The dangers of 16th century life were not confined to robbery and burglary, however. Plague and smallpox were a constant threat, as Sir John found out on a rare visit to his seat and family. Thomas Cromwell, the king’s secretary, was immediately informed:
Please it your Lordship; so it is that within two or three days after my coming home to Dudley, Andrew Flamoke and his son came thither to me, and the same night sickened both in a bed in my house, and by the next day at night, the son was dead full of the marks, and the father hath a blain. And no way with him but on as they that keepeth him can conjecture; they came both out of Gloucestershire from Mr. Poyntz, and whether they brought it from thence or by the way, God knoweth, for this country was as clear before their coming as any county in England.
Since Andrew Flamock was also keeper of Kenilworth Castle, another beautiful place Sir John had a distinct liking for, he asked straightaway for the (possibly) now vacant office for himself:
If it might please your good Lordship to be so good Lord unto me to be a mean for me to the King’s highness for the office of Kenilworth, I were much bound to your Lordship, if not, your Lordship may do your pleasure for any other that you shall think meeter for it, for no man hath knowledge hereof by me but your Lordship. And sorry I am (as knoweth God) to send you word of such news, for the King’s highness shall lose a tall man of him. His son died this last night, and he himself both raveth and hath the blain. No more to your Lordship at this time, but the merciful Lord have you in his merciful keeping, and all yours.
Scribbled in haste, as appeareth, the 21st of March in the morning,
with the rude hand of your most bounden through life.
The elder Flamock survived his illness and died in battle against Kett’s rebels in 1549, fighting alongside his comrade John Dudley. Following this, Dudley begged Protector Somerset to grant the keepership of Kenilworth to his son Ambrose, Robert’s elder brother. The protector did not comply – alas, before long he was ousted from power and Ambrose had his keepership.
To become the perfect courtier Robert had, of course, to spend time from early on at – the court. We do not know when he made his first appearance there, but with the coming of Anne of Cleves it certainly became the chief abode of his parents. John Dudley was appointed Master of the Queen’s Horse, his wife continued as lady-in-waiting, as she had done with some of the earlier queens. Sir John also served Katherine Howard as Master of the Horse. About this time Robert must have met the Lady Elizabeth, the king’s daughter, “for they had first become friends before she was eight years old”,11 as he recalled many years later. Their favourite topic of conversation was marriage.
In Henry VIII’s next wife, Katherine Parr, the Dudleys had a particular friend in power, and during these years Robert, now the son of the Lord Admiral, may have become a companion of Prince Edward. He probably was allowed to share some of the prince’s lessons and certainly made a number of lifelong friends among his “schoolfellows”: Henry Sidney and Barnaby Fitzpatrick, but also the future earls of Pembroke and Derby, Henry Herbert and Henry Stanley.
“My bringing-up has been too long about Princes to misuse anything towards them”, he would summarize his lessons. He also learnt something else; when quarrelling with his second-in-command in the Netherlands, Sir John Norris, it occurred to Leicester that “in K. Henry the 8th’s time his doings for sure would have cost him his pate”.12
1 Brigden 2012 pp. 80, 129, 130
2 Ives 2005 p. 287
3 Wilson 2005 p. 91
4 St. Clare Byrne 1983 p. 209
5 L&P XII Part 2 No. 973
6 L&P 3 August 1546
7 Loades 1996 p. 33; L&P 24 August 1536
8 Loades 2008
9 Wilson 2005 p. 108
10 Wilson 2005 pp. 80 – 81
11 Adams 2008
12 Adams 2002 pp. 40 – 41; CSP Foreign 12 August 1587
Calendar of State Papers, Foreign http://www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue.aspx?gid=124&type=3
Letters and Papers of Henry VIII http://www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue.aspx?gid=126
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Loades, David (2013): Catherine Howard: The Adulterous Wife of Henry VIII. Amberley.
Porter, Linda (2011): Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr. Pan.
St. Clare Byrne, Muriel (ed.) (1983): The Lisle Letters: An Abridgement. Secker & Warburg.
Warnicke, R. M. (2012): Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners. Palgrave.
Wilson, Derek (2005): The Uncrowned Kings of England: The Black History of the Dudleys and the Tudor Throne. Carroll & Graf.