The male footnote – of a young man in Tudor England
History as we know it is like a very large, very incomplete embroidery, where some of those who have lived and breathed before us have ended up as a minuscule little stitch or two while the vast majority of our ancestors have lived and died without leaving as much as a wrinkle on the tapestry of human history. Many of those surviving stitches represent a male historical person. Now and then, a woman has been colourful enough to make her own mark, like Margaret, Countess of Norfolk, or Elizabeth I. But there’s no escaping the fact that in the annals of recorded history, women are seriously underrepresented and often flit by as mere footnotes.
Today, I thought we’d spend some time with a male footnote. Think Tudor England and we think Henry VIII (NOT a footnote), we think Anne Boleyn (nope, she wasn’t a footnote either) Jane Seymour (hmm…), Edward VI (the jury is out: footnote or not?) and his sisters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Plus we’ve all heard of Lady Jane Grey, of course. This devout Protestant teenager was Edward VI’s choice as his heir (and how he and his councillors must have despaired at the fact that there were no male claimants around. At least none that they wanted to promote). Jane ruled for nine days, was ousted from her throne, thrown into the Tower and several months later she was executed, this despite Mary I not wanting to execute the young woman. But Jane had become a safety risk for Mary and all safety risks had to be eliminated.
Jane had royal blood, her grandmother being Henry VIII’s vivacious sister, Mary. (Now this is a lady after mine own heart who dared her brother’s wrath to marry the man she loved) In difference to Mary and Elizabeth, Jane had never been bastardised. Obviously, Jane was luckier in her father than her female cousins once removed. But then almost everyone was luckier than them in this respect. I’m thinking Henry VIII’s mama didn’t raise him properly, how else to explain how he treated the women in his life? Neither here nor there, so let’s move on.
Edward VI was a precocious young king, well-educated and well-read. He had also been raised to see himself as defender of the Protestant faith as represented by the Anglican church. I imagine he walked about with an inflated sense of self-importance, but ultimately he was a boy masquerading as a powerful king, with most of the ruling done by men like his uncle, Edward Seymour the Duke of Somerset, and the very ambitious Earl of Warwick (soon to be Duke of Northumberland), John Dudley.
Initially, it seems Seymour and Dudley got on. Seymour as Lord Protector was infinitely more powerful, but Dudley soon showed just how capable he was, being instrumental in putting down one of the more serious rebellions during Edward VI’s reign in 1549. Thing is, the reasons for the rebellion could be laid rather neatly at Seymour’s door—he was not quite the ruler England needed—and Dudley soon joined those in opposition of the Lord Protector.
At the time, Dudley still had the troops he’d raised to put down Kett’s Rebellion. Seymour had no such forces at his disposal, so he panicked, more or less kidnapped the king and carried him off to Windsor. Let’s just say things did not end well for Seymour and Dudley ended up as top-dog and Duke of Northumberland. Dudley and Seymour seemed to reconcile, but some years later, Somerset yet again tried to regain control of the king. This time, he ended up with his head on the block. Bye, bye Seymour, hello Dudley.
Some years later, the young king was now firmly under Northumberland’s control and our ambitious Duke liked having things this way. (Before we go any further I must say I find John Dudley quite the charismatic man. Capable and bright, he carved his own way to the top, had the endearing quality of being a good and loving husband, a good and loving father, and in general seems to have been a good guy to have around. Until he was bitten by the megalomania bug and fell victim to his hunger for more and more power…) England was at peace, the finances had been somewhat mended, and in general things were good. While there were hopes Edward would live long enough to rule in his own right, Dudley and his other councillors did their best to prepare their young liege for the task ahead.
By 1553, it became evident the young king was probably too frail to live long enough to conceive a child to inherit the crown. Yes, he had two sisters, but whether it was Edward’s brainchild or Dudley’s, the young king wasn’t entirely taken with the notion of designating either Mary or Elizabeth as his heir. I’m guessing Northumberland heartily agreed: gifted with as much intelligence as their father, further enhanced by their respective mothers, and an excellent education, neither Mary nor Elizabeth was about to accept being controlled by Dudley. With Elizabeth, Dudley had a potential in—his son, Robert Dudley, and Elizabeth knew and liked each other. With Mary he had nothing. Plus, of course, Mary was Catholic—anathema to a man who had embraced the new faith with a passion. Or with an eye out for what was politically the smartest thing to do.
It was something of a fortunate coincidence that Northumberland had an alternative heir closer to home—and to his family. This is where today’s footnote enters the scene and seeing as we’re at a wordcount of 1 000 before I even introduce him, it’s very obvious he’s no major player. Peeps, I give you Guildford Dudley, a man so young he’d only recently started sprouting bristles.
In May of 1553, Guildford was wed to Lady Jane Grey, first cousin once removed of the ailing king. On that same occasion, Guildford’s younger sister married Henry Hastings and Jane’s sister married the heir of the Earl of Pembroke. A magnificent occasion, I imagine—and not necessarily indicative of Dudley’s devious plotting to continue controlling the crown. After all, these marriages had been under negotiation for quite some time, and at the time they were not much remarked upon.
