Tudor Succession Problems
by Sarah Vallieres
The Tudor period is unique in that it is marked by succession difficulties in every generation. The Tudor dynasty was plagued by poor health, short-lives and a shortage of male claimants to the throne. For three successive monarchs the throne passed not from ruler to child, but from sibling to sibling and three consecutive monarchs died childless. Henry VIII's search for a suitable male heir to his throne had far reaching ramifications. This period is distinctive in that it would start the precedent of determining the succession by statute in consultation with Parliament. The parliamentary enactments and wills that he had created complicated the succession issue for future generations in the attempt to make the transition from monarch to monarch less problematic. While the Tudor period is generally viewed as a one of stability, the recurring succession difficulties created instability and often posed the threat of civil war and even foreign invasion. The succession problems of the Tudor monarchs were largely caused by their lack of issue, for none of Henry VIII's children had children, poor health and were complicated by plots arising from the uncertainty of the succession, foreign affairs, and the wishes of the monarchs of the periods in relation to Henry VIII's will.
The succession of Henry VII was the most difficult of all for he had to win a battle to claim the throne and prevent other factions from rising against him to secure his dynasty. Henry VII's claim to the throne was based not so much on hereditary right, as his victory at Bosworth Field. There were other claimants to the throne such as Elizabeth of York, Edward of Warwick, John II of Portugal, and John de la Pole, who all had stronger claims. Henry's claim was weak for he was descended from the legitimated offspring of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford who had previously been barred from the succession. Even if his Beaufort line could be considered for the throne, Henry's mother would be in line to succeed before him. It was in fact remarkable that Henry VII ever succeeded to the throne and England accepted him as king for Henry VII was a former attainted exile who did not have a strong hereditary claim to the throne. But it was his victory at Bosworth Field that brought him the throne, not his descent; his weak hereditary claim gave his accession some semblance of legitimacy. Bosworth helped him consolidate his dynasty for it not only eliminated some of the other principle claimants to the English throne, it was regarded by contemporaries as an expression of divine will, as Henry would tell parliament "the true judgement of God in granting him victory over his enemy in the field." In order to further consolidate his claim Henry married Elizabeth of York. He did so partially at the request of Parliament, partly because he could not afford the political price of going back on his pre-Bosworth promise and most importantly to prevent anyone with ambitions for the throne from marrying Elizabeth, who had the stronger claim. However, the succession was by no means secure in Henry VII's reign. When Henry VII's heir, Prince Arthur, died prematurely on April 2, 1502, Prince Henry was only ten, and if he were not to survive there remained only his sisters Margaret and Mary. Henry VII fell ill shortly after Arthur's death, making the continuance of the dynasty suddenly seemed doubtful. However, Henry would live for seven more years giving Prince Henry enough time to mature, and Henry VII enough time to further consolidate his dynasty; Prince Henry succeeded without incident.
Succession problems were to play a large role in Henry VIII's reign, in particular the need for a male heir and the arranging of the order of succession through parliamentary enactments. It is possible that, since the male children Henry produced were either sickly or stillborn, Henry may have been plagued by a genetic defect that prevented him from siring healthy male offspring. After his brother Arthur died leaving the alliance through marriage with Spain unfulfilled, Henry took Arthur's widow Catherine of Aragon as his wife, in obedience to his father's last request. Catherine would not prove to be fruitful, for the only child she bore that survived was Mary, a female born on 18 February 1516. Mary was not seen as a realistic successor to the throne because of her gender; it was believed that a female ruler would not be able to prevent other factions from seizing the crown. In the 1520s Henry began to worry about the succession; the strenuous efforts to find a politically suitable husband for Mary attest to his anxiety. For a while Henry seemed to have focused his attention on his bastard son Henry FitzRoy as a potential heir. It was rumoured that the king, fearing Catherine would never give him a son, was grooming FitzRoy for the throne. It was even reported that Henry intended to make FitzRoy king of Ireland in preparation for his accession to the English throne. In June 1525, Henry elevated his six year-old bastard son Henry FitzRoy to the dukedoms of Richmond and Somerset. But, by the birth of Elizabeth, Henry hoped for sons by Anne Boleyn, and the possibility of FitzRoy succeeding seems to have been forgotten.
