Historians have disagreed considerably on deciding when exactly the Duke of Northumberland’s plot to plant his son Guildford on the English throne – by marrying him to Lady Jane Grey – came into being. Traditionally this happened quite early, sometime in 1552, so as to give the duke enough time for his nefarious enterprise. It has been observed that he did not have enough time,1 however, so that in recent decades (i.e. from 1970 onwards) the date has wandered to early 1553, or to the spring, or even to the early summer of that fateful year. In parallel it has also been debated whether there was even a plot at all, or whether the attempted change in the succession was rather instituted according to the wishes of the adolescent king. Most historians now believe that Edward VI and his chief minister plotted together.
Many differing scenarios of the events can be found in history books, and some are more plausible than others, while it is probably impossible to arrive at the exact truth. There can only be interpretations of what may have happened, and there is plenty of evidence to consider.
Tradition has it that Edward was a sickly child and suffered from a weak constitution, but his health seems to have been normally robust. However, at Christmas 1552 he caught a cold, and in early February 1553 he was suffering from a high fever which alarmed the authorities enough to summon the Lady Mary, his half-sister, to London. On arrival she was obsequiously honoured in recognition of the fact that she was the heir apparent.2 Edward never fully recovered his health, but it was not at all clear from the outset of his illness that he would die within a few months. There were intermittent signs of hope until in late May his condition worsened dramatically.
Henry VIII had buttressed his changes to the succession of the crown by Acts of Parliament, and apparently this set a precedent that any further changes would also need to be sanctioned by parliament to be lawful. Aware of this, Edward VI on 19 June 1553 personally stipulated that his will should be ratified by that body. The next day the writs were sent out for the assembly to meet on 18 September.
Tantalizingly, Edward VI had opened a parliament on 1 March 1553, only to close it on 31 March. Oddly enough, the government had dissolved the parliament instead of simply proroguing it, which would have dispensed with the need of new elections for the next session of parliament; this indicates that on 31 March Northumberland had no idea that he would be in need of one in the foreseeable future. As it came, the parliament called in June for September really came together in October 1553, to inaugurate the reign of Queen Mary.
Is it conceivable that Northumberland would have disbanded the one institution that could have sanctioned his alleged plans for the crown, the business unfinished? It has been argued that he would not have dared to broach the subject of the succession in parliament;3 however this seems unconvincing in the light of his bold later doings, and he had already decided to call parliament in the first place in spite of misgivings over asking them for a subsidy. While, as was usual, the subsidy was the chief purpose there were also other tough questions handled with great efficiency,4 and any mid-Tudor parliament could not seriously have denied its sovereign anything if demanded by him in person (as Edward, though in bad health, could certainly have done).
It is likely therefore that in March 1553 the government – or Northumberland and his cronies – were not yet aware of Edward’s plans for the succession or even his hopeless case.5 It is sometimes said that the Venetian ambassador had an audience with the king in March, in which he found him to be clearly dying.6 However, in the relazione or diplomatic report out of which this detail seems to have been evoked there is no mention of any audience or of a moribund Edward;7 and anyway the ambassador writing on 17 March that Edward was – possibly – mortally ill was the Imperial rather than the Venetian. In the case of the Habsburg ambassador, however, wishful thinking played as big a part as actual information.8
A Grand Conspiracy in 1553? – Foreign Affairs
1 Loades 2008a
2 Hoak 2008; Loach 2002 p. 159; Ives 2009 p. 84
3 de Lisle 2008 p. 87
4 Loades 1996 pp. 231 – 232, 236 – 237
5 Loades 2004 p. 69
6 Chapman 1958 p. 269; Hoak 2008; de Lisle 2008 p. 87
7 CSP Venetian 18 August 1554
8 Loades 2004 pp. 120 – 121; CPS Span 17 March 1553
Calendar of State Papers Spain: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/spain/vol11
Calendar of State Papers Venice: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/venice/vol5
Chapman, Hester (1958): The Last Tudor King: A Study of Edward VI. Jonathan Cape.
de Lisle, Leanda (2008): The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey. A Tudor Tragedy. Ballantine Books.
Hoak, Dale (2008): “Edward VI (1537–1553)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Ives, Eric (2009): Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Wiley-Blackwell.
Jordan, W. K. (1970): Edward VI: The Threshold of Power. The Dominance of the Duke of Northumberland. George Allen & Unwin.
Loach, Jennifer (2002): Edward VI. Yale University Press.
Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.
Loades, David (2004): Intrigue and Treason: The Tudor Court, 1547–1558. Pearson/Longman.
Loades, David (2008a): ‟Dudley, John, duke of Northumberland (1504–1553)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Loades, David (2008b): The Life and Career of William Paulet (c.1475 – 1575): Lord Treasurer and First Marquess of Winchester. Ashgate.
Tytler, P. F. (1839): England under the Reigns of Edward VI. and Mary. Volume II. Richard Bentley.