There were two creations of the Earl of Bedford in 1138 and 1366, following which the dignity of Bedford reappeared in the form of a dukedom in three fifteenth century creations which are noted below. It was afterwards revived as an earldom for the Russell family in 1550 and the 5th Earl of that line was later created Duke in 1694, a title which is still held by his descendants to this day.
The fifteenth century Dukes of Bedford:
Plantagent, Neville and Tudor
The first Duke of Bedford was John, third son of Henry IV, created Duke on the May 1414 by his older brother, the new king Henry V. John was heavily involved in his brother's efforts to conquer France, both by participating in the French wars and by acting as viceroy of the country during the king's frequent absences abroad. With Henry V's death in 1422 he took on the office of Regent of France on behalf of his nephew Henry VI and pursued his brother's dream of conquest until the loss of Burgundian support in 1434 rendered it impractical. He died shortly afterwards at Rouen on the 14th September 1435 where he was buried. Despite being married twice he left no legitimate issue and the title became extinct.
It was revived sometime later by Edward IV and granted in 1470 to George Neville, the young son of John Neville, Marquess of Montagu and intended bride for Edward's daughter (and at the time heir) Elizabeth of York. George's father and uncle rebelled against Edward soon after and were both killed at the battle of Barnet in 1471, and George never got to marry his princess. However George retained his title until 1478 when he was degraded from the peerage ostensibly on the grounds of poverty.
The third duke in this sequence was Jasper Tudor, half-brother of King Henry VI, uncle of Henry VII and sometime Earl of Pembroke during those times when Henry VI managed to hold on to his throne. After his nephew's victory at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, he was restored to his earldom and additionally created Duke of Bedford. He served his nephew as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland from 1486 to 1494, before dying without legitimate issue on the 21st December 1495.
The Russell Dukes of Bedford
The Russell family originated from Weymouth in Dorset and by a combination of good fortune and faithful service to the House of Tudor became Earls of Bedford in 1550. It was William Russell, the 5th Earl of his line who became the first Russell Duke of Bedford in 1694. However, the 5th Earl did not owe his elevation to anything that he himself had done; rather it was his son William, Lord Russell that was being honoured.
The younger William, who had something of the Puritan about him, was a keen Protestant and therefore one of the leading opponents of Charles II's policies. He was one of the main promoters of the Exclusion Bill and it was at his home in Southampton House that the 'country party' met to discuss tactics. Some of the leading members of this 'country party' organised an unsuccessful attempt on the king's life known as the Rye House Plot. William was suspected of involvement in this affair, arrested, and on the 13th July 1683 appeared at the Old Bailey charged with high treason. It seems possible that William was perfectly ignorant of the conspiracy but the Crown manipulated both the evidence and the legal process to ensure that a verdict of guilty was returned. Thus William was duly beheaded at Lincoln's Inn Fields on the 21st July 1683.
After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William became a national hero known as 'The Patriot' and was feted as the first martyr of Protestant democracy. An Act of Parliament reversed his attainder and declared his conviction for treason null and void, whilst members of parliament could hardly bare to mention his name without breaking into tears. A grateful nation thus decided to honour him by making his father a Duke. As the Letters Patent issued to the old Earl proclaimed;
from his loins issued the ornament of our Age, William the late lord RUSSELL, whose superlative merits we think it not sufficient should be transmitted to all future generations upon the credit of the Public Annals, but will have them inserted in these our Royal Letters Patent, as a monument consecrated to the most accomplish'd and consummate virtue of said family...
Notwithstanding his martyrdom William had ealrier married Rachel Wriothesley, the daughter and co-heiress of the 4th Earl of Southampton, by which means he received both the Bloomsbury estate and managed to father the required heir. Therefore after the death of the 1st Duke, his successor was William's son, named Wriothesley after his mother's family.
The 2nd Duke married an heiress named Elizabeth Howland who brought a dowry comprising estates at Streatham and Tooting Bec to further swell the Russell coffers, but was otherwise undistinguished. He died from smallpox on the 26th May 1711 at the age of thirty and was succeeded by his eldest son, also named Wriothesley, who became a notorious gambler and once succeeded in losing £250,000 in one evening. Known as the "laughing-stock of Society" he was regarded as an easily led fool and might well have blown the entire Russell fortune had he not died at the comparatively youthful age of twenty-four on the 23rd October 1732.
