Friday, 6 September 2013

The Duke of Northumberland

John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, was executed for treason on Tower Hill on August 22nd 1553.  His crime?  Backing the wrong candidate for the throne, Lady Jane Grey.  History has portrayed him as a scheming politician out for himself, but is this really what we should remember or did he achieve anything of note as effective ruler of England under the minority of Edward VI?  What's  your view?


  1. Admittedly, I was initially lured by popular opinion and put Northumberland down to be a devious, power-hungry politician, who fancied himself a Kingmaker (or in this case, Queen).
    However, when giving rational thought to the subject, it is in fact likely that I was mistaken. As highlighted by Rathbone in the December 2002 History Review article, Northumberland himself did in fact have many successes under the minority rule of Edward VI, which are almost blinded by the failures of the Lady Jane Grey succession, which ultimately led to his downfall.
    Whether it be the drastic reduction of the Crown debt or the willingness to delegate responsibility to the more able, Northumberland was clearly an effective politician, a skill history fails to attribute him with.

  2. I personally think that history has been overly critical of Northumberland's protectorate, portraying him as a despotic and scheming ruler, which in my opinion (after reading Rathbone's History Review article) much better fits the autocratic protectorate under Somerset, ridden with corruption with many council meetings being shams and not even occurring! In contrast, I feel Northumberland was much more democratic (as far as Tudor politicians go) in his approach towards the institution of the Privy Council; happily delegating responsibility to other members of the council such as Sir William Cecil.

    Additionally, I believe that Somerset's protectorate left Northumberland with a variety of situations which cost Northumberland his popularity to rectify, and therefore Northumberland's predecessor- 'the good duke'- should really be more heavily criticised for causing these issues in the first place. For example, Northumberland had to restore the coinage which Somerset had debased twice, which caused the fiscal crisis of May 1552.

    Northumberland also had much more measured policy strategies in comparison to Somerset, which were more effectively implemented as a result. Somerset's approach towards dealing with the poor in comparison to Northumberland's proves that Somerset was not the good "friend of the poor" depicted by countless historians. For instance the 'Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds' under Somerset allowed any unemployed loitering man to be brought before a magistrate and branded with a 'V' on his breast, making him a slave for two years (during which time if he decided to attempt to escape and was caught, an 'S' would be branded on his face and he would become a slave for life). This was never successfully implemented due to its extreme nature.

    Countless other examples demonstrated by Rathbone portray Somerset's many policy failings with regards to foreign policy, enclosure and religion, and therefore I do not think that Northumberland's legacy should be so negative in contrast to Somerset's. I believe Northumberland was a great Tudor politician, who merely experienced the misfortune of being in the middle of a dispute between Protestant and Catholic factions over who should rule England after Edward VI's death.

    Considering that Northumberland's options were either to surrender to the Catholic Queen Mary and probably still be accused of treason and executed upon Edward's death, or to attempt to put a protestant queen on the throne, I completely sympathise with his backing of Lady Jane Grey. It could additionally be argued that placing Lady Jane Grey on the throne was Edward VI's will also, as he supported Lady Jane Grey and her sisters' first male heir succeeding himself, proving that it was in his interest to prevent Mary becoming queen.

    To conclude, I think that Northumberland should be reviewed by historians in the same light as Mark Rathbone, as his association with being a 'bad duke' does not provide him with the fair portrayal in history which he deserves.


  3. Many historians believed that Northumberland was ‘a corrupt and power hungry villain’ but the revisionist view has managed to persuade me otherwise. It seems that Northumberland was actually very skilled and possessed a seemingly rare trait among English rulers – sensibility. Unlike Henry VIII, he didn’t seem to feel the same need to validate his ego by declaring war and creating a reputation as a ‘warrior’ leader, as evidenced by his treaty with France which provided land in Boulogne and financial stability. His skill as a politician was further reflected in monetary affairs where he was able to clear most of the crown’s debts, a feat considering the financial mess he’d inherited. I was also surprised at the apparent generosity he presented to his rival Somerset by eventually reinstating him in the council and even engaging his son to Somerset’s daughter, which even if a tactical scheme to gain support, was kinder treatment than many rulers would afford. Finally, his agrarian policy seemed effective and gained him popularity with the people, something he did not have at the beginning of his rule. This leads me to believe history has not treated him with the respect I think he deserves.


  4. Despite his negative portrayal in history, Northumberland accomplished many triumphs during Edward VI’s reign. Northumberland was a successful protector and made numerous beneficial reforms to both the economic and political systems. He aided the monarchy’s financial crisis and helped create peace in the realm through actions such as ending the war with Scotland, ending debasement and placing himself as Council Leader. Additionally, Northumberland built on the failures of Somerset and allowed improvement to occur under the minority rule. However, these effective political strategies are often overlooked as a result of his questionable morals and motives. I believe Northumberland should be remembered for his valuable achievements in Edward’s reign rather than his desire for power, which ultimately led to his downfall.


  5. Although Northumberland did undoubtedly achieve many good things, I think it is easy to go too far the other way in an attempt to revise the historical perception of him. He was more financially astute than Somerset but still badly mishandled the debasement of the coinage in 1551. Debasing the coinage for a fourth time in a relatively short period in order to raise money to restore it also seems to be quite an unusual decision.

    Despite Rathbone's argument I would still say that Northumberland's religious policy was much more radical than that of Somerset. Somerset could be said to have been, to some extent at least, 'hedging his bets', while Northumberland was much more explicitly inclined towards Protestantism. Examples of this would be denial of the Catholic doctrines of purgatory (in the 42 articles in 1553) and the rejection of transubstantiation (in the Prayer Book of 1552). There is no real evidence to support the idea that Somerset would have implemented more radical religious policies in time.


