Sir John Dudley Goes to Spain

On 12 October 1537 England finally was blessed with the prince the country had yearned for so long. Three days later, among “all estates and gentlemen present at the christening” was listed “Sir John Dudley”.1 He already had played his part in Princess Elizabeth’s baptism four years before, but this time he was additionally chosen to bring the glad tidings to the emperor.

In late 1537 John Dudley was either 32 or 33 and his fifth-born son, Robert, was five. He decided to travel to Spain not by sea, but through France. This was not for lack of experience on the waters, for the same year had also seen his appointment as Vice-Admiral and he did his job, which consisted chiefly of clearing the Channel from Breton pirates, with great diligence.

On coming to Boleyn [Boulogne] I chanced to find the Bretons that I took upon the sea, who tried to impeach me for the things my mariners took from them; whereupon the captain came out of the castle and beat them with his sword that it would have pitied a man to have seen it, and caused them to be put into a dungeon within the castle, although they had only come wandering about me, asking for some compensation.2

The Emperor Charles V, by Christoph Amberger, 1532

The Emperor Charles V, 1532, by Christoph Amberger

Sir John’s diplomatic immunity thus spared him any further inconvenience, and he proceeded to Paris. At this juncture France and the Empire, the age-old rivals, were drawing nearer together, even talking of peace (as Dudley informed Cromwell); this was alarming for Henry VIII, who feared to be left isolated and vulnerable, and so he offered himself as peace broker.

In early November 1537 Charles V was staying in north-eastern Spain, at the former Templar castle of Monzón in Aragón; Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry VIII’s resident ambassador, had just been in trouble for promoting the new faith (through distributing his own pamphlets) – and speaking bad of the pope in the emperor’s presence.3

Wyatt and Dudley had been “good friends” since their youth, having got to know each other via the Guildford family.4 Now, Sir Thomas was happy to greet Sir John at Monzón, and their audience with the emperor occurred probably on 8 November. Of this event Dudley wrote his own “Memorye”:

After the King’s effectuous recommendations to the Emperor’s Majesty by me declared and his Highness’ letters delivered, the Emperor thanked God of the news, of which he was no less glad than he was of his own child which was born 20 Oct., the same present month that the King his brother’s son was born in. Although he would have been glad if the benefit had been to his own blood, he was as rejoiced as if it had been by his aunt [Katherine of Aragon]. He had always a good opinion of the King’s last marriage, as much as he was cloyed with the other. He trusted that things between the King and him would go the better for this, and prayed God to send the King’s son long life.

When we perceived he had finished his answer and showed gladness we declared the stature and goodliness of the child, and who were the godfathers and godmothers. I declared I was sorry he had made no better answer to the King’s ambassador touching the overture for peace between him and the Most Christian King, which would have been acceptable to God and laudable to himself. Mr. Wiat added “Sire, undoubtedly my fellow Mr. Dudeley here present hath the like commandment as I had to treat in this overture of peace to your Majesty, how well that I think the matter is already so far forwards and at so good a point betwixt your Majesty and the French king … and though you were sure that the King [my] master would be right glad of a peace, which thing he desireth nothing more, yet you were in doubt how his Majesty would conceive it, seeing the overture and mediation that he made was no otherwise embraced.”

He answered to this “M. Ambassador, at the last time you were with me for this matter, truth it is I did not so frankly utter my mind to you as I will do now.” He then said that one Cornelius … came from his sister in Flanders through France, by whom the French king sent word that he would “intend to the peace.” … I said I saw no great appearance of peace considering the French king’s passing the mountains with so great an army … He answered he did not think the French king would much prevail there, where the marquis de Guast was ready for him with 30,000 Spaniards and Italians, the best men of war that ever he had. No other mention of peace had been made and nothing would be concluded without the King’s privity. … He asked how his cousin the lady Mary did.5

It was uppermost on Charles’ agenda to achieve England’s return to Rome, to end the “English schism”. He offered to mediate between Henry and the Holy See, “if the king would”. Wyatt and Dudley made clear to his Imperial Majesty that, quite apart from King Henry, the English people would never return to “the yoke … and that that mediation should be but vain”. – That was Wyatt’s version of their words, yet Charles got the impression that “nevertheless, the proposal did not seem altogether distasteful to them”.6

The papal nuncio was very hopeful and excited, too, praising the two English diplomats as “fine men”. It was always clear to Wyatt and Dudley, though, that Henry’s reconciliation to the papacy was not an option and, more importantly, that they could not afford to let anyone in England think that they had wavered for a second on this issue. Still, keen to defuse the notion of England’s isolation, they somehow managed to leave Charles dreaming of King Henry contributing to Christianity’s crusade against the Turk.7

This particular chimera lasted less than a fortnight, Charles threatening to withdraw his ambassador from England a few days after Dudley had left the Imperial court, leaving Wyatt on his own again. When John Dudley, a good rider, arrived in Lyon he heard rumours that Wyatt had been arrested on the emperor’s orders; this was not true, but Dudley was now taken prisoner by the Chancellor of France and the Cardinal of Tournon, who had been expecting him. They said they acted on the King of France’s orders.

Dudley, having smelt the rat, had already sent his own messenger to Paris – in guise of a merchant – so that the most important news should reach England. Francis I, on hearing this, thought Dudley “had perhaps learnt some subtlety in Spain”.8 But all English messengers were being stopped now: “All the posts between this and Calais are stayed. [Which] can mean no truth to the King,” wrote Dudley on 26 November, still detained in Lyon. He complained that his news would be “cold” by now and that his treatment by the French, so dishonourable to the King of England, was in “every mouth”.9

He was back in England for Christmas, though, and Henry VIII himself had Sir Thomas Wyatt informed of how the issue had played out:

Sir John Dudley, late ambassador to the Emperor, has reported the Emperor’s kind entertainment of him. … If the Emperor marvel that he has not heard from [us] (as it is so long since the departure of Sir John Dudley), Wyat shall declare that Dudley was stayed at Lyons 12 days by Card. Tournon, whereat the French king was displeased.10

The Wyatt-Dudley friendship survived this instance of diplomacy: In June 1539, Dudley was busy extracting Wyatt’s arrears in ambassadorial diets from the Exchequer.11

1 L&P 15 October 1537 No. 911
2 L&P 25 October 1537 No. 987
3 Brigden 2012 p. 347
4 Brigden 2012 pp. 80, 130
5 L&P 10 November 1537 No. 1053
6 Brigden 2012 pp. 347 – 348
7 Brigden 2012 pp. 348 – 349
8 Brigden 2012 p. 349; L&P 23 December 1537 No. 1253
9 Brigden 2012 p. 349; L&P 26 November 1537 No. 1133
10 L&P 23 December 1537 No. 1249
11 Loades 1996 p. 41

Letters and Papers of Henry VIII.

Brigden, Susan (2012): Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest. Faber & Faber.

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

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 Edward VI, friends & foes, Henry VIII, John Dudley, letters and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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