The name John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, evokes the image of the ambitious and selfish politician who was responsible for the death of Lady Jane Grey. The son of an executed traitor, and a traitor and apostate Protestant himself, Northumberland has been defamed by chroniclers and historians since his death in 1553. His reputation rests upon alleged character defects and a political career that putatively divided, weakened, and dishonored the country. Attributions of crime and misdeeds, regardless whether proved, have made him one of the most notorious villains of the early modern period.
Notwithstanding the inevitable disagreement over the particulars of Northumberland's life and work, the consensus is that he was the worst of a group of grasping, unprincipled new men who gained favor with Henry VIII and acquired status and wealth through the plunder of the church. Northumberland served the king as a soldier, courtier, and diplomat, and appealed to Henry's baser instincts, seeking only to advance himself socially and financially. It was only after the accession of Edward VI in 1547, so the traditional interpretation would have us believe, that circumstances permitted Northumberland to betray his true character and motives, and the full extent of his perversity. First, he allegedly supported a coup d'état that overthrew the will of the deceased king and installed the Duke of Somerset as Protector. Later, he intrigued to destroy the Protector's brother, Thomas, Lord Seymour, and then to depose Somerset. Following the overthrow of the Protector in 1549, Northumberland, aided by a small faction, instituted a regime of social repression, entered into a dishonorable alliance with France, and instigated the trial and execution of Somerset on entirely spurious charges. Throughout the reign of Edward VI, he encouraged the more radical Protestant reformers although he is said to have lacked sincere religious convictions.