John Dudley was born between February 1504 and February 1505,1 probably in London, Candlewick Street. Apparently, he was named after his grandfather, Sir John Dudley of Atherington, himself a younger son of another John, the formidable first Baron of Dudley Castle who had always managed to be on the right side of the Wars of the Roses.
Baby John was the first child of Edmund Dudley, esquire, by his second wife, Elizabeth Grey. In 1505 Elizabeth was described as in her early twenties and she would have married Edmund around 1502/1503. She came from the nobility, her father being Edward Grey, 4th Viscount Lisle, and later in life she became Baroness Lisle in her own right as her brother’s co-heir. After John she bore her husband two more sons, Jerome and Andrew. From his father’s first marriage John had a half-sister, who in 1500 was described as “little Elizabeth Dudley”, indicating that she was still very young.2 She would have been something between five and eight years older than John.
In 1504 Edmund Dudley served as Speaker of the House of Commons and later in the year entered the council and counsels of King Henry VII. In 1506, when little John was about two, he was appointed President of the King’s Council. A brilliant lawyer, Edmund Dudley had worked for the City of London, including as under-sheriff, and in the king’s service he put his accumulated inside knowledge about the merchant class into practice: He and his colleague Sir Richard Empson became notorious collectors of fines and other “contributions”. The centre of Edmund’s activities was his house in Candlewick Street, positioned in the heart of London’s commercial hub, and especially its textile trade. Edmund Dudley, like Thomas Cromwell decades later, was not just an administrator but a draper or cloth trader as well.3 His first years John Dudley passed surrounded by beautiful fabrics.
The house stretched over 180 feet along the street, but as one Venetian visitor wrote, merchant houses “do not seem very large from the outside” but “they contain a great number of rooms … and are quite considerable”.4 It boasted a hall with a dais and a large old arras behind it, a “great parlour”, a “little parlour”, and, importantly, a “counting house in the little parlour”. There was a great chamber and many smaller chambers, an armoury, and “the long gallery leading to the garden”, “the low gallery by the garden”, as well as “the great gallery at the end of that”.5
When John Dudley was about three, his father obtained permission to build a private “current of water” to his house, leading off the public conduit at Cheapside. Such luxury was copied from Italian palazzi,6 and indeed one of the people most often seen in Candlewick Street would have been the Genoese banker Battista Grimaldi who collaborated intensely with Dudley.
The interior of the house was luxurious with “fine arras” on the walls, exquisite furniture, and glassware of “beyond sea making”.7 Like all parents, Edmund Dudley (writing his book, imprisoned in the Tower) was concerned that his children might be spoilt, growing up “among the women”: “Let not the feminine pity of your wives destroy your children, pamper them not at home in furred coats and their shirts to be warmed … Dandle them not too dearly lest folly fasten on them.”8
In fact, it was normal even for four-year-olds to be spanked by their doting mothers, and moral education started early. Four- and five-year-olds had to learn the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer by heart. In 1500 the Bible was still the basis of literacy, favourite passages being taken from the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus. These texts also served to instill good manners in the children.9
In the eyes of their contemporaries Empson and Dudley were “ravening wolves” who squeezed the last penny out of the poor rich and the unfortunate well-to-do. So there was great rejoicing when the two ministers, and some of their agents, were arrested in the early hours of 24 April 1509, three days after Henry VII’s death. To young John the events were unforgettable. In August royal commissioners descended on Candlewick Street to confiscate and inventorize the movables and papers of Edmund Dudley. How long John and his siblings were allowed to remain with their mother and how long they continued to live in Candlewick Street is unknown. In the Tower, his father could regain some hope when parliament did not pass his attainder despite his conviction for treason months earlier. He even dropped his plan to escape from the prison10 and turned to writing a book, The Tree of Commonwealth, a treatise on good government:
Its detailed prescriptions for the judicial system and its suspicion of noble self-assertion, mercantile chicanery, and popular idleness and disorder look very like those pursued by Henry VII’s regime. Reflections upon the previous reign and forebodings for the new meet in warnings against royal covetousness, fleshliness, warmongering, and indulgence in dangerous sports.11
That all collaborators of Empson and Dudley, even the most notorious, had meanwhile been released must have been comforting to Edmund and his family. Battista Grimaldi’s cousin now even served one of Catherine of Aragon’s Spanish ladies – after all the Grimaldi bank had processed the queen’s dowry. However, this very reinstatement of the Grimaldis caused a new outcry among the London merchants and probably contributed to Edmund Dudley’s end.12
In mid-August 1510, well over a year after their trial, Henry VIII ordered Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley to be beheaded on Tower Hill. Dudley turned to writing his will. In it he mentioned his children; Andrew and Jerome were mere toddlers or infants in 1510, and Jerome he destined to the Church. Jerome Dudley appears next in the mid-1550s, in the wills of his sister-in-law and his brother. From these it is clear that, though not bed-ridden and capable of eating normally, he needed care. He was relatively helpless and probably mentally disabled; significantly he never had a household of his own, which a person of his station could otherwise have maintained even if suffering from a physical ailment.