  6. In spite of the negative perceptions that Northumberland appears to be branded with, in my opinion they are somewhat unjust considering the success of many of his policies. Firstly he mananaged to solve to crowns finanacial crisis by clearing most of the inherited debt which obviously made the crown more financially stable. Northumberland also made a treaty with France which improved foreign realtions and reduced the crowns expenditure on war.
    Personally,I think that this contradicts the self centred image of Northumberland as the glory of winning a war (if he had been victorius) would have inflated his ego more than the financial benefits of walking away. Therefore it would appear evident that history has been a little harsh wtih his portrayal.

  7. The Duke of Northumberland, whilst undeserving of the reputation so often assigned to him, was not the 'worthy statesman' revisionist historians such as Rathbone believe him to have been. Undeniably a skilled politician, his rule was marked by various achievements, with the suppression of the 1551 risings and the restoration of the Privy Council being hailed by his supporters as signs of a capable and efficient leader. However, his three years in power were also marked by significant failures, and many of the 'successes' attributed to his rule are often exaggerated simply by virtue of comparison to his predecessor, the Duke of Somerset.

    Northumberland is praised for both his containment of civil unrest and his reduction of the considerable debt left by Somerset's rule. In truth, Northumberland's social policies were scarcely lenient, leading to an unpopular government, and whilst he managed to stabilise the finances of the crown, an achievement that cannot be understated, he was not without his mistakes, notably the devaluation of 1551 after attempts to restore the coinage. Admittedly, his decision to withdraw from the costly and unpopular Scottish war was a shrewd one, but arguably made obvious by the vast failures of Somerset's government. He learned by example, something evident in his handling of the Privy Council, and his willingness to delegate. Somerset's downfall was due in large part to his autocratical and dictatorial leadership, producing growing resentment among the alienated nobility and making himself a clear scapegoat for all of his government's admittedly many failings. Northumberland's political decisions were thus guided partly by attempts to avoid previous mistakes, and equally stemmed from a sense of self preservation, evident in his attempt to divert the succession to his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey. In power, she would have left him both in a great position of influence and safe from the Catholic Mary Tudor. Whilst a debatably understandable political move, Northumberland mismanaged the whole affair, and in many ways brought his own downfall upon himself. He was, however, guided by the reluctance of his king to leave the throne to a Catholic ruler, which does provide some weight to the 'worthy statesman' argument; the first duty of any Tudor politician was to his king.

    Northumberland was neither a corrupt politician or an exemplar ruler. Whilst his three years in power were certainly successful in many areas, he made mistakes of his own, and was arguably guided by the failures of his predecessor. Equally, it is hard to argue that he was driven solely by a desire for personal power. It would be more accurate to consider him driven by a sense of self preservation - something very few of us can criticise him for.


  8. After reading the article, I believe Rathbone summed up Northumberland rather well: less spectacular, but more effective. While he may not have implemented entirely radical policies or overseen drastic change, his measured and often cautious actions seem to have done the country a favour - especially his move towards peace with France and his clear desire to reduce the debt the Crown owed. The much improved financial situation along with his successful delegative leadership style suggests that Northumberland was an effective politician, and that perhaps he does deserve more credit.
    However, the natural born cynic in me can't help but question the incredibly positive attitude Rathbone seems to have towards Northumberland. I also find it quite hard to believe that Northumberland would not try and sabotage his rival, or at least that he would be pleased by his downfall, especially when he had been outmanoeuvred by Somerset after the death of Henry VIII.


  9. The revisionist interpretation has changed my opinion on Northumberland, but not to a high extent. Surely Northumberland did not seem to be a 'corrupt and power-hungry villain'at the beginning of his rule, as evidenced by his treatment to Somerset after Somerset was overthrown. Northumberland ordered Somerset's release and also married his son to Somerset's daughter. During his rule, he also served the king very well and managed to tackle the problems left by his predecessor effectively, such as debt. He certainly did serve his king with 'zeal, faith and truth'.

    However, it could be argued that Northumberland was hiding his true nature in those few years. The fact that he wanted to put Lady Jane Grey to the throne reveals an slightly ambitious side of him. If he was not 'power-hungry', he would not make Lady Jane Grey his daughter-in-law and put her to the throne in order to keep his position and authorities, or perhaps to get more power. It is difficult to say whether he is 'power-hungry' or loyal. But I personally do agree with the revisionist interpretation of him as a loyal servant. Northumberland did make remarkable achievements during his rule and most of his policies were indeed more effective in comparison to those of Somerset.

  10. Northumberland has clearly been given an unfair reputation of power hungry with an 'insolent temper' when in fact he was a ruler typical of the Tudor time. I believe the basis of this misrepresentation is due to the constant comparisons with Somerset, who himself has been unduly remembered. Somerset was not 'the friend of the poor' character that some historians maintain and was no better than Northumberland in terms of his acts. Somerset's 'Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds' was quite drastic and definitely questions just how much of a friend he was to the poor, whereas Northumberland had never made such claims

    Religion was such an important part of Tudor life and it comes as no surprise that Northumberland's actions with Lady Jane Grey had religious motives as well as Northumberland's need to 'save his own back'. Whilst these actions wouldn't necessarily be excusable, they are ultimately common with the actions of many other prominent figures of the time, thus asserting Northumberland as a man of similar character who has been unfairly demonised.