In a move which changed the course of religion in England, Henry tried ensure a stable succession by annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry may have wanted this annulment because, amongst other reasons, he was plagued about the curse in Leviticus coming true, and spurred by the need for a male successor. Henry even claimed that when negotiating a marriage between Mary and Francis I, Mary's legitimacy had been attacked because the king had "begat her on his brother's wife, which is directly against God's law and his precept."1 However, it was not entirely necessary for Henry to annul his marriage in order to safeguard the succession. For instance, there were suggestions that the succession be secured through a marital union of Mary Tudor and Henry FitzRoy. The course that Henry followed to obtain his annulment would lead to a separation of the English church from Rome. On May 23, 1533 Henry married Anne Boleyn, who bore him the Princess Elizabeth, a child he initially considered his successor over Mary. Henry quickly became disillusioned with his Anne and with her ability to provide a male heir. Her downfall would come shortly after she gave birth to a deformed foetus on January 29, 1536. Cranmer declared Anne was never actually married to the king, on account of an alleged precontract with Henry Percy and Henry's involvement with Anne's sister, on May 17, 1536. She was executed on May 19. On May 30 Henry married Jane Seymour, who produced a son on October 12, 1537. In order to attempt to legitimize his succession preferences and clarify the line of succession because he had offspring from several marriages, Henry ordered the line of succession through enactments that were passed through Parliament.
In 1534 Henry VIII's first Succession Act was passed, providing a precedent for parliamentary consultation in succession matters. Drawing upon the decision of Cranmer, it decreed Henry's marriage with Catherine invalid and his present union with Anne legitimate, stating the throne would go to the sons and then the daughters of the later marriage. If no children ever appeared, the throne would go to the "right heirs of your Highness for ever." Consequentially, barring any male issue, Elizabeth was heir presumptive. Although still legitimate, Mary's only claim to the throne would be as a "right heir." FitzRoy is not mentioned in any of the Succession Acts; he would die just after the second Act, in July 1536. After Henry married Jane, in the summer of 1536 a second Succession Act was enacted to give precedence to the offspring of this marriage. It was unique in that it allowed Henry to choose his heirs by letters patent or his last will, provided there was no lawful issue. This act also gave Henry the authority to designate through his last will a government for the minority of an under-age successor. Henry's marriages with Catherine and Anne were pronounced invalid, and the offspring of these marriages were bastardized and excluded from the succession. After Prince Edward was born on 12 October 1537, Henry created his third Succession Act in 1544. This third act ordered the succession so that Edward and his children and any future children of the king, Mary and her lawful heirs, Elizabeth and her lawful heirs. This reestablished Mary and Elizabeth to their fitting places in the order of succession, but did not make them legitimate. However, these attempts to control the succession were not universally applauded. The rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536) were against the provision in this statute which gave Henry the unprecedented right to leave the throne to whomever he wished providing he had no living issue. They particularly objected to the precedence given to children who had yet to be born by Jane, and the bastardization of potential heirs already existing. Henry's last will, dated December 30, 1546, would reaffirm the order of succession declared in the third Succession Act. It also contained the proviso that Mary and Elizabeth's places in the line of succession were to be conditional; they would lose their places in the order of succession if they married without the consent of the councillors named by Henry to rule during Edward's minority.
The reign of Edward VI is a period marked by instability for it is representative of the problems that can occur when a minor ascends (in particular, struggles for power) and should the minor die young without an heir. Edward VI ascended to the throne of England at age nine in 1547, too young to rule without help. Henry VIII designated in his will a council of sixteen executors who were to serve, until Edward's eighteenth birthday, as council of regency. These sixteen executors chose Hertford, later to become duke of Somerset, to be the protector of the realm, provided that he should "not do any act but with the advice and consent of the rest of the co-executors." However, the executors would soon gain more power; Edward effectively established a one-man regency that Henry had sought to preclude. Edward's minority was plagued by instability caused by the struggle of factions to attain power. Somerset would be overthrown in coup d'etat on January 22, 1552 orchestrated by John Dudley and spurred on by the factional nature of the Council. John Dudley, earl of Warwick, duke of Northumberland would succeed him in the role of protector.
