The Reading Room

Hume’s History of England and The House of Dudley: Part 1

This three-part blog series investigates the treatment of the Tudor Dudley family by enlightenment philosopher and historian David Hume in his History of England (vols 3 and 4), comparing his accounts to recent research on the topic. This comparison is not meant to expose the veracity or falsity of Hume’s claims, but rather is an attempt to highlight choices that Hume made in his presentation of history. In doing so, we see Hume’s emphasis on historical and constitutional discontinuity through unintended consequences, the importance of justice as a social unifier, and the prevalence of public opinion as a director of historical events. 
Hume’s treatment of the latter years of Henry VII (1485-1509), and the role of Edmund Dudley in them, reinforces his anti-Whig intentions in his History, as well as emphasising the importance of justice (through its absence). Under the marginal note “Oppressions of the people”, Hume details how this first Tudor king “reduced the people to entire submission and obedience.” He was “uncontrolled” and “gave full scope to his natural propensity and avarice”. Being in possession of “absolute authority” he “broke all restraints of shame or justice.” 
Enter Edmund Dudley. According to Hume, Henry VII “found” Dudley, along with Richard Empson (neither of whom is given a first name by Hume). These lawyers were “perfectly qualified” to “second his rapacious and tyrannical inclinations”. Whereas Empson he describes as “of mean birth, of brutal manners, [and] of an unrelenting temper”, Dudley is “better born, better educated and better bred” but nonetheless, “equally unjust, severe, and inflexible.” 
This pairing of “Empson and Dudley” is a later fiction (Hume is drawing on Francis Bacon and John Stow). Both were in the service of the king, and fulfilled similar roles in terms of collecting moneys for the crown, but the idea that they were deployed as a twosome (and had a shared garden where they hatched their nefarious plots) has no basis in the historical record. It is their shared fate (more below) which has led to a retrospective coupling of the men. Sir Richard Empson was almost two decades older than Edmund Dudley and had held significant positions for decades before Dudley entered the king’s service in about 1504. Both men were of middling birth: Empson’s father was a significant landholder in Northamptonshire; Dudley’s was the younger son of a baron. They were both, as Hume rightly suggests, trained lawyers. 
Edmund Dudley (as well as Richard Empson) was one of Henry VII’s “new men”, men of little standing, but significant education and talents, who Henry VII raised up to be – in essence – professional bureaucrats. It was a cunning strategy for several reasons. These men were more effective than the administratively disinclined nobles who had previously filled such roles. Unlike those nobles, too, men like Dudley had no vast private wealth, or private armies to draw upon, and could not make challenges to the Crown as a noble might. Their elevation created resentment amongst the nobles, who turned their animosity on the new men, rather than on their king. Finally, given that they owed all to the king, such men were entirely disposable: the perfect scapegoats. 
According to Hume, Empson and Dudley used “their knowledge in law” to “pervert the forms of justice to the oppression of the innocent”. This was supported “by the formidable authority of the king.” Hume goes into great detail in regard to their methods (which I won’t rehearse here). Recent research has shown many of Hume’s accusations in regard to – at least - Dudley’s actions to be largely accurate. For instance, the case of the haberdasher Thomas Sunnyff, falsely accused of infanticide, hounded for money and repeatedly imprisoned, while juries were bribed and witnesses brow-beaten, certainly fits Hume’s description (which pulls from earlier sources such as Bacon and Polydore Virgil). That “the whole system of the feudal law… was turned into a scheme of oppression” is also not far off the mark. Dudley in particular was well versed in forgotten intricacies of the law which could be dusted off to pull money from the unsuspecting. Hume concludes that “The sole end of the king and his ministers was to amass money, and bring every one under the lash of their authority.” This Dudley did very effectively indeed. In less than four years, he collected some £220,000 for the king (in the region of £150 million or $200 million), single-handedly increasing the revenue of the crown by over half. 
Dudley himself would later claim that all was done by the king’s bidding, and even went so far as to apologise to those he had wronged. Hume, too, places the blame on Henry VII, but more widely on the system that enabled him. “Had the king,” Hume argues, “been impowered to levy general taxes at pleasure [in parliament]” he would not have gone to such extreme measures. Hume points to the fact that Dudley was speaker of the 1504 parliament as evidence for parliament’s ineffectiveness in this period, though Dudley had not yet begun his work for the king by January 1504, when he was chosen speaker. 
In the end, Empson and Dudley, these “new men”, did indeed make excellent scapegoats. As their work had been in accordance with “the strict execution of laws, however obsolete” and thus was not a crime, they were accused of “crimes very improbable, or indeed absolutely impossible”: a treasonous attempt to overthrow the king. Dudley was indeed accused – and convicted – of attempting an armed insurrection, a crime to which there was little to no evidence. As Hume concludes: “Thus, in those arbitrary times, justice was equally violated, whether the king sought power and riches, or courted popularity.” Dudley and Empson were executed together on the 17 August 1510. 
Hume uses the story of Dudley (or rather “Empson and Dudley”) to drive home arguments about the need for strong but regulated monarchical authority. Both men are “instruments” of the king’s greed, enabled by the lack of control placed upon him, but also by the lack of formal means for him to extract coin from the populace. Arbitrariness, therefore, leads to oppression and the transgression of justice, in the story of Edmund Dudley, whether in his unjust (but legal) actions, or his unjust (but warranted) punishment. 
Part 2 of this series will focus on Hume’s treatment of Edmund Dudley’s son, John Dudley. For more on the Dudley family, see the author’s newly released book, The House of Dudley: A New History of Tudor England (UK: Penguin 2022; US: Pegasus 2023). Further Reading:

Horowitz, Mark R. ‘“Agree with the King”: Henry VII, Edmund Dudley and the Strange Case of Thomas Sunnyff’. Historical Research 79, no. 205 (2006): 325–66.

Paul, Joanne. The House of Dudley. London: Penguin, 2022.

Penn, Thomas. Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England. London: Penguin, 2012.

Radcliffe, Elizabeth S, ed. A Companion to Hume. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2008.

Sabl, Andrew. Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England. Princeton University Press, 2015.