Northumberland

Mark Rathbone examines the varied reputation of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland.

For most of the 450 years since his execution, Northumberland has received a bad press, in contrast to his predecessor, Somerset, 'the good Duke'. John Hayward described him in 1636 as 'sottishly mad with over-great fortune', while to Gilbert Burnett half a century later he was 'a man of insolent temper'. To two twentieth-century historians, Northumberland is 'the subtlest intriguer in English History' (Pollard, 1900) and 'that masterly and almost instinctive conspirator' (Jordan, 1970). Northumberland is condemned above all for his part in the overthrow of Somerset in 1549, and his attempt to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne in 1553.

In the 1970s, however, a revisionist view emerged in the work of three historians, Barrett Beer, Michael Bush and Dale Hoak. They argued that Somerset's social policies were much less radical than had been supposed and they saw Northumberland not as a corrupt and power-hungry villain, but as an honest and competent statesman, whose main concern was to serve his King, a view echoed by David Loades in his 1996 biography.

So which Northumberland is the real one - the self-seeking conspirator or the worthy statesman?

The Road to Power

Northumberland and Somerset both emerged during the 1540s as leading men in the Privy Council. They were seen by 1547 as likely together to dominate a Council of Regency in the event of Henry VIII's dying before his son Edward reached adulthood. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, wrote that 'if (which God forbid) the King should die, it is probable that these two men will have the management of affairs'.

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