In November 1508, a haberdasher named Thomas Sunnyff walked along Candlewick Street in central London. Passers-by might have noticed a sense of gloom and foreboding surrounding the man. This would have only increased as he passed the large house which bordered St Swithin’s Church, at the western end of Candlewick. He had only just answered a summons there, sent by one of the king’s most powerful ministers, Edmund Dudley. The business had been unpleasant, but at least Thomas Sunnyff might have felt the relief of its conclusion. Not long after, however, the humble haberdasher had been summoned again under Edmund Dudley’s orders, and so was proceeding to a tavern a short walk away, where Candlewick became Eastcheap Street, and intersected Fish Street. At the Boar’s Head Tavern, Sunnyff was met by one of Dudley’s servants, who ordered him sent straight to the Tower of London, just half a mile away. Over the course of the preceding years, Edmund Dudley had slowly, mercilessly broken down and all but destroyed Thomas Sunnyff, without any other motive than the acquisition of coin.
In the months since I published my book on Edmund Dudley and his family, The House of Dudley, I have had many people come up to me, to declare how much – in a book full of rather disagreeable people – Edmund Dudley had stood out to them as particularly abhorrent. This was not necessarily my intention, though I hadn’t set out to be an apologist either. If recent statue-toppling events have taught us anything, it’s that few historical figures emerge spotless from close inspection, and Edmund Dudley was already cast as one of history’s ‘baddies’. By the same token, however, few historical figures are likely to emerge from historical scrutiny as villains through and through. In taking a renewed look at Edmund Dudley, his house at Candlewick provides a useful lens through which to view his character and fate. Like most Tudor homes it was both a home and a workplace and, thus, it was both the site of Edmund Dudley’s greatest crimes, and his most human moments.
We must, also, proceed cautiously. The tale of Edmund Dudley, one of Henry VII’s ‘ravenous wolves’, and his time at Candlewick Street is steeped with legend and surrounded by rumour. Sunnyff’s brief appearance in this tale is known to us thanks to his lengthy complaint against Dudley’s mistreatment of him (he lost years of his life and hundreds of pounds – equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds today – to Dudley’s relentless pursuit of his coin) and the detective work of the historian Mark Horowitz. Of course, even Sunnyff’s account may have been falsified, misremembered or misinterpreted. There are some key facts that help us corroborate his account, though, even as they intersect with other historical legends. The tavern, for instance, where Sunnyff is at last packed off to the Tower, The Boar’s Head, also appears in William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part I, as the site of the meetings between Falstaff and Prince Hal. Sunnyff’s reference is the earliest record we have of this tavern, known to Shakespeare a century later and perhaps to Henry IV a century before.
Edmund Dudley had arrived in London in the first years of the sixteenth century, a lawyer with a few noble connections. Having studied the law in London as a young man, the city was not unknown to him, but now he was a man in his forties with a young, motherless daughter. He acquired the house at Candlewick thanks to his roots in Sussex; the property was connected to the Sussex church where his first wife had been buried. The move to London was accompanied by two further events, the order of which is uncertain. Around the same time, he married again, this time to Elizabeth Grey, a well-connected heiress whose aunt, Elizabeth Grey (born Elizabeth Woodville) had married the former king, Edward IV. He also, at the time of his move and his marriage, became central to the king’s inner circle, first as Speaker of the House of Commons and then as a king’s councillor, commencing his work collecting money on the king’s behalf. Did the move to Candlewick come about because of the king’s interest in his talents, or did his appearance in London catch the king’s attention? Was Candlewick part of the bargain to attract his new bride, or did the promise of a new family necessitate the large central London home? Regardless, Candlewick was the ideal location for the coming together of these rapid shifts in Edmund’s life.
Although he occasionally used rooms in whatever palace the court might be occupying, most of his work took place within his home. There was little boundary between intimate family and public professional life; a little closet in the bedchamber he shared with Elizabeth functioned as an accounting office, holding paperwork and coin. Those summoned to meet Dudley, like the unfortunate Sunnyff, would have entered the home via Candlewick Street, facing the historic London Stone. From there, they probably would have been led to the long gallery, one of the first of its kind in a private home in England, decorated with hangings of red and green vertical stripes (‘paly’) and curtains of green twilled wool (‘say’). On a November day like the one on which Sunnyff had arrived, the fire opposite the windows would have helped warm the lengthy room. Although a gallery was intended for walking, Dudley had furnished the room ideally for seated meetings as well, with a table, bench and chair, alongside a strong box (‘coffer’) in which he could keep the papers necessary for his work.
These, however, were only a few of the more than twenty chambers in the large two-storey home, and most were dedicated to housing and feeding Edmund’s growing family. Tudor families were flexible and dynamic. There was, of course, what we might think of as the immediate family: Edmund, his wife, and their three sons born at Candlewick: John, Jerome and Andrew, as well as the daughter from his first marriage. But it extended beyond this; the mother of Edmund’s first wife also held a room at Candlewick, and servants, such as Elizabeth Dudley’s serving- woman, Lettice Brownd, and Edmund’s clerk, Thomas Mitchell, were also important members of the household. The family was served at the dais in the great hall, overhung with an arras, with food from the kitchen with its eleven spits, four racks and twenty pots and pans of various sizes. Every need of the home could be met within a short distance of the house; its proximity to Cheapside (from the Old English ‘cepan’ – ‘to buy’) made it easy for servants to procure everything from venison to velvet, rich silks to the humble sewing needle, sold by haberdashers like Sunnyff.
