The Reading Room
Hume’s History of England and The House of Dudley: Part 2
In his treatment of Edmund Dudley, Henry VII’s unpopular minister, David Hume made arguments about the dangers of arbitrary rule and the importance of justice. As such, Edmund emerges as a mixed character, both a greedy transgressor of the limits of justice, but also a victim of injustice. Hume is less equivocal in his treatment of Edmund Dudley’s son, John, who becomes a means of exploring how the public good can be protected by the public themselves. The populace, in this section of the History, are shown to have the power to identify and depose ambitious usurpers, such as (Hume’s) John Dudley.
John Dudley first appears in Hume’s History rather innocuously, as the commander of the sea-forces sent to invade Scotland in the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII. Dudley, indeed, rose through the ranks, recovering from his father’s treason (more or less) through military and chivalric deeds, as well as court connections, most importantly Edward Seymour. Hume mentions these two men together, again in a military conquest, in the final year of Henry’s reign, having been sent to Calais to skirmish with the French.
With the reign of Edward VI, Dudley – now Earl of Warwick – is named with others on the regency council, which is overthrown in favour of the power of the Lord Protector, Dudley’s friend, Edward Seymour, now Duke of Somerset. Hume shows Dudley supporting many of Seymour’s efforts, particularly militarily, in Scotland. Hume takes time to praise Dudley’s military acumen at the Battle of Pinkey, though he is deceived by the artifice of the Scots when it comes time to negotiate.
This is all overture for Hume, as it is for many historians of the period, and he glosses over Dudley’s role in many of the other momentous events of the age, from the wars in France to the burning of Anne Askew. Dudley’s true entrance into history comes, for Hume, in 1549, with the fall of Edward Seymour’s younger brother, Thomas.
Thomas Seymour, historians largely agree, was the architect of his own downfall. Having married Henry VIII’s widow, Katherine Parr, far too soon after the former king’s death, when she died, he made overtures (perhaps more) to the young Lady Elizabeth, Henry VIII’s youngest daughter. This, Hume suggests, would not guarantee him the throne, and so he engaged in a variety of other “rash and more criminal actions”, which his brother sought to control. But it is neither of the Seymour brothers, for Hume, who are responsible for Thomas’s eventual fall; it is John Dudley.
“The earl of Warwic,” Hume writes, “was an ill instrument between the brothers” and “by inflaming the quarrel” found the means “to raise his own fortune on the ruins of both.” Hume reminds his readers of John’s treasonous background as “the son of that Dudley, minister to Henry VII, who, having by rapine, extortion, and perversion of law, incurred the hate of the public, had been sacrificed to popular animosity” (a useful summary of Hume’s approach to the elder Dudley). Henry VIII, however, had been aware of “the iniquity, at least illegality” of the sentence and so restored John Dudley, whose “courage and conduct” and “talents of peace and of war” helped him rise. But, for Hume, “all these virtues were obscured by still greater vices” which included “an exorbitant ambition, an insatiable avarice, a neglect of decency, a contempt of justice”. Whereas Edmund Dudley, then, was an unjust tool of a greedy Henry VII, unfairly sacrificed, Hume portrays John as an out-and-out baddie.
Certainly, John Dudley did not like Thomas Seymour, few did. The two men had even quarrelled, according to reports, and Dudley had chastised him for his lack of loyalty to his brother, telling him, “Be content, therefore, with the honour done to you for your brother’s sake.” His execution would have been the cause of little grief for John. But Hume suggests that Dudley also orchestrates the death of Thomas’s brother – and John’s close friend – Edward Seymour.
Hume acknowledges that, when Edward Seymour is overthrown by a group led by Dudley, Dudley does not have him killed, but rehabilitated into the council, “thinking that he was now sufficiently humbled”. John Dudley and Edward Seymour had been companions longer than accounted for in Hume’s History, perhaps as far back as 1523, when they were both knighted on campaign in France, and they had certainly become allies by the 1530s. There was good reason, then, for John defending his fallen friend. When the other members of the Council sought to have Edward Seymour killed, John Dudley reportedly rounded on them, hand on the hilt of his sword: “He that seeketh his blood,” threatened menacingly, “would have mine also”.
Hume sees this all as artifice, and returns, once again, to Dudley’s unquenchable ambition. It is the continued popularity of Seymour, for Hume, which drives Dudley’s desire to remove him fully from the equation. In the end, Somerset was convicted of a felony – planning the murder of John Dudley, now Duke of Northumberland – and executed. Hume acknowledges that all was done in line with equity and law (unlike in the case of Edward Dudley), but still Seymour “merited a better fate”.
The final act comes with John Dudley’s attempt to rewrite the succession. Hume has Dudley present the plan to skip over the more legal claims of Edward VI’s two half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, in favour of his cousin, Jane Grey. Northumberland then married this Lady Jane to his son, Guildford, and through “violent menaces” ensured the next queen of England would be his daughter-in-law.
“The extreme hatred, universally entertained against the Dudleys,” who, Hume wrote, would be the “real sovereigns” behind Queen Jane, was so strong that Englishmen were willing to disregard their attachment to even religion and throw their support behind the Catholic Lady Mary. Northumberland, “blinded by ambition” did not see the plots against him and was arrested, tried and executed under the authority of Mary I. Hume gives no posthumous reflection on Dudley (as he had for Seymour). He dies, along with two of his companions, “and this was all the blood spilled on account of so dangerous and criminal an enterprise against the rights of the sovereign.”
Whereas Edward Dudley had been sacrificed unjustly to public opinion, in John Dudley it is the force of popular will that serves to counter his ambitions. The people are “moved by indignation” against his various actions and feared a return to the “ancient civil wars” caused by a “departure from the lawful heir”. John Dudley is portrayed as a true antagonist, the opposition to all sense of justice, equity and right order. It is the people who work against him, abandoning the religious attachments of the age, which Hume disdains, they show a commitment to upholding justice and maintaining peace.
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.
Part 3 of this series will focus on Hume’s treatment of John Dudley’s son, Robert 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:
Alford, Stephen. Kingship and Politics in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Paul, Joanne. The House of Dudley. London: Penguin, 2022.
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.
Scard, Margaret. Edward Seymour: Lord Protector: Tudor King in All but Name. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2016.
Tallis, Nicola. Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey. Michael O’Mara, 2016.