It’s the gripping story of the ever-fluctuating fortunes of three generations of the Dudley dynasty, servants – and sometimes rivals – of the Crown in the 16th century. As Joanne Paul observes in her captivating biography of an extraordinary family, “If fate, Fortuna, Nemesis, or God had made even the slightest adjustment to their orchestration of events,” the Dudleys, not the Tudors, would have may have ruled England for generations.
The tale begins in the 1490s with Edmund Dudley, an Oxford-trained lawyer who rose to a position of power, influence and wealth in the early Tudor court, only to be arrested and imprisoned in the Tower days later. the death of Henry VII in 1509. Conspired by a cabal that included William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the teenage Henry VIII, Edmund was found guilty of treason and beheaded at Tower Hill.
His son John, a boy of five or six at the time of his father’s execution, was neither bent nor broken by these events. As an adult, he successfully cultivated the favor of Henry VIII, who created him Viscount Lisle, and his successor, the malleable boy King Edward VI, who created him Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland. . After defeating arch-rival Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, Northumberland effectively ruled England from 1550 until its fall three years later.
When, in 1553, Edward VI fell fatally ill, Northumberland made an unsuccessful attempt to hijack the Crown from Mary Tudor. First, he married his youngest son, Guildford, to Lady Jane Grey. Then he persuaded – or certainly not dissuaded – the dying king that 16-year-old Lady Jane Dudley, as she now was, be named his successor. This scheme ended in disaster for the Dudleys when Mary Tudor unexpectedly gathered an army of followers. John Dudley was stripped of his titles and, like his father before him, confiscated his property to the Crown, was imprisoned in the Tower and tried and found guilty of treason. He was beheaded on August 22. The following year, Guildford and Lady Jane met the same fate.
John Dudley’s other sons – John, Henry, Ambrose and Robert – escaped execution, thanks to the interventions of their mother Jane (née Guildford), one of the many wonderful women encountered in these pages. Nevertheless, the four brothers were forced to endure imprisonment in the Tower and the ignominy of attaining. John fell ill and died in 1554 while in prison. Henry will be killed a few years later at the Battle of St Quentin. Only Ambrose, created Earl of Warwick in 1561, and Robert, created Earl of Leicester in 1564, lived to see the family fortunes restored under Elizabeth I, who counted Robert as her favorite and, possibly, her lover. Admittedly, he seems to have been the only man she ever seriously considered marrying.
Almost from the moment Elizabeth ascended the throne, her friendship with handsome but married Robert Dudley was a source of gossip. The Spanish ambassador reported just months into the new reign that the young queen used to visit Dudley’s bedroom day and night – waiting for his wife to die so she could marry him herself . When, shortly after, Amy Dudley (née Robsart) was found dead at the foot of a stone staircase, the rumor went wild. A coroner’s court ruled the death accidental. But Robert Dudley’s reputation has been forever tainted by the persistent suggestion that he ordered his wife’s death to pave the way for marriage to the Queen – and kingship in all but name.
Elizabeth, of course, never married him or anyone else. But she showered him with titles, honors and grants of land and property. When in 1562 she fell ill with smallpox, she sought in the event of her death to have Robert Protector of the Kingdom appointed with a title and income of £20,000, an enticing sum. Robert’s sister Mary (mother of poet Sir Philip Sidney) was also close to the Queen, though her duties were rather more menial. She cared for Elizabeth during smallpox, and in the process contracted the disease herself and nearly died. While the queen walked out unscarred, Mary was disfigured for life.
Like his father and grandfather, Robert Dudley had the monarch’s ear in a way that few courtiers had. But unlike his ancestors, he managed to retain royal favor, despite the fact that gossip and sinister innuendo haunted him throughout his life. In 1574, while trying to persuade Elizabeth to marry him, he secretly married Douglas Howard, Lady Sheffield, who bore his child – although he would later deny its validity.
In 1578, Dudley remarried in secret. This time it was binding, although the bride – Lettice, Dowager Countess of Essex (whose late husband was believed to have been poisoned by Dudley) – may have been pregnant, as she wore a loose dress. If so, she miscarried soon after, although she gave birth to a healthy son three years later. Briefly considered by his father as a future suitor for Lady Arabella Stuart, one of the many pretenders to the throne, the boy died when he was still a toddler. Finally, as Paul notes, “the Dudley house and the Tudor house came to an end, almost at the same time and for the same reason”: neither succeeded in producing a legitimate heir.
It’s fascinating: death, desire, power and scandal. Paul made the most of it, producing a well-written, historically grounded page-turner suitable for adaptation as a TV miniseries. And why not? game of thrones seems tame compared to the actual machinations of the Dudleys and Tudors. Dudley House anybody?