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August 17, 1510 – Henry VIII Executes Empson and Dudley

Henry VII with Empson and Dudley (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Close your eyes (metaphorically, you still have to read this…). I’m going to give you a fact pattern, you tell me who’s involved.

Picture someone close to Henry VIII, a person his entire country hates. Henry sacrifices them to his people – heaping terrible accusations upon them and charging them with treason based on suspicious and spurious facts. Their death satisfies the people’s blood lust and strengthens Henry’s position without him having to change anything in his policies. Who am I talking about?

Did you guess Anne Boleyn? Most people would. Most people think Henry got cruel and vindictive later in life, but in fact it was there all along.

Two days after his coronation, Henry made a huge move that secured his popularity: he took two of the most powerful men from his father’s Privy Council, the men who had come to represent the heavy taxes imposed under Henry VII, and charged them with treason. Not even actual treason, just “constructive treason” – and based on made up facts. Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley became symbols of everything that was wrong with the kingdom, and their executions “fixed” all that even though tax rates stayed the same.

Two years after their deaths, an Act of Parliament restored their lands to their families. Empson’s heirs lived quiet lives, while Dudley’s returned to court. John Dudley rose gradually under Henry, faster under Edward VI – becoming the boy king’s Lord President of the Council. Unfortunately, he couldn’t handle giving up his power when Edward died: he tried to force Lady Jane Grey onto the throne (right after having her marry his son) but failed and was beheaded by Mary I. His own son fared a little better: Robert Dudley became Elizabeth’s favorite, though she refused to marry him, and lived to a ripe old age.

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Published inOn This Day

2 Comments

  1. Its all too easy to condemn Henry for such actions, but whilst I’m no fan of his, I think we have to look at this in context. Henry’s predecessors like Richard Duke of Yortk had killed their rivals and then tried to justify it by saying they were ‘wicked counsellors’ who were leading the King astray.

    What Henry was doing by culling unpopular men in the name of the supposed ‘common good’ was nothing new. It had been happening for hundreds of years before him. During the Peasants Revolt the mob beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor Simon Sudbury whom they blamed for the unpopular poll tax. It has been argued that King Richard II could have done more to protect him, but did not.

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