The Tudor Society

22 August 1553 – The execution of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

JohnDudleyOn 22nd August 1553, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland, was beheaded on Tower Hill for his part in putting his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne in place of Mary I. Northumberland's friends, Sir John Gates and Sir Thomas Palmer, were also executed on this day in 1553 for supporting Northumberland.

In his excellent book on the Dudley family, The Uncrowned Kings of England: The Black Legend of the Dudleys, historian Derek Wilson writes of how John Dudley became a scapegoat and that "he and he alone was to be branded as guilty, not only for the Jane Grey plot, but for all the ills that had beset the realm since 1549" and that "Gardiner, Bonner, Howard and other religious conservatives concocted the official story that Dudley had seduced the boy king into heresy"1. Apparently, Edward VI had had no mind of his own and everything was down to Dudley.

On 18th August 1553 Dudley was found guilty of treason and condemned to die on 21st August at 8am. Diarist and merchant Henry Machyn records that the scaffold was made ready but the execution was suddenly cancelled:

The xxj of August was, by viij of the cloke in the mornyng, on the Towre hylle a-boythe [about] x M1. men and women for to have [seen] the execussyon of the duke of Northumberland, for the skaffold was mad rede, and sand and straw was browth, and all the men [that] longest [belong] to the Towre, as Hogston, Shordyche, Bow, Ratclyff, Lymhouse, Sant Kateryns, and the waters [waiters] of the Towre, and the gard, and shyreyffs offesers, and evere man stand in order with ther holbardes, and lanes made, and the hangman was ther, and sodenly they wher commondyd to [depart].2

Instead, a mass was said at the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, in the Tower grounds. At this service, Dudley took Catholic communion and addressed the congregation:

Truly, I profess here before you all that I have received the sacrament according to the true Catholic faith; and the plagues that is upon the realm and upon us now is that we have erred from the bottom of my heart.3

Dudley was recanting his Protestant faith, something which has often been seen as weakness and "evidence for his lack of religious conviction"4, but it is more likely to have been an appeal for mercy and an attempt to save his family from retribution. Wilson points out that "if Dudley is to be accused of cynicism and cowardice for changing his coat others must stand in the dock with him"5, citing the examples of William Cecil, Thomas Cranmer, the Marquess of Northampton and even Princess Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth I.

On the morning of 22nd August, John Dudley was led out of the Tower of London and up on to Tower Hill. There, he made a speech to the crowd, confessing his sins, confirming his Catholic faith and telling the people to be loyal to their Queen. He then prayed and put his head on the block. The axe swung and the life of the man who had once ruled England, albeit as head of Edward VI's government rather than king, was over. He was buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula and is thought to lie under the Chancel floor next to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and between Queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. In 1876, during renovation work on the Chapel, the Victorian workers unearthed his remains which Dr Mouat described as belonging "to a large man, about six feet in height; and aged about 50 years."6

There is an account of the executions of Northumberland, Gates and Palmer in The chronicle of Queen Jane, and of two years of Queen Mary, and especially of the rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyat. Here is the part about Northumberland:

And when he came apon the scaffolde, first, he put of his gowne of crane-colored damaske, and then he leaned apon the raile towarde the est, and saide to the people, allmost in every poynt as he had saide in the chapell, a saving that when he came to the confession of his belife he saide, "I trust, my lorde the bushope a here will beare me witnes hereof." At the last he put of his jerkyn and doblet, and then saide his prayers; after which tyme the hangman reched to him a kerchef, which he dyd knit himself about his ees, and then layd him downe, and so was behedded.7

Tudor Society members can enjoy an expert talk on John Dudley by Susan Higginbotham, author of The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England's Most Infamous Family and Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower - click here.

Notes and Sources

  1. The Uncrowned Kings of England: The Black Legend of the Dudleys, Derek Wilson, p230
  2. 'Diary: 1553 (Jul - Dec)', in The Diary of Henry Machyn, Citizen and Merchant-Taylor of London, 1550-1563, ed. J G Nichols (London, 1848), pp. 34-50. British History Online [accessed 21 August 2016].
  3. Wilson, p231
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Notices of the Historic Persons Buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, Doyne C Bell, 1877, p29
  7. ed. Nichols, John Gough (1850) The chronicle of Queen Jane, and of two years of Queen Mary, and especially of the rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyat, p. 21-22. You can read about the service at the chapel and the executions from p. 18-24 at
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