Edward VI: His Thoughts for the Succession

Kate Brookes

The 'Forgotten' Tudor King

Referred to as the ‘forgotten’ or ‘lost’ Tudor king, Edward VI is regularly overshadowed by the reputation of his father and siblings. While his brief reign featured a strict approach to Protestant reform and power-struggles within his regency council, his wishes for the succession ultimately caused a series of dramatic events to play out after his death. In 1553 Edward chose to exclude the heir apparent - his Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor - in favour of his Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey, resulting in Jane being deposed just nine days after her coronation, and Mary ruling for the next five years. Was Edward’s dramatic decision solely a matter of religion? Like so many succession cases throughout history, 1553 may not be so simple. Jane Grey was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister, making her Edward’s first cousin once removed. Excluding their gender, she and Edward shared many characteristics. She was less than a year older than Edward and had been raised as a dedicated Protestant. She had two sisters and no children, but her marriage in May 1553 gave the potential for future sons. In comparison, Mary Tudor was 37 years old, still unmarried, and a strict Catholic. In Edward’s eyes, Jane was better suited to continue his legacy. Unfortunately, several legal documents created by Edward’s father stood in the way – Henry VIII’s will and Third Succession Act of 1553/4 had officially reinstated the claims of Edward’s half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. Edward and his most influential councillor, the Duke of Northumberland, created several arguments to overcome this, and Edward had finished drafting his ‘Devise for the Succession’ by June 1553.
Edward VI: His Thoughts for the Succession
Young Edward

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Edward VI: His Thoughts for the Succession
Queen Elizabeth I Coronation robes

Why didn’t Edward nominate Elizabeth, his half-sister to be Queen?

The religious element in Edward’s choice raises the question – why didn’t Edward nominate Elizabeth, his half-sister, who was the closest Protestant to the throne in blood? Or Jane’s mother, Frances Grey, who was Edward’s first cousin? Despite their religious differences, it is likely that Mary and Elizabeth had to be treated as one and the same on illegitimacy grounds. Henry VIII’s Third Succession Act had restored the sisters to the crown but had not repealed their illegitimate status. Due to the similarity of their cases, Edward could not name one legitimate without also accepting the other, so had to abandon Elizabeth as an option for Protestant successor. Henry had equally excluded Frances from his succession wishes, so Edward may have overlooked her for similar reasons. Since male blood relations were scarce for Edward, hope was pinned on younger relatives to create them in the next generation. Jane’s age made her more likely to produce children than Mary. In the initial draft of his Devise, Edward left the crown to ‘L Jane’s heires masles’ (‘Lady Jane’s male heirs’), but later made an edit to read ‘L Jane and her heires masles’ (‘L Jane and her male heirs’). Edward preferably wished for the crown to pass directly to a male, even a baby. When it became clear that Edward would die before any male heirs were born, he included Jane herself in the succession.
Ancestry UK

Lady Jane Grey

Jane was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister, but what of Henry’s older sister Margaret? She had married into the Scottish royal family in 1503 and had numerous children and grandchildren, many of whom were male. Edward had once again followed his father’s initiative and left this entire line of the family out of the succession. Margaret’s line were strong Catholics and integrated into the Scottish royal family. They were a threat to both the Protestant faith and the staunch views of the English nobility who did not want foreign influences holding power at home. This included the authority of Rome, should a Catholic take power and bring unwanted Popery. It was also a fear that Mary and Elizabeth may find foreign husbands who would attempt to overrule their regnant powers. Although Edward had Scottish male relatives through Margaret, his decision of Jane shows a higher concern for the faith and nationality of his successor rather than their gender. From Edward’s perspective, his father had revised his own succession plans numerous times in law, so he also carried that right. Whether legitimately or not, Edward’s actions highlighted his belief in his right to choose whomever he wished to succeed him. His decision of Jane had a complexity of reasons far beyond his disapproval of Mary, and upon his death on 6th July 1553, he was never to know it’s consequences. Although the plot is often credited to the Duke of Northumberland.
Edward VI: His Thoughts for the Succession
Lady Jane Grey
Edward VI: His Thoughts for the Succession

Kate Brookes

My name’s Kate and I’m a 26-year-old history and archaeology graduate from the UK. I’m currently living and working in Vietnam, where I’m enjoying the different culture and museum experiences. I graduated with a BA (Hons) in history in 2017 with a dissertation on the reigns of Mary I and Elizabeth I as the first queens regnant of England. I then completed an MA in funerary archaeology specialising in separate burials (or ‘heart burials’) and their controversial popularity in medieval England. It was wonderful to be accepted to write for The Historians magazine! Although Edward VI was not one of the dominant monarchs on my radar, the pressure that he must have faced due to his youth and fragile inheritance makes him an interesting force to be studied.
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