August 17 – Two royal advisors become scapegoats

On this day in Tudor history, 17th August 1510, in the reign of King Henry VIII, Sir Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson were beheaded on Tower Hill as traitors.

Empson and Dudley had served the king’s father, King Henry VII, as his chief administrators. They’d been loyal servants, so how had they come to this awful end?

Let me explain what led to Empson and Dudley’s executions…


On this day in Tudor history, 17th August 1510, just over a year after Henry VIII had come to the throne, his father Henry VII’s former chief administrators, Sir Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson, were beheaded on Tower Hill after being found guilty of treason.

Sir Edmund Dudley, father of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and grandfather of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, had served Henry VII as Privy Councillor, Speaker of the House of Commons and President of the King’s Council.

Sir Richard Empson had served the king as Speaker of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The two men had been prominent members of the Council Learnèd in the Law, a legal council set up in 1495 “to defend Henry’s position as a feudal landlord”, particularly concerning the Duchy of Lancaster. Empson became Chancellor of the Duchy and President of the Council Learnèd in 1504. Dudley’s biographer, S. J. Gunn, writes of how his accounts from the period 9 September 1504 to May 1508 “suggest his role was to manage the king’s use of a miscellaneous range of opportunities for financial exploitation of his greater subjects.” The Council of the Learned was very unpopular and Empson and Dudley’s roles made them a great many enemies.

Both men were arrested on 24th April 1509, just three days after Henry VII’s death, and accused of plotting to “hold, guide and govern the King and his Council” by assembling men to undertake a coup d’état. This is unlikely to have been true, and historians believe that the men were actually made scapegoats for Henry VII’s unpopular financial measures. As I explained in my talk on Edmund Dudley on 18th July, although Dudley pleaded “not guilty” to the charges, the commission found him guilty and he was sentenced to death. Empson was also convicted of treason and the two men were thrown into the Tower of London to await their deaths.

While in prison, Dudley wrote the allegorical treatise “The Tree of Commonwealth”, in the hope of gaining favour with the new king, Henry VIII. In it, the tree of polity, or government, was supported by its roots which were the virtues of godliness, justice, truth, concord, and peace. It was advice for the new king, but may never have been read by him.

Chronicler Edward Hall wrote of Empson and Dudley’s executions:
“The king being thus in his progress heard every day more and more complaints of Empson and Dudley, wherefore he sent writs to the Sheriffs of London, to put them in execution, and so the 17th day of August, they were both beheaded at the Tower Hill, and their bodies buried and their heads.”

Their remains were buried in the London Whitefriars.

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