by Gayle Hulme
In 1575 Queen Elizabeth I of England had been ruling for 13 years. The previous reigns of her younger half brother Edward VI and her elder sister Mary I had seen years of massive religious upheaval. Firstly with Edward VI moving the country to Protestantism and secondly, with Mary I, trying in vain and to the determent of the country to repeal all the ecclesiastical changes made by Edward VI and their father Henry VIII. Then by marrying a Catholic Spaniard. She had seen it as her sacred duty to return England back to Catholicism and to Papal obedience.
When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 at 25 years of age it was universally expected that she would marry. However after over a decade in power she was no nearer finding a suitable husband or producing an heir. Several unsuccessful foreign and domestic suitors had come and gone and it was becoming clear that despite the Queen’s council continually urging and harrying her to marry, she would not be forced into a decision. In fact much to the vexation of Sir William Cecil and her councillors she would say that ‘she preferred the single life’.
In 1575 Elizabeth was 42 and was running out of time in which she would be able to successfully conceive and bear a child. Her value in the European marriage market, although not gone began to diminish. Talk in the kingdom started to turn to who might succeed her. This was a very precarious subject in the Tudor era. Not only was the Queen very sensitive to any suggestion that she was getting older, but more importantly it was considered high treason, punishable by death, to imagine the Sovereign’s demise.
In respect to who might succeed her there were several candidates. These included James VI of Scotland, whose mother and father were both great, great grandchildren of Elizabeth’s own grandfather Henry VII. Also of royal descent were the Lady Catherine and Lady Mary Grey, who were granddaughters of Henry VII on their maternal side. Their claim had parliamentary approval as they were both mentioned with their older sister, Lady Jane Grey in the Third Act of Succession 1543. Their claim had further strength because all three lady’s names appeared in Henry VIII’s last will and testament. Edward VI also favoured the Grey sisters and shortly before his death he prepared a handwritten device placing their claim above that of both his illegitimate half sisters.
Yet another female heir was added to the list in 1575. Lady Arabella Stuart was the daughter of Charles Stuart, Lord Lennox and Elizabeth Cavendish. She was also a great, great granddaughter of Henry VII though her paternal lineage. Both of Arabella’s parents died before she was 7 years old and she was placed in the care of her ambitious Grandmother, Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury. Bess was by the year of Arabella’s birth on to her 4th husband. And was a rarity in Tudor England in that she had become an independent and wealthy woman in her own right.
The child was never in any doubt of her status. She was packed off to the royal court and incurred the Queen’s displeasure when she became haughty and proud. On one occasion she complained bitterly that she was not being served and seated according to her exalted rank. Having never confirmed that Arabella was her heir the Queen was furious and immediately sent her back to her grandmother. Arabella was summarily returned to the obscurity of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire with only a small allowance. (£200 per annum.)
Even with Lady Arabella gone from court, Elizabeth was reluctant to name a successor. She had never forgotten that during her sister Mary’s reign, she had been the focal point of rebellion. She only narrowly escaped the Tower with her life after being implicated in the unsuccessful Wyatt rebellion of 1554. She feared that naming a successor would give her detractors a person to rally behind should her enemies–foreign or domestic–wish to depose her.
However, there was another reason for keeping her own counsel about who would succeed her. She was an expert and intelligent politician who knew how to maintain the status quo as well as her father once did. While she was young enough for childbearing foreign princes would continue to court her. Also with the succession still undecided the English nobles were always keen to ingratiate themselves into her favour.
As the century drew to a close it was obvious that Queen Elizabeth would not live much longer and that her prevaricating about the succession would have to come a conclusion soon. This presented a problem for all of those concerned. As Elizabeth’s marriageability declined in value she had taken to hinting and alluding that she might consider marrying one of her eligible female heirs off to suitors who had previously courted her. Thus, Elizabeth managed to keep close all those who had previously courted her engaged. It also helped to ensure the good behaviour of her cousin and neighbour King James VI of Scotland.
Tudor England’s court, was a ruthless place with nobles constantly jockeying for position and political advantage by marriage, status or money. Elizabeth was able to keep control of who her heirs and nobles marriages by using the Common Law of England. This required that all persons of high rank must seek Elizabeth’s permission before entering into a betrothal or marriage contract. Failing to do so was considered a personal slight as well as a criminal offence, and the consequences could be dire as Margaret Douglas–Henry VIII’s niece–found to her great cost. She suffered two spells of imprisonment for engaging in romantic relationships without the consent of the King. Margaret’s first transgression was with Thomas Howard, half brother of the Duke of Norfolk and it earned her and her co-conspirator a stay in the Tower of London. Seemingly not having learned her lesson she was locked up in Syon Abbey for engaging in another illicit affair with Charles Howard, who was a brother to Queen Katherine Howard.
Since all three were descended from noble families, Elizabeth’s potential female heirs, Lady Catherine Grey, Lady Mary Grey, and Lady Arabella Stuart would have been aware of the consequences of marrying outside of the monarch’s pleasure. Next week we will discover how all the above ladies were willing to risk the wrath of their monarch to win the prize of happiness and true love.
Gayle Hulme was born and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland and after many years of soaking up island life in Jersey, Channel Islands she returned to Scotland via Warwickshire, England. Back in bonnie Scotland she now enjoys hanging out with husband Paul, son Jamie and two silly, but adorable dogs, Millie and Spot. When she’s not busy jumping around getting other women fit in her ‘proper job’ as a group fitness instructor you will find her poking her nose into all manner of historical, sporting or esoteric related subjects. Her passions and fascinations are hugely diverse. In the morning she could be reading and writing about her favourite royal heroine Queen Anne Boleyn and by the afternoon you might find her at Ibrox Stadium cheering on her beloved Glasgow Rangers FC (football/soccer team – her first and enduring love). Then maybe in the evening she will be away with the fairies or learning about ancient Hawaiian wisdom.
[Oh and just between us (ssshhh) – her guilty pleasure is spending way too much time on the phone or social media gossiping about historical subjects and blethering with her buddies.]
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