RUSSELL, Sir John (c.1485-1555), of Berwick, Dorset; Russell House, the Strand, Mdx and Chenies, Bucks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. c.1485, s. of James Russell of Berwick by Alice, da. of John Wise of Sydenham, Devon. m. spring 1526, Anne (d. 14 Mar. 1559), da. of Sir Guy Sapcote of Hunts., wid. of John Broughton (d.1517/19) of Toddington, Beds. and of Sir Richard Jerningham (d.1525/26) of London, 1s. Francis. suc. fa. 20 July 1505. Kntd. 2 July 1522; KG nom. 24 Apr. 1539, inst. 18 May 1539; cr. Baron Russell 9 Mar. 1539, Earl of Bedford 19 Jan. 1550.1

Offices Held

Gent. the privy chamber 1507; knight marshal, the Household 1523-7; knight of the body by 1527; sheriff, Som. and Dorset 1527-8; j.p. Beds., Bucks., Herts., Hunts., Northants. 1533-d., Cornw., Devon, Dorset, Som. 1539; PC 1536-d.; comptroller, the Household 18 Oct. 1537-9; pres. council in the west 1539; high steward, duchy of Cornw. 4 July 1539-d., univ. Oxf. 1543-d.; ld. warden of the stannaries 4 July 1539-d.; commr. coastal defences, south-western counties 1539, relief, Beds., Bucks., London 1550; trier of petitions in the Lords, Parlts. of 1539, 1542, 1545, 1547, Mar. 1553, Oct. 1553, ?Apr. 1554, Nov. 1554; ld. admiral 28 July 1540-17 Jan. 1543; ld. privy seal 3 Dec. 1542-d.; steward, manor of Stamford, Lincs. 1543-7, 1548-d.; ld. lt. Devon, Cornw., Som., Dorset 1545, 1549-53, Bucks. 1552.2


John Russell came from a Dorset family of moderate standing whose estates had been acquired gradually during the 14th and 15th centuries from the profits of trade and the fortunes of marriage. His grandfather, another John, who broke with family tradition by making a career in the service of the crown, had been a knight of the shire for Dorset in 1472 and died in 1505 leaving a son and heir James who did not long survive him. Of John Russell’s early life nothing is known for certain, but in the 17th century Thomas Fuller heard that he had been ‘bred beyond the seas’, an upbringing which would accord with his command of foreign languages. When early in 1506 the fleet taking the Archduke Philip to Spain was driven by a storm into Weymouth Bay, the gentlemen of Dorset were ordered to entertain him and escort him to Henry VII at Windsor; it was Russell’s linguistic fluency on this occasion which saved Sir Thomas Trenchard and other gentlemen from embarrassment and which probably commended him to the King, who shortly afterwards gave him a place at court.

Russell’s appointment in the privy chamber was confirmed by Henry VIII, his junior by some six years. In 1513 he fought in the campaign in northern France and after the capture of Tournai he received an administrative post there. He became a familiar figure in the city during its occupation, often serving as an intermediary between its council and Wolsey and once being involved in a scheme to capture, or even to assassinate the Yorkist claimant to the throne Richard de la Pole. In 1514 he went to Paris for the marriage of Louis XII to Princess Mary and six years later he accompanied the King to the Field of Cloth of Gold. In 1522 his valour at the siege of Morlaix cost him an eye but gained him a knighthood. Wolsey employed him as an agent between 1523 and 1527 in a search for alliances against Francis I and during his journeys he witnessed the battle of Pavia and narrowly escaped the sack of Rome. His travels came to an end shortly before he was pricked sheriff of Somerset and Dorset: the appointment may have been intended in part to reimburse him for the expenses he had incurred, for he had been obliged to dispose of some of his Dorset property. These years were nevertheless rewarding ones for Russell: he had made his mark with both King and cardinal, and he had married an heiress who brought him an interest in Buckinghamshire, where he was to settle.3