The happy couple seemed to like each other. By all accounts, Guildford was a handsome and charming lad. The sixth son born to John Dudley and his beloved wife, Jane Guildford, he was raised in a household as Protestant as that of the Grey family. Was he as pious as Jane Grey supposedly was? Hmm. Was he as educated? No—but then Jane must be considered something of a 16th century bookworm.
Come summer, the young king was fading quickly. Stubbornly determined not to name either of his half-sisters, he realised he had to name someone as his successor as those hoped for “heirs of my body” weren’t about to show. Ever. Did Northumberland nudge him in the direction of Lady Jane Grey? No idea. But I imagine the serious and pious young king found the equally pious and serious Jane very much to his liking. Promoting this young woman was the smart thing to do for Dudley—especially as Jane was his dear daughter-in-law.
On July 6 of 1553 Edward VI died. Three days later, Jane was informed she was now the queen and transported to the Tower, there to await her coronation. What did Guildford think of all this? Well, what little we do know indicates he was rather taken by the idea of becoming king. In fact, he said as much to his wife but she refused to do so, naming him instead Duke of Clarence, as only Parliament could pronounce her husband king. Guildford sulked, Jane was adamant.
In the event, what title her husband was to have was the smallest of Jane’s problems. On July 10, Mary claimed the crown and the English rose like one (well) and hailed her as queen—including the entire Privy Council who’d all signed Edward’s final will designating Jane. Northumberland realised he’s miscalculated and tried to salvage what he could by proclaiming for Mary. Didn’t help much. Other than Guildford and Jane, soon enough both John Dudley and his sons Robert, Ambrose and Henry were incarcerated in the Tower. John Dudley was tried and sentenced to die. In a desperate attempt to save himself, Dudley converted to Catholicism on the eve of his execution. It did not help, and in August of 1553, his head was struck off.
Things weren’t looking all that good for our footnote. There he was, locked up in the Tower and come November he and his wife were tried for treason. They could do one thing only: plead guilty and throw themselves on Mary’s mercy. The queen was prepared to be merciful, fully aware of the fact that both Jane and Guildford were mere pawns. And had Mary not decided to wed Philip II of Spain, who knows what would have happened to our man of the day and his wife.
Ah. I see some of you scratching your head in confusion. What does Philip II of Spain have to do with Guildford’s and Jane’s fate? Well, the English did not fall head over heels and whoop with joy when they were told their queen intended to wed a foreigner—and a Catholic to boot. While they would gladly forgive Mary (at least initially) for being Catholic, many English had embraced the new faith and found it far more to their liking. A Spanish king brought with it the fear of Inquisitions, of being burned as a heretic for your beliefs. Plus, of course, he wasn’t English. Major drawback.
So upset were Mary’s subjects that rebellions broke out. The largest of these was Thomas Wyatt’s Rebellion which had as its objective to depose Mary and replace her with Elizabeth. One of the men involved in this rebellion was Henry Grey, Jane’s father. Need I say more? No, I didn’t think so.
The rebellion was crushed, the leaders were executed (and tortured. Poor Thomas Wyatt himself was tortured repeatedly in the hopes of getting him to admit Elizabeth had been involved in the plot. The brave man said nothing that could be used against Elizabeth) Elizabeth was placed in the Tower. And Mary’s counsellors, including her new, Spanish friends, all bayed for jane and Guildford’s blood. She didn’t want to, but ultimately Mary succumbed to pressure and signed their death warrants .
The evening before their execution, Guildford sent a message to his wife, requesting one last meeting. She refused, saying it would not help them face the morrow. Actually, I think it would have helped Guildford face the axe. I think she was much more convinced of her place in the hereafter than he was. She may have been reconciled to death, but he, I suspect, wanted desperately to live. To see his wife one last time, to hold her and caress her, would have allowed him to pretend there was still hope of a reprieve, still one more night that could, potentially, change fate.
On the morning of February 12, 1554, Guildford Dudley was escorted out to Tower Hill, there to see his fate fulfilled. Not for him an endless sequence of mornings, of waking up in bed and wondering just what this day might bring. Not for him a house full of children and puppies. Guildford Dudley was all of nineteen that long-gone day when he inhaled one last lungful of precious air, placed his head on the block and heard the whistle of the axe descending. Sic transit Gloria mundi, one could say.
So ends the tale of our male footnote. A short, stunted life that left little of value behind. But once he existed, once he had hopes and dreams – like we all do. I wonder how often he cursed his father’s ambition to hell and back as he sat in the Tower and waited and waited for his life to (hopefully) begin. It never did.
NOTE! This excursion into Tudor England takes me very, very far from my historical comfort zone. But somehow, Guildford called to me and I felt compelled to answer…