The House of Dudley: A New History of the Tudor Era

Image of The House of Dudley: A New History of Tudor England
Release Date: 
March 7, 2023
Pegasus Books
Reviewed by: 

For those who love to dig deep into Tudor history, scandal, and intrigue, the Dudleys make a fascinating study of a family whose interactions from the first Tudor, Henry VII to the last, Elizabeth I, took them through cycles of power and defeat. Brilliant schemers with a streak of ruthlessness, they had what it took to be power brokers during the Tudor dynasty. But missteps could lead to death as in the execution of Edmund Dudley when Henry VIII ruled, and yet under that same king his son John rose back up and was poised to become a major player upon the king’s death.

But then the family backed Lady Jane Grey who was married to Guildford Dudley over Henry VIII’s eldest daughter Mary to become the next queen. John, Guilford and Jane would lose their heads just as Edmund had. Mary would go on to become a bloody, religious fanatic who fortuitously never put her own half-sister to the sword though she came close several times. But when Mary died and the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I began, the Dudleys again came into prominence.

Indeed, John’s son Robert Dudley, who became the Earl of Leicester. was so popular it was thought that Elizabeth might make him her spouse. Unfortunately, the dashing, ambitious, and unscrupulous Robert had a wife, and her death remains an enduring mystery. Was she murdered to clear the way for Robert Dudley and Queen Elizabeth to marry?

The scandal was too much, and the couple would never wed, but Robert Dudley remained the queen’s favorite until he was replaced by the young Robert Devereux, the stepson of Dudley’s wife Lettice.

There had been hopes that the Earl of Leicester would leave an heir. Author Joanne Paul, an honorary associate professor in History at the University of Sussex, describes Lettice’s getting ready for childbirth in a paragraph that tells so much about the times.

“But the linens were fresh and herbs had been strewn about. The room looked funereal but smelled of brightness and new life. The focus of the room was the bed, dressed with white linen, and set in the centre of the chamber so that there was plenty of room for her attendants to busy themselves around it. The bed needed to be neither too close to the fire as to be overly warm, nor too close to the windows and doors all covered with arras, subject to draughts. This would be Lettice’s world for the next several weeks, attended only by her closest female servants and companions. As dark a scene as it was, Lettice had every reason to feel triumphant. She had accomplished what no other woman had in several decades, though a number had tried: She had married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. What's more, Lettice Dudley, Countess of Leicester was preparing to give birth to Robert’s child, a legitimate heir to the House of Dudley.”

Alas the child died, leaving no direct legitimate heir. Devereux would be executed for treason as would the man Lettice married after Robert Dudley died. The Dudley dynasty had survived so long and achieved so much, but in the end there was no one to carry it on.

In her expertly researched book (there are over 100 pages just of notes) Paul recounts the family history in painstaking detail. When it comes to families intent upon succeeding, many have heard of the Borgias, but rest assured, the Dudleys could have given them a run for their money.