Mary I, Usurper and Queen

Mary I successfully overthrew Jane Grey, Edward VI’s legitimate and legal heir, and was officially declared queen of England on July 19, 1553. This is my article in this month’s Tudor Society Magazine (which you should totally subscribe to) about the historical rewriting of the legitimacy of Jane Grey’s reign.


Sometime during the life of Henry VII, an English knight named Thomas Mallory wrote Mort’ de Aurthur, one of first prose narratives of King Author and the Knights of the Round Table. Henry VII claimed to be a descendent of King Arthur, and the Welsh/Arthurian roots were largely capitalized upon during his reign. The book contains the famous line, “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England.” Proving that one had the right – ordained by God’s blessing – to rule England (either through birth or conquest) was an important part of kingship, especially for a new king like Henry VII.

His granddaughter, Mary I, also discovered the importance of hammering home the idea she was the rightful ruler when she usurped the throne from Henry VII’s great-granddaughter, her cousin Jane Grey.

There are two enduring myths about Mary. The first is that she was “bloody”. Yes, she did burn Protestants alive but she contextually executed no more people than did the rulers before and after her. To single her out as bloody is unfair. Nearly every reigning monarch was “bloody” by modern standards. The second is that she was the rightful queen of England who rescued her throne from its attempted theft by those backing Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen. This is so ingrained in the “facts” of history even exceptional history scholars take it for granted. Nonetheless it is balderdash. Jane Grey was the lawful queen and Mary I swiped her crown, eventually killing the deposed monarch to keep a tight hold on her stolen throne.

Eric Ives wrote a masterful book, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, which provides ample evidence of Mary’s perfidy and Jane’s lawfulness, which I recommend if you want to read all the gritty details. However, I will try to sum up the main point.

First and foremost, Edward VI was old enough to name his successor. He was the king and no longer a child. During Edward’s lifetime the Church considered childhood to end at six and you could assume adult responsibilities as young as 12 years old. While the ‘official’ age of majority to write a will in the sixteenth century was 21, the concept of legal adulthood was a bit different for kings. Henry VIII was only 17 when he became king and there was no attempt to assign him a regent; he was old enough to make adult decisions. Likewise, it was Edward’s decision as to who should rule after him. It did not matter that Mary had been reinstated in Henry VIII’s will because Henry VIII’s will did not matter a hill of beans after Edward was a de facto adult with the ability to rationally chose an heir.

There is also no evidence that Jane Grey’s father-in-law, the duke of Northumberland, talked or bullied Edward into choosing Jane. Edward himself wrote out his “deuise for the succession” as a rough draft in late April or early May when it became clear how ill he was. This is also around the time of Jane’s betrothal and marriage, so Edward clearly supported Guilford Dudley as her husband and thus the duke of Northumberland as the future queen’s closest advisor. Those that balked at Edward’s decision because they didn’t want Northumberland to have that kind of power in the next monarchy were called into the presence of the king, where he “with sharp words and angry countenance” forced them to accept his decree. Furthermore, the king told the Archbishop of Canterbury personally that “the judges and his learned council said, that the act of entailing the crown, made by his father, could not be prejudicial to him, but that he, being in possession of the crown, might make his will thereof.”

Edward signed the final version of his “deuise”, which was drawn up by England’s top lawyers and explicitly named Jane Grey as his successor, on June 21, 1553. The document was signed by witnesses (102 of them eventually) and the Great Seal was applied to it. It was as official as official can be and done a good two weeks before his death.

Try to think of what Mary did without the natural sympathy she elicits because of her father’s cruelty. Pretend my father passed away and left me his business in his will — with the codicil that if anything happened to me then he wanted it to go to my older sister. When I am older I write my will. I would normally need to be 18, but if I were running a business I could seek emancipation from my guardians and become legally an “adult” much younger; thus I am able to write an enforceable will. I am dying and I leave the business to my cousin, whom I think will take good care of it. I make my intentions clear and make everyone around me swear they will support her after I die. However, upon my death my elder half-sister swoops in and seizes the business, which she claims is hers based on our dad’s will. There is no court that will uphold my father’s will over the one I made. That business was MINE, to do with as I pleased and I was old enough to determine whom I wanted as my heir. My elder sister would be therefore a thief. Moreover, if she had my cousin killed to make sure no one challenged her as CEO then she would be a murderer as well.

