The game played out, the Mary entered London and the Duke was to die. But Northumberland had one more surprise to spring
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Well, over the last week then we came to the end of the story of how Mary overcame all the obstacles to earn her right to the throne. This week I thought we might reflect on the what has just happened and why. And then we have some players to say goodbye to – we’ve must say farewell to John Dudley, and he has one more surprise for us up his gown. That’s sounds a bit rude. Ooeer matron. We will leave til tomorrow the final chapter in the life of the hero of our story, Jane Grey, and how history has viewed Jane’s life. What I will do, with your permission – well without it actually, sorry about that – is to concentrate on the events as they affect Jane and Northumberland, and leave the detail of events of the start of Mary’s reign until 2019. Yes, 2019 we are that close. Then next week there’s a an interview with the brilliant Nicola Tallis, as you should all jolly well know by now. And there’s the quiz and prize draw – all the fun of the fair. It’s not too late to buy membership of the history of England for the people you love – to indeed the ones you are less keen on, I’m not fussy – just go to the history of England website and you’ll see how to do it there for you.
So what had just happened here? One of the things that struck me is just how different a couple of key particulars are about the real story of Jane Grey to the story I have had in my head all these years. The first one is the idea that Jane Grey was a usurper – when in fact it was of course Mary that was the rebel queen, and the usurper. But the main one of course is the inevitability of the victory of Mary – or at least that’s what I had in my head; the idea that really Jane was doomed from the start that it was a feeble attempt to usurp the throne which of course belonged to Mary, and Jane never had a hop. This is a story that belittles three of the principal players in particular.
Firstly it belittles Edward. It is now generally agreed by historians that it was Edward that initiated and developed the Devise for the succession. Obviously, I am well aware that this means diddly squat, we simply await the next round of revisionism in the endless dance of history, but for the moment this is how the Devise is seen. It’s also quite probable, though I am sure arguable, that Edward had every right to make the decision he made; there is no legal minority in terms of kings, Edward was king in all respects should he chose to assume that role. So back to that point – the rebel here was not Jane, it was Mary.
Secondly it belittles Northumberland. Northumberland in this story is traditionally presented as the evil doer, grasping, vile and ambitious, willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of his ambition, and to see his son die and his daughter in law too. Recent historians have fought against this traditional story, and the basis on which this legend lies is shaky. So in this old legend, Northumberland influences and manipulates Edward into changing the succession. What is the basis for this? Apparently it is because of his overweening pride. Why is pride always overweening I might ask as I write that? I don’t think I have ever heard of anybody overweening in any other sense. What is it to ween – is it connected to weener, a word I heard my daughters use to describe some boy they had met when young? Should the incredibles face a battle between the Underminer and the overweener I ask myself? I looked it up – it comes from Ween apparently, Germanic word to think, been around since the 14th century. Huh, over thinking pride.
Anyway, Northumberland’s apparently overweening pride, and ambition; a terror apparently that if Mary came to the throne she’d find out about some terrible things he’d done. But it’s not clear what those terrible things were that meant he could never let Mary acquire the throne – especially if we accept that it was Edward, not Northumberland who created the Devise. Only when he had launched Jane Grey onto the throne, in accordance with his master’s wishes, did he cross a Rubicon over which it would be difficult for Mary to allow him to swim back over – though many of his colleagues did so, it should be noted. Another reason cited is one of ambition and tyranny – where in fact historians point out that his manner of dealing with his colleagues was involving and consensual, while accepting also that he could be a bully and thumper of tables when blocked.
There are two obvious reasons why Northumberland gets such a bad press. For Mary, he was a very convenient scapegoat; by blaming everything on Northumberland, she could excuse the rest of the Council. This is good thinking and part of the continuing story of Mary’s reign that she was no fool; she realised she needed a political nation on her side, chopping everyones’ legs off was not an option. Secondly, his religion; as we’ll hear in a tick, Northumberland did not make himself popular to Protestants at the end of his life, and so he doesn’t get the John Foxe make over as a protestant hero. A person’s reputation always looks better with the John Foxe makeover. Northumberland became a dirty word for the protestants.
