The correct title for this post should be the succession crisis and it all occurs in 1553. Edward VI’s health was an important affair. These are the some of the key facts that we know:
- Oct 1541 Edward had quartan fever (malaria) which was treated by Henry VIII’s doctor – Butts.
- Oct 1550 – No diary entries suggest that Edward was too unwell to write.
- 1552 – Edward caught smallpox or measles. It is generally accepted, though not universally, that the suppression of immune system as a result of the measles or possibly smallpox that incipient TB flourished. .
- Oct 1552- Hieronymus Cardano notes Edward short sighted and a little deaf which would suggest the measles as deafness is one of the possible side effects.
- Dec 1552 TB evident?
- Feb 15 1553 – Edward had a feverish cold and a violent cough
The one thing that we can be sure of is that the teenage king was not a well bunny despite having started his reign as a healthy enough nine-year-old but that by March 1553 he was forced to open Parliament in a very low key ceremony rather than with the usual pageantry. The Imperial Ambassador, Jehan Scheyfve, took an ever greater interest in the king’s health and it for ambassadorial reports that historians get much of their evidence for Edward’s symptoms.
Scheyfve had a rather tenuous contact at court in the form of John Banister, a 21 year old medical student, whose father was a minor court official. Both Scheyfve and and Italian visitor to Edward’s court report that Northumberland became so concerned about the king’s health that an elderly and unknown woman was allowed to administer unspecified potions to the king. Unsurprisingly there were also rumours of poison, not least because in the immediate aftermath of the old woman’s visit Edward’s body, particularly his head and feet, began to swell.
Yet, when all is said and done it was not in Northumberland’s best interests to see the king off this mortal coil. It would have been rather bad for his power base. Instead Northumberland began to look at ways of maintaining his power over a future monarchy. It can’t have been a particularly difficult job to plant some ideas in Edward’s head because Edward as a staunch Protestant wasn’t terribly keen on his catholic half-sister reversing all the changes that he and Cranmer had made by this time. He also had a thing about legitimacy and in his family it wasn’t too difficult to cast aspersions.
Initially Edward had suggested in his will any future, as yet unborn, sons of Lady Frances Grey or even sons of her daughters: Ladies Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey. Edward clearly did not approve of the idea of women on the throne. Aside from being temperamentally unsuited as he pointed out when his will was ratified with Letters Patent they could run off and marry strange foreign types at which point England would be at the mercy of the whims of the aforementioned foreign types. There was also the problem of a possible civil war. No one wanted another round of the Wars of the Roses.
At some point when Edward’s mortality became all to obvious his will was amended through a ‘devise’ which was then passed through council and by the lawyers. All that was required was an act of Parliament to make the whole thing completely legal. Aside from cutting out his sisters on grounds of their dubious legitimacy, and dodgy faith in the case of Mary, Frances Grey had also been bypassed. The heir to the throne was Lady Jane Grey.
Conveniently for Dudley the lady in question was his young daughter-in-law having been married off to his son Guildford with the king’s blessing in the form of a grant for clothing and jewels for Jane. It cannot be said that Jane was so enthusiastic.
Edward died on the 6th of July. His death was kept a secret. Jane was moved from Syon House to the Tower in preparation for her coronation. Northumberland had secured the treasury and the capitol. What could possibly go wrong?
There was the question of running up and isolating the Ladies Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth was at Hatfield – where she stayed watching events unfold from a safe distance- hardly sisterly unity but definitely demonstrating a strong sense of self-preservation.
Mary had been on her way from her Suffolk estates to visit her sick brother but forewarned she turned back and avoided capture by Robert Dudley and a force of armed men. Once she’d regained the safety of Framlingham Castle she declared herself queen and sent Thomas Hungate to London with a letter to present to the Privy Council to that effect. She fled deeper into East Anglia – to Kenninghall in Norfolk.
Meanwhile, Hungate was bundled off to the Tower for his troubles and the Privy Council tried to threaten Mary by suggesting they’d execute the likes of Gardiner if she continued to be stroppy about Edward’s wishes. But at Kenninghall men flocked flocked to her cause, both Catholic and Protestant.
Northumberland had underestimated an English sense of fair play that had nothing to do with religion. Mary was King Henry’s oldest daughter. She should be queen – as a certain commercial meercat might say – simples. There was also the fact that Northumberland wasn’t widely liked and admired by anyone very much. The Commons resented him for the death of Somerset who was known as the ‘Good Duke’ and the regional gentry liked the conservatism represented by Mary. The Protestants who you might have expected to rally to Northumberland distrusted him.
Undeterred by the fact that Privy Councillors started to feel unwell and make their excuses to leave London, Northumberland set out with a body of men to take on Mary. He got to Bury St Edmunds where his men waved him good bye and went to join their lawful sovereign – Mary. Following this blow, Northumberland sent a letter to Henri II inviting him to invade England. He promised the French that they could have Calais and Guines if only they would assist. The letter was intercepted. It was the final straw for the Privy Council who defected as fast as they could scurry. Jane’s own father tore the canopy of state from over her head.
On July 23 1553 Northumberland surrendered in Cambridge by then it was all over.
On the 3rd August 1553 Queen Mary entered London. Lady Jane Grey was in the Tower. Northumberland and all his sons shared a similar view.
Inevitably Northumberland was tried for treason. He argued that he had only done Edward VI’s bidding. Sadly for him, Edward’s will wasn’t legal. There had been no act of Parliament. It was no good arguing that more than two hundred men had signed up to the Letters Patent that validated the will nor that the Privy Council had all sworn allegiance to Queen Jane.
The writing was on the wall. Dudley promptly became a Catholic – he’d been associated with the reforming party since the rise of Anne Boleyn, his role in the investigation into Katherine Howard’s behaviour had confirmed it. He was a leading player in a government that had done away with many of the rites of Catholicism. Lady Jane Grey was not amused – she declared that Northumberland was afraid to die.
It didn’t make any difference. Dudley, like his father before him, was executed on 22 August 1553. Two of his sons would follow him to the block. His oldest son, John Dudley, was spared in 1553 because like his father he turned to catholicism. Unfortunately Wyatt’s rebellion saw an end to that and he was executed in 1554. Guildford Dudley, Lady Jane’s unwanted husband suffered a similar fate along with his wife.
Ambrose, who became the third earl of Warwick following his brother’s demise was condemned to death as well but he got out a of tight fix thanks to his mother and brother-in-law who asked virtually anyone who would listen to them at court for their release. He went off to fight for Philip of Spain when Mary relented enough to release him from custody. Robert Dudley famously became Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite. Henry Dudley was the youngest of the Dudley sons. Like his brothers he was condemned as a traitor but like Ambrose he became a soldier for Philip of Spain. He was killed at the Battle of St Quentin in 1557.
It is tempting to think that perhaps the Duke of Northumberland, who is known to have had a close and loving relationship with all his children, turned to catholicism not just because he wanted to live but because he wanted to save his sons. Of course, that is speculation and speculation is not history.
History has not been terribly kind to Dudley. If Somerset is the ‘Good Duke’ then Northumberland is the nasty one. If Somerset was autocratically virtuous then Northumberland is just plain conniving. His last minute change of faith didn’t help matters – was it genuine or was it a ploy? Did he do Edward VI’s bidding – a loyal servant of the crown? Or was he determined to keep the power that he wielded? Was he yet another wicked uncle? People tend not to be motivated by one thing or the other perhaps it was a mixture of factors that caused him to try and put Lady Jane Grey on the throne. The only thing that we can be sure of is that he miscalculated very badly in July 1553.