Lady Jane Grey, The Nine
Henry VIII’s schism from Rome and all the consequent drama that it entailed—including the Protestantization of the English Church after his death—all began in his concern to avoid the accession of a female monarch upon his death. Though Wife #1, Katherine of Aragon, bore a number of sons they all were stillborn or died shortly after birth. The sole surviving child from the Henry/Katherine union was their daughter Mary. Mary was born February 16, 1518, the fifth of six children but the only one to survive infancy.
Henry had good reason to fear leaving the throne to his daughter. England had only once before passed under the rule of a woman—Matilda (or Maud)—in the 12th century and it marked a time of civil war as she was not strong enough to hold the throne. Henry was only the second monarch of the Tudor dynasty and the Tudor claim to the throne was somewhat questionable. Henry’s father, Henry VII, seized the throne during the Wars of the Roses, but a stronger legitimacy would have given the crown to the Plantagenet claimant, Edward, Earl of Warwick. After Henry VII had Warwick executed any number of Plantagenets made rumbles about their right to the throne and while Henry VIII was strong enough on the throne to withstand the potential rebellions by other claimants, he feared that a female heir might be more like Maud and that England would be plunged back into dynastic wars. Genealogists point out that Simon Abney-Hastings, a forty-year old Australian of Plantagenet lineage, actually has a stronger claim to the Crown than Queen Elizabeth. Of course—and this may surprise (and confuse) you—the English Crown, strictly speaking, is in the gift of Parliament and not an inheritance. (This point had been proven several times in the Middle Ages, but was established once for all by the 1701 Act of Settlement.) But before we go too far astray, Henry VIII was probably right about his daughter’s inability to hold the throne without civil war and so, in his desperation for a male heir, he went on to sire two more children. Wife #2, Anne Boleyn was not more successful in producing a prince than had been Katherine, but her daughter, Elizabeth, would go on to be England’s greatest monarch in history. Just shows to go you how men can be wrong about a woman’s potential. Wife # 3 gave him his prince—Edward—but Edward was always a sickly child.
Edward succeeded to the throne as a nine year old boy. He died when he was but 15, probably from tuberculosis. Edward was an overly serious child—much given to study and with a particular taste for theology. His guardianship had been taken over, after his father’s death, by a Protestant coup—let in part by Archbishop Cranmer—that instilled in him a deep hatred for all things Catholic. This enabled Cranmer and others to thoroughly “reform” the English Church: that is to make it a Protestant Church on the Genevan (Calvinist) model except with bishops. (Cranmer was not about to saw off the branch on which he was sitting.)
As it became clear that Edward was dying, there was great fear in the thoroughly Protestant Court of his sister—Mary—succeeding the throne as Mary had never reconciled herself to her Father’s independence from Rome much less from the Catholic doctrines and practices that Cranmer and others had swept away with the Prayerbooks of 1549 and 1552. Edward himself did not want to see the throne pass not only to his sister Mary, but to his Protestant sister, Elizabeth. Edward considered them both illegitimate as his father’s marriages to their mothers had been annulled by Archbishop Cranmer. (Henry was not satisfied with beheading Anne Boleyn, he went ahead and had that marriage annulled as well.) Edward drew up a deed leaving the Crown to his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, who just happened to have been recently married to the son of the Duke of Northumberland—the most powerful of Edward’s “guardians.” There is no doubt that Northumberland engineered this device as it would have made him virtual ruler of England after Edward’s death, but as I said, Edward was determined that his sisters should not succeed him even though his father, Henry VIII, had named Mary and Elizabeth heirs to the Crown should Edward die without children of his own.
When Edward died, Mary acted quickly and went to her estates in Norfolk where she raised troops with which to advance her claim. Though it had been clear for sometime that Edward was dying, Northumberland was caught off guard by Mary’s ready action. The news of Edward’s death was kept secret for several days until Northumberland could organize Jane’s succession. When Jane was proclaimed Queen in London, the Londoners did not rally to her. This disconcerted Northumberland who had expected a smooth transition, especially in Protestant London. Northumberland took troops out to stop Mary but it was clear to the rest of the Council of Regency that Mary had the support of the greater number of both the magnates and the common people. The Council did an about-face and abandoned Jane’s cause and proclaimed Mary Queen. Northumberland, Jane, and her husband—Northumberland’s son—all found themselves at the executioner’s block within the year.
There were many factors why people supported Mary over Jane. Religion was only one of them, but a crucial one. In the eyes of most English at the time, Henry had fixed the succession on Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth in that order and they saw Edward’s attempts at depriving his half-sister of the Crown as betraying Henry’s heritage. Henry had been a popular king and was well remembered by most. Remember that other than the break with the papacy and the suppression of the monasteries, Henry had not changed the religious practices of his subjects. Mass was still in Latin in the ancient rites. The Holy Communion was given on the tongue and to those kneeling—and only the host. People still flocked to confession. Priests were still unmarried. Crucifixes and statutes—for the most part—were still to be found in the Churches. The monks were missed but the suppression of the monasteries had flushed a huge amount of new wealth into the country as the vast monastic estates were divided up and given to loyal supporters of the Crown who in turn hired men to work the fields and build their fine manor houses where abbeys once stood. As for the Pope not being prayed for any longer—few people noticed. Popes had always been mere names of a faraway prelate who kept taking English gold out of the country. It was Edward who had changed everything and while London and Norwich and some other cities had strong Protestant factions among the populace, Cranmer’s changes had not been happily received by many people. Mary represented a correcting of the course. Unfortunately she way over-corrected the course and Catholicism would never recover.