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Mad, Bad & Fascinating to Know - the Colourful Ancestors of the Dukes of Bedford

Updated: Jan 19, 2019

By Dr Geri Parlby

The Early Years – From John to Edward Russell (c.1485 – 1627)

It is amazing to think that a shipwreck could bring such good fortune to a 16th-century Dorset wine merchant called John Russell. But then it wasn't just any shipwreck: the embattled craft was carrying Joanna the Queen of Castile no less and her husband Philip of Austria. Joanna also happened to be the sister of Catherine of Aragon, soon to be Queen of England.

Having been rescued by the Dorset locals, the royal couple were having trouble making themselves understood. Luckily for them John Russell’s travels abroad in search of fine wine had given him a fluent command of several European languages. So, it was he who was tasked with escorting the royal couple to the court of Henry VII.

As well as being an excellent linguist John was also charming company and he became an instant hit at Court. In no time he found himself appointed as a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, a post he continued to hold during the reigns of both Henry VII and VIII.

John Russell, earl of Bedford (1485-1555) by Hans Holbein the Younger. The Royal Collection.
John Russell, earl of Bedford (1485-1555) by Hans Holbein the Younger. The Royal Collection.

From Lord Privy Seal he went on to become Lord High Admiral and he was certainly no slouch when it came to fighting. He lost an eye whilst battling the French in 1522. He also fought bravely in the Italian War of 1521-26 and after one particularly tricky battle he is said to have adopted the motto Che Sara Sara (‘Whatever will be will be’), one which the Bedford family still have today.

Apart from Cardinal Wolsey there was for a while no one more important or influential in the land. Indeed, after the dissolution of the monasteries John received as a gift, vast areas of land which included Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, Tavistock Abbey and its 30 manors in Cornwall, Somerset and Devon, alongside several thousands of acres formerly belonging to the abbey of Thorney in Cambridgeshire. If that wasn't enough, the icing on his cake was Covent Garden and Long Acre in London.

When Henry VIII died, John was an executor of his will and became such a support to the young Edward VII that he was given the earldom of Bedford in 1549. His importance continued under Mary Tudor, when as Controller of the Royal Household and Lord Privy Seal he was tasked with bringing King Philip II over from Spain so he could marry, somewhat reluctantly, the middle aged queen. John was even one of five peers who gave her away during the wedding ceremony.

Being so highly thought of by Mary was quite remarkable since John’s son Francis had briefly been imprisoned by the Catholic Mary for his religious views. Fortunately for Francis he had inherited his father’s charm and luck and he managed to regain his position and reputation at court. As well as continuing his father’s glittering political career as MP and Lord, he was even godfather to Francis Drake.

It was Francis Russell’s grandson Edward, the 3rd earl of Bedford, who seems to have started a fashion for Bedford men to marry especially feisty women. His wife was the remarkable Lucy Harrington: he was 22 and she just 13 when they married in 1594 and even at that young age she already had a reputation for ‘getting her own way’.

For the next few years they were the golden couple at Queen Elizabeth’s court until Edward made the grave mistake of supporting the ‘Essex Rebellion’ against Elizabeth. Edward was lucky to keep his head especially when Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, lost his for high treason. However, he didn’t get away entirely scot free: he was briefly imprisoned and forced to pay a fine of £10,000 which virtually bankrupted the Bedfords.

But Lucy and Edward were survivors and soon bounced back when James I and his consort Anne of Denmark succeeded to the throne in 1603. The resourceful Lucy raced on horseback to Berwick to be the first lady to greet the new Queen and accompany her back to London. In this way she became an important and trusted member of the Queen’s household and was made Lady of the Bedchamber.

Lucy Russell, née Harington (c.1581–1627), Countess of Bedford. Image by permission of the Master and Fellows of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Lucy Russell, née Harington (c.1581–1627), Countess of Bedford. Image by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

She also became patron to some of the greatest writers, poets, artists and architects of the day, such as John Donne, Ben Jonson, George Chapman and Inigo Jones. More works of poetry and drama were dedicated to or inspired by Lucy Russell than any women living in her day, including the Queen. Writers would clamour to earn her patronage.

Lucy also loved to appear in the court masques that were so popular in James’ court. Many of these masques were produced and designed by Inigo Jones and apparently the Countess even appeared topless in one or two of these extravaganzas.

It seems Edward and Lucy had a rather modern marriage with the Countess holding court in a wonderful house in Twickenham Park which she had bought in 1608 from Francis Bacon. Here she ran a fashionable salon while her husband lived in Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire.

Sadly a horseback riding accident in 1612 had left Edward partially paralyzed and with impaired speech so he slipped away from court life and wore this rather elegant sling for the rest of his life.

Lucy however continued to exert some major influence in the world of politics. Even a severe case of smallpox that blinded her in one eye didn’t slow her down or stop her posing for portraits: she just struck a contemplative pose, skilfully hiding her bad eye and pox scars in the shadows.

Unfortunately, Edward & Lucy’s extravagant life style led the couple to acquire some pretty mind-boggling debts: apparently Lucy alone owed £50,000, which is about £9.5 million in today’s money. In 1617, she and Edward downsized to the family estate at Moor Park in Hertfordshire in an attempt to consolidate their finances. They are said to have died, within a few days of each other, having managed to spend their entire fortune.


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