The Life and Historical Reputation of Mary Tudor

Chapter 8 : The Fight for the Throne

The Succession Crisis of 1553 has always seemed to me one of the most interesting events in Tudor history, full of drama and with an outcome that was not anticipated by those in power in London. The story of Mary Tudor’s fight for the Crown is often seen in terms of the fate of her cousin, Lady Jane Grey, the sixteen year-old who was briefly to occupy the throne before Mary’s successful challenge. Both women have been depicted as being largely directed by others, but this is very far from the truth.

The crisis was brought about by Edward VI’s decision to change the succession as Henry VIII had laid it down. At fifteen, Edward knew his own mind and when it became obvious that he would not recover (he may have had a prolonged bacterial infection that eventually attacked his major organs or he may have succumbed to tuberculosis that had remained dormant for some time), he decided to pass over both his sisters, the Catholic Mary and the Protestant Elizabeth, on the grounds that neither was legitimate and to nominate as his successor Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister, the ‘other’ Mary Tudor. Despite advice to the contrary, he insisted on his choice.

The fact that Jane Grey was recently married to Guildford Dudley, the son of the Duke of Northumberland, Edward’s chief minister, was probably fortuitous. But it opened up the possibility that Northumberland could remain at the heart of Government, something that he knew would not happen if Mary became Queen.They had had a fraught relationship for a number of years (it is said that Northumberland was the only man Mary ever really feared apart from her father) and it was hardly likely that she would keep him as an adviser.

Northumberland believed that Mary was weak and emotional, unlikely to stand up to him. What he thought about Elizabeth, and, indeed, Elizabeth’s views of her own situation at this time, have remained a complete mystery. All that we can say is that there is no evidence of Elizabeth offering Mary support, though the two of them were living within a short distance of each other, Elizabeth at Hatfield and Mary at Hunsdon on the Essex/Hertfordshire border.

If there was communication between the two excluded heiresses it might well have been confined, for safety’s sake, to verbal exchanges between trusted servants but certainly Elizabeth, who had a substantial affinity, several thousand strong, did nothing in public to support her sister, even after Mary had publicly defied the Council in London and proclaimed her right to the throne.