Tudors and the Death of Their Rival Cousins

The medieval and premodern monarchs who held onto their thrones were the ones who were appallingly ruthless. Kindness was not rewarded, and the nice guys almost always lost their crown. Even when their reigns were otherwise good for the country, or renown contextually for tolerance and progressive thinking, dark deeds still needed doing and there were usually enough skeletons in the closet to fill a charnel house.

Rulers who weren’t bloody and ruthless were all too often targets of usurpation. The meek may inherent the earth, but the bastards do a pretty good job at grabbing crowns.

The Tudor’s were as bloody as any other successful rulers, and thus prone to killing any cousins with enough royal blood to be an alternative monarch on the thinnest of excuses. It didn’t take much royal blood, either. Henry Tudor was a far more distant heir to the English crown, but after the defeat and death of Richard III, it was Henry VII who sat on the throne.

Having clawed his way to the top, Henry VII was determined to stay there and to have only his son follow him.  In order to contract a marriage between his son Arthur and Katharina of Aragon, a Spanish princess with much better bloodlines than his own, Henry VII executed his potential rival for the throne, Edward Plantagenet, the 17th Earl of Warwick. Warwick was the grandson of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and thus the nephew of Kings Edward VI and Richard III. As a more direct descendant of Edward III and briefly Richard III’s heir to the throne, Warwick was, in truth, the most legitimate contender for the English crown. However, as politically pragmatic as the execution/murder was, it meant that Katherina and Arthur’s union started under a cloud, and Katherina herself was later to claim that some of the tragedies that would befall her were “a judgment of God” because her first marriage was “made in blood”.

Henry VIII would begin his reign supporting and befriending his maternal royal kinfolk but he would end his reign bathing in their blood. The king arrested his Plantagenet cousins, Henry Courtenay, Henry Pole, and Edward Neville, found them all guilty of what were obviously trumped up charges, and ordered them killed a few weeks before Christmas in 1539. Henry Courtenay’s son, Edward Courtenay, was imprisoned, but his youth and lack of political power seems to have saved him from Henry VIII’s executioners.

Edward VI, although too young to participate in kingship for much of his brief time on the throne, avoided killing his kinsmen. One has to wonder if Edward Courtenay, who was never freed from the Tower during the entirety of Edward VI’s reign, would have been a future victim if Edward VI had lived longer.

Mary I freed Edward Courtenay and made him the Earl of Devon, but banished him from England because of his Protestant beliefs and possible attempt to wed Mary’s younger half-sister Elizabeth. One of Mary’s other cousins, the overthrown queen Jane Grey, was not so lucky. In order to wed Spanish royalty, Mary made the same choice as her grandfather Henry VII and beheaded her rival cousin to demonstrate the security of her throne.

The queen also executed anyone she saw as maintaining the dangerous heresy of Protestantism in her kingdom, including many devout and influential scholars such as Thomas Cranmer. Mary, who is known historically as Bloody Mary, may not have wholly deserved her moniker (she was no bloodier than her father or many other monarchs) but she certainly had blood on her hands.

Henry VIII’s other daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, executed her royal cousin,  Mary, Queen of Scotson February 8, 1587. She didn’t relish the job — she dithered and held Queen Mary as her guest (de facto prisoner) for almost two decades before she killed her Catholic kinswoman — but in the end, Elizabeth was as ruthless as any crowned head before her. 

mary queen of scots

Some historians argue that execution was done with great reluctance, perhaps even unwillingness, on Elizabeth’s part; and perhaps done without her consent. After Mary’s death, Queen Elizabeth actually arrested William Davidson, her private secretary, for sending on the signed death warrant without permission. The queen also railed bitterly against those in her Council who had taken part in arranging Mary’s beheading. Others say that Elizabeth desperately wanted Mary dead, but just didn’t want the fall out of her murder, and her anger against Davidson and others was all for show. Whatever the truth, the queen sent Mary’s son James, who was her Godson and heir, a letter claiming:

My dear Brother, I would you knew (though not felt) the extreme dolor that overwhelms my mind, for that miserable accident which (far contrary to my meaning) hath befallen. I have now sent this kinsman of mine, whom ere now it hath pleased you to favour, to instruct you truly of that which is too irksome for my pen to tell you. I beseech you that as God and many more know, how innocent I am in this case : so you will believe me, that if I had bid aught I would have bid by it. I am not so base minded that fear of any living creature or Prince should make me so afraid to do that were just; or done, to deny the same. I am not of so base a lineage, nor carry so vile a mind. But, as not to disguise, fits not a King, so will I never dissemble my actions, but cause them show even as I meant them. Thus assuring yourself of me, that as I know this was deserved, yet if I had meant it I would never lay it on others’ shoulders; no more will I not damnify myself that thought it not.
The circumstance it may please you to have of this bearer. And for your part, think you have not in the world a more loving kinswoman, nor a more dear friend than myself; nor any that will watch more carefully to preserve you and your estate. And who shall otherwise persuade you, judge them more partial to others than you. And thus in haste I leave to trouble you: beseeching God to send you a long reign.
Your most assured loving sister and cousin,
Elizabeth R.


Elizabeth was the last Tudor monarch. The dynasty may have been relatively brief, having lasted only three generations and less than 120 years, but it caused much brevity among relatives.

4 thoughts on “Tudors and the Death of Their Rival Cousins

  1. Don’t forget Margaret Pole not long after the execution of her son. Also, Catherine Grey was as good as executed by Elizabeth. One could argue that her treatment was more cruel than a beheading. Then there are the Staffords, Edward executed by Henry VIII and Thomas (with quite a bit more justification) by Mary.

  2. Don’t forget Elizabeth’s harsh treatment of her other female cousins. Catherine and Mary Grey were both imprisoned and separated from their husbands; Catherine never saw her eldest son after she was placed under house arrest, and she starved to death. Their cousin, Margaret Clifford, was also punished by Elizabeth in the 1590s for displeasing her.

    This article does not mention the heinous execution of Margaret Pole in 1541, which shocked even the hardened courtiers at court.

  3. Actually, Mary really did not want to execute Lady Jane Grey at all, and I really wonder if she would have done so if Jane’s father had not sided with Wyatt.

    Both Henrys, IMO, would have executed people like Lady Jane Grey and Mary, Queen of Scots, much more quickly and easily than did the two queens.

    1. I know Henry Grey’s participation in the Wyatt Rebellion tipped the scales, but when Mary had to choose between the wishes of the cousin she wanted to marry and the life of the cousin she’d known as a baby, Mary chose to murder Jane Grey. It’s ugly, but even if Mary was reluctant to kill Jane … in the end, it was her choice and no one else’s.

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