That is exactly what Mary I did.

No one likes to think of themselves as a usurper and murderer, and Mary was no exception. She constructed an account of her actions wherein she was the good guy doing the right thing. She probably convinced herself of it, as well, since she was doing it on God’s behalf to restore Catholicism in England. Certainly no one was going to tell her differently. Inasmuch as history is written by the winners, her version of reality is the one that became historical ‘fact’ and has been largely unchallenged for centuries. Nevertheless, just because someone really believes a lie and that lie has been repeated for hundreds of years does not make that lie a truth. The truth is that Jane Grey was rightwise queen of all England, not Mary I.

Lady Jane Grey died at age 16, and she deserves to be remembered as a deposed and murdered monarch rather than an “innocent usurper” forced to do treason by an unscrupulous father-in-law.

3 thoughts on “Mary I, Usurper and Queen

  1. It doesn’t really matter. Jane was never accepted as queen by the people of England. Even had her coup succeeded, she probably would have been in a similar position to Richard III, for in the eyes of her subjects, she was not the rightful queen. The legal intricacies don’t matter. In most people’s eyes, Mary was the rightful monarch and her subjects certainly accepted her as so. Plus, Mary was seen as legitimate and had been during her father’s lifetime. Very few accepted her bastardisation, and Mary certainly did not. There is also a question as to whether Edward’s device legally superseded Henry VIII’s 1544 Act of Succession. I do not believe it did.

    1. Jane’s accession wasn’t a coup, she had been named as Edward VI’s successor by the King himself in a document that had been accepted as legal.
      Mary was not the rightful monarch, she was still illegitimate and Common Law prevented illegitimate children from inheriting in place of legitimate heirs. In his book on Jane, Eric Ives concludes that “any informed person” reading Edward VI’s “declaracion”, which included detailed reference to the 1544 Act of Succession putting Mary and Elizabeth back in the line of succession and explanations regarding the annulments and acts of Parliament, and how Mary and Elizabeth therefore had no claim, “could have no doubt that Edward had good grounds for his action. If bastards could succeed to the crown, what security was there for the heirs of ordinary men.”
      It would have been in the English people’s interests to go along with Edward’s wishes, which matched the law, as otherwise their own rights would have been turned upside down.
      Mary may have been morally the rightful heir, in that she should never have been made illegitimate, but Jane had the law on her side and the King’s wishes.

  2. Whether Edward named Jane or not, she was not a murdered monarch. Nobody but the officials and judges and her family accepted Jane Grey as Queen. For one thing, nobody even knew who she was. Her pedigree had to be expounded. Even today, people need a family tree to work out that Jane was in fact a royal cousin, a quarter Tudor, the granddaughter of Henry Viii’s younger sister, Mary. Everyone knows who our Mary Tudor was, Henry Viii’s eldest daughter.

    Mary was declared illegitimate yes, but Henry had no right in canon law to do so. He did so for convenience. Elizabeth was also declared illegitimate. Her pedigree is questionable. Her parents marriage was also unlawful in numerous eyes then and now, as Henry was already married to Katherine of Aragon. However, Henry still had her mother annulled as well as wrongly executed, declaring Elizabeth illegitimate. Once he had a son, whose legitimacy was conveniently unchallenged Henry could if he wished change his mind.

    In 1544 35 Henry Viii restored his daughters to the Succession. He may not have reversed their legitimacy, but the Act allowed Henry to put who he wanted into the line, legitimate or not. Future kings could have changed the Succession. The Devise of Edward vi was legal in that he could name his own successor. He needed a legitimate and Protestant successor and he didn’t particularly want a female, but really didn’t have any choice.