What was the truth then? Well, if I knew the truth I’d be a billionaire, if that is what you become from writing history books about obscure 16th century political leaders…is that what you get from writing history books about obscure 16th century political leaders? For what it’s worth, which certainly isn’t billions, it seems to me that it is impossible to clear Northumberland entirely from accusations of the dirtier motives. Jane in particular was livid with the man
His life was wicked and full of dissimulation, so was his end thereafter
Her contempt was total – and for her, his crime was on of ‘exceeding ambition’. He was just power mad then. It is very difficult to conceive that Northumberland had no desire for power and enjoyment of it, and a wish to preserve it. But that said, I concur with the modern view that in the main Northumberland was just doing his job; it is of course a personal weakness that I did a book by Albert Camus for A level, and as a result assume that most people just want to do a good job, which as I understand it was Camus’s honest Joe philosophy of life; and if that doesn’t win me maximum points for a pretentious namedrop I don’t know what does. I think it explains Northumberland’s crazy laughing, tears, coins thing in Cambridge marketplace – just like his father, he had tried with all his soul to raise his reputation and that of his family to the heights, by faithfully implementing the orders of his masters – Henry VIII and Edward VI. Ironically under the arch monster Henry VIII that brought him nothing but success; but for his efforts for the boy king, just like his father, doing his duty brought him dishonour and death. It is a wicked irony.
Thirdly, the traditional story belittles Mary. Throw your minds back to Mary and the aborted flight in 1550, her rushing to and fro unable to decide what to do. This was what her enemies expected of her, they thought she was going to do a Gloria Gaynor – and they badly under estimated her. Mary had courage aplenty when the way forward was clear, she had determination in spades. By viewing her success as inevitable, we undermine her courage and her skill in winning a throne against all the odds.
So, why did Mary win then? The first reason it seems to me is the illustration that a lie told clearly and simply is much easier to sell than the complicated truth. Edward’s devise for the succession was perfectly legal, but it was complicated, and it flew in the face of that most English and fallible of Gods, the God of Common Sense. Mary was the big Man’s daughter. Therefore, she was next in line. All that jiggery pokery was just flim flam smoke and mirrors and all that. Stands to reason, dunnit. With time, no doubt the world could have been convinced that Jane was the logical choice, but there was no time, everyone expected that Mary would be announced. The ordinary people never accepted Jane. Now, I hear you at the back raising an objection – but these people had no power, the ordinary people, this was a time of hideous repression. Well, did they not? Firstly, the feelings of the ordinary people of London was reflected all over the country and in the breasts of many of the gentry classes – it’s clear that if she had won, Queen Jane would have had a lot of work to win round many off the regions. Secondly, the atmosphere in London as the Councillors went about their work was sullen and resentful. That must have played its part in breaking their resolve.
The other major reason was Northumberland’s failure to prepare. Now Eric Ives makes the point that it was difficult to prepare and difficult to arrest Mary before Edward died, but a more unconventional or wicked person would have done so anyway – because if Jane was to be Queen, that was the right thing to do. The defection of the fleet and the delivery to Mary of artillery was a key point which convinced Northumberland that he’d blown it – but he should never have allowed it to come to that point.
The same forces that had tried to maintain Jane on her throne now swung over to Mary; while the capital waited nervously for their new queen, preachers who warned of coming disaster were locked up, a man was locked in the pillory for speaking against Mary, just as Gilbert Potter had been. Finally, on 3rd August Mary rode into London in triumph, riding on a palfrey with gold embroidered trappings reaching to the ground. Included in the massive procession, a display of wealth power and legitimacy, came the Princess Elizabeth. As Mary came near the Tower, with the cheers of her subjects ringing out, there was a piece of pure theatre. Outside the Tower was a short row of Mary’s subjects, kneeling on the ground in the position of supplicants for mercy. There was Stephen Gardiner, Bishop Edmund Bonner and the Duchess of Somerset. And there was the octogenerian Duke of Norfolk. Mary shared her family’s sense of drama. She kissed each one – ‘these are my prisoners’ she declared and set them free. Great stuff.
