Sir John Russell was born in 1485 in Dorset to James Russell and his first wife Alice Wise.
Sir John had a very successful career at court and held many high ranking offices. He first came to the attention of the Tudor court in 1506 when Archduke Philip of Austria and Juana, the King and Queen of Castile. Juana was also the sister of the dowager Princess of Wales, Katherine of Aragon. The Spanish monarchs had been shipwrecked off the coast of Weymouth on a diplomatic trip to visit King Henry VII. As a result of their detour, Russell escorted them to London to complete their journey. Philip and Juana highly praised Russell and the service that he provided to them to King Henry VII, who in 1507 made Russell a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. A position he held after King Henry VIII ascended the throne.
Russell went on to loyally serve Henry VIII’s court. Russell was involved in the War of the League of Cambrai (also known as the War of the Holy League) and he was present at the taking of Tournai and Thérouanne. Russell was knighted by Henry VIII in 1522 after losing an eye in battle in Brittany.
Sir John Russell help a wide range of posts in the Tudor court from serving as High Sheriff of Dorset and Somerset in 1528 and acting as a Member of Parliament for Buckinghamshire between 1529 and 1536.
After the downfall of Anne Boleyn and her family in 1536. Russell was made a Privy councillor and helped suppress the rebellion of the Pilgrimage of Grace in autumn 1536. Russell also benefitted greatly from the downfall of another courtier, Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter. After Courtenay’s execution Russell was made a Baron and Lord President of the Council in the West. This was quickly followed by being invested in to the Knight of the Garter. Finally in 1539 Russell was made High Steward of Cornwall and Lord Warden of the Stannaries.
During Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries Russell was granted many lands, these included Tavistock Abbey and Plympton Abbey in Devon, making him the largest land owner in Devon. Russell was also granted Blackfriars in Exeter where he later built Bedford House. Russell was also granted lands in London, including the kitchen garden of Westminster Palace. In the modern day this is now the site of the busy Covent Garden.
In 1540 Russell was made Lord High Admiral. At this point he had a very close relationship with Henry VIII. The day after Henry met Anne of Cleves for the first time Henry asked Russell whether he thought Anne to be fair. Russell replied that he found her “not to be fair, but of a brown complexion”. An answer which probably saved Russell when Henry was trying to find ways out of his marriage.
In 1542 Russell resigned from his position as Lord High Admiral and was elevated to the role of Lord Privy Seal. One of the highest positions within the council. Russell remained close to Henry VIII throughout the King’s final years. He was entrusted as one of the executors of Henry’s will and was appointed one of the 16 councillors that help rule the country during the new King, Edward VI’s, minority. Russell also acted as Lord High Steward at the coronation of the young King, who in return elevated him to the title of Earl of Bedford in 1550 and in 1552 Lord Lieutenant of Devon.
In the final days of the young King on 16th June 1553 Russell was one of the 26 peers who signed a settlement of the crown on Lady Jane Grey, ensuring that she would be Edward’s heir and not his sister Mary as was expected due to Henry VIII’s final Act of Succession.
Sir John Russell died on 14th March 1555 and was buried in the Bedford Chapel in the church that lies next to Chenies Manor House, his ancestral home.