On July 6, 1553, Edward VI, the only son of Henry VIII, died at the age of fifteen. Edward had been king since 1547 when he had succeeded to the throne at the age of nine. When Henry died in 1547, he had been married six times and had three children. His marital career is justly famous, or infamous, and though his daughters had been made illegitimate and excluded from the succession in the 1530s, they had been reinstated in 1544.
Henry VIII first married Catherine of Aragon in 1509 and they had one living child, Mary Tudor, who was born in 1516. Sometime in the 1520s, Henry began to believe that his marriage to Catherine was invalid and he asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment. Reams of paper have been devoted to analyzing what happened, when and who did what, but at the end of day, Henry broke from Rome and established the Church of England, of which he was the head, and Thomas Cranmer, as archbishop of Canterbury, declared his first marriage invalid. His daughter, Mary, was declared illegitimate and removed from the succession under the Succession to the Crown Act 1533. In this law the line of succession was to “the first son of your body, between your highness and your said lawful wife, Queen Anne, begotten.” In default of a son, Parliament invested the succession in Princess Elizabeth:
And for default of such sons of your body begotten, and of the heirs of the several bodies of every such sons lawfully begotten, that then the said imperial crown, and other the premises, shall be to the issue female between your majesty and your said most dear and entirely beloved wife, Queen Anne, begotten, that is to say: first to the eldest issue female, which is the Lady Elizabeth, now princess, and to the heirs of her body lawfully begotten, …
Unfortunately Henry’s second marriage to Anne Boleyn did not produce a male heir nor did it lead to lasting happiness for either partner. After Anne was executed for treason and adultery on May 19, 1536, Elizabeth was also removed from the succession in the 1536 Second Succession Act. Henry’s third marriage to Jane Seymour produced the desired male heir, Edward. Henry married three more times after Jane’s death to Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr but had no other children. In 1544, Parliament ratified the third Succession Act which restored both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession. This act makes for interesting reading. The statute notes that the “imperial crown” should be inherited by “heirs of his body lawfully begotten, that is to say, to the first son of his body between His Highness and his then lawful wife Queen Jane, now deceased, begotten, and to the heirs of the body of the same first son lawfully begotten …” This law goes on to acknowledge in default of lawful issue, Parliament has granted Henry the right to
give, will, limit, assign, appoint or dispose the said imperial crown and other the premises to what person or persons, and give the same person or persons such estate in the same, as it should please His Majesty by his gracious letters patents under the great seal, or by his last will in writing signed with his most gracious hand;
This statute makes the point several times that Prince Edward is Henry’s only lawfully begotten heir. However, if both Henry and Edward should die “without heir of either of their bodies lawfully begotten” then the imperial crown would pass to “the Lady Mary, the king’s Highness’ daughter” and after Mary, and any of her lawfully begotten heirs, to the Lady Elizabeth. Mary and Elizabeth, however, are pointedly not lawfully begotten.
When Henry drew up his last will on December 30, 1546, just a month before he died, the line of succession as outlined in this 1543 statute was followed though it did allow for the inclusion of any children Henry might yet have with his sixth wife or a future wife! In default of heirs by Edward or either of his sisters, the will directed that the crown should pass to the children of his younger sister, Mary. Mary, Queen of Scots, who was descended from Henry’s older sister Margaret, was pointedly excluded. Naturally in 1547, everyone expected that Edward would grow up, take a wife and produce heirs. But by the spring of 1553, it was clear Edward would not live much longer and Edward attempted to alter the line of succession as laid out in his father’s will.
There is much debate concerning the extent to which Edward himself came up with the idea of altering the succession or if it was the Duke of Northumberland who hoped to retain power after Edward’s death, but the devise is written in Edward’s hand. The devise wholly excluded both Mary and Elizabeth from the succession. Again, there is scholarly debate as to why Edward wished to exclude them, but Edward and his ministers may have been concerned that both Mary and Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate. At that time, illegitimate children were barred from inheriting. The devise instead turns to the children and grandchildren of Henry’s younger sister Mary, the Lady Frances and her daughters, Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey. The devise initially leaves the throne to “the L Frances heires males” and then to the Lady Jane’s heires males and then to her sisters’ sons. Lady Jane was married in May 1553 to Guildford Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland’s youngest son, but by June it was clear Edward had only weeks to live and there was no time for Lady Jane to conceive and bear “heires males.” The devise was altered to leave the throne to any male heirs Lady Frances should bear before the king’s death and if not then the crown was to pass directly to Lady Jane and her sons.
However, it was not clear Edward had the authority to alter his father’s will, particularly as Parliament had granted Henry the right to dispose of the crown. According to John Edwards, in Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen, the Lord Chief Justice Sir Edward Montague did not believe that this document could overthrow the 1544 statute. Direct royal pressure, however, made the case, and Montague agreed to the devise in exchange for a pardon! Letters patent were issued on June 21, 1553 which designated Lady Jane Grey as Edward’s heir and argued that the 1544 Act of Succession was contradicted by other existing statutes. Edward and over a hundred of his nobles signed these documents.
Upon Edward’s death, Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen but Mary was quickly able to secure support, raise an army, and overthrow Jane and her supporters. Lady Jane was confined to the Tower of London and sentenced to death in November 1553. She was not executed until February 1554 after her father, the Duke of Suffolk, had participated in a rebellion against Queen Mary. Edward’s attempts to alter the succession had failed and after his death both his sister Mary and then sister Elizabeth inherited the English throne. After Elizabeth’s death, the throne was inherited by James VI of Scotland – descended from Henry VIII’s older sister Margaret and excluded from Henry’s will. But how that came to be, is a tale for another day.