The Rise and Fall of Edmund Dudley: the “hawk” of Henry VII?
On the morning of 17th August 1510, Edmund Dudley – notorious minister, lawyer, and general agent of King Henry VII – made his way to Tower Hill in London to be beheaded. No account of the execution itself survives, though one can imagine the anticipation and satisfaction with which the crowd witnessed the death of a man who had allegedly wreaked “the most savage harshness” upon the king’s subjects. According to Francis Bacon, whose History of the Reign of King Henry VII has remained the preeminent account since its conception in the early seventeenth century, Dudley was “one that could put hateful business into good language”; a man who appeared at exactly the right moment to shroud the poor ethics of Henry VII’s financial policies in the cloak of law and justice. He was imprisoned just two days after that king’s death in 1509. Ever since, he has been demonised as one of “the king’s long arms with which he reached out… and took what was his,” a cunning enabler of royal corruption. In recent years, however, research beyond the narrative of Bacon has heralded an adjustment of Dudley’s reputation. The ethics of his actions remain open to interpretation, but the significance of his career to historians of this most obscure of Tudor reigns is only just on the cusp of being fully understood. This article will scrutinise the validity of the traditional view of Dudley, asking whether he deserves the reputation he has borne – and considering why it remains important to explore this issue further.
Early life and education
Edmund Dudley was born in 1462, just a year after the 18 year old Edward of York had dramatically seized the throne from Henry VI at the Battle of Towton. Dudley’s grandfather was John Sutton, first Baron Dudley, one of the many noblemen in England to swap camps from the Lancastrian army of King Henry to the Yorkist forces of Edward – and to be subsequently rewarded in the aftermath. Thus, whilst Dudley’s childhood and adolescence were marked by the tribulations of the Wars of the Roses, his noble blood placed him within the small minority at the top of the societal hierarchy. The family survived even the demise of the Yorkist regime, with Dudley’s father, Sir John Dudley of Atherington in Sussex, later recorded as working on numerous commissions with Sir Reginald Bray, a councillor to Henry VII.
As was standard for men of his social rank, it is likely that Dudley was first educated at Oxford University before moving to Gray’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court in London, from around 1478. John Fortescue had earlier described the curriculum at the Inns as consisting of legal sciences, scripture, chronicle history, and “a cultivation of virtues and a banishment of all vice.” Here Dudley also lectured on quo warranto (the proceedings by which the king could enquire into the land holdings of his subjects) and on various other statutes related to the king’s prerogative. Thus, far from being one of Henry VII’s entirely ‘new men’, Dudley was not only the heir of a family already closely connected to the Crown but was also quickly establishing himself as an expert in the legal capacities of that Crown. With this in mind his ascendancy seems inevitable.
Rise to Power
Dudley’s ascension into the king’s inner circle was, however, more gradual than has usually been presumed. From 1491 onwards, whilst still lecturing on statute law at Gray’s Inn, Dudley was elected as a Member of Parliament, first representing Lewes and then acting as a knight of the shire for Sussex. From then on he appeared to follow in the footsteps of his father, working on commissions within Sussex well into the new century. He also held the important position of under-sheriff of London from 1492 to 1502, a role which gave him a long-lasting connection with the city of London. It must thus be noted that the suddenness with which Dudley appears on the scene in the narratives of writers such as Polydore Vergil and Bacon is overstated; by the time he was officially made a councillor of the king in 1504, Dudley was in his 40s, had an established career in law, and would have been familiar to most of the realm’s leading officials.
Nevertheless, Dudley must have had particular favour with the king, who also gifted him the position of Speaker of the House of Commons in 1504 and soon after made him the first lay president of the royal council. Subsidiary to this main council, Dudley seems to have fallen in with a small yet significant group known as the ‘Council Learned in the Law’, an “indeterminate body” responsible for hearing a variety of different cases, usually at the whim of Henry VII himself. Largely Dudley’s work appears to have included pursuing cases in the king’s interest, often in relation to property or to the misdemeanours of those tied into a financial bond with the king. Although technically legal, the means and ethics of these activities – including the use of packed juries and intimidation tactics – have long been questioned. Dudley’s account books note exactions from some of the king’s wealthiest subjects in exchange for pardons and, more shadily, the “kingis gracious favour.” Complaints against Dudley were, unsurprisingly, common; one plaintiff claimed that Dudley had cut him out of his case against the Earl of Derby altogether, the £300 pay-off going directly to the king, whilst Horowitz detailed how a London haberdasher named Thomas Sunnyff was imprisoned in the house of one of Dudley’s men in lieu of a £500 fine which he allegedly owed.
For evidence of the success and wealth accrued by Dudley through these activities, one need look no further than the inventory of the goods of his house in ‘Candlewykstrete’ in London, taken shortly after his arrest in 1509. The list of items from the 22 rooms included many decorated with the “Dudeley armes,” and one glass for rhenish wine engraved with the “rose ffloweres… & pourt colys” of the Tudors. He also owned “Ffrench chayres”, a women’s saddle “afte the almayne ffassion”, “a table of spaynysse makyng” and several items of crockery of “beyounde see makyng” – he was a man of expensive tastes, and had the money to fulfil them.
