Queen Elizabeth I was resplendent, the crimson red of her wig offset by flowing white and the flash of steel, as she spoke to the troops assembled at West Tilbury on 19 August 1588. Her words, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”, would echo though the ages.


This was precisely what the architect of that moment, Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, had in mind when he had written to his queen less than two weeks before, asking her to visit the troops at Tilbury: “Thus shall you comfort, not only these thousands, but many more that shall hear of it.” It was no accident that he stood beside her on that day as she publicly commended him: “My lieutenant general… whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy general.” The words were recorded for posterity, just as he had intended them to be.

That Robert Dudley, the brother, son and grandson of traitors, should stand beside the queen at such a moment would have shocked many. Four years earlier, he had been described in the pamphlet Leicester’s Commonwealth as a man “of so extreme ambition, pride, falsehood and treachery, so born, so bred up, so nuzzled in treason from his infancy, descended of a tribe of traitors”. Nevertheless, every Tudor monarch had relied on the Dudley family for security, support and popularity. Members of the house of Dudley had been sacrificed to build up the house of Tudor. The Dudleys had, in turn, climbed high on the favour of their Tudor monarchs, at times almost supplanting them. Theirs is a story of passion, ambition, bloodshed and love, with the crown as the highest prize, and the executioner’s block reward for a fall.

On the podcast: Joanne Paul reveals how the might of the Tudor dynasty was built on the blood and sweat of three generations of another family – the Dudleys:

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The pride penalty

In April 1509 Henry VII’s corpse grew cold in his chamber at Richmond Palace while his ministers conferred. Wearing fake smiles, they ushered in their allies, to whom they broke the news. The king’s death was an opportunity for sweeping change. Entrenched enemies could be removed if cards were played just right. At the top of this list, as the ministers gathered, was one man in particular, a seemingly unimportant lawyer from a lesser branch of a baronial family: Edmund Dudley.

Edmund owed his rise to prominence to Henry VII. By 1504, he had become one of the king’s central ministers in the exaction of coin from his subjects. In four short years he had raised almost £220,000 for the crown, about £150m in today’s money. He had also made an advantageous marriage to Elizabeth Grey, daughter of the Viscount Lisle. She had borne him a son, whom they named John.

Alongside filling the king’s coffers Edmund had amassed for himself all the hallmarks of prestige. He wore expensive black robes with hints of crimson, silver and gold, and doublets of purple, velvet and tinselled satin. The rooms of the family home in Candlewick were filled with silver plate, gilded candlesticks and cups, bearing the Dudley arms.

Elizabeth I
Much ink has been spent in trying to work out precisely the relationship between Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I. Were they childhood friends? (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The resentment and anger of those from whom he had extracted funds was palatable. As a contemporary chronicle recorded: “He was so proud, it was easier to speak to the highest duke in the land than get an audience with Edmund Dudley.” Edmund, however, gave little regard to such criticism. It would be his undoing.

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As the king’s health failed over the winter of 1508–09, Edmund’s enemies gathered. After Henry’s death in the spring, Edmund and his family were left vulnerable to the attacks of those he had never bothered to make his allies. The new king entered the Tower of London to prepare for his coronation in June 1509; Edmund had also entered the Tower, but to await a sadder fate – hoping that this new king would value the work he had done to gild his reign.

In the end, Henry VIII made the decision that would define the relationship between the house of Tudor and house of Dudley for generations. Realising that his popularity was predicated on the destruction of the detested Edmund Dudley, he sent the order for Edmund’s execution, which was carried out on 17 August 1510. Henry VIII then burned through the money Edmund had collected in a few short years, his reputation for swift justice and majestic display built on the labour and blood of Edmund Dudley.

John Dudley was about six when his father was executed by Henry VIII. A little over a decade later he was serving this king, joining diplomatic and military missions. This was due in large part to his mother’s quick marriage to the king’s illegitimate uncle, Arthur Plantagenet. As a boy, John had been placed with the Guildford family, who had powerful court connections. When he came of age, he married the girl he had grown up with, Jane Guildford. Together they would create a new powerful generation of the Dudley family, having 13 children over the course of their marriage, with nine surviving into adulthood.

