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From The Emperor’s Desk: In this first entry I will go into some detail concerning the first Duke of Northumberland. However, in subsequent entries I may not cover each Duke of Northumberland with such detail. John Dudley is a fascinating subject as the first Duke, during the most interesting period in English history, namely, the Tudor period.

The title Dukedom of Northumberland, is not to be confused with the title Earl of Northumberland which deserves its own blog entry.


Duke of Northumberland is a noble title that has been created three times in English and British history, twice in the Peerage of England and once in the Peerage of Great Britain. The current holder of this title is Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland.

Coat of Arms of the Dukedom of Northumberland

1551 Creation

John Dudley was the eldest of three sons of Edmund Dudley, a councillor of King Henry VII, and his second wife Elizabeth Grey, daughter of Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Lisle. His father was attainted and executed for high treason in 1510, having been arrested immediately after Henry VIII’s accession because the new king needed scapegoats for his predecessor’s (Henry VII) unpopular financial policies.

In January 1537, Dudley was made Vice-Admiral and began to apply himself to naval matters. He was Master of the Horse to Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, and in 1542 returned to the House of Commons as MP for Staffordshire but was soon promoted to the House of Lords following 12 March 1542, when he became Viscount Lisle after the death of his stepfather Arthur Plantagenet and “by the right of his mother”. Being now a peer, Dudley became Lord Admiral and a Knight of the Garter in 1543; he was also admitted to the Privy Council.

John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland

Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle, KG (died March 3, 1542) was an illegitimate son of King Edward IV of England, half-brother-in-law of Henry VII, and an uncle of Henry VIII, at whose court he was a prominent figure and by whom he was appointed Lord Deputy of Calais (1533–40). The survival of a large collection of his correspondence in the Lisle Letters makes his life one of the best documented of his era.

John Dudley, popularly fêted and highly regarded by King Henry as a general, became a royal intimate who played cards with the ailing monarch. Next to Edward Seymour, Prince Edward’s maternal uncle, Dudley was one of the leaders of the Reformed party at court, and both their wives were among the friends of Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr destroyed by Bishop Stephen Gardiner in July 1546.

Upon the death of King Henry VIII in January 1547 the 16 executors of Henry VIII’s will also embodied the Regency Council that had been appointed to rule collectively during King Edward VI’s minority. The new Council agreed on making Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford Lord Protector with full powers, which in effect were those of a prince.

Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset (1500 – January 22, 1552) (also 1st Earl of Hertford, 1st Viscount Beauchamp), was the eldest surviving brother of Queen Jane Seymour (d. 1537), the third wife of King Henry VIII. He was Lord Protector of England from 1547 to 1549 during the minority of his nephew King Edward VI (1547–1553). Despite his popularity with the common people, his policies often angered the gentry.

Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector of England

At the same time the Council awarded themselves a round of promotions based on Henry VIII’s wishes; the Earl of Hertford became the Duke of Somerset and John Dudley was created Earl of Warwick. The new Earl had to pass on his post of Lord Admiral to Somerset’s brother, Thomas Seymour, but advanced to Lord Great Chamberlain.

The new Earl of Warwick was perceived as the most important man next the Lord Protector, he was on friendly terms with Somerset, who soon reopened the war with Scotland. Dudley accompanied him as second-in-command with a taste for personal combat.

Dudley consolidated his power through institutional manoeuvres and by January 1550 was in effect the new regent. On February 2, 1550 he became Lord President of the Council, with the capacity to debar councillors from the body and appoint new ones.

Dudley excluded the Duke of Southampton and other conservatives, but arranged Somerset’s release and his return to the Privy Council and Privy Chamber. In June 1550 Dudley’s heir John married Somerset’s daughter Anne as a mark of reconciliation.

Yet Somerset soon attracted political sympathizers and hoped to re-establish his power by removing Dudley from the scene, “contemplating”, as he later admitted, the Lord President’s arrest and execution. Relying on his popularity with the masses, he campaigned against and tried to obstruct Dudley’s policies.

Dudley’s elevation as Duke of Northumberland came on October 11, 1551 with the Duke of Somerset participating in the ceremony. Five days later Somerset was arrested, while rumours about supposed plots of his circulated. He was accused of having planned a “banquet massacre”, in which the council were to be assaulted and Dudley killed.

Somerset was acquitted of treason, but convicted of felony for raising a contingent of armed men without a licence. He was executed on January 22, 1552. While technically lawful, these events contributed much to Northumberland’s growing unpopularity.

King Edward VI of England and Ireland

Dudley himself, according to a French eyewitness, confessed before his own end that “nothing had pressed so injuriously upon his conscience as the fraudulent scheme against the Duke of Somerset”.

The 15-year-old King Edward VI fell ill in early 1553 and excluded his half-sisters, Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth, whom he regarded as illegitimate, from the succession, designating non-existent, hypothetical male heirs. As his death approached, King Edward VI changed his will so that his Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey, Northumberland’s daughter-in-law, could inherit the Crown.

To what extent the Duke influenced this scheme is uncertain. The traditional view is that it was Northumberland’s plot to maintain his power by placing his family on the throne.

Many historians see the project as genuinely Edward VI’s, enforced by Dudley after the King’s death. The Duke did not prepare well for this occasion. Having marched to East Anglia to capture Mary, he surrendered on hearing that the Privy Council had changed sides and proclaimed Lady Mary as queen.

Convicted of high treason, Northumberland returned to Catholicism and abjured the Protestant faith before his execution. Having secured the contempt of both religious camps, popularly hated, and a natural scapegoat, he became the “wicked Duke” — in contrast to his predecessor Somerset, the “good Duke”.

Over a century later, An illegitimate son of one of his younger sons, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, Sir Robert Dudley, claimed the dukedom when in exile in Italy. On March 9, 1620 the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II officially recognised the title, an act which infuriated James I-VI of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Only since the 1970s has John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, has also been seen as a Tudor Crown servant: self-serving, inherently loyal to the incumbent monarch, and an able statesman in difficult times.