On 13 March 1553 the English privy council busied itself with granting a licence for the export of 200,000 pairs of old shoes.1 On 27 June 1553 the members of the same council swore themselves to secrecy about their forthcoming proceedings and banned the council clerks from their presence. The secret matter in hand was the succession of Lady Jane Grey to the crown of Edward VI,2 whose death was daily expected. The date of 27 June is noteworthy; it is a very late date compared to what is usually said about the Duke of Northumberland’s plotting. Traditionally, John Dudley and his colleagues on the council in the early months of 1553 did little else than thinking of how to avert the succession of Mary Tudor. However, as is hinted by their actions in March, this is far from the truth and it looks as if the decision to go through with their scheme came very late in the day.
Although England was a small country, English foreign policy under the Duke of Northumberland tried to stay clear from getting sucked up in the perennial rivalry between France and the Empire. Thus, when war once again broke out in September 1551, a policy of neutrality was pursued despite existing treaties of friendship with both powers.3 In December 1552 Northumberland decided to bring about a European peace by English mediation, which, if successful, would add to the prestige of Edward VI. He sent his brother (Sir Andrew Dudley) and his son-in-law (Sir Henry Sidney) on diplomatic missions to the emperor and the King of France, respectively.
On 11 February 1553 Dudley and Sir Richard Morrison, the English resident ambassador at the Habsburg court, had an audience with the emperor at Brussels. Charles V declared that he would gladly make peace, if only the French king could be trusted (which he could not). Then, as Andrew Dudley was taking his leave and offered to kiss the emperor’s hand, “the Emperor cast his arm about Dudley’s neck, with great show of accepting his coming [and] of liking his message.”4
Back in England, Andrew Dudley was received by Edward VI. In early April follow-up missions were sent to both Brussels and Paris. The Imperial ambassador, Jehan de Schefye, also had an audience, with the Duke of Northumberland, who opined that
if the King of France were inclined to make peace, his Imperial Majesty ought to forgive what had happened, without remembering past offences. I rejoined that his Majesty was bound to defend his territories and subjects, and by all appearances the King of France was not seeking peace, as he was making a brave show of warlike preparations. He answered, smiling, that the Emperor was also making great preparations, but he did not explain himself further.5
Henry Sidney had also returned to England, with promising signs from the King of France “that he would not refuse to entertain peace, particularly as the King of England, his well-beloved son and brother, had taken a hand in them; and he would do more for his sake than for that of any other prince.”6 However, all these hopeful nicecties were ended in the first week of June by the warring parties, the benefits from continued hostilities turning out more advantageous.7
Meanwhile, Northumberland had even brought the German Protestant states into the equation, and his active pursuit of a European peace had lasted from December 1552 until late May 1553. It seems significant that it was the Continental powers who ended these diplomatic initiatives. Was Northumberland planning to exclude Mary from the succesion all those months? Is it conceivable that he would have risked so much to offend the emperor, Mary’s great protector, and at the same time give him a free hand against England through a peace with France? While most historians seem to have ignored the question, at least two did not think so.8
More mundane business went on as well: During May 1553 the English government tried to get hold of a man known by the name of Black Will, “who of long time has been a notable murderer and one of the most wretched and vile persons that lives”. Will had reached Flanders – Habsburg territory – where English agents finally succeeded in hunting him down after more than two years. A flurry of diplomatic activity ensued, and ambassador Philip Hoby received instructions how to achieve Black Will’s extradition. Hoby reported success on 19 May, writing that “Black Will is to be delivered up, it being a pity so abominable a murderer should escape unpunished”, but in the end the regent did not quite comply with the English government’s wishes. However, Black Will did not escape punishment, for, after commiting several further murders, he was executed in Flanders.9
It was now common knowledge that King Edward was dying, and Jehan de Scheyfye had convinced himself that Northumberland was engaged in some “mighty plot” to settle the crown on his own head.10 However, as late as 12 June he knew nothing specific and had only recently reported that Northumberland would divorce his wife and marry the Lady Elizabeth.11
To France, meanwhile, the notion of the emperor’s cousin Mary sitting on the English throne seemed disagreeable; the new ambassador, Antoine de Noailles, had several talks with Northumberland and the council, indicating support for any schemes removing her from the succession. It was also suggested to Northumberland that he take the throne himself.12 On 15 June Henri II personally wrote a letter “à mon cousin le duc de Northomberland”, whose contents however consisted chiefly of a demand to extradite a French nobleman and his wife, who, accused of crimes against the state, had escaped from prison and found refuge in England.13 Henri had also sent a special delegation to England, which was received at the court on 28 May 1553. It was nearly a month later, though, on 26 June, that the Duke of Northumberland had himself rowed up the Thames to pay a secret visit to the French ambassador’s home.14
A Grand Conspiracy in 1553? – Grants
A Grand Conspiracy in 1553? – Parliament
1 Hoak 1976 p. 220
2 Hoak 1976 pp. 10, 277
3 Loades 1996 pp. 203 – 206; 241 – 242
4 CSP Foreign 12 February 1553
5 CSP Span 17 March 1553
6 CSP Span 31 March 1553
7 Loades 1996 p. 244
8 Jordan 1970 p. 177; Loades 1996 pp. 241 – 244
9 Bellamy 2005 p. 124; CSP Foreign 19 May 1553
10 Ives 2009 p. 151
11 Loades 1996 p. 239; Loades 2003 p. 79
12 Loades 1996 p. 255; Skidmore 2007 pp. 255 – 256
13 Vertot II pp. 36, 30
14 Loach 2002 p. 166
Ambassades de Messieurs de Noailles en Angleterre. Volume II. (ed. by Abbé Vertot, 1763)
Calendar of State Papers, Spain. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/search/series/cal-state-papers–spain
Calendar of State Papers, Foreign. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/search/series/cal-state-papers–foreign
Bellamy, John (2005): Strange, Inhuman Deaths: Murder in Tudor England. Sutton.
Hoak, Dale (1976): The King’s Council in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge University Press.
Ives, Eric (2009): Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Wiley-Blackwell.
Jordan, W. K. (1970): Edward VI: The Threshold of Power. The Dominance of the Duke of Northumberland. George Allen & Unwin.
Loach, Jennifer (2002): Edward VI. Yale University Press.
Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.
Loades, David (2003): Elizabeth I. Hambledon Continuum.
Skidmore, Chris (2007): Edward VI: The Lost King of England. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.