A Kingdom at Stake, 1553

Four hundred years ago the Duke of Northumberland made his vain attempt to exclude Mary and Elizabeth Tudor from the succession in favour of Jane Grey. S.T. Bindoff reconstructs the circumstances and development of this daring and ingenious plot and produces a new document, throwing light on it, which he recently discovered in the Archives at Brussels.

Henry VIII’s persistent quest of heirs, which did so much to shape his reign, had, by its close; yielded him three. They were his son Edward, a boy of nine, and his two daughters, Mary, aged thirty-two, and Elizabeth, aged fourteen. After them came the collateral heirs, the descendants of Henry’s two sisters. The elder sister, Margaret, was represented by her daughter, Margaret Countess of Lennox, and by two grand-children, Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Lord Darnley (the cousin whom Mary was in due course to marry); the younger one, Mary, by her daughter Frances Duchess of Suffolk, and that lady’s daughters, the three Grey sisters, and (through a younger daughter already deceased) the Lady Margaret Clifford.

It is a fact at once remarkable and pertinent that, after Prince Edward himself, all but one of the potential claimants were women. (The single exception, Lord Darnley, could scarcely be regarded as a serious competitor.) This preponderance of females would have been enough in itself to confuse the succession. But a situation already difficult was further complicated by the fact that the order of succession had been altered more than once during Henry’s reign to fit the changing marital fortunes of the king. Thus the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth had each in turn been declared illegitimate and incapable of succeeding. These changes had themselves encouraged the idea that the succession to the throne was not something settled and unalterable, but that it could, and perhaps should, be regulated by the reigning sovereign in what he considered the national interest.

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