Duke of Northumberland

The English soldier and statesman John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (ca. 1502-1553), was the virtual ruler of England from 1549 to 1553. He was executed when his attempt to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne failed.

John Dudley's father, Edmund Dudley, was one of the principal financial administrators serving Henry VII. He was executed in 1510, soon after the accession of Henry VIII, as a scapegoat to clear the royal family of responsibility for its unpopular exactions.

Young John was placed under the guardianship of Edward Guildford, a minor courtier, whose daughter he later married and through whom he gained a place at Henry VIII's court. In 1523 he was knighted while serving in the army at Calais. When Guildford died in 1534, Dudley and his wife obtained most of his lands, perhaps through the influence of Thomas Cromwell. It was probably also Cromwell who had Dudley appointed master of the horse to Anne of Cleves.

Dudley did not suffer from Cromwell's fall and execution but continued to gain favor and offices. In 1542 he was created Viscount Lisle—the title had previously belonged to his mother's second husband—and appointed high admiral. From 1544 to 1546 he was governor of Boulogne, and he acquired military renown in the conflict with France; he led the English delegation which obtained Francis I's signature to the Treaty of Ardres, which ended the war.

Dudley was the second most powerful man in England at the time of Henry VIII's death (1547), and he was one of the 16 executors named in the King's will. Dudley acquiesced in the arrangement whereby Edward Seymour obtained control of the government as Protector Somerset, and he helped Somerset win the great victory over the Scots at Pinkie. But by 1549 Somerset had shown himself unable to deal effectively with the problems of government, especially the uprisings in Cornwall and Norfolk; only Dudley was able to suppress Ket's rebellion, freeing the city of Norwich from the peasants and hanging their leaders.

Dudley and his supporters now forced Somerset to relinquish power, which was assumed by Dudley himself. Somerset was sent to the Tower for a time, then released, but finally executed in 1552. Dudley acquired additional offices, although he never took the title protector, and in 1551 he was created Duke of Northumberland. Although he lacked sincere religious conviction, he supported the increasingly Protestant policies of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and he gained wealth for himself from the pillage of the Church.

By the beginning of 1553 it was evident that Edward VI's health was failing, and Northumberland began to concern himself with the succession to the throne. Wishing to retain power and not desiring the accession of a Catholic, he conceived the "device" whereby Edward's sisters Mary and Elizabeth were excluded in favor of Lady Jane Grey, who had married Northumberland's son Lord Guildford Dudley. When the young king died in July, Northumberland proclaimed Jane queen. But he had not reckoned with the general support for Mary, who as Henry VIII's older daughter was regarded by the English people as the proper heir. Although he attempted to lead a force against Mary, Northumberland soon saw that the attempt was futile, and at Cambridge he proclaimed his support for Mary.

Northumberland was then arrested and sent to the Tower. He was executed on Aug. 22, 1553. On the scaffold he denounced Protestantism and abjectly begged for his life, but without avail.

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Further Reading on Duke of Northumberland

The only biography of Northumberland is a popular work by Philip Lindsay, The Queenmaker: A Portrait of John Dudley (1951). There is relevant material in Hester W. Chapman's two works: The Last Tudor King: A Study of Edward VI (1958) and Lady Jane Grey (1962). Wilbur Kitchener Jordan, Edward VI: The Threshold of Power: The Dominance of the Duke of Northumberland (1970), is the standard scholarly account of the period of Northumberland's supremacy.