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The Earls of Bedford

John 1st Earl of Bedford

John, 1st Earl of Bedford

He was son of James Russell of Kingston Russell [Dorset] and his wife Alice, daughter of John Wyse of Sydenham [Devon]. He was born about 1485 at Kingston Russell. When the ship of Philip of Austria and Juana his wife, the King and Queen of Castile, were wrecked off Weymouth [Dorset] in 1507 Russell rendered them assistance and was introduced by them to the English court. This was especially lucky for Russell because the queen, nicknamed Juana the Mad, was the sister of the Spanish ambassador to England, Catherine of Aragon, who married King Henry VIII (1509-1547) in 1509. Russell was made Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. He accompanied Henry VIII in his French campaign and was granted lands at Tournai and made its deputy in 1514. He was knighted in July 1522 for his services in the capture of Morlaix in Brittany. He was also sent on diplomatic missions. He was Sheriff of Dorset and Somerset in 1528, Member of Parliament for Buckinghamshire from 1529 to 1536 and Comptroller of the Royal Household from 1537 to 1539. In 1538 he became a privy councillor. On 9th March 1539 Henry created him Baron Russell and in the same year he was granted the Manor of Agmondesham (Amersham, Buckinghamshire). In 1539 he was created President of the Council for Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. He was Lord Privy Seal from 1542 to 1555. When Henry returned to make war in France in 1545 Russell was created Captain General of the Vanguard. Russell was one of sixteen councillors appointed for the minority of Edward VI (1547-1553).

Russell was a proponent of Protestantism and so gained favour with the young Edward VI. He did well out of the dissolution of the monasteries, gaining the former abbeys of Dunkeswell and Tavistock, both in Devon with their considerable lands and a also a number of manors held by the former Abbey of Saint Albans [Hertfordshire]. Crucially, Edward VI also granted him Woburn Abbey as well as a number of smaller religious properties including the land now known as Covent Garden in London. On 19th January 1550 he was created Earl of Bedford. He was one of twenty six peers who settled the crown on Lady Jane Grey on Edward’s death in 1553. He was lucky to survive this error but Mary I (1553-1558) despite her ardent Roman Catholicism does not seem to have marked him out for punishment as he was re-appointed Lord Privy Seal in November 1553. He died at his house, Russell House, in The Strand on 14th March 1555 and was buried at Chenies in Buckinghamshire, on 20th March thus commencing the Russell family vault in that church which is still in use.

The 1st Earl married Anne, widow of Sir Richard Jerningham, and also formerly widow of John Broughton of Toddington (she was daughter of Sir Guy Sapcote of Huntingdonshire) in 1526. She died on 14th March 1559 and was buried with him at Chenies.

Francis 2nd Earl of Bedford
Francis, 2nd Earl of Bedford

Before his father’s death he was styled Lord Russell. He was born in 1527, the only son of the 1st Earl and was aged twenty eight at his father’s death. He attended King’s College, Cambridge and saw action in France in 1544 serving under his father at the siege of Montreuil. He was made a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Edward VI (1547-1553) in 1547. He was Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1547 and 1548 and was member of parliament for Buckinghamshire, like his father before him, from 1547 to 1552. He was also Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire in 1552.

He was a general at the Battle of Saint-Quentin in 1557 where a largely Spanish army defeated the French and he was made a privy councillor in 1558. He served Elizabeth I (1558-1603) as ambassador to France in 1559 and in 1561. He entertained the queen at Chenies on 23rd July 1570 and at Woburn Abbey in July 1572. He died of gangrene at Russell House, now called Bedford House, in The Strand on 28th July 1585 and was buried at Chenies on 14th September.

The Earl married Margaret, widow of Sir John Gostwick and sister of the 1st Lord Saint John. She died at Woburn on 27th August 1562 and was buried at Chenies. His second wife (1566) was Bridget, widow of Henry, Earl of Rutland and of Sir Richard Morrison, her father was John Hussey and her mother was a daughter of George, Earl of Kent. She died on 12th January 1601 and was buried at Watford [Hertfordshire]. The son of the 2nd Earl and his first wife was Edward, who died in 1572. Their second son, John, died in July 1584 and their third son, Francis, died in July 1585 in a skirmish on the border with Scotland, just a few hours before his father.

Edward 3rd Earl of Bedford
Edward, 3rd Earl of Bedford

He was the only son of Francis Russell, third son of the 2nd Earl and was born on 20th December 1572 and so was just twelve when he inherited the title. He was foolish enough to join the Earl of Essex in his rebellion of 1601 against Queen Elizabeth I and was fined £10,000 and imprisoned – he was lucky – Essex lost his head. He married Lucy, daughter of John, Lord Harington in 1594. He died at Moor Park [Hertfordshire] on 3rd May 1627 and was buried at Chenies on 11th May. His widow died at Moor Park on 26th May 1627.

Francis 4th Earl of Bedford
Francis, 4th Earl of Bedford

He was born in 1593, the son of William, Baron Russell of Thornhaugh in Northamptonshire, who was the fourth son of the 2nd Earl of Bedford. Francis was knighted in 1607 and succeeded his father as Baron Russell of Thornhaugh in 1613. He was Lord Lieutenant of Devon from 1623 until his death.

In 1630 he began the work of draining the fens in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Northamptonshire. It is for this reason that parts of The Fens are still known as the Bedford Levels. The task was continued by his son after his death. He was made a privy councillor to Charles I (1625-1649) in 1641 and he died on 9th May that year of smallpox and was duly buried at Chenies. He married Catherine, daughter of Giles, 3rd Baron Chandos of Sudeley in 1609. She died on 29th January 1657 and was also buried at Chenies. His son William was 5th Earl but was created 1st Duke of Bedford in 1694.