In the spring of 1529 Russell was appointed to go to the French court, but his mission was countermanded before he set out. Wolsey’s position was becoming precarious and he relied on Russell as his spokesman with the King. That Russell was not compromised by the cardinal’s fall is shown by his election to the Parliament of 1529 as a knight of the shire for his adopted county: the writ for Buckinghamshire was one of those called for by the King when he was at Windsor in August. His Membership of this Parliament was probably not Russell’s first experience of the Commons, for he may have sat earlier for a Dorset borough where his standing at court combined with his family connexions could have procured him a place. Early in 1530 he defended Wolsey before the King and in so doing incurred the wrath of Anne Boleyn, whose continuing hostility to him may have impeded his progress: of Henry VIII’s marriage to Jane Seymour in 1536 he was to remark, ‘The King hath come out of hell into heaven for the gentleness of this [Queen] and the cursedness and unhappiness in the other’. In compliance with the King’s request Russell doubtless sat in the Parliament which opened nine days after the marriage: its purpose, to complete the destruction of Anne Boleyn, was one which he must have applauded. It was not until then that he became a Privy Councillor. In 1532 he had gone to Calais with the King and a year later had been offered, but did not accept, the deputyship of the town.

Russell distinguished himself during the suppression of the Lincolnshire rebellion and the Pilgrimage of Grace, and as he grew closer towards Cromwell he was clearly a candidate for high office. The opportunity came with the establishment of the council in the west. The execution of the Marquess of Exeter had created a political vacuum in Devon and Cornwall which the King would not suffer to be filled by another magnate of doubtful loyalty. Russell had proved his worth, his family links with the region were an added qualification, and a patrimony reduced by sale and neglect could be augmented to match the dignity of the office. He received substantial grants of land in the south-west, the high stewardship of the duchy of Cornwall and the lord wardenship of the stannaries (both previously held by Exeter), the Garter and a peerage. The council came into being in 1539 but failed to establish itself, perhaps because its president was often needed at court and there was no natural successor to Exeter. Yet Russell’s personal ascendancy in the south-west was to remain unchallenged for the rest of his life.

Russell survived Cromwell’s fall, as he had done Wolsey’s, and in the redistribution of offices which followed he secured the admiralty. Two years later the 3rd Duke of Norfolk recommended him to succeed Sir William Fitzwilliam I, 1st Earl of Southampton as lieutenant in the north, but this command went to the Earl of Hertford, and Russell received another of Southampton’s offices, that of lord privy seal: his failure to take Montreuil, when he was called upon to campaign in 1544, suggests that he had been rightly passed over. He spent the late summer of 1545 in a tour of inspection of coastal defences in the south-west, but otherwise he was rarely absent from the King’s side during the last years of the reign: an ambassador described him as ‘not only of great authority in the Council but also one who always eats and talks with his majesty’. In 1542 he entertained the King at Chenies, and five years later he received £500 under Henry VIII’s will, of which he was an executor.

According to Secretary Paget the King had at first meant to promote Russell in the peerage but although he suffered no loss of power under Edward VI he did not benefit from the dispersal of honours at the opening of the new reign, perhaps on account of an earlier disagreement with the Protector Somerset. On the outbreak of the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549 he was commissioned to restore order. This he was initially expected to do without adequate supplies or reserves, and until the Council met his demands he moved with caution: his dilatoriness was adversely criticized by the Protector and it was said that during the summer he ‘lived in more fear than he was feared’. Russell’s strategy, perhaps influenced by his experience earlier in the north, may not have inspired confidence but the rising was suppressed and any recrudescence prevented. He was still in the west when the coup d’état was staged against the Protector: Somerset called upon him and (Sir) William Herbert I for support, but they halted at Andover whence they informed him on 8 Oct. of their support for the Earl of Warwick. Their defection sealed Somerset’s fate and Russell was rewarded with the earldom of Bedford and more lands in the south-west and the east midlands, including a reversionary grant of Woburn abbey. He was among those charged to attend upon the King ‘for the honourable education of his highness ... in learning and virtue’, he went abroad in 1550 to negotiate peace with the French, and in the following year he attended the discussions in London about the eucharist. In June 1553 he signed the device which put Lady Jane Grey on the throne and swore allegiance to her, but as soon as the Duke of Northumberland left London he quitted the Tower with other Privy Councillors and helped to proclaim Mary. Retained as a Councillor, Bedford opposed the Spanish marriage and supported the petition for an English one, but he did not long persist in this stand, rallying to the Queen’s side during Wyatt’s rebellion and regaining her confidence and a leading place in her counsels. She entrusted him with the embassy to conduct Philip from Spain, and it was perhaps on his advice that Philip landed at Southampton instead of in the west country where feeling was strong against the marriage.4