Conflict with the provisions in Henry's will for the succession caused Edward and Northumberland to ignore constitutional enactments and attempt to manipulate the law in dubious ways to achieve their succession goals. While it has been argued that Northumberland manipulated Edward into overthrowing the Henry VIII's parliamentary approved order of succession and designating his own heir, it now seems likely that Edward may have done this upon his own initiative, in co-operation with Northumberland. It appears that Edward in his fervour to preserve the Protestant church, drafted in his own hand a Devise which removed Mary, and on the same principle Elizabeth from the succession on the grounds that they were illegitimate. Edward's letters patent effectively left the succession to Ladies Jane, Catherine and Mary Grey and their respective male heirs. The young king came to believe that the Henrician precedent allowed a monarch to devise the crown through his will. He ignored the fact that Henry's power to do this came from an Act of Parliament, that as a minor he could not make a will valid and it was treason to alter the succession already prescribed in Henry's will. The illegality of this plan was obvious,and their choice of heirs did not seem logical, causing Jane to be universally rejected.
The English people would not accept this new succession, for it seemed unnatural to them for the throne not to go to the daughters of their king, children who had been designated as successors by an Act of Parliament. Edward's heir, Lady Jane Grey, ascended the throne, but ruled for a mere nine days. She might have remained sovereign if Northumberland had not failed to secure Mary Tudor. Mary Tudor, sensing that the people of England would side with the succession provisions in Henry's will over arguments allegedly enacted in Edward's name, proclaimed herself queen at Framlingham, and her rapidly growing army marched towards London to gain her rightful crown. Council proclaimed her queen on May 19, as did Northumberland on the twentieth. Mary owed her succession to her descent from Henry VIII, the unpopularity of Northumberland and the incompetence of his faction, and not to her Catholicism.
Conflict with Henry's constitutionally enacted succession settlement was to occur when Mary decided she did not wish Princess Elizabeth to inherit the throne. Mary is alleged to have disapproved of Elizabeth because of her "heretical opinions, illegitimacy and characteristics in which she resembled her mother."2 Mary favoured Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, a descendent of Margaret Tudor, to succeed. But Parliament would not exclude Elizabeth whose claim was enshrined in statute. As there was little agreement between Mary and the rest of the country over who should succeed, in Mary's reign there was the constant fear that, should she die childless, England would lapse into civil war over the succession. There was also the even grimmer possibility that somehow Philip II of Spain might use his status as her husband to take control of the throne. As late as July 1557 Mary was still opposed to Elizabeth succeeding, but on November 7 Elizabeth was deemed heir. For the last ten days of Mary I's life Elizabeth held court at Hatfield, presumably making preparations for her succession. When Mary died on November 17, 1558, the public mood was not one of grief, but of optimism, and Elizabeth enjoyed a peaceful accession.