Through the reign of Henry VIII and his many queens, John and Jane served dutifully. They had come into the circles of power largely through the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, adapting readily to the evangelicalism of the Reformation. Their friendship with the Seymour family assured their continued favour under Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and both were placed in the household of Anne of Cleves.

The rise of Katherine Howard and her ancient and conservative family threatened their standing, but not for long; John himself carried the notes of Katherine’s damning confessions to the king. Jane Dudley was perhaps even more skilled than her husband John at making connections at court, and counted Henry VIII’s final queen, Katherine Parr, as a close friend.

John had twice served on the battlefields of France, conducted raids on the northern border and defended England at sea as lord high admiral. So it was that as Henry VIII breathed his last, the Dudley family stood alongside the Seymours, kin to the new king, as one of the realm’s most powerful houses.

The queenmaker

On Edward VI’s accession John Dudley was made Earl of Warwick, a position that recalled the powerful earls of the previous century, including Warwick the Kingmaker, who had determined so much of the dynastic conflict of the Wars of the Roses. Like the earls of old, John was a military force that could be called upon to enforce, or undermine, a regime.

In 1549 that is precisely what he did. In defiance of Henry VIII’s will, the new king’s uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, had been named lord protector, and was ruling with the authority of a king and the arbitrariness of a tyrant. Having put down Kett’s rebellion against Seymour, Dudley marched his troops to London and overthrew his old friend. At his trial Seymour defended himself admirably, but admitted to the court that he had “considered” murdering his friend John Dudley. He was executed on 22 January 1552, leaving John as the most powerful man in the country – lord president of a council with a 14-year-old for a king.

John Dudley became the most powerful man in the country, lord president of a council with a 14-year-old for a king

What happened next is shrouded in mystery. Edward VI grew ill, and by spring 1553 it was clear he would not recover. As he faced his death, Edward changed the succession set out by his father, skipping over his two half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and placing the crown on the head of his cousin, Lady Jane Grey. The question is why. Certainly, Jane was a devoted evangelical, like Edward, and could be counted on to continue his religious reforms; Mary was a Catholic and would be sure to reverse them.

More immediately concerning to Edward was a search not just for a Protestant heir, but a male one. Mary and Elizabeth were both unmarried, and thus unlikely to bear a male successor any time soon. Jane, however, was recently married, and could already be carrying the desired prince. This is where Dudley ambition makes the waters even murkier. Jane’s new husband was none other than John Dudley’s son, Guildford Dudley.

Edward Seymour
Edward Seymour vied with John Dudley for dominance at Edward’s court. (Image by Getty Images)

Guildford and Jane Grey had married in May 1553, as the king fell into his final illness. Did John’s hand guide the young king to change the succession? Or had the headstrong Edward declared his will, regardless of John’s intentions? Either way, John and his family supported the new regime with force. As Jane was proclaimed queen, Robert Dudley – another of John’s sons – was sent north to collect the Lady Mary and bring her to heel. She was one step ahead, however, and had already fled to gather forces. As it became clear that Jane Grey’s Catholic competitor would put up a fight, John and his sons rode out to meet Mary in battle. None was waged.

With the Dudleys away from London, the council betrayed them. John and his sons were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. Like his father, John would hear the triumphant cannon through the stone walls of his prison but, unlike Edmund, he was imprisoned with his sons, with no hope that any would live to see the start of the new reign.

The redemption of the family would lie not in John Dudley or his sons, but in his wife Jane and her daughters. On the arrest of her husband and children, Jane made a desperate journey to see the new queen; she was refused an audience. Ill with worry, she wrote to her friends, begging them to intervene with the queen’s new ladies for her “poor five sons” and “for their father who was to me and to my mind the most best gentleman that ever living woman was matched withal”.