The 3rd Duke also died without issue and was therefore succeeded by his brother John 4th who despite the ravages of his elder sibling managed to repair the damage and was one of the wealthiest men in Britain. Known as the "merry little Duke" (he was apparently noted for his sense of humour), he took a prominent role in politics, first as an opponent of Robert Walpole, and later as a minister in various Whig administrations. He was Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland between 1756 to 1761, and Lord Privy Seal from 1761 to 1763 and then Lord President of the Council between 1763 and 1765, following which he ran his own political faction known as the 'Bloomsbury Gang'. He gradually withdrew from politics as his health declined and died on the 15th of January 1771, and since all three of his sons had predeceased him by that time he was succeeded by his grandson Francis Russell.
A Whig like his father, the 5th Duke was a follower of Charles James Fox, took a prominent role in opposing the administration of William Pitt but never saw political office. He devoted much of his time to his hobby of agriculture. He bred sheep, established his own model farm at Woburn Abbey and was distinguished as the first ever president of the Smithfield club. However the 5th Duke died on the 2nd March 1802, aged only thirty-six. He never married, preferring to devote himself to his mistress, the infamous Nancy Parsons, and was thus followed by his brother as the 6th Duke.
John Russell, the 6th Duke, briefly saw service in the Foot Guards, and was the member of parliament for Tavistock between 1788 and 1802 before succeeding to the title. Although he held the office of Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland between 1806 and 1807 he generally did not share his predecessors interest in politics and preferred the simple art of enjoying himself. Charles Greville did not approve of him and described him as "a complete sensualist and thinks of nothing but his own personal enjoyments" and indeed the duke sold the family estates in Hampshire and Surrey simply in order to fund his rather extravagant lifestyle. Nevertheless he managed to live to the ripe old age of seventy-three and died on 20 October 1839 when was succeeded as 7th duke by his eldest son, Francis.
The 7th Duke was known to complain of the burdens of managing the vast inheritance that had been imposed upon him, and rose at five o'clock every morning to cope with the demands of being obscenely wealthy. However his younger brother John Russell, 1st Earl Russell (who later became Prime Minister) was only one of many who complained of his miserliness; Benjamin Disraeli said of him that "he never retired to rest satisfied, unless he could trace that he had saved, that day, at least a five pound note.". The penny-pinching 7th Duke eventually died on the 14th May 1861 at the age of seventy-three and was succeeded by his only son William, the 8th Duke who from the age of twenty five he became a virtual recluse, and hardly left the house and only then in a covered carriage. Unsurprisingly he never married and on died on the 27th May 1872 at the age of sixty-two and the title passed to his cousin, Francis Charles Hastings Russell.
The 9th Duke was the eldest son of Major-General Lord George William Russell, a younger son of the sixth duke, and known to his friends and family simply as Hastings. He had an unfortunate upbringing, as his parents grew apart and took to conducting a long running argument which involved writing to young Hastings, and accusing him of possessing various character defects which they naturally blamed on the other party. This appears to have had a souring effect on his character and Hastings became a humourless old hypochondriac who believed the worst of everybody; according to Benjamin Disraeli he had "a lower opinion of human nature than any man". He was perhaps fortunate in that his wife Elizabeth, daughter of George John, 5th Earl de la Warr, appeared to be of a similar temperament and thus the two became known in Society as 'The Icebergs'.
It was perhaps inevitable that the 9th Duke eventually committed suicide. On the 14th January 1891 he shot himself in his house at 81, Eaton Square. He was succeeded by his eldest son George William who only held the title for a couple of years until he died from diabetes on the 23rd March 1893. Since he also died without issue the title passed to his younger brother Herbrand Arthur who now became the 11th Duke.
It was said of the 11th Duke that he hardly uttered a word all his life, and he certainly did not speak to his son for twenty years or more, as he disapproved of his son's pacifism. His ostracised son Hastings William, later to become the 12th Duke and commonly known as 'Spinach' to his family, was born in a derelict cottage on a Scottish moor (his parents were out walking at the time). This does not appear to have been a happy experience for his mother who thereafter resolved not to have any further children. Thus an only child, Hastings had something of an isolated upbringing and did not see another child until he was packed off to Eton at the age of thirteen.