Like Mary, the problems concerning the succession in Elizabeth's reign were centred around not her right to the throne, but who would replace her following her demise. Elizabeth ascended easily and without dispute. While Elizabeth could have made a claim to the throne on the basis of hereditary right, she never had the bastardization of 1536 repealed. Instead she claimed the throne on the basis of the order of succession dictated in the third Succession Act of 1544. Almost immediately after her accession, Elizabeth's Parliaments and subjects began to demand for her to designate a successor. There was not clear successor to Elizabeth and the threat of struggle for the crown following Elizabeth's death led to pressure for Elizabeth to designate a successor, despite the multitudes of plots which would put this successor in Elizabeth's place prematurely. When Elizabeth ascended, it was taken for granted that she would marry and produce an heir. Whom she would marry was of great concern for both her people and her councillors, for they had experienced the problems resulting from Queen Mary's marriage to a Spaniard. However, Elizabeth was reluctant to marry, which brought the lack of an indisputable heir sharply into focus in her reign. It was widely feared that England would fall into a state of civil war if Elizabeth died without designating a successor. Elizabeth was reluctant to do this because she knew what being the next in line was like from her experience in Mary's reign and, particularly, that plots would arise around the successor. She also realized "the inconstancy of the people of England, how they mislike government and have their eyes fixed upon the person that is next to succeed."3
Elizabeth's near fatal bout with smallpox brought the succession question into even greater prominence. It seemed that Elizabeth might die young like many other short-lived Tudors. It was widely realized that if Elizabeth had perished at this time, England probably would have fallen into a state of civil strife. Mary Stuart, the likely successor, would have been unacceptable to England for she was an alien married to the king of the much-hated France and, being Catholic, she was a reminder of Mary Tudor's religious purges. When the Parliament of January 1563 met, Elizabeth's near fatal illness occupied their minds and they petitioned the queen to marry and nominate an heir. While Parliament had declared a successor in Henry VIII's reign, such action had never been taken without it being the monarch's initiative. Their demands continued until April, when unable to reply either way, the queen prorogued Parliament. Parliament would stay prorogued until 1566, when Elizabeth needed money during peacetime. The succession question would become so heated that about this time a pamphlet war erupted, aiming to influence public and parliamentary opinion, which primarily advocated Catherine Grey and Mary Stuart. On October 18, the succession battle began with renewed vigour in Parliament with the Commons threatening to withhold supplies until a settlement was reached. The queen dealt with this problem by saying it was "not convenient" to deal with the succession and then announcing she would marry. While this quieted the Lords, it did not quiet the Commons whom the queen ordered to be silent. Not only was Elizabeth unwilling to have her choice dictated to by Parliament, Parliament itself could not even unitedly bring forth a candidate—something Elizabeth recognized and used to defuse their attempts.
The two main successors to the throne were Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and Lady Catherine Grey, though there was nothing that clearly favoured one or the other. Mary, Queen of Scots, had the strongest hereditary claim; however, the law prohibiting aliens from inheriting the throne barred her from ascending, as did Henry VIII's will. Lady Catherine Grey ought to be the heir according to the line of succession in Henry VIII's will, but there were questions concerning her legitimacy and her religious inclinations. By the end of 1567 Mary Stuart was no longer a favourable candidate in Parliament, due to her forced abdication in Scotland following her marriage to the earl of Bothwell, her second husband Darnley's alleged assassin. Just as a Suffolk succession was looking very favourable, Catherine Grey died on January 27, 1568, leaving only illegitimate sons too young to ascend and a sister who had married too far beneath her to be considerable. The junior Suffolk line of Lady Margaret Strange was unacceptable for Protestants as Lady Margaret was Catholic. The only other two possible candidates were the unwilling Puritan earl of Huntingdon and the alien James VI. Eventually Elizabeth would somewhat succumb to Parliamentary pressure. The Treasons Act of 1571 made it high treason during Elizabeth's lifetime, and a lesser offence once she was dead, to denounce her right "with and by the authority of the Parliament of England" to settle the succession. While this did not mean that Elizabeth could not determine the succession singularly, it did mean that it was more just to settle it with the aid of Parliament. Elizabeth had finally subscribed to her father's way of settling the succession. However, it was not necessarily the case that her acknowledgement would equal her actions, partially because she feared assasination plots which would replace her with her heir.
