As I explain in this excerpt from my forthcoming book, Edward VI in a Nutshell:
Edward, always perspicacious, knew he was dying by late spring of 1553. He needed to choose and heir. A devout and committed Protestant, he did not want his half-sister Mary to reign after him; there was too much risk that she would attempt to turn England toward ‘popery’ again. He gave serious consideration to naming his half-sister Elizabeth, whom he called his “sweet sister Temperance” (Nichols, 1857:ccxxxvi), his heir. Elizabeth was Protestant and would have kept England safe from papist heresy, but Edward decided in the end that he really couldn’t skip over one sister for theoretical illegitimacy and not the other… If neither of his sisters could be allowed the crown, who then should have it? From the bloodlines, it should fall to a cousin. His father’s older sister, Margaret Tudor, had married James IV of Scotland and their heir and current Queen of Scots, Mary, was both Catholic and engaged to the heir of the French throne. England ruled by Catholic monarchs and annexed to France in all but name? Never! That left the children of his father’s younger sister, Mary Tudor, as potential heirs … For whatever reason, Edward skipped over the Duchess of Suffolk, who a generation closer to Henry VII, and chose Frances’s eldest daughter, Lady Jane Grey, as the legal heir to the crown.
The king wrote, in his own hand, the first draft of what he called “My Deuise for the Succession”, which named Jane Grey as next in line for the throne. The exact date he started this remarkable document is unknown, but it was possible he was working on it as early as February of 1553 and it had certainly been written by April. It has been common to assume that Jane’s nomination was a ploy by Northumberland to put his son, Jane’s husband Guilford Dudley, on the throne, but there is no evidence that Northumberland had anything to do with it, let alone having been the one to convince Edward to choose Jane. Jane and Guilford were probably not even engaged to each other at the time; that seems to have occurred after Edward had the idea of naming Jane as his heir. Just as the deuise was Edward’s baby, the decision to wed Jane to Northumberland’s son appears to have been the king’s brainchild as well. Northumberland was the man Edward thought would be the best person to assist Jane in keeping England on the path to pure Protestantism, and Edward wanted Northumberland to be the queen’s father-in-law.
Guilford and Jane’s engagement was harder to arrange than it usually presented to have been. For one thing, Jane’s parents were less than thrilled with the match. Guilford was the fourth surviving son of Northumberland, and not much of a prize for a girl with Jane’s pedigree. It had been hoped, up until the king’s engagement to Elizabeth of Valois, that Edward would marry Jane himself. Henry Grey, who was as headstrong as any nobleman in Christendom, wasn’t charmed by the idea of no longer being in charge of Jane’s destiny. The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk became even more reluctant to wed Jane to Guilford when they learned Edward was making her next in line of succession. What if Northumberland wanted to rule England through his son, making Jane a puppet queen? Worse, Northumberland wasn’t Protestant enough for Suffolk. Henry Grey was as enamored of the new religion as Edward himself, and Northumberland lack the zealot’s spirit. It was only the fact that Edward was determined for the match, and no one could gainsay the king, that finally sealed the deal.
Northumberland knew what kind of ruckus it would cause. He was already accused of being a shadow king; what would people say when they knew his son was married to Edward’s heir? Northumberland had been trying, by word and deed, to show he didn’t want the crown, but it was no use; people were determined to see him as a spider in the middle of an evil web. The best way to show he wasn’t power-mad was to arrange a marriage that actually put his potential power in jeopardy by presenting a rival heir, and that is exactly what he did. The next in line to the throne after Jane would be her sister, Katherine Grey, and Northumberland’s rival for top dog in the Council (and thus one of the men who trusted him the least) was the Earl of Pembroke. In complete contradiction of his own best interest, Northumberland “personally brokered the negotiation between Pembroke and the bride’s father … and one only has to look at the threat Katherine would pose to Queen Elizabeth in the 1560s to realize the danger she would have posed to Jane and Guilford” (Ives, 2012:133).
If Northumberland was plotting to seize power, he was really, really bad at it.
Notwithstanding everything Northumberland did to show he wasn’t trying to take the throne for himself, people remained convinced he had “formed some mighty plot” to get the crown, and that he was “confident he would prevail” (Ives, 2012:134). Rumors went around that Northumberland was “guilty of harming his Majesty’s person”, and “seeking to devise means of removing the King and aspiring to the Crown”, and “perhaps poison [Lady Mary]”, or “find means of getting rid of his present wife, and ally himself with the [Lady Mary], and even kill Edward Courtney, who had been a prisoner in the Tower science childhood and was a potential claimant to the throne (CPS Spain, 11 June 1553).
On the last week in May of 1553 Lady Jane Grey married Lord Guilford Dudley. The king had previously sent the bride “presents of rich ornaments and jewels” to convey his blessing on the match. With his cousin married to Guilford Dudley, Edward’s next step was to make his deuise as legally watertight as possible, which he endeavored to do throughout June of 1553. The young king was badly ailing and in a lot of pain, but his first and foremost concern was making sure Mary did not succeed the throne after him. He summoned more than a dozen of the country’s leading lawyers to draft the best version of his deuise possible.
What it boiled down to was whether or not Edward could make a will that supplanted that of his late father’s. To be succinct, yes he could. 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 so much as a gnat’s tiny poo after Edward was a de facto adult with the ability to rationally chose an heir.
One of the lawyers, Edward Montagu, would later try to keep his head on his shoulders by telling the newly crowned Mary I that the lawyers didn’t want to write the document making Jane the queen, what with them being such big fans of Mary and all, but Edward made them do it. According to Montagu, the king used “sharp words an angry countenance” on the balking lawyers and “seeing the king so earnest and sharp” that they had no choice but to write up the document and sign it (Ives, 2012:129). Apparently the king’s sharpness was so wickedly sharp that Montagu and all but one of the senior lawyers returned ten days later to sign it again for the benefit of king and Privy Council.
Edward was deeply committed to Jane’s ascendancy, and was determined to make everyone acquiesce to it. This wasn’t always easy. He had to go above and beyond to get Archbishop Cranmer on board the Queen Jane train. Cranmer was a good friend of Somerset’s and blamed Northumberland for the duke’s death. He was incredibly reluctant to endorse Edward’s deuise and set Northumberland up as father-in-law to the queen. Cranmer was also genuinely troubled by conscience; he had promised to obey Henry VIII’s will and Mary was next in line by the terms of that document. Was it legal or ethical to set the old king’s will aside? First, the Privy Council talked to Cranmer and assured him that “the king was fully entitled to override his father’s settlement” (Ives, 2012:130). Not quite easy in his mind, the Archbishop of Canterbury wanted to talk to his godson about it personally. The king, who had less than three weeks to live, met with Cranmer and promised him face to face 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” (Ives, 2012:131). Still uncertain, Cranmer begged the king to be allowed to talk to the judges and the attorney general, just to make sure. The king consented, and when Cranmer spoke with them they all confirmed “that he might lawfully subscribe to the king’s will by the laws of the realm” (Ives, 2012:131).
King Edward VI had chosen his successor fair and square and in a legally binding manner. The final draft of the document was signed by the king, signed and witnessed by 102 people (including the members of the Privy Council), and the Great Seal was applied to it. It was as official as official could ever be. Jane was to be queen. Jane would be the lawful queen. Anyone who disputed that and tried to take the crown from her would be traitors and usurpers.