    Edward was ill in 1553. He was not expected to live beyond Christmas. He excluded his sisters because he believed they were legally illegitimate. Firstly he thought about the future male heirs of Lady Frances Brandon, the mother of Lady Jane, but this was not possible. As he became sicker he excluded Frances and went for Jane’s male heirs, then finally Jane and her heirs. He named Jane and she was declared Queen. The Council and judges agreed and Letters Patent were published to confirm this legal change to the Succession. However, the will or Device was not confirmed by Act of Parliament and also fell foul of other legislation. An Act of Treason 1547, forbade the alteration of the 1544_Succession. This had not been revoked, it was still in force. This was a nightmare, which would have been made legal in September in Parliament, but Edward died in July 1553. Edward may have believed he was acting legally, but he didn’t quite get the law to confirm his wishes.

    Mary was proclaimed Queen as she acted quickly, rallied her supporters, declared her legitimacy, was popular as a Tudor and knew she was Henry’s next natural lawful and legitimate successor. Jane had acted as Queen and there is evidence that her authority was genuine. She was led to believe that as Edward named her as his heir, this was her right. She signed her name to edicts raising troops and declared Mary an enemy of the state. She even refused to name her husband King. However, within 13 days it was all over…the people had rallied to Mary as the true Queen and Jane, her husband and father and Northumberland, who was behind all this were tried for treason.

    Mary believed that she had the legitimate claim as she was the legitimate daughter of Henry Viii and Katherine of Aragon. She only reluctantly accepted their annulment to save her life. However, Mary made a protest and never truly accepted her parents were not truly married. In her eyes and that of the majority of the Catholic World Henry Viii had no right to declare her illegitimate and the 1544 Act put things right. Her relationship with her brother was not exactly loving and cordial and no doubt she saw the Device as the work of Northumberland and a load of rubbish. Mary could also appeal to a higher authority to confirm her legitimacy, God, via the Holy Father in Rome. Henry didn’t have the authority to declare her illegitimate and Edward didn’t have the authority to set her aside. Mary used her natural charm and natural claim to persuade the council of their errors. Most councillors claimed that they were bullied by Northumberland and Edward Montague protested against Jane’s succession. Whatever legal manoeuvres Edward had used, Mary knew she had right on her side. She must have been aware that the Device needed confirmation in Parliament, that other legislation backed her claim and she knew that she had the bloodright and the support Jane never had. Mary was the rightful Queen, maybe through a quirky twist of law and fate, but also because she was legitimate in the eyes of an even higher authority than her father….the Universal Church. Jane had technically been a legal Queen because she had not ever been declared illegitimate, her mother had a claim and Edward, a legitimate King had taken steps to legally make her Queen. However, as the Treasons Act 1547 had made it impossible for him to reverse the Act of Succession 1544, setting down a natural and lawful line of Succession, which had Mary following Edward, had not been repealed or the Device of 1553 confirmed in Parliament, Edward’s will were null and void. Mary could also have been said to win by right of conquest….almost bloodlessly, thus God blessed her claim.

    Whatever the arguments around her right, Jane was not a murdered monarch. She was legally tried for treason, she was legally found guilty of treason and according to the law she was executed. At first, Mary fairly saw Jane as innocent and intended to pardon her. However, Mary also pardoned and released her father who foolishly got involved with the Wyatt conspiracy to depose and kill Mary and put Elizabeth on the throne. Mary was reluctantly persuaded that Jane and her family were dangerous. Although Lady Frances was pardoned as a friend, Jane, her husband and father were executed for treason in February 1554. Her life’s end was tragic as she was just seventeen, her husband a year younger, but to view Jane as a helpless victim does her no justice. She knew her own mind and was very intelligent. She may have refused the crown at first, but once she took up the mantle, she was determined to use her power. In some ways Jane and Mary were more alike than history realises. Both were strong willed and stubborn for one thing and both dedicated to their faith. In religion both women were polar opposites, but they shared a love of learning. In another reality these two women could have been good friends.

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