Interestingly, on 8th August, Mary allowed Edward VI’s funeral on to go ahead according to Cranmer’s 1552 rite; I suppose this is the response to being allowed to celebrate the mass while she was at large. Mary however stayed away. It was Cranmer who presided over the funeral. I would like to bet that the back of his neck felt itchy. That would be the cross hairs of the sights of the high powered snipper’s rifle Mary was looking through in the Tower.
Anyway, we were not going to talk about the detail of Mary’s reign, so back to Northumberland first. I should just say, though that Mary issued a sort of reluctant general pardon. It was a pardon that if it was to be represented as a physical object as part of a Tea service, would resemble the sort of doily that my Granny might once have used under the ham sandwiches. It had so many holes and exceptions that putting your affairs in order was the only sensible response. Some of Mary’s gentlewomen thought it worth appealing for Northumberland’s life, and indeed the lives of his sons were spared. But Northumberland’s own life – well that would have required an act of mercy that would have warranted some sort of statue, Angel of the North kind of level.
On 18th August, Northumberland, his eldest son and the Marquis of Northampton were taken by boat to Westminster hall, and there in front of their assembled peers and an audible atmosphere of relief, they were all put in trial. Presiding was over the court was the 80 year old Thomas Howard Duke of Norfolk; and how he must have been reflecting the ups and downs of life. Northumberland was not well received; one observer noted that the panel did no more than a touch of the odd cap. To a man of Northumberland’s status this was a severe insult. None the less he put his best foot forward, by asking how he could be charged of treason when he was acting with the full agreement of Council, many of whom sat in judgement on him now, and under the royal seal. It was an unanswerable point. Norfolk dismissed the very idea by loftily declaring that it was a usurpers seal, that of Jane, and Dudley was therefore guilty. The irony again was that John Dudley was therefore convicted with exactly the injustice as his father – carrying out the orders of his royal masters.
Obviously both other men went the same way. Incidentally, you might remember that Northampton was the man married to Anne Bourchier who had then run off with her paramour; and Northampton had finally gained the right to remarry. Well, Mary was having none of that, and dragged poor Anne back to court to be her lady in waiting, and ordered both back together again. A situation neither wanted of course, but hey. Mary then pardoned Northampton, subject to a heavy fine – which is what she would do with all the lords crowding out the Tower, with the exception of just 3.
At 8 am the very next day, Tower Hill was heaving with people, all come to see the extraordinary spectacle. 10,000 apparently turned up to see the fun. At 8 though the only sound to be heard was a big groan – the execution was delayed, they should all go home. Northumberland had declared his wish to hear a mass.
