Dr Joanne Paul is the author of ‘Counsel and Command in Early Modern English Thought’ and ‘Thomas More.’
Her latest book, ‘The House Dudley: A New History of Tudor England’ is published by Michael Joseph/Penguin today.
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Many thanks to Joanne for answering my questions.
Why did you choose this subject for your book?
The idea for the book actually begins where the book does, with Leicester’s Commonwealth, this clandestine manuscript which circulated late in the reign of Elizabeth I, detailing the treasonous misdeeds of three generations of the Dudley family. I’d encountered it while doing research for another project (during my PhD) and was absolutely fascinated by the Dudleys and what was being said about them. How could this family have ended up on the block over three (you might even say four!) generations? Were they being raised to treason, being read Machiavelli crib-side? In other words, I wanted to get a sense of the culture of this family. All families have cultures, and the more I researched, the clearer it became that the Dudleys especially had a sense of themselves as a family, as a house, with a certain legacy, certain values. I wanted to know what those were, and how the family operated.
In so doing, of course, what became important to me were the individuals in the Dudley family, and how they interacted with each other, including through the generations. I was inspired by fictions which operate intergenerationally, like Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, and how a story can be told, even as the central characters change. In that way, the central character of The House of Dudley is not any individual, but the family itself, the house of Dudley.
What does your book add to existing works about the Dudley family?
There has certainly been a lot written on individual members of the Dudley family, perhaps most especially Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, but also John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and we might also think of Lady Jane Grey (who is through marriage Lady Jane Dudley). Far less has been written on the family as a whole, and the weight of its legacy; what did it mean for John to serve the king who executed his father? Or for his enemies to throw his father’s death in his face? What did it mean for Robert that his grandfather, father and brother had all been executed for treason? This intergenerational family context is crucial for us to understand, but can be overlooked or underappreciated if we are just looking at a single individual.
Even more than this, I tried to emphasise the role of the women of the Dudley family, and so how essential they were to its survival. If we’re just looking at individuals, it’s very easy to focus on the men: Edmund, John, Robert. But to understand the family, we have to also appreciate the contributions made by the women of the family, and I focused especially on Elizabeth (née Grey) Dudley, Jane (née Guildford) Dudley and Mary (née Dudley) Sidney. These were women whose actions saved the Dudley family from disaster, who cultivated powerful connections, and who passed on essential knowledge to the next generation about how to survive. Without understanding them and the role they played, we are left with gaping holes in our picture.
What surprised you most researching this book?
The Dudleys are everywhere. I thought I would face a problem in writing this book, in that I would have little to say about the Dudley family between the execution of Edmund Dudley in 1510 and the rise of John Dudley under Edward VI. Not so! The Dudley connections to the Guildfords, Charles Brandon, and even the uncle of the king (who marries Edmund’s widow) mean that they remain in the centre of affairs. John joins Cardinal Wolsey in Calais, Brandon (by then the Duke of Suffolk) campaigning in France. And then, the queens. The Dudleys are closely connected with Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, friends of the Seymours (and thus Jane Seymour), hold posts under Anne of Cleves, and play a role in the fall of Katherine Howard. Their position under Edward VI is due in some part to John’s military successes and friendship with the new king’s uncle, but also is due to Jane Dudley’s friendship with Henry VIII’s final wife, Catherine Parr. And this continued through the research process. Everywhere I looked, there a Dudley was. Certainly, it was an absolute gift to me as a writer. Beyond that, of course, it also tells us a lot about this family and their success (and maybe a little about their failure).
How does their success/failure at court as a family compare to that of the Howards?
If the house of Dudley is the protagonist of this book, the house of Howard might be the antagonist. Were this ever to be made into a series, there would be good reason to set up the story in this way. And that is not just because they conflict at various pivotal moments, but that because – as any storywriter will tell you – the best antagonist shares some essential similarities with the protagonist. Both houses had to seek restoration from the stain of treason (more than once). Both got very close to the throne (more than once). The differences, however, are substantial, and provided the basis for the conflict between them. The Howards were an ancient powerful family, who saw the Dudleys (more or less correctly) as ambitious upstarts, far lesser than themselves. The Howards were also religiously conservative, whereas the Dudleys embraced the new evangelicalism. Who won? It’s difficult to say. No Duke of Norfolk followed the execution of Thomas Howard in 1572, though the house itself survived. Robert Dudley died still beloved by the queen, but had no direct heir to succeed him.
Do you think Edward VI or John Dudley was the instigator of the ‘Devise for the Succession’?
The quick (slightly boring!) answer is that we cannot know. This already presents a significant challenge, of course, to the widely held view that it was definitely John Dudley, the view associated with the ‘Black Legend’ of the Dudley family. I think, however, we can make some tentative suggestions about this mystery.
We do know that the Devise (or Device) was written – and amended – in Edward’s hand, and amazingly we still have the original manuscript, which has been digitised and made available by the Inner Temple Library. He almost certainly wrote it (or finalised it) in June 1553, as his health was really failing, just a month before his death on 6 July 1553. Reports that Lady Jane Grey (by then Lady Jane Dudley) would be his heir were circulating by 12 June 1553, and Edward had informed the Council by the 21 June. This was supported by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (vehemently by some later reports).
