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on 16 March 2006
The Dudley family was one of the most powerful families in the history of England. One step away from the crown through several generations, they also exercised enormous influence in matters of military and economic affairs. They also have a dark history about them, as author Derek Wilson acknowledges in the subtitle to this text: 'The Uncrowned Kings of England: The Black History of the Dudleys and the Tudor Throne'.
To be sure, the Dudleys were of minor prominence but respectability before the Tudors arrived on the scene. The Dudleys were involved in various ways with the Wars of the Roses, but came to achieve their greatest fame and fortune under the Tudors, serving in increasingly powerful positions through all Tudor reigns save that of Mary (by this time, the Dudleys had become too identified with the Protestant cause to be trusted by the Roman Catholic Mary, but her reign was but a half-decade interlude in the more-than-a-century reign of the Tudors).
Wilson's text is not the typical history, and he explains why in the introduction. 'The "black legend" of the Dudleys is a monstrous injustice. It is based on the testimony of preachers, pampleteers and rabble-rousers who rejected the policies Edmund and his descendants stood for but who, for the most part, did not dare to direct their criticisms at the sovereign.' The most prominent members - Edmund Dudley (under Henry VII), John Dudley (under Henry VIII and Edward VI), and Robert Dudley (under Elizabeth) - all served their monarchs well, according to Wilson, including bearing the brunt of public criticism. 'With all this mud being thrown it was inevitable that much of it would stick.'
However, Wilson hastens to add that he is not writing a piece of hagiography, nor is he trying to deny the truth where it bears witness. Wilson does highlight areas of concern when warranted - just how much money did Edmund Wilson legitimately gain through his positions? What was the influence of Robert Dudley over Elizabeth? However, popular impression in history has most likely been distorted through propaganda, and has caused this generally able and loyal family to be largely overlooked in history. This is an especially problematic oversight, given that 'on at least two occasions, the House of Tudor really did come very close to being the House of Dudley.'
Wilson arranges his text into four main sections plus an epilogue. The first concentrates on the figure of Edmund Dudley, Esquire, who served as a legal official for Henry VII. He was recognised as an able and educated man by all around him; educated at Oxford and Gray's Inn, he had connections in town and country. He served for a time as Speaker of the House of Commons (then a position appointed by the monarch). However, he never advanced to the status of being a 'favourite'; Wilson gives various evidence for this, not the least of which is that Edmund Dudley never became Sir Edmund Dudley or Lord Edmund Dudley, nor were any other honourifics bestowed upon him, unlike the many courtiers around Henry VII. That he made money and acquired estates showed his competence, but his untitled state spoke of a distance.
The second section looks largely at the figure of John Dudley during the reign of Henry VIII. The third section continues with the same figure in drastically different circumstances. During the reign of Henry VIII, John Dudley slowed moved up the ladder through both military and diplomatic work. He achieved various stations, including being Lord Admiral, and was rewarded with trust as a member of the king's inner circle much of the time. During the reign of Edward VI, he advanced in terms of titles and land, becoming both Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland during his tenure as what some would term the 'uncrowned kingship' of being Lord Protector.
Wilson argues that it was Edward's devise moreso than John Dudley's to cancel out the claims of Mary and Elizabeth and settle upon the heirs of Frances Brandon, married to Henry Grey. Whether this is entirely true will likely never be known; it is possible that the overall influences of the time influenced Dudley and Edward in the same way such that their intentions and ambitions coincided. Lady Jane Grey being married to Guildford Dudley, one of the Duke's sons, would have produced a Dudley dynasty for England.
The final major figure is Lord Robert Dudley, who made a remarkable come-back from being part of the family who tried to supplant the Tudor dynasty with one of their own to being a favourite of the final Tudor monarch, Elizabeth. So much a favourite was he that, when marriage to him seemed impossible for Elizabeth, serious proposal was made for him to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, whose progeny became monarchs of whole of Great Britain. Again Britain might have had a Dudley dynasty, but it was not to be. Lord Robert remained a trusted and loyal friend for Elizabeth who was nonetheless mistrusted and resented by many others.
His son, another Robert Dudley, also became a late favourite of Elizabeth, but his legitimacy was never established, and when his son died in infancy, the Dudley line died out, not long after the Tudor line had similarly expired.
Wilson's text suffers a bit from lack of editing (lots of mis-placed commas, occasional typos in word choice and spelling), but on the whole is engaging and accessible, and certainly illuminating toward a family otherwise lesser known and little studied. There are genealogical charts showing descendants as well as alliances, photographic plates with images of the Dudleys and places of interest, a good collection of notes, bibliographic references, and a reasonable index. This book straddles the fence between being a popular history and an academic history, edging more toward the popular.