This material wealth, alongside his controversial role within Henry VII’s administration, perhaps explains the envy and isolation that resulted in the swift downfall of Dudley and his colleague, Richard Empson. When Henry VII died in 1509 the two men were absent from the Privy Chamber, giving the powerful figures wronged by the old regime the opportunity to use them as scapegoats. The new King Henry VIII was encouraged to imprison them almost immediately upon his accession, though it took over a year of deliberation and cajoling before he finally signed their death warrants. The charge of extortion deemed too politically insensitive in the aftermath of Henry VII’s death, Dudley was eventually accused of treasonously raising armed men against the new king. Thus was his fate sealed as the first of many Henrician ministers sent to the block.
It is difficult to know exactly what to make of Edmund Dudley. Within the scholarship on Henry VII, the initial criticisms levied against him stick firmly: Thomas Penn’s award-winning Winter King and accompanying documentary present Dudley as almost the sole architect of Henry VII’s most pernicious policies. Although the fact of Dudley’s actions cannot be denied, in the case of Penn especially there remain issues with conflating the claims of chroniclers with reality. To put it another way, portraying Dudley as taking advantage of a weakened and aged king in chronicles served the need of the new regime (that of Henry VIII) to distance itself from the heavily-criticised policies of the preceding years without besmirching the Tudor name.
More recent scholarship by James Ross and Mark Horowitz has emphasised the pervasive role of Henry VII in all of Dudley’s activities. It has long been known that Henry VII personally oversaw much of the Crown’s business, and that he coveted for himself the power to make or break men. In The Tree of Commonwealth, written during his imprisonment in the Tower, Dudley voiced concern for royal servants forced to “do further then consciens requirith… to wynne speciall thank of the king” – this despite the pressing need to placate the new king! He also pointed to the influence and demands of the king in his responses to complainants: in his ‘confession’ of 1509 concerning the Sunnyff case he explained that “the kinge hadde yor money evry grotte and I no penny therof.” He had made much the same claim in responses written in 1504, suggesting a consistent sense on his part as to the corrupt power of the monarch to direct affairs. Furthermore, if Dudley’s accounts are to be trusted (and considering the fact that Henry VII had examined every page it is likely that they can be) it is difficult to see how the opportunity could have arisen to pocket any money additional to that given to him by the scrupulous king. All in all, it must be noted that it was a given of this period that allegedly ‘evil’ counsellors would take the public blame for the actions of the untouchable monarch; the same fate awaited Wolsey and Cromwell in the next reign.
Furthermore the evidence in favour of the treason charge against both Dudley and Empson remains mostly unconfirmed. There is, of course, the tantalising reference to a small pile of arms amassed in Dudley’s home, but beyond that nothing sticks. Dudley seemed to hold to his own innocence. The more poignantly personal passage of his treatise The Tree of Commonwealth laments how “men trusting to die in ther beddes in good prosperitie oftetymes die by execution, and not worth a penny… And oftentymes his superfluous prosperities be the cause and not the guylte.” Far from putting “hateful business into good language”, here Dudley condemned the work of “pillers, pollers and… Westminster Hal,” and urged the new king to act as the moral compass for his servants and subjects alike. In summary, it is possible to construe Dudley not as the criminal “hawk” of Polydore Vergil’s account, but as a servant of the Crown like any other – whose undignified end has come to define modern-day views of his life and career.
In an age in which the rehabilitation of previously maligned Tudor ministers (a la Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s works) is in vogue, more work is perhaps needed to uncover the reality of Edmund Dudley’s life and career. Dudley has been presented as a man who shot quickly to power from obscurity, manipulated a vulnerable king to great personal advantage, and paid the ultimate price thanks to the outcry of the people. In many respects the facts of his life contradict this account, whilst elsewhere there is simply not enough evidence to confirm the truth either way. Certainly the claim that Henry VII, of all the Tudor monarchs, could have been entirely swayed by any of his servants is to be seriously doubted – and the comments of Dudley uncovered by recent research point to the opposite being true. This is not to say that Dudley can be entirely acquitted of all the charges against him. His own account books and other material from the public records archives are enough to prove that his activities, though legal, were enough to make him deeply, justifiably unpopular.
Dudley’s career must be contextualised; he was the public face of a regime which did relatively little to acquaint itself with the common people at a time when it was dangerous to publicly criticise the king personally. It remains convenient to accept him as a scapegoat. Furthermore, the reduction of Dudley’s role in history to that of the Baconian self-interested manipulator has led to a dismissal of the personal testaments to be found in his writings, overlooking some valuable evidence of a reign for which there is already relatively little to work with. On the contrary, the realities of his actions, words, unpopularity, and unfortunate end reveal a moment of considerable tension concerning the relationship between the legal capacities of the Crown and the king’s ethical responsibilities towards his people which is yet to be fully explored. As such, the Edmund Dudley behind the accepted narrative may be just as, if not more, interesting to historians than is usually presumed.
Written by Laura Flannigan
British Library Lansdowne MS. 127: Edmund Dudley’s Declarations of what sums he had received for fines, &c. to the use of K. Henry VII. since his first entering into His Majesty’s service Sept. 9, 1502. Copied from an original signed by the King. (1504-1509)
The National Archives: Public Record Office E 154/2/17: Indenture as to the goods of Edmund Dudley in ‘Candelwykestrete’, St Swithin. (1509).
State Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII: General, Vol. 2, Letters and Papers: 1510 May 31- 1512 Sept 20. f.4: Will of Edmund Dudley, Attainted of High Treason. (1510).
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