July 18 – Edmund Dudley, a scapegoat

On this day in Tudor history, 18th July 1509, just three months into the reign of King Henry VIII, Edmund Dudley was accused of being a “false traitor” and was convicted of treason.

Dudley had been one of King Henry VII’s closest advisors, but, along with his colleague, Richard Empson, was used as a scapegoat by the new king for his late father’s unpopular regime.

Find out more about the charges against Edmund Dudley in the video and transcript below…


On this day in Tudor history, 18th July 1509, just under three months after Henry VIII had come to the throne, Edmund Dudley, administrator, President of the King’s Council in the reign of Henry VII and speaker of the House of Commons, was convicted of treason after being blamed for the oppression of the reign of Henry VII, the new king’s father.

Dudley, who was the father of John Dudley, later Duke of Northumberland, and grandfather of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was charged with conspiring to “hold, guide and govern the King and his Council” and ordering his men to assemble in London during the final days of Henry VII’s life.

The record of his trial and conviction by commission of oyer and terminer gives us details of the full charges laid against him. It calls him a “false traitor” and states that on 22nd April 1509 “in the parish of St Swithin, in the ward of Candlewick-street” Dudley “falsely, feloniously, and traitorously conspired, imagined, and compassed how and in what manner he, with a great force of men and armed power, might hold, guide, and govern the King and his Council against the wishes of the King either by himself or others, according to the will and intention of the said Edmund, and falsely and traitorously, and totally deprive the King of his Royal liberty: and to make and move discords, divisions, and dissensions amongst the Magnates and Councillors of the King and his kingdom; and that if by him the said Edmund, or by others his adherents, the King and Council should refuse to be held, ruled, and governed in the before-mentioned manner, the completely to destroy the King and to depose, remove, and deprive him from and of his Royal authority.”

It goes on to state that “in order to fulfil such wicked intention, the said Edmund Dudley, wrote or caused to be written divers letters to divers of the King’s lieges, viz., one to Edward Sutton, Knight; another to Francis Cheyne, Knight, then Esquire; a third to Edward Darell, Knight; a fourth to Thomas Turbervyle; a fifth to Thomas Asshebournham, Esquire; a sixth to William Scott, Knight; a seventh to Henry Long; an eighth to Thomas Knyaston; and a ninth to John Mompesson, Esquire; requiring that they, with their servants and adherents, and all their power arrayed in a manner of war, should come together and speedily repair to him at London, and adhere to and follow his will. Furthermore, that the said Edmund, in order to carry into effect the said false and traitorous intention, on the said day, delivered the letters to Richard Page and Angell Messenger, [ Ayngell’ Messynger,] to deliver the same to the said Sir Edward Sutton and the others aforementioned, who delivered the same accordingly; by reason whereof a great multitude and power of people, arrayed in manner of war, came to London, the in parish and ward aforesaid, according to the tenor of the letters, against the allegiance of the said Edmund.”

Although Dudley pleaded “not guilty” to the charges, the commission found him guilty and he was sentenced to death. His colleague, Sir Richard Empson, who had also been one of King Henry VII’s chief advisors, was also convicted of treason and the two men were thrown into the Tower of London to await their deaths. They were beheaded on Tower Hill on 17th August 1509.

Historians have seen these men as scapegoats for Henry VII’s unpopular regime and have attributed their falls “to Henry’s desire to win popularity and signify his distancing himself from his father’s draconian financial measures”, but historian Derek Wilson, in his book “In the Lion’s Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII”, writes of there being more to their falls than that:

“The King certainly had these motives but they do not fully explain the significance which the fate of the two ministers held for some of those most closely involved. There was a very pointed message in the precise words of the indictment, to ‘govern the king and his council against the wishes of the king’ [….] The very first power Henry VIII had displayed was the power to destroy highly placed servants who failed to do his bidding. It was a power he would exercise frequently and to devastating effect in the years ahead.”

It was a very clear warning from the new king to those around him who might look to control or manipulate a young king.

Empson’s biographer M M Condon comments that “Ruthless though he was, Empson acted by the king’s command and was occasionally subject to his check” and Dudley’s biographer, Steven Gunn, writes that Dudley was “made a convenient scapegoat for Henry VII’s exactions” and that “Certainly he had exploited his position as the king’s executive, but so to a less extreme degree had most of Henry’s other councillors. There are many signs that the general shape of policy was the king’s”. They were doing the king’s bidding.

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