She would not save John, however. He had proven far too hated, as a “ragged bear most rank” – an allusion to the emblem of his earldom, the Warwick bear and ragged staff. A last-minute conversion to Catholicism, perhaps on the promise it would save him or his family, only made his unpopularity universal; Catholics and Protestants could unite under Mary in their condemnation of the detested duke. He was executed in August 1553 and six months later, Guildford and Lady Jane Grey also met their ends on the block.

But Jane Dudley did not give up. When Mary I married the future Philip II of Spain, bringing a flood of Spanish nobles into the court, Jane set to work ingratiating herself. Philip and his court needed English allies, and the Dudleys had nothing to lose and much to gain by supporting the new Spanish consort and his courtiers. With her last breath, Jane appealed to these new friends in her will; the pardon of her sons is dated to the day of her death.

Inspired by their mother, the remaining Dudley children served Philip II devotedly – not least by fighting in the French war, where the youngest Dudley son, Henry, died in 1557. They had also learned from their father and grandfather, however; it was surviving the transition between monarchs that was essential, and the reign of Mary I would soon come to an end. The cleverest among the court would begin to gravitate to the woman who must surely be her successor, Elizabeth.

An unlikely regent

Just four years into Elizabeth I’s reign, in October 1562 the court found itself at the bedside of a monarch once again, unsure whether it would soon be another royal deathbed. The queen had contracted smallpox, and there was every chance she would not recover. As her ministers met and pondered the succession, Elizabeth’s lady, Mary Sidney, born Mary Dudley, wiped sweat from her brow.

Both of the potential heirs had Dudley connections. There was Catherine Grey, the sister of Jane Grey, and thus a Dudley sisterin-law. The other was Henry Hastings, Earl of Huntington, who had married Katherine Dudley – Mary Sidney’s sister. As reports went out, however, of what occurred between Elizabeth and her ministers as she prepared for her death, it appeared there was a Dudley even closer to the throne. Elizabeth had apparently named Robert Dudley “protector of the realm” and insisted that he be given £20,000 a year, about 10 per cent of the crown’s annual income.

Robert Dudley
Elizabeth named Robert Dudley “protector of the realm”. (Image by Getty Images)

Much ink has been spent in trying to work out precisely the relationship between Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I. Were they childhood friends? Did they meet while both imprisoned in the Tower under Mary I? Did Robert secretly send funds to Elizabeth in the years before her sister’s death? Was the talk of their marriage just talk? And, of course, did Dudley’s courtship mean the Virgin Queen was perhaps not so virginal?

In the same breath in which Elizabeth named Robert protector of the realm, she also insisted that nothing improper had ever occurred between them. And yet she ordered that a £500 annual pension be given to the groom who slept in Robert’s chamber, for what services the court could – and did – only guess. Similarly Robert had been gifting money to members of Elizabeth’s chambers, presumably to grease wheels of access.

And access may have been possible. As Elizabeth’s Master of the Horse, responsible for her mounts, Robert was expected to be in close proximity to the queen. And a year earlier Catherine Grey herself had successfully snuck from the queen’s chambers into Robert’s, to seek his protection when she informed the monarch of her secret (and scandalous) pregnancy. No one had been any the wiser.

Elizabeth recovered; she and Robert never wed. But he served her for the rest of his life, to great personal sacrifice. For years after the death of his first wife in 1560 Robert refused to marry, telling his mistress that he was desperate to “leav[e] some children behind me, being now the last of our house”, but this hope was second to the need to retain the queen’s good favour, which he risked by marrying. The birth of an illegitimate son and a final repudiation from Elizabeth prompted a secret marriage, but this resulted in only one son who died young.

In service to this Tudor monarch, the Dudleys sacrificed not just another member of the house, but its very continuance. Robert died in 1588, weeks after the speech at West Tilbury. And Elizabeth died childless in 1603, with the throne passing to King James VI & I. The house of Dudley and the house of Tudor had grown together and, both lacking an heir, ended together.

Dr Joanne Paul is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of Sussex. Her latest book is The House of Dudley, out now, published by Michael Joseph


This interview was first published in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine