How many of you watched Helen Castor’s new three part series on Lady Jane Grey last night entitled England’s forgotten queen? Its on BBC4 at 9.00pm on Tuesday evening. I’m sure its on the Iplayer as well by now.
I usually think of Helen Castor in connection with the Wars of the Roses and I know that her history is thoroughly researched. I’d have to say that I enjoyed her outline of events as well as the discussions about primary sources. I loved the fact that Lady Jane Grey was the first queen proclaimed by printed proclamation rather than a hand written one and that it required three pages to explain how she’d landed the crown rather than Henry VIII’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth. I enjoyed the dramatisations less but that’s probably just me.
But back to Lady Jane Grey and those wills. On 30th December 1546 Henry VIII made his final will. He died almost a month later on the 28th January 1547. The succession was straight forward. Henry VIII was succeeded by his son Edward VI – though interestingly Edward V was never crowned, disappearing instead quietly in the Tower (this is not the time to start pointing fingers at who did it. Suffice it to say the V is a ghostly imprint upon the chronology of England’s monarchy.)
Making Henry VIII’s will was probably a tad on the tricky side to draw up as it had become illegal to speak about the king’s death thirteen years before it was drawn up in 1535- verbal treason. Normally a family tree would have been sufficient to identify who was going to inherit what but Henry’s matrimonial past was complex to put it mildly. Parliament had passed two Succession Acts – one in 1536 and the second in 1544. Both of them empowered Henry to nominate his heir. There was even a proviso for the appointment of a regency council. Henry clearly thought that being dead was no barrier to dictating the way things should happen.
The will aside from giving directions to be buried next to his “true wife” Jane Seymour in Windsor and giving money to the poor obviously launched by placing Edward on the throne. It then ran through a variety of scenarios about who should inherit in the event of Edward’s demise without heirs. Rather optimistically for a man of increasingly poor health he identified that any children by Queen Catherine or “any future wife” should inherit. He then identified his daughters, both of whom had been made illegitimate by that time – first Mary the only surviving child of Catherine of Aragon and then in the event of her not surviving or having children, her sister Elizabeth the only surviving child of Anne Boleyn. So far so straight forward and very typical of Henry to decide who was and who wasn’t legitimate based on his particular plans – or even that they could inherit even if they were illegitimate so long as Parliament ratified it.
He identifies his nieces and their families after that. His elder sister Margaret had married James IV of Scotland but Henry’s nephew James V was already dead. That just left his great niece the infant Mary Queen of Scots. Really, because she was descended from the eldest sister the little queen should have been identified next in Henry’s will but aside from being Scottish and the daughter of Marie de Guise there was the small matter that the Scots hadn’t taken kindly to the proposed marriage of their little queen to Edward. There was also the issue that in Scotland Cardinal Beaton had been murdered and the pro-French were becoming increasingly important (for the time being at any rate.) In any event Henry ignored the senior female line of the Tudor family tree and identified the heirs of his younger sister Mary who had married Charles Brandon (duke of Suffolk). Mary died in 1533 aged just thirty-seven. She did however have two surviving daughters, Frances and Eleanor. Frances was married to Henry Grey the Marquess of Dorset. They had three daughters Jane, Katherine and Mary. Henry’s will went on to say that after the heirs of Frances that the heirs of Eleanor married to Henry Clifford earl of Cumberland would be by default his rightful heirs.
As Susannah Lipscomb observes Henry’s will is an intriguing document and its easy to see why it ended up being so roundly contested. You have to admire Henry’s consideration of the possible scenarios and his plans for each eventuality. It’s interesting that Frances wasn’t identified as a contender for the crown only her heirs. What was it about Frances that Henry didn’t like? Lipscomb observes that her husband Henry Grey wasn’t on the list that Henry VIII proposed as Edward VI’s councillors so it may simply have been that he didn’t like the man very much.
Unfortunately for Henry soon after his death the idea of a regency council was rather badly mauled by Edward VI’s Seymour uncles and by the time young Edward VI lay dying it was the duke of Northumberland who was the power behind the throne.
Henry VIII had stipulated that his daughters Mary and Elizabeth had to accept the order of succession on pain of their exclusion from the succession. What Henry hadn’t accounted for was that his son Edward would write his own will. A perusal of Edward’s will was one of the highlights of last night’s programme on Lady Jane Grey. It revealed poor penmanship and a last minute change of plan. Logically if one king could leave a kingdom in his will as though it was a personal possession with the connivance of Parliament and its two supporting acts – it isn’t such a great leap that another king should do exactly the same.
Edward’s “devise” differed from his father’s in that he excluded Mary – she was just far too Catholic for devoutly Protestant Edward. He also excluded Elizabeth- because she was legally illegitimate and because by that time, if we’re going to be cynical about it, John Dudley duke of Northumberland had acquired Lady Jane Grey as a daughter-in-law and wanted to remain in charge. In excluding Mary Queen of Scots young Edward was simply following his father’s will. At first, as Castor revealed last night, the will only considered the possibility of male heirs – either his own or those of the Grey sisters. As his health unravelled the amendment was made in two words which made Lady Jane Grey his heir; L’ Janes heires masles,” turned into “the L’ Jane and her heires masles.” Simple really – though it did rely on Mary and Elizabeth accepting the turn of events or being rounded up sooner rather than later.
Ignoring the problem of Henry VIII’s daughters there was the small mater of Parliament. The Third Succession Act of 1544 left Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate but placed them in line for the Crown. Henry VIII’s will is backed up by Parliament. It is not simply a personal document. It is held up on the shoulders of law. Edward’s on the other hand assumes that because one king has willed his kingdom to his heirs that another could do the same. The problem for the duke of Northumberland was that Edward did not live long enough for the legal process to be fulfilled by an act of Parliament.
Lipscomb, Suzannah. (2015) The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII