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A Mid Tudor Crisis 1536-1569

Succession and Marriage

Succession of Edward VI

Henry VIII was succeeded by nine-year-old prince Edward, his son by his third
wife, Jane Seymour. This was a problem in itself because Edward was too young
to rule, and periods of minority government were often times of potential
political unrest. To avoid any possible disputes Henry made a final settlement of
the succession in his will of 1546. This replaced the Succession Acts of 1534,
1536, and 1544, although the terms were similar to the Act of 1544. In the event
of Edward dying without heirs, the succession was to pass first to Mary, the
daughter of Catherine of Aragon. If Mary died without heirs her sister Elizabeth,
daughter of Anne Boleyn, was to succeed. The major change to the previous
settlement was that if all Henry’s children were to die without heirs, the throne
was to pass to his niece Frances Grey. This final clause meant that the other
possible claimant for the throne, the infant Mary Queen of Scots, was excluded.
Although the will had replaced the earlier succession settlements, the Acts of
1534 and 1536, which had made Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate to remove them
from the line of succession, were not repealed. Henry’s major concern in his will
was to secure the peaceful succession of his son and safeguard the royal
supremacy. By 1546 it had become clear that the surest way to achieve this, and
so prevent a power struggle, was to give authority to Seymour and the reform
faction. A Regency Council was nominated consisting of Seymour and 15 of his
most trusted allies. Members of the Council were to have equal powers, and were
to govern the country until Edward reached 18 years of age!

Northumberland Changes the Succession

By 1552 Northumberland seemed to be firmly in control, but his power depended

on the support of Edward VI. By the end of the year the King’s health was
deteriorating quickly, and the problem of the succession became a central issue
once again. In accordance with Henry VIII’s will, Mary was to succeed if Edward
died childless. However, it was feared that because of Mary’s strong Catholic
sympathies she might replace Northumberland and renounce the royal
supremacy. To prevent a return to Catholicism, and to retain power,
Northumberland, with the full support of the King, planned to change the
succession. Lady Jane Grey, the protestant granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister
Mary, was chosen to succeed. Unfortunately for Northumberland, Edward VI died
before the plans for seizure of power could be completed. Queen Jane reigned for
only nine days before being removed by Mary. A potential crisis had been
Mary’s Marriage

The Privy council was divided on the issue of Mary’s marriage and the issue
coming early in her reign highlights her political inexperience and stubbornness.
There were two realistic candidates for Mary’s hand;

• Edward Courtney, Earl of Devon, who was favoured by Gardiner (Catholic)

• Philip II of Spain, who was supported by Paget (Moderate)

Courtney was a descendant of earlier English Kings and such a marriage would
have strengthened the Tudor dynasty, but Mary favoured a closer link to the
Habsburgs through Philip. It was not until the 27 October that Mary raised the
matter in Council, and then only to announce that she was going to marry Philip.
Mary disregarded all opposition to her plans. On 7 December a marriage treaty
was drafted and presented to council. It was ratified at the beginning of January
1554. The terms of the treaty were favourable to England. Philip was to have no
regal power in England, no foreign appointments were to be made to the Privy
Council, and England was not to be involved in, or pay towards the cost of any of
Philip’s wars. If the marriage was childless , the succession was to pass to

In spite of these safeguards Mary’s popularity began to ebb, as many people

thought that England would be drawn into Philip’s wars and become a mere
province of the Habsburg empire. By the end of January 1554, anti-Spanish
feelings led to rebellion. The rebellion was led by Sir Thomas Croft, Sir Peter
Carew and Sir Thomas Wyatt. These men had all held important offices at court
under both Henry VIII and Edward VI. Although they had supported Mary’s
accession, they feared that the growing Spanish influence would endanger their
own careers.

Elizabeth’s marriage and succession issue

Elizabeth’s foreign policy, her possible suitors and the succession were all closely
linked. Her marriage might determine England’s relationship to Europe, as it
most obviously had done in Mary’s case. Also, it would be a useful diplomatic
bargaining counter t be used with potential suitors. The naming of a successor to
the throne might have similar repercussions. In the eyes of her councillors, and
to her early Parliaments, England’s security depended on Elizabeth contracting a
suitable marriage. If that could not be managed, then at least a successor should
be nominated. What they feared above all was that, in the event of her untimely
death, the realm would be plunged into strife between rival contenders.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, was always reluctant to commit herself in either

Many reasons have been advanced for Elizabeth’s unwillingness to marry.

Psychologically, Elizabeth may have recoiled from marriage for the following

• She was aware of the fate her mother had suffered.

• At the age of eight, she was made aware of the execution of Catherine
Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife.

• At the age of fifteen, she had experienced the amorous attentions of

Thomas Seymour 9uncle to Edward VI), which were described by one
recent biographer, David Starkey, as bordering on child abuse.

• It is possible that she was physically incapable of having sexual relations,

but no firm evidence of this has been found.

• More plausible is the suggestion that she enjoyed power and was unwilling
to share it with a consort.

Whatever her motives, Elizabeth refused all opportunities for matrimony, though
it was not until 1580s that the impossibility of her marrying was finally


Elizabeth’s refusal to name an heir had a more specific explanation. Elizabeth’s

advisors were convinced that England’s security rested on there being an
assured successor. However, Elizabeth saw the absence of a known successor as
the best guarantee of her security. In the first eight years of Elizabeth’s reign
these issues played a significant part in her foreign and domestic policy. In 559,
Phillip II made a tentative offer of marriage. Clearly he could not marry a heretic,
as Elizabeth pointed out, but she did not dismiss the offer outright and was
clearly anxious to retain Philip’s friendship. Among other foreign suitors to be
considered was the Archduke Charles Philip II’s cousin and heir to the Holy
Roman Emperor, Ferdinand. Charles IX of France was also briefly in the frame.

In 1560, Robert Dudley, future Earl of Leicester, appeared a likely candidate, and
he retained Elizabeth’s affection until the end of his life. But the death of his wife
in suspicious circumstances put paid to any thought of marriage, so far as
Elizabeth was concerned. The marriage was also strongly opposed by Cecil , and
potential rivalry between the two men was thus avoided.

Parliament and succession

This issue of succession came up twice in Parliament, in 1563 and 1566.

Elizabeth suffered an attack of small pox in 1562, and the commons implored her
to name a successor in the next session of Parliament. They renewed their plea
in 1566, and even tried to tie the voting of subsidy to Elizabeth’s compliance in
this respect. But she refused Parliament’s wishes in magisterial terms; ‘It is
monstrous that the feet should direct the head.’ From then on , her wishes were
unwillingly respected , and even on her deathbed she hesitated to name her