And rich silks might have been needed at Candlewick; Edmund Dudley was not humble in his attire. Though he still dressed predominately in black, like his legal colleagues, he showed himself to be much above them, by adorning his robes with crimson and purple satin, marten fur and sable. This, alongside his pursuit of coin for the king, did not endear him to his neighbours. The contemporary London Chronicle reported that:
he forgot himself and put by all his former conditions of virtue and became so proud that the best duke in this land was more easy to sue and speak to, than he was. And upon the same [he] used himself in so elate manner that lords and all men as they durst had him in distain.
In all, Edmund Dudley raised some £220,000 (about £150 million today) for the king, much of it squeezed from middling Londoners like Sunnyff. The tide was about to turn, however. It was not long after Sunnyff’s trip to The Boar’s Head that the king entered his final illness. Henry VII had become paranoid and cash obsessed in his later years, prompted – it seems – by the desire to secure his rickety dynasty, balanced as it was on the thin shoulders of his young son. But Prince Henry was nearing eighteen, and the king had been battling illness for years. As he approached death, Henry VII repented the greedy acts of his final years and invited all of London to send in their complaints, kindling the fire of rage against men like Dudley. In the king, Dudley had the most powerful friend in the country, but he had few others. Any other allies he might have relied upon had either died, being his father’s friends rather than his own, or had long ago abandoned him (probably about the same time their names entered his meticulous account book at Candlewick Street).
In the end, even Candlewick would betray him. Within the twenty-some rooms were chambers which contained significant collections of weaponry and armour: crossbows, chain mail, breastplates and headpieces. None of this was unusual; Dudley considered himself a man on the rise. He wore clothes which would, shortly, become legislated only for men of a much higher station, barons at least. Alongside his gilded cups and plates, the armoured coat of black velvet and gilt he had made for himself was a sign of wealth, status and power, not necessarily aggression. Of course, the armour and weaponry may have also been defensive. The civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses might have quieted after Henry’s accession twenty years before, but that didn’t mean they were over, and Dudley can’t have been entirely unaware of the raging indignation of his neighbours. But the small armoury he was accumulating – whether for defence or grandeur – was all too easily taken up by his enemies.
His arrest came as the accession of Henry VIII was proclaimed across London, and certainly in Cheapside. Edmund Dudley, like Sunnyff before him, was taken to the Tower of London, where the new king also resided before his coronation. His enemies descended on his home in Candlewick, listing and parcelling off his goods, to be used by the king as he wished. The inventory of weapons became the lynchpin in Dudley’s condemnation. He was accused of ‘falsely, feloniously, and traitorously conspiring, imaging and compassing how and in what manner, he, with a great force of men and armed power, might hold, guide, and govern the King and Council’ and planning to ‘completely destroy the King, and to depose, remove, and deprive him of his Royal authority’, and his store of weapons was used as evidence. The charges were entirely fabricated, but if any in London realized the fiction, few would have minded. Dudley had not shied away from using false accusations to extort coin; why should he not be punished in a similar way? Though, of course, a conviction of treason would cost more than the contents of his purse.
Edmund Dudley was executed – mercifully just by beheading, rather than being hanged, drawn, and quartered – at Tower Hill on 17 August 1510. Joining him was his colleague, Sir Richard Empson, who for five hundred years has had his name joined to Dudley’s as the devilish pair, Empson and Dudley. This connection has also been centred at Candlewick, where the seventeen-century writer John Stow claimed that the two shared a garden:
Sir Richard Empson knight, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, dwelled in the one of them, and Edmond Dudley Esquire in the other; either of them had a door of intercourse into this Garden, wherein they met and consulted of matters at their pleasures.
There is no further evidence to support this, and the pair shared more in their deaths and infamy than they ever did in life. The greater and more authentic historical legacy of the Dudley home in Candlewick remains with its other inhabitants. Edmund’s widow, Elizabeth, married the uncle to the king shortly after her first husband’s death, guaranteeing a secure life for herself and her children, who had been stained by their father’s treason. Her eldest son, John, just five years-old when forced to leave his home at Candlewick, rose through the ranks in Henry VIII’s court and became Duke of Northumberland under Edward VI, perhaps the most powerful man in England, potent enough to ensure the accession of his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey Dudley, at least for a short while. He followed his father to the block under Mary I. His son, likewise, came close to the dizzying heights of the ancestral Dudley ambition. Rumours that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, might marry Elizabeth I and become king consort swirled for decades. He, unlike his father and grandfather, lived to die in his bed, and is easily the best remembered of the Tudor Dudleys.
Now Candlewick is known as Cannon Street, its legacy preserved only by a pub a few doors down from where Dudley’s home once stood, called The Candlemaker. The Boar’s Head, East Cheap Street, Fish Street have all been wiped from the map, and where Dudley’s home once stood is either a Tossed salad takeaway or an All Bar One. It is no doubt that the house on Candlewick Street was the site of great tragedy, exacted by the man himself, whose comeuppance was almost poetic, even if one cannot call it just. It was also a family home, and certainly Edmund’s eldest son remembered his father with sadness and pride, writing decades later that his ‘poor father… suffered death for doing his master’s commandment’.
Undoubtedly, a statue of Edmund Dudley erected in Candlewick would not last long, nor should it. But a remembrance of the home, and all it held within it, helps bring us a wider, more nuanced, more complex, and more human understanding of those in the past.
Dr Joanne Paul, BA, MA, PhD (Queen Mary, University of London) is an acclaimed historian who has published her research on the Renaissance and Early Modern periods widely. Her work focuses on the political, intellectual and cultural history of the Renaissance and Early Modern periods, with an attention to Tudor and Stuart England. Her first trade book, The House of Dudley, was published in March 2022 by Michael Joseph (Penguin) to great acclaim. She has appeared on a variety of television, radio and podcast programmes and served as a consultant for historical documentary and drama.
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