Well, good golly miss molly you can imagine the dribbling on behalf of Mary’s advisers – here was a propaganda coup and make no mistake. A piece of theatre ensued at the Chapel of St Peter ad vincula in the Tower precinct – all the accused – John Gates, Thomas Palmer, Dudley, Northampton were led through the courtyard and a mass performed in front of a crowd, that included incidentally, Somerset’s sons, watching the killer of their father being destroyed. From her room, Jane Grey might well have watched the whole affair. Northumberland came to his turn to take the sacrament and as he did so he turned dramatically to the crowd
I do most faithfully believe this is the very right and true way out of which true religion you and I have been seduced these sixteen years past, by false and erroneous preaching
And so on and so forth. That evening he wrote for mercy with a letter as abject as you can imagine, to a degree that would have made even Thomas Cromwell blush
Oh that it would please her good Grace to give me life, yea the life of a dog that I might but live and kiss her feet… O my good lord remember how sweet life is, and how bitter ye contrary
Why, gentle listeners? Not the feet kissing part – who am I to judge after all, I suspect I’d be up for that in his circumstances. The conversion part. There are four broad lines of thought; firstly that he’d never been a committed prot anyway, so now seemed a good time to ‘fess up; a second is that he was perfectly committed but was making a desperate bid for mercy; third that he was doing his very best for his family; and finally that he was genuinely converted he had seen the light. The first, cynical explanation is successfully exploded to my satisfaction at least; the length of his support for reformed religion and the weight of evidence seems too much to reject. The second and third, desperate for mercy for himself just seems extraordinary in the sense that it never, never worked, and Dudley would have known that full well, he’d have to have been a complete dipstick to think he had any chance – though there is the letter. I think we are left with either a bid to save his family or a genuine conversion. My lodestone in all of this, Eric Ives, makes the point that the whole treason and execution process was heavily formulaic, with declarations made that were simply a blind that allowed the monarch to show the family mercy; he reckons Dudley was making a bid for mercy. With the added spicy suggestion that he was actually offered a reprieve by the crown, went through with the charade, and was then knifed anyway; it’s clear that when Dudley learned later that evening that he was going to be executed, he was shocked and surprised. I must admit I tend to go for genuine conversion – if he’d been trying to save his family you’d think he’d say that, rather than beg for his own mercy. But we will never know. All that we do know is that it earned Jane’s contempt, for she would prove to have a soul far more steely.
The following morning then, 2nd August 1553 three men approached the scaffold. John Dudley, John Gates, and a man called Thomas Palmer, slightly oddly. I’ll cone to the slightly oddly thing in a moment.
As it happens this time the signature dish was to be eaten first, and John Dudley stepped up to the gallows. There was no more abject submission but there was the normal process of the submission of the Tudor executee. He leant on the rail and told the assembled crowd that had been an evil sort of chap; he continued again to denounce those who had dragged him from the Catholic faith; and he offered up a prayer. It was perfect; the speech was written up and sent round Europe to show protestants everywhere that it was time to return to the one true church. The time had come – he knelt, put his head on the block – and with one blow it was done, no doubt to a cathartic howl from the crowd. John Gates was next, with three blows of the axe, and then came a bit of an interlude when the third victim leapt onto the scaffold.
Thomas Palmer was his name, a tall, sparky man, called variously Busking Palmer for his energy and pzazz, and Long Palmer for his height. He had a colourful military career, not always noted for following orders it has to be said; he was a gambler of some talent – or at least he was a better gambler than Henry VIII off whom he took plenty of money. The question is, why was Palmer being executed? Mary was executing just 3 people from the whole blessed lot – why a figure of such relative obscurity as Palmer? The suspicion is that Palmer went because it was he that had brought Somerset’s treason to the attention of his ally Dudley/slash made it up Somerset’s treason. Dudley was killed as the principal, Gates as the manipulator of Edward VI, and Palmer as the killer of Somerset.
Anyway, Palmer positively leaped onto the Scaffold, gave his audience a big grin, threw his cap into the crowd and roared
God give you all good morrow
Good morrow a few shouted back. Everyone loves a show.
I do not doubt that I have a good morrow, and shall have I trust a better good evening
Which is a clumsy play on words really, but you know, pretty good for someone who has come to die. Palmer was having nothing of this shilly shallying – he was proud to be a protestant, and confirmed his faith. He spoke of the delights he would face when he came to meet his lord
Thou will sit down and behold the greatness above; the sun and moon, the stars above firmament
The world is all together vanity, for in it is nothing but ambition, flattery, foolish or vainglory, provide discord, slander, boasting, hatred and malice
When he was done, he turned to the executioner,
Come on good fellow – art thou he that must do the deed? I forgive thee with all my heart
With a few prayers and one more quip about how neatly his head fit the block, the blade descended and Busking Palmer went to his better place there to view the sun and moon, firmament and stars.
From her position in the Tower Jane would have been able to hear the roar of the crowd as the axe fell. And that is where we will go tomorrow – to hear about Jane.