Edmund Dudley had been one of the executors of Henry VII’s will and while awaiting his fate he drew up a list in which he detailed his actions for his late master; it was a catalogue of the persons Henry VII had wronged “contrary to his laws”, compiled at his request so that restitution could be made for the benefit of the king’s soul. Dudley admitted that people had been imprisoned for “light matters”, that inordinate fines had been levied, that some had had a “very hard end”, and that many proceedings had been “contrary to conscience”.13
That the ministers had operated under the close scrutiny and direction of Henry VII is apparent from the king’s own personal notes, including in Dudley’s account book.14 After Henry VIII had ascended the throne and summarily dealt with his father’s “enforcers” this became a moot point, however. It was only then that the most graphic stories were written down by Polydore Vergil and the London chroniclers, and they represented the point of view of what today would be called tax evaders, whether clerical (like the Bishop of London) or civic (like the City merchants); when they write of Empson’s and Dudley’s “poor” victims some skepticism is in order. John Dudley in later life took the view that his father, like he himself, had been a faithful servant to his master; this was true, and there was a tragic irony in it:
And, for my own part, if I should have passed more upon the speech of the people than upon the service of my master, or gone about to seek favour of them without respect to his Highness’ surety, I needed not to have had so much obloquy of some kind of men; but the living God, that knoweth the hearts of all men, shall be my judge at the last day with what zeal, faith, and truth I serve my master. And though my poor father, who, after his master was gone, suffered death for doing his master’s commandments, who was the wisest prince of the world living in those days, and yet could not his commandment be my father’s charge after he was departed this life; so, for my part, with all earnestness and duty I will serve without fear, seeking nothing but the true glory of God and his Highness’ surety: so shall I most please God and have my conscience upright, and then not fear what man doth to me.15
1 Loades 1996 p. 8
2 Loades 1996 pp. 7 – 8
3 Penn 2012 p. 266; Loades 2013 p. 23
4 Penn 2012 p. 266
5 L&P 17 August 1509 No. 146
6 Penn 2012 p. 314
7 Penn 2012 p. 266
8 Brigden 2001 p. 56
9 Brigden 2001 p. 56; Smith 2013 pp. 27 – 28
10 Loades 1996 p. 11
11 Gunn 2010
12 Penn 2012 p. 373
13 Brigden 2001 p. 37
14 Brigden 2001 p. 36; Penn 2012 p. 262
15 Tytler 1839 p. 150
Letters and Papers of Henry VIII. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue.aspx?gid=126
Brigden, Susan (2001): New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors 1485-1603. Penguin.
Gunn, S.J. (2010): “Dudley, Edmund (c.1462–1510)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.
Loades, David (2013): Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII. Amberley.
Penn, Thomas (2012): Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England. Penguin.
Smith, L. B. (2013): Anne Boleyn: Queen of Controversy. Amberley.
Tytler, P. F. (1839): England under the Reigns of Edward VI. and Mary. Volume II. Richard Bentley.
Wilson, Derek (2005): The Uncrowned Kings of England: The Black History of the Dudleys and the Tudor Throne. Carroll & Graf.