Bedford was as diligent in attending the House of Lords as he was the Privy Council. He missed the last weeks of the third session (1549-50) of the Parliament of 1547 through his mission to France, and almost the whole of the second Parliament of Mary’s reign while on embassy to Spain. His other notable absence from the Lords, during the Parliament of March 1553, is not so easily explained: whether through illness, or because he suspected Northumberland’s schemes, after the first two weeks he did not attend the House until the last day of the Parliament. Presumably he was an important government spokesman, but little trace has been found of his contribution to the business of the Upper House save in the first Edwardian Parliament, when in the first session he signed the bill for the King’s general pardon and in the third six others including that for the fine and ransom of the Duke of Somerset, and when he twice adjourned the Lords in the absence of Chancellor Rich.5

So eminent a figure would have followed affairs in the Commons no less keenly than those in the Lords. Bedford showed a lively interest in the membership of the Commons, making use of his authority to procure the return of those amenable to himself and to the crown. Although he supported kinsmen, clients and young lawyers (especially those from Lincoln’s Inn where in 1529 he had been made an honorary member), he did not disregard local interests, a policy which was to be maintained by his son the 2nd Earl. The extent of his intervention can be deduced from the number of those connected with him who were returned for constituencies in the south-west during the 1540s and early 1550s. Both in 1539 and 1545 he spent some time in the area, and his hand is more in evidence in the elections to the Parliaments of those two years than on occasions when he was unable to exert such direct influence. In the case of Edward VI’s first Parliament he was probably responsible for the enfranchisement of seven boroughs in Cornwall since their first Members were nearly all known to him and they were to remain in his patronage until his death. Bedford’s hold on the south-west was temporarily shaken when Mary came to the throne, but once he regained her trust his authority revived and was not to be challenged.

At the beginning of 1555 Bedford fell ill: he made his last appearance in Council on 11 Jan. and his will is dated 2 Feb. He provided for his wife, son, grandchildren, kinsmen and servants. He died on 14 Mar. at Russell House and was buried with pomp six days later at Chenies where a monument was erected to his memory. In the west country his death was marked by the tolling of bells and other signs of public mourning. Several portraits of Bedford from the last 20 years of his life survive.6

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. This biography rests on G. Scott Thomson, Two Cents. of Fam. Hist. and D. Willen, ‘The career of John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford: a study in Tudor politics’ (Tufts Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1972). G. Scott Thomson’s estimate of Russell’s date of birth has been adopted. PCC 4 Adeane, 17 Ayloffe, 9 Porch; C142/33/120, 40/28, 48, 46/25.
  • 2. LJ, i. 103, 165, 267, 293, 430, 447, 464; Stamford hall bk. 1461-1657, ff. 138, 146; G. Scott Thomson, Lds. Lt. 19-21; I. Temple, Petyt ms 538, vol. 46, f. 442v; APC, iii. 6, 258-9; iv. 49, 276.
  • 3. C. G. Cruickshank, The Eng. Occupation of Tournai 1513-19, pp. 210-11 corrects the DNB entry where the John Russell active at Tournai is distinguished from the future earl.
  • 4. Wealth and Power, ed. Ives, Knecht and Scarisbrick, 88-90, 96, 101; D. E. Hoak, The King’s Council in the Reign of Edw. VI, passim.
  • 5. LJ, i. 103 seq.; M. A. R. Graves, ‘The Tudor House of Lords 1547-58’ (Otago Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1974), ii. 254-5; House of Lords, Original Acts, 1 Edw. VI, no. 21, 3 and 4 Edw. VI, nos. 22-23, 25, 29, 30-31.
  • 6. PCC 5 Ketchyn; Machyn’s Diary (Cam. Soc. xlii), 83; RCHM Bucks. 88-91; Pevsner, Bucks. 85-88; Holbein (The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace 1978-9), 59-60; R. C. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 21.