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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Dorothy Stafford, the Plantagenet Protestant Tudor

Updated: Apr 8, 2020

When Dorothy Stafford’s husband died in 1556, John Calvin, the well-known theologian and godfather to her youngest son, fought her for custody on the grounds that she might revert to Catholicism.  Dorothy prevailed as the custodial parent as well as in her Protestantism moving her whole family out of Geneva.  

As a descendant of the Plantagenets, her maternal grandmother was Margaret Plantagenet Pole, Countess of Salisbury a descendant of George Duke of Clarence; her father was Henry Stafford, Baron Stafford, Dorothy’s royal blood entitled her to a position in any English court. However, her husband William Stafford, widower of Mary Boleyn Carey and Dorothy’s second cousin, was an avowed Protestant and shortly after their marriage in 1545, so was she, although her natal family remained Catholic. William and Dorothy had 6 children with 4 of them living to maturity.

Dorothy Stafford was a Plantagenet via her maternal grandmother, the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville, one of ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’s’ daughters. On her father’s side, she descended from the Dukes of Buckingham. Margaret Plantagenet Pole, Countess of Salisbury was beheaded by Henry VIII.

During the reign of Mary I, Dorothy and her family became part of the group known as the Marian Exiles moving to the continent to avoid the growing persecutions against those who refused to return to Catholicism.  After she won her case against Calvin, she moved to Basel where was granted a burghership, a courtesy extended to those of noble blood. In 1559, the family moved to France so that Dorothy could pursue unspecified legal business. While there, Dorothy became friendly with Catherine de Medici and formed an unfavorable opinion of the young Mary Queen Scots, then reigning Queen of France.

Although she has been considered a source for Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the more likely source would be Elizabeth Sandys (or Sandes) who lived with Dorothy during her European travels.  Their house in Basle was near Foxe’s. Mary I had removed Sandys from Elizabeth’s household in 1554 because she was a woman of ‘evil opinion and not fit to be around our sister’s person’. When they returned to England late in 1559, both women joined Queen Elizabeth’s household.

Dorothy was one of Elizabeth’s favorite sleeping companions. In 1576, Dorothy broke her leg in a riding accident leaving the queen without a favored bed mate. Elizabeth recalled Mary Scudamore to court for her bed companion. Dorothy and her mistress were close enough to have simultaneous nightmares over the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Her loyal nature is evidenced through her maintenance for at least 8 years of one of her servants who was confined to Bedlam. 

Elizabethan ladies-in-waiting did not hesitate enlisting the Privy Council to support their ventures. In 1575, Dorothy obtained a letter from the Privy Council ordering the bailiffs and burgesses of Wishe in Worcester to enforce her land lease where she had established salt flats. The local authorities were further ordered to send the man who was challenging the Dorothy’s commerce to appear before the council for reprimand.

Dorothy’s influence with the monarch was tested by her children. Two of her sons flirted with treason. William was described as ‘graselesse’ which fits with the clumsy nature of his plot to assassinate the queen via gunpowder in the royal bed chamber that would have also killed his mother. Edward recovered his reputation partly through the efforts of his mother and his wife, Douglas Howard, baroness Sheffield. Dorothy’s daughter, Elizabeth, served as a Lady of the Privy Chamber starting in 1568. 

Memorial to Dorothy Stafford in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster erected by her son Edward.

After William Stafford’s death, Dorothy never remarried, so she was available full time to the queen. Her role at court, while integral, did not reach the same level of political involvement as say Anne Russell Dudley, Countess of Warwick or the extensive literary patronage of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. However, she did manage to successfully support a number of smaller suits.  She also advised the Earl of Hertford, who lost all his estates after his disastrous first marriage to Katherine Grey - a claimant to the throne, on the best way to re-enter Elizabeth’s good graces. Unsuccessful suitors to the court and council often attributed their failure to Dorothy speaking against them to the queen.

Perhaps as a result of her dealings with Calvin, Dorothy was not an avid promoter of religious causes and those she did involve herself in might be characterized as Anglican rather than Puritan in nature. After Queen Elizabeth’s death, King James I granted Dorothy an annuity of 200L with the amount reduced to 100L after her death in 1604 to be paid to her son William.

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