Although the 12th Duke joined the 10th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment and fought in the First World War, in later life he became a pacifist and a conscientious objecter and an active Quaker who devoted most of his life to good causes, and was supposedly at his happiest scrubbing floors at the local YMCA. He achieved a certain notoriety in 1935 when his wife sued him for restitution of her conjugal rights. The 12th Duke claimed that he was justified in this regard as his wife had shown an "intimate and clandestine affection" for their son's tutor Cecil Squire. Although the 12th Duke won the case he subsequently left his wife and withdrew from the public eye to the family property at Endsleigh in Devon. It was at Endsleigh that he was found dead on the 9th October 1953 with his shotgun at his side. A verdict of accidental death was recorded, although it is widely believed that suicide would have been a more accurate determination.
The 13th Duke, known as 'Ian' to his friends, was sixteen before he discovered that he was likely to become Duke of Bedford at some time in the future. A former journalist and actor, his family disapproved of his first marriage (an opinion with which the 13th Duke later concurred) and he later emigrated to South Africa with his second wife where he took up farming. He only returned in 1953 on inheriting the title, at which point he was forced to face the challenge of coping with the ravages of twentieth century taxation. The death of the 11th Duke had saddled the Bedford estates with a tax liability of £3m, some of which was still outstanding when the 12th Duke died and gave rise to a further liability of some £4.6m. Asset sales were the only way of meeting such liabilities; Chenies was sold in 1954, the 9,000 acre estate in Devon went in 1962 and much of Bloomsbury also went to fund the taxman's appetites.
The trustees of his father's estate were even minded to transfer ownership of the ancestral home at Woburn Abbey to the National Trust on the grounds that the there was insufficient income to maintain the house. But Ian persuaded them to grant him a tenancy and thereafter worked tirelessly to attract the necessary visitor numbers required to pay for the upkeep of the house. He established various attractions such as a fun fair and a wildlife park and succeeded in establishing his family home as one of Britain's major tourist attractions.
The 13th Duke died on the 25th October 2002 and was followed by his son Henry Robin Russell. The 14th Duke, who had taken over the management of Woburn Abbey in 1974, suffered a serious stroke in 1988 which almost killed him, and shortly after inheriting the title suffered a second stroke which did kill him. He died on the 13th June 2003 some eight months after inheriting the title. Henry Robin was in turn succeeded by his eldest son Andrew Ian Russell, who is the current and 15th Duke of Bedford and also holds the titles of the Marquess of Tavistock, Earl of Bedford, Baron Russell, Baron Russell of Thornhaugh and Baron Howland of Streatham.
His son and heir is Henry Robin Charles Russell, born on the 7th June 2005 and is known by his courtesy title of the Marquess of Tavistock. Should young Henry Robin ever have a son of his own, he will be known as the Lord Howland during his grandfather's lifetime.
THE DUKES OF BEDFORD
- William Russell, 1st Duke of Bedford (1694-1700)
- Wriothesley Russell, 2nd Duke of Bedford (1700-1711)
- Wriothesley Russell, 3rd Duke of Bedford (1711-1732)
- John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford (1732-1771)
- Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford (1771-1802)
- John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford (1802-1839)
- Francis Russell, 7th Duke of Bedford (1839-1861)
- William Russell, 8th Duke of Bedford (1861-1872)
- Francis Charles Russell, 9th Duke of Bedford (1872-1891)
- George William Russell, 10th Duke of Bedford (1891-1893)
- Herbrand Arthur Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford (1893-1940)
- Hastings William Russell, 12th Duke of Bedford (1940-1953)
- John Robert Russell, 13th Duke of Bedford (1953-2002)
- Henry Robin Russell, 14th Duke of Bedford (2002-2003)
- Andrew Ian Russell, 15th Duke of Bedford (2003-to date)
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entries for
BEDFORD, EARLS AND DUKES OF and RUSSELL
- 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)
- A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com
- Stirnet Genealogy at
- The Peerages of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom at http://www.angeltowns.com/town/peerage/Peers.htm