By February 1553 it was clear that King Edward VI was likely to die. Until then, with the notably unsuccessful exception of Henry I’s daughter Matilda, no woman had sat upon England’s throne. Now though all heirs to the Crown were female:
Mary Tudor – the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife Katherine of Aragon. She had been declared illegitimate by her father but under the terms of his will and the Third Act of Succession passed in 1544, she was next in line to the throne.
Elizabeth Tudor – the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn. She had also been declared illegitimate. Under the terms of Henry’s well and the act of succession, she was next in line after Mary, if Mary had no heirs. Elizabeth’s birth in 1533 had been something of a disappointment to Henry VIII who wanted a legitimate male heir. In 1536 Anne Boleyn was executed after failing to provide him with one and Elizabeth was rendered illegitimate. Eleven days after Anne’s execution, Henry married Jane Seymour who produced Edward before dying as the result of complications in childbed. No one expected Elizabeth to ever become queen. Her upbringing was difficult as her status shifted.
Mary Queen of Scots – the grand daughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor. There was no doubting her legitimacy but she was married to the French dauphin and was Catholic.
Lady Jane Grey – the eldest grand daughter of Henry VIII’s youngest sister Mary. She was legitimate, Protestant and English. Initially Edward decided to leave his crown to Jane’s legitimate male heirs but it became clear that he did not have enough time to see his teenage cousin married with a child in her arms. Certainly the idea appealed to John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. If either Mary or Elizabeth took the throne he would lose the power that he wielded during Edward’s reign.
On 25 May 1553 Jane was married to Guildford Dudley, the fourth son of the Duke of Northumberland. She had been bullied into the match. On 12 June Edward changed the wording of his ‘Device’ leaving the throne to Jane but the Device was not ratified by Parliament. Mary and Elizabeth were deemed illegitimate. When King Edward VI died on 6 July 1553 Northumberland hoped that Jane would sit upon the throne and he would continue to wield power. In time he hoped that the House of Tudor would become the House of Dudley.
In reality Mary realising what was about to happen went to Kenninghall in Norfolk and on 8 July was proclaimed queen to popular acclaim. Her supporters began to assemble at Framingham Castle. Northumberland’s council began to panic even though Jane was proclaimed queen in London on 9 July. She was deposed on the 19th turning in an instant from queen to prisoner.
Elizabeth wrote from her home in Hatfield in support of her sister and joined Mary for her entry into London. Mary had the support of most of England because she was Henry VIII’s eldest daughter. religion was not an issue at that stage of Mary and Elizabeth’s story. Mary would become increasingly suspicious of her sister, especially as religion became a factor in England’s political life. There were times when Elizabeth feared for her life before Mary’s death in 1558. It was perhaps unsurprising. Mary soon lost her popularity. Wyatt’s Rebellion followed hard on the heels of her coronation and she increasingly saw Elizabeth as a symbol for Mary’s enemies. Elizabeth had the opportunity, if she could survive, to watch and learn from her sister’s mistakes.
There were three threads that would follow Elizabeth through her long reign:
- John Knox stated that it was against natural law for a woman to rule a man – they being ‘weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish creatures’ – essentially a queen needed a king to be in charge – so when Mary and Elizabeth each became queen in turn the need for a husband for both an heir and wise leadership was something that exercised the Privy Council’s mind.
- Who exactly was illegitimate? For some Catholics, Elizabeth was an illegitimate child born to Anne Boleyn when Henry VIII put his legitimate wife to one side. After Mary Tudor’s death, in the eyes of some it was Mary Queen of Scots who was the rightful queen of England because she was the child of Henry VIII’s eldest sister. It helped that she was Catholic.
- Religion became an increasingly important factor in politics in England. The Northern Rebellion of 1569, the Rudolf Plot of 1571, Throckmorton Plot of 1583 and the Babington Plot of 1586 sought to topple Elizabeth from her throne and replace her with her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots who had been a prisoner in England since 1568.