I enjoyed reading this book thoroughly, and recommend it to any interested in British history, royal history, and Tudor and Shakespearean times.
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on 30 November 2010
Wilson's book gives a new spin to the Dudley story which traditionally focused upon the dark, treasonable, salatious nature of the family. The book is well written which a good balance of analysis and primary evidence. Accessible to the novice, but essential reading for the Tudor student or specialist.
Well worth reading.
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VINE VOICEon 16 December 2006
This book was an interesting read and it is good to get a long term perspective on the influence of an important but non-royal dynasty on the politics of the time. However, the author is very pro-Dudley and in many places bends over backwards to make allowances for individual actions by members of the family. For example, he considers that Edward VI was fully responsible for the written device for the succession (composed a few short months before his death) that skipped Mary and Elizabeth and willed the throne to Jane Grey and her male heirs (unlawfully trying to override the Act of Succession 1544). We are told that John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and de facto head of the Regency Council supposedly knew nothing of this device and that it was just a coincidence that he had just had his son Guilford married to Jane and so therefore became father-in-law of the new queen. The administering of arsenic to the dying Edward VI, recounted by other historians, is not even mentioned, even in order to dismiss it; we are simply told that "he had dismissed the royal doctors and installed his own physicians at the royal bedside".

The earlier section of the book on Edmund Dudley, John's father, executed in 1510 by the new king Henry VIII as a scapegoat for the public anger at Henry VII's financial policies that were trying to increase tax revenues to reverse the bankrupt state of the national finances following the Wars of the Roses, is interesting, as he is surely the least well known of the three big 16th century family members. That, and the later section on Robert Dudley are probably less controversial, though even with Robert, the author often seems to assume that any conflict between Dudley and anyone else is largely down to the latter's jealousy at his success and closeness to Queen Elizabeth. And the author's defensiveness is perhaps underlined by his elevation of the admittedly scurrilous and propagandistic Leicester's Commonwealth into "what may be the vilest libel ever printed", which seems a sweeping assertion.

These criticisms notwithstanding, this is an interesting book and worth reading if you are already fairly knowledgeable about Tudor history from a wider range of sources.
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VINE VOICEon 22 March 2005
The Dudleys - the uncrowned kings of England? This is what Derek Wilson claims them to be.
Edmund the clever lawyer helping Henry VII. filing the treasury and loosing his head for it under young Henry VIII.. His son John getting up the ladder step by step under Henry VIII. Finally becoming the ruler of England for Edward VII. with the title of Duke of Northumberland, trying to overthrown the heir (Mary I.) in order to put his daughter-in law Lady Jane Grey on the throne. Again it ended with the excecution of the Duke. His yonger son Robert was Elisabeth I. 's favorite and become the Earl of Leicester. He was properly the most glamorous of her courtiers, the one closed to her heart but not necessarily the closed to her head and therefore not the most influencial of members of her council.
I liked a lot that Derek Wilson described the origins of the Dudley. Edmund, John and Robert being the younger lines of the Lord Dudley. The family played a role before the Tudors ascended but they were not of the first order. Edmund made quite a career but he did not even achieve a peerage. He was a trusted servant of the king but he was definetely not THE one. The Duke of Northumberland's career was even more remarkable than that of his father. He made his way up - step by step. But only for a rather short time he was the domineering figure of English politics. He tried to change the succession to put his daughter in law and his son on the throne, but failed. His son Robert rebuilded the family fortune and might have become the consort of the first Elisabeth. But is was not to be.
The Dudleys were ONE of the families close to the throne. But they were not the one and only family. Wilson's book actaully proves that and therefore the title is odd misplaced. Perhaps it is wishful thinking or just sensational titling for a better sale. The last I do not understand as the story of the Dudleys is in itself interesting and extremely well written, with a deep understanding of the characters. With regards to the Duke of Northumberland it is abit of a whitewash trying to blame the attempt to change the succession alone on the boy-king Edward VII. and claiming that the Duke was just the faithful servant of the crown carrying out the dying king's wishes. Well that is a bit too simple. If that would be the case he just have could made Lady Jane Grey Queen without having her married first to his son. No no... that was as well very much in the self-interest of the Duke.
The Dudleys were not uncrowned Kings of England is a point of debate, but their story is linked with the story of the Tudor dynasty and very much a part of it. As a commentator puts it:" Their family history is also the history of England." I agree with that. Eventhough I do not agree with the assumption I still liked the book a lot.
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