John Dudley’s Last Letter: Is it Authentic?

On the eve of his execution for his attempt to place Lady Jane Grey – his daughter-in-law – on the English throne, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland was sitting in his cell in the Tower of London writing a letter to the Earl of Arundel, a man he had not always treated well. He begged him to intercede with Queen Mary for his life. Or was he? Northumberland’s biographer Professor Barrett L. Beer spoke of ‟one of the most pathetic letters of the sixteenth century“,1 while his later biographer, Professor David Loades, has described it as both ‟abject“2 and ‟very moving“in different publications in one and the same year. Like many sources of the era it survives only in transcript and is generally thought to be genuine.

A forgery cannot be ruled out, though,4 and it is intriguing that the transcript is believed to have been made from a letter found in the study of Mr. Dell, secretary to Archbishop Laud,5 the anti-Puritan primate who was executed in 1645 by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. This is significant because Robert Dudley, the Elizabethan Earl of Leicester and famous son of John Dudley, as the most notable patron of the Elizabethan Puritan clergy had been a bête noire to the very conservative Archbishop Whitgift, and because the episcopal Anglican High Church developed ‟a direct interest in discrediting“ Leicester’s posthumous reputation.6 This would explain the interest of churchmen in an embarrassing letter written by the Earl’s notorious father. Another puzzling aspect of the letter is its careful composition and its forceful if florid language, which is difficult to reconcile with a man in panic who, according to some critics, was unable to express himself coherently anyway. However, some of John Dudley’s undoubtedly authentic letters are written in excellent and forceful English, and it seems the style of the letter in question, while not the norm, is not untypical of the grandfather of Sir Philip Sidney.

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