England in 1549 was a pretty bleak picture. Even in comparison to earlier times. Edward VI was the king, and was only twelve years old. He obviously couldn’t rule the entire Country at twelve, so a de facto leader named Edward Seymour (The King’s uncle) was named the Protector Lord Somerset. He became hugely unpopular at Court for his ridiculously expensive war against Scotland, which had proved successful but costly. Inflation at record highs, and his mismanagement of religious affairs. He was also considered a friend of the poor, which in 1549 (much like today actually) the ruling classes do not like.
By July 1549, the peasantry in Norfolk were becoming agitated by what they perceived as their land being enclosed by the richer members of the community. And so, they took up arms and started to destroy enclosures including that of Robert Kett. Kett, oddly, then joins the rebels, destroys his enclosure, and becomes the leader of the rebels.
By July 11th, the rebels numbered close to 15,000 men and were growing daily. They entered Norwich on 22nd July and assumed control of the city. And so the Protector in London responded.
And this is where the story gets a little bit odd.
Firstly, William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton was sent by the Protector Somerset, with less than 2000 men to attempt to quell the rebellion. He promptly failed. The Protector then sent John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, with 14,000 men. Eventually, Warwick succeeded and defeated the rebels. Kett was hung until half dead, his stomach was opened up whilst still alive, and his entrails burnt in front of him. He was then beheaded. The Tudor period was nothing if not gory.
That’s the official – if somewhat rushed – version of the story. But it seems to go a little deeper than that. And it all centres around John Dudley, Earl of Warwick.
For those of you who have seen the film “Elizabeth“, John Dudley is the father of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who seemingly has a bit of crush on Elizabeth and vice versa. Little is known about Robert’s father.
Chris Skidmore in his book “Edward VI: The Lost King of England” briefly touches upon, but does not expand too much, on quite a vast conspiracy. He suggests the idea that John Dudley may have actually had more to do with the rebellion than the official story suggests.
Dudley was no friend of the Protector, and when Somerset’s government finally fell……. Dudley was proclaimed the Duke of Northumberland, and the new Protector in 1550. However, before all of that, on the 12th July 1549, as the rebellion was gaining force, Dudley was at home having written to the Protector that he was “ill” and so he stayed at home. His home, happened to be right next to the heartland of the rebellion. When he finally rode out to face the rebellion with his men, he offered the rebels a full pardon. Kett, oddly then rides out of the city to meet with Dudley, but is held back by his own men.
If we go back further, to 1543, we see that Kett himself had purchased land directly from Dudley. The two had met on several occasions in fact. Dudley was in the area on July 12th having “phone in ill”, and Kett had wanted to meet Dudley as the rebels and the kings forces sat in wait for battle. Why? What did Kett want to know? He’d got a pardon if he wanted it. What did he need to talk about? Perhaps…. what to do next?
Another figure enters the fray. Sir Richard Southwell was a keeper of the Howard lands in Norfolk at the time. He was a very close friend of Dudley. Southwell’s will, written in 1564, leaves £40 (which was a large sum of money in those days) to Richard Kett…. the son of Robert. When Kett was in the Tower of London in August 1549, no one came to visit him, except Sir Richard Southwell. Not only that, but during the time of the rebellion, Southwell’s deputy-baliff, was the brother of Robert Kett. Southwell’s implication in the rebellion is even further suggested by a man named Sir Edmund Knyvett, who wrote:
… of such money as Robert Kett principle leader of the rebellion had from Sir Richard Southwell then having charge of the king’s treasure sent down by him for the surpressing of the said rebels and tried out by the said earl upon examination of diverse the said rebels t be conveyed in particular sums amongst diverse persons which was by the said earl gathered together and delivered over to this accomptant….£497 15s
…. which, according to Skidmore, means that Southwell was funding the rebellion from day one, out of the King’s treasury.
Southwell then broke into the office of William Cecil who held this disposition, and stole it. He was effectively off the hook.
It goes without saying, that Dudley benefited the most from pulling the strings of both the rebels and the Protector. He seems to have played both sides off against one another beautifully, and used it all to his own benefit having secured his place as Protector less than half a year later. After Norfolk, Dudley found himself with a huge army of men, and linked up with another leader named Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, and forced Somerset from power. The whole rebellion fiasco ended with the Council supremely unhappy with Somerset’s leadership. Was this Dudley’s intention? Did he know a rebellion would fail, did he instigate it, and then destroy it to make both himself look like a saviour and the Protector look weak? Did he plan it, knowing by the end of the rebellion, he would be left with thousands of troops? If so Dudley has quickly became my favourite character in Tudor history, surpassing Thomas Cromwell as the most devious.
There are no biographies of which I can find at least, of John Dudley, except that of Loades. Loades’ book costs £95 on amazon and I simply don’t have that kind of money. I would like to investigate Skidmore’s allegations in depth, because it appears fascinating, and it is a largely unexplored direction to take with regard to Kett’s rebellion. It intrigues me to know that a man who had relatively no power in Council, was pulling the strings behind the scenes and in fact had quite immense power. It would make for an interesting research project. It makes me wonder what else Dudley was involved in, throughout his career.
We often focus on the Monarchs themselves throughout history, yet the most impressive and intriguing characters are the players behind the scenes. Thomas More, Francis Walsingham, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Seymour, and John Dudley all do not have all that much written about them, and yet they play pivotal roles in the development of the Tudor state during the 16th Century. Fascinating to contemplate.