There were several threats to the stability of Elizabeth's throne, including assasination plots and the possibility of the succession being determined by feudal war. In the fall of 1569, the Northern Rebellion arose; the rebels planning to free Mary Stuart. After this insurrection was crushed, so was the possibility of the succession being determined by baronial struggle. After escaping from imprisonment in Scotland, Mary Stuart would make a recovery in popularity in England by May 1568; by the end of the year she was a strong and dangerous contender for the throne. Throughout this time Mary Stuart had been involved in plots to remove or murder Elizabeth. In February 1571, Mary, with papal approval, gave her endorsement to Roberto Ridolfi's plot to replace Elizabeth with Mary, who would have Norfolk as consort. In Spring 1572 the Ridolfi plot was uncovered and Norfolk was found guilty of high treason. Elizabeth, however, did nothing to exclude Mary from the succession, until she was found to have given approval for a plot which, with the aid of the Spanish army, would murder Elizabeth. Elizabeth would never actually decide upon a successor; instead, Cecil opened secret correspondence with James twelve days after she fell fatally ill, to negotiate the transition. These negotiations included the condition that James was not to attempt to seize power or have Parliament recognize his title until after Elizabeth was dead. While it has been said Elizabeth named James on her deathbed, there is no firm support for this view. James succeeded because of the advance work of Cecil, because he was the most realistic candidate, and because fifteen councillors and noblemen signed the warrant that commanded the proclamation of his style.
The Tudor dynasty had problems in regards to their succession because they suffered from poor health and a lack of male heirs and, in the third generation of Tudors, a lack of children. Consequentially, the successors that did succeed were not always clearly the heir. This led to, in extreme cases, like at the start of the reign of Mary, civil war. Henry VIII went to extreme lengths to secure the succession and ensure the continuity of his dynasty, lengths that included separation from the church in Rome and divorce. He also started a precedent of parliamentary consultation in matters concerning the succession, a principle that would become entrenched after the Revolution of 1688. On the other hand, Elizabeth I went to extreme lengths to avoid discussing the succession in Parliament and designating a successor. There were good things that came out of what appeared to be problems: arguably, the Church of England, and the reign of Elizabeth I, one of the most glorious reigns in English history.
1 Said by a councillor of the French king, quoted by John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments, 1554.
2 Quoted in Susan Moran, Monarchy and Matrimony: The Courtships of Elizabeth I.
London: Routledge, 1996. 16.
3 Quoted in Alison Plowden, Two Queens in One Isle.
Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1999. 70.
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Published by Luminarium Through Express Written Permission.
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This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on September 15, 1999. Last updated April 9, 2012.
The Parents of Henry VIII
King Henry VII
Elizabeth of York
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Queen Catherine of Aragon
Queen Anne Boleyn
Queen Jane Seymour
Queen Anne of Cleves
Queen Catherine Howard
Queen Katherine Parr
The Children of Henry VIII
Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond
King Edward VI
Queen Mary I
Queen Elizabeth I
The King's Advisors
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer
Sir Thomas More
Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland
James IV, King of Scotland
James V, King of Scotland
Mary of Guise, Queen of Scotland
Mary Tudor, Queen of France
Louis XII, King of France
Francis I, King of France
Ferdinand II, King of Aragon
Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
Pope Julius II
Pope Leo X
Pope Clement VII
Pope Paul III
Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk
Edward Stafford, D. of Buckingham
Thomas Howard, 3rd D. of Norfolk
John Dudley, D. of Northumberland
Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire
George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford
John Russell, Earl of Bedford
Thomas, Lord Audley
Richard de la Pole
Thomas Seymour, Lord Admiral
Edward Seymour, Protector Somerset
Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio
Cardinal Reginald Pole
Bishop Stephen Gardiner
Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London
Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London
John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester
John Aylmer, Bishop of London
John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester
Archbishop William Warham
Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester
Edward Fox, Bishop of Hereford
Field of the Cloth of Gold, 1520
Dissolution of the Monasteries, 1536-40
Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536
The Siege of Boulogne, 1544
The Sweating Sickness
Tudor Legal System
Court of Common Pleas
Court of King's Bench
Court of Star Chamber
Council of the North
Oath of Supremacy
The Act of Supremacy, 1534
The Act of Succession, 1534
The Ten Articles, 1536
The Six Articles, 1539
16th-century Renaissance English Literature
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