The wedding between Guildford Dudley and Jane Grey had taken place at the end of May 1553. It was thus unlikely that at that time John Dudley was certain that the marriage would place a Dudley on the throne, but it does mean that Edward VI, writing some weeks later, knew his Device would. It was indeed in Dudley’s interest to avoid the accession of Mary, who had decided that he was ‘the most unstable man in England’, despite the fact that she had been friendly with the family for some time before. There was no reason, however, for Dudley to have been concerned about the accession of Elizabeth. Edward, on the other hand, had every reason to want Jane and not Elizabeth on the throne; Jane might already be pregnant with a male heir, whereas Elizabeth could not be.
For John Dudley to have orchestrated the Device, and the skipping of both Mary and Elizabeth in favour of Jane, the motivation can only have been pure ambition; to place a Dudley on the throne. The son of an executed traitor would know what a high-stakes gamble that was, even with the odds in his favour. Edward, however, was motivated by religious conviction and the desire to place a male heir on the throne, and risked only others’ lives. He was almost sixteen and certainly knew his own mind. On balance, then, I would suggest there was an overlap of motives, but the driving force lay with Edward VI.
Why did Elizabeth I trust Robert Dudley after he was involved in the plot to replace both Tudor sisters with Jane Grey?
That’s a fascinating question, and one that I don’t think we think about sufficiently. I suppose it comes back to the question of how much we think he was ‘involved’ in the ‘plot’; Robert had just turned 21 during the summer of 1553 and so was rather young to play a significant role. It might also ask us to once again raise the question of how much his father had influenced goings-on. If it was indeed a Dudley scheme, then we might expect more suspicion from Elizabeth. If she was willing to believe it was all Edward’s doing, then her trust of Robert makes a bit more sense.
Robert’s path during the succession crisis diverges from that of his father and brothers. The day after the death of Edward VI (on 6 July 1553), Robert was sent with 300 horse to bring the Lady Mary to London. It was thought unlikely that more than this would be necessary. She, however, had already fled some 70 miles north-east to Kenninghall and begun gather her forces. While his father and brothers were arrested at Cambridge, after the Council declared for Mary on the 20 July, Robert was arrested at King’s Lynn. He was still convicted of treason of course, and imprisoned along with his brothers. He was released and pardoned by early 1555, and restored in blood a year later. In 1557 he fought in France as part of the army of Mary I and Philip II, losing his younger brother on the battlefield.
So it is the case that Robert was not in London when the Council declared for Jane. I think more significantly, however, he was following his father’s orders, his father was following Edward’s orders, and he had already been restored and served under Mary I and Philip II. Elizabeth was in need of young Protestant courtiers to serve her, and the Dudleys fit the bill well. If she elevated them, they would owe everything to her.
Of course, there is also no accounting for personal feeling, and there was certainly a fair bit of that between Elizabeth and Robert!
Do you think Edmund Dudley or John Dudley have done anything different to avoid their fate?
In this slightly counter-factual historical question we have the benefit of comparing their actions with those of the ‘survivor’, Robert Dudley (the rhyme is perhaps less catchy for the Dudleys: beheaded, beheaded, survived – and that only works if you ignore poor Guildford). This is also where the intergenerational approach really bears fruit. In considering the long story of the Dudley family as my central figure, I was able to ask questions about its fatal flaw, and the lessons it had to learn to survive (though not, ultimately, triumph). One of these essential lessons was, undoubtedly, the importance of connections, friendships, likeability and reputation.
Edmund Dudley, it would appear, did not give sufficient attention to these factors. All the evidence suggests that he was uncaring about what others thought of him, emboldened by the king’s will and favour. When those who had been his allies and supporters had died, including ultimately the king, he was left entirely friendless and vulnerable. He even authorised his friend and (former) brother-in-law, Andrew Windsor, to bribe members of the court, but either Windsor did not or it did no good. An escape attempt from the Tower was also planned, but those involved backed out. No one was willing to fight for Edmund Dudley, and many were lined up to condemn him.
John Dudley does a lot better; he cultivates powerful connections and retains decades-long friendships that serve him well. In this he had the help of his wife, Jane, who appears to have been expert and able in the art of being a well-connected courtier. Their friends and allies include Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Catherine Parr and of course Edward Seymour, the brother of a queen and uncle of a king. The breakdown of this relationship, and the execution of Edward Seymour, is too complex to detail here, but certainly went a long way to leaving John as his father was: exposed. John also, and perhaps in contrast to his reputation, had a penchant for mercy. His attempts to rehabilitate not just Seymour, but more obvious enemies such as Henry FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, did not yield allies, but a court full of embittered opponents, waiting for a chance to bring him down. In some ways he would have done better to act in accordance with the maxim later attributed to the House of Dudley: ‘where you have once done a great injury, there must you never forgive’.
Robert’s actions throw those of his predecessors into contrast; he makes enemies, but he is also very good at maintaining friendships. He becomes a master of rumour so that no one can quite be sure of his motives, actions, alliances, etc. I believe he learned a great deal from his mother in all of this, and it was her ability to reach out – in particular – to the court of the new king consort Philip II that restored Robert and his brothers. Of course, Robert did not have to navigate the death of the monarch whom he served and whose favour protected him from his enemies. So perhaps it was just circumstance and the turn of fortune’s wheel that meant Robert survived where his grandfather and father had ended up on the block.