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The Earl of Bedford is a title in the Peerage of England which has been granted on three separate occasions and is currently in the hands of the Russell family, although it is now overshadowed by their possession of the superior title of Duke of Bedford.

Beaumont and de Coucy

Hugh de Beaumont was the younger brother of the Waleran de Beaumont who was Earl of Worcester and Robert de Beaumont who became the 2nd Earl of Leicester. A supporter of king Stephen, Hugh was given the task of recovering Bedford Castle, then held by one Milo de Beauchamp. Hugh's success in this matter led to Stephen conferring upon him the title of Earl of Bedford. It has also led some to believe that Milo de Beauchamp had earlier also held the title of Earl of Bedford, but this does not appear to have been the case. Unfortunately Hugh later "reduced himself by his own folly and effeminacy to so miserable a condition" that he became known as 'Hugh the Poor' and was later degraded from the peerage in about the year 1141.

Two centuries were to go by before the title was revived, this time in favour of Enguerrand de Coucy on the 11th May 1366. Enguerrand, the lord of Coucy in France was a grandson of the archduke of Austria, but more importantly in the previous year he had married Isabella, daughter of king Edward III. There where however, no children from this union; some sources suggest that Enguerrand resigned his title on the accession of Richard II to the throne in 1377, but in any event the title became extinct at his death in 1397.

The dignity of Bedford was afterwards bestowed three times during the fifteen century only in the form of a dukedom (for which see Duke of Bedford). None of these creations survived beyond the original grantee, the last of whom was Jasper Tudor, half-brother of King Henry VI and uncle of Henry VII who died without legitimate issue on the 21st December 1495.

Russell

The Russels were a family of wine merchants from Weymouth, the first of whom to be identified with any certainty is a Stephen Russell who represented Weymouth in Parliament in 1394. Naturally such a trade demanded some knowledge of foreign languages, which was fortuitous as far as John Russell was concerned as he was thus engaged as an interpreter when the Archduke Philip the Fair unexpectedly arrived at Weymouth in January 1506. He accompanied Philip to Winsdor and was thus introduced to the court of Henry VII where he gained the position of a gentleman of the privy chamber. He thereafter enjoyed a varied career as a diplomat, counsellor and soldier (he lost his right eye at the siege of Morlaix in 1522) and took an active part in suppressing the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536. He benefited greatly from the Dissolution of the Monasteries, receiving initially the lands of both Tavistock Abbey and Woburn Abbey and later in 1552 was awarded Covent Garden together with "seven acres called Long Acre" which proved to be of great value to later generations of Russells.

In March 1539 he was created Baron Russell of Chenies, and in January 1550 Earl of Bedford, and having opposed Lady Jane Grey he successfully made the transition to the new regime of Mary I and was trusted by her to conclude the marriage treaty with Philip II of Spain. His son the 2nd Earl, was in contrast, far more of a Protestant and spent most of Mary's reign in prison and then in exile. He became more politically active with the accession of Elizabeth I, becoming one of the judges of the Duke of Norfolk in 1572, president of the council of Wales in 1576 and serving as lord warden of the Stannaries from 1553 to 1580.

The 2nd Earl died in London on the 28th July 1585 and was succeeded by his grandson Edward Russell, the only son of Francis, Lord Russell who had himself died only the day before on the 27th July. The 3rd earl left no children when he died on the 3rd of May 1627, and was succeeded by his cousin Francis, the only son of William Russell, 1st Baron Russell of Thornhaugh, to which barony he had already succeeded in August 1613.

The 4th Earl was notable as the first Russell to make his home at Woburn Abbey, where he went to escape the sporadic plagues the bedeviled the London of his time, and also for commissioning Inigo Jones to begin the development of Covent Garden. It was this William who emerged as the leader of the Parliamentarians in the Long Parliament of November 1640, but died of smallpox on the 9th May 1641. His death was a matter of regret to many, as William's moderation might well have avoided the later escalation of this dispute into open civil war.

His successor was his son William, the 5th Earl who married Anne Carr daughter of Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and is most noted for being the father of William, Lord Russell whose active role in the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-1681 and subsequent 'martyrdom' as a result of his alleged role in the Rye House Plot of 1683 were largely responsible for procuring the 5th Earl his elevation to a dukedom in 1694.

See the Duke of Bedford thereafter.


THE EARLS OF BEDFORD

BEAUMONT

DE COUCY

RUSSELL

William the 5th Earl became Duke of Bedford in 1694.


SOURCES

  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for BEDFORD, EARLS AND DUKES OF
  • Brian Masters The Dukes: The Origins, Ennoblement and History of 26 Families (Blond and Briggs, 1975)
  • E.S. Turner Amazing Grace: The Great Days of Dukes (Sutton Publishing, 2003)
  • Hugh de Beauchamp at http://genealogy.patp.us/conq/beauch.shm
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
  • A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com
  • Stirnet Genealogy at http://www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/genfam.htm
  • The Peerages of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom at http://www.angeltowns.com/town/peerage/Peers.htm

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