Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Today marks the anniversary of the coronation, in 1559, of Queen Elizabeth I, she to be the last of the Tudor dynasty. It almost didn’t happen.
King Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs, was, as described by the great Tudor historian G.R. Elton, a political solution to a dynastic problem; he was not clearly the closest claimant to the throne. He was, however, the successful leader at the Battle of Bosworth at which Richard III, who had seized the throne from the never-crowned Edward V (one of the two “Princes of the Tower”), was killed. Henry’s reign would be punctuated with several significant rebellions.
Upon the death of Henry VII, power did transfer easily to his son Henry VIII. That had not been, however, the plan. Henry had an older brother, Arthur, who was to inherit the throne; for that reason he had been engaged and ultimately married to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. After Arthur’s death, likely from tuberculosis, Catherine was engaged and then ultimately married to Henry, a situation that would set up the later dispute over the “Divorce.”
That marriage would ultimately sour on the fact that only one of the children of Henry and Catherine survived infancy, that being Mary. England was not, it was feared, ready to be ruled by a queen. The only example of it doing so, that being the reign of the Empress Matilda (daughter of King Henry I) was referred to as the “Anarchy.” Seeking to perpetuate the dynasty and avoid the possibility of civil war after his death, Henry pursued the Divorce (it was actually what we would refer to today as an annulment) so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.
The Divorce could not easily be had consequent to at least a pair of factors. Initially, on theological grounds, the basis for the Divorce was weak. Politically, Eleanor’s nephew, Charles V, was now King of both Spain, the Netherlands and as well Holy Roman Emperor. He was able, successfully, to delay any decision on the divorce, it depriving Henry of the one thing he did not have, namely time. Ultimately, Henry would schism the English church from Roman communion (an act which earned for Henry his very own bull of excommunication). The marriage to Catherine of Aragon then being annulled by Thomas Cramer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry proceeded to marry Anne Boleyn. She, already pregnant at the time of the marriage, would be the mother of Elizabeth. Elizabeth would be their only child. Henry was now in no better position than he was before; two potential female heirs to the throne did not address the perceived need for a male heir. Anne’s fortunes would ultimately be destroyed consequent to a series of events whose genesis is still greatly debated, but it is clear that the charges of adultery and incest for which she was convicted and executed were entirely fabricated.After Anne, Henry quickly married Jane Seymour, and she shortly thereafter became pregnant, ultimately delivering a son who would survive infancy. That child was Edward VI. Jane would die of complications from childbirth.
While Henry would go on to marry three more times, namely to Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, none of them would have children by him.
Upon Henry’s death, the child Edward VI succeeded to the throne. Never, however, reaching his majority, the so-called reign of Edward VI is best understood as the reign of his counsel, dominated through much of his existence by his uncle Edward Seymour, he acting under the title of “Lord Protector.” It was during the reign of Edward that the English church moved from schism from the Catholic Church into the hallmarks of Protestant theology. With Edward’s death, likely from tuberculosis, approaching, members of the council feared that Mary, his oldest sister, would come to the throne and impose Catholicism instead of the recently adopted Protestant-influenced Anglicanism. These views led to an attempted revolt pursuant to which Lady Jane Grey was placed on the throne. Lady Jane Grey was a Tudor by means of descent from Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, and wife of Sir Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. That revolt, spanning nine days, was ultimately unsuccessful, and Mary was able to take her place on the throne. Mary would die, however, without children.
Which brings us back to Elizabeth. As the second female child of Henry VIII, she was after Mary the heir apparent to the throne. She was, however, clearly Protestant, especially when contrasted with Mary’s strict Catholicism. Elizabeth had as well been involved (to what degree remains a matter in dispute) in a number of palace intrigues and revolts against Mary, actions which nearly led to her death. At the time of Mary’s passing from any number of causes (it is fairly clear she suffered from Type 2 diabetes), there had already been drafted the warrant of execution for Elizabeth. Her sister, Queen Mary, would, however, die without signing it, allowing Elizabeth to come to the throne.
So all Elizabeth needed to get to the throne was her grandfather’s victory at Bosworth, her uncle Arthur’s death, the divorce of Henry and Catherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn, the young death of her half-brother Edward, the rejection of Lady Jane Grey’s rebellion, the death without issue of her older half-sister Mary and surviving the threatened death sentence for her part in rebellion against Mary.
Elizabeth would never marry, and the Tudor dynasty would end with her death in 1603. It would be succeeded by the Stuarts, descendants of Henry VII through his daughter Mary who had married the King of Scotland.