As the nine-year-old Edward VI rode through London on the way to his coronation in February 1547, he paused to watch a man perform on a tightrope strung from St Paul’s Cathedral. Perhaps he should have studied the man who rode ahead of him too. That man was Edward’s newly appointed Lord Chamberlain, John Dudley, and when it came to ambition, the Dudley family were the premier high-wire artists of 16th-century England. Indeed, as Joanne Paul shows in this riveting account of the Dudleys’ triumphs and tragedies, their story is a shadow history of the Tudor dynasty, an eighty-year-long balancing act of wealth and favour, sacrifice and power.
They rose first under Henry VII. Edmund Dudley was already a successful lawyer when he was appointed, with Henry VII’s approval, Speaker of the House of Commons in early 1504. By September he was on the king’s council and charged with collecting money on the king’s behalf. In less than four years, he raised some £220,000, increasing crown income by over half.
Dudley’s methods included the use of informers to run what looks to have been a protection racket. Everyone hated him. Paul highlights the case of the haberdasher Thomas Sunnyff and his wife, Agnes, which saw Dudley extorting £500 from the couple using trumped-up infanticide charges. The persecution was relentless. Sunnyff was still in the Tower of London in April 1509 when, three days after the death of Henry VII, Dudley was imprisoned there himself. Henry VIII had him beheaded for treason, itself a trumped-up charge.
When Edmund died, his son and heir John was no more than six. He first made his mark soldiering in France and was knighted at Beauvois at the age of just nineteen in November 1523. It seems characteristic of him that when, at Easter in 1540, a courtier