The Tudors - A Century of Change

2. Kingship & the Royal Succession

There was one thing of which Shakespeare had no doubt. Society itself could only survive if everyone within it knew their place. 'Take but degree away,' he wrote, 'untune that string, and see what chaos follows.' Pivotal to such a heirarchical view was the existence of a monarch whose unchallenged authority at the top of society gave security to all those ranked below. But what were the real powers of the monarch?

Most (medieval) chroniclers stressed the king as defender of the oppressed, the poor, widows and ophans. Often this was expressed negatively, as not oppressing his subjects, not taxing the Church too harshly, not being too greedy. Greed, a vice that chroniclers often found in monarchs, was significant because early medieval government was predatory, living off the land, much like the government of modern Haiti. Medieval monarchs and Haitian dictators are comparable in ruling rural societies with little commerce or industry, lacking the means of producing wealth other than subsistence agriculture...

This is how a modern historian defines the reality of kingship in the period just after the Norman Conquest. Like Henry VII William the Conqueror (1066-1087) won England as a prize of battle but in his simpler age the title was absolute - the winner took all. Of course he could not hope to exploit his booty without the help of others, mainly the mixed force of mounted adventurers who had defeated the English for him. In the years following 1066 these men - probably no more than two thousand of them - were given territories throughout England to hold and administer, symbolising their control by the erection of motte and bailey castles at strategic points. What William gave however he could take away. Both he and his sons William II (1087-1100) and Henry I (1100-1135) freely disposessed followers who opposed them or who failed to represent their authority adequately.

In time however, the relationship changed. Two or three generations on from the Conquest and the more powerful descendants of William's original followers were coming to look upon their lands as their own. The crunch came in 1215. King John's desperate need for money to recover his lost continental domains led to a confrontation with his tenants-in-chief, of whom the church was the greatest. In the Magna Carta John agreed to dismiss the mercenary captains he had been employing to enforce his will and not to imprison his subjects without trial. More crucially he recognised the right of inheritance, giving others a stake in the kingdom that would eventually counter-balance the power of the crown. For the time being these 'others' were limited to the greatest landholders (barons) but in time they would include representatives of the common people also. By the beginning of the Tudor period a royal justice called Sir John Fortescue could describe England as a dominium politicum et regale - a kingdom undoubtedly, but one which it required a politician as well as a soldier to rule.

Edward IV (1461-1483) was such a politician. He too had won the crown in battle, this time against the forces of Henry VI and his French wife Marguerite of Anjou. Edward had to work hard to restore the crown's authority. He did this in the first instance by being victorious in war and in the second by being personally attractive and intelligent. But he also did it by understanding the very real limitations of his position.

Just like today Englishmen wanted their monarch to be a symbol of national pride and they expected him to display an appropriate magnificence. However they did not want to be robbed of their own fortunes to pay for it, except in circumstances of real national danger or threat to the national honour. Edward's strategy was fourfold. Firstly he frightened the king of France into paying him a subsidy not to invade. Secondly he went into business as a merchant and made good profits on the side. Thirdly and he made sure that he knew his kingdom and the important people within it 'like the back of his hand'. Fourthly, having the gift of friendship and the strength to attract loyalty he built up the landed power of his friends in key localities, knowing that their interests would be the same as his own. Yet Edward failed to provide for one eventuality: that of his own early death. What would happen if he were not there to hold together the network of support which he had brought into existence and which he was so expert at managing? The resulting insecurity might tear the kingdom apart.

Which is, of course, what happened, although the threat to Edward's young sons (the 'Princes in the Tower') materialised from a direction few could have expected - Edward's own brother, Richard. Whether Richard had thought about usurpation beforehand depends upon which view of his character you take. Almost certainly it was a piece of inspired opportunism prompted by a knowledge of recent history. It was made possible by Richard's popularity in the north where he'd been his brother's representative and it was achieved by a display of ruthlessness that took potential opponents by surprise.

Richard's success did him little good. Forced by the threat of rebellion to murder his nephews, Richard took on the character of Herod, the slayer of the innocents in the Bible.* Had the English monarchy still been the personal possession of the man who wore the crown Richard might have survived but not in a dominium politicum et regale. For political rule consent was required, and in a Christian country consent would never be given to a ruler whose deeds had so clearly destined him for damnation.

By the beginning of the 16th Century it was normal for the nearest male relative to inherit all the property belonging to a deceased person, though special bequests could be made. If there were no surviving male relatives, the property could pass through the female line. In this case there could be a number of heirs with equal claims and the property might be split. Law suits between rival heirs were common and were one of the reasons why the legal profession became a good alternative to the Church as a way in which bright young men from modest backgrounds might get on in the world. To prevent an estate being split it could be entailed by act of Parliament. This meant that the property could only be inherited by a male, descended through the male line, however far back in the family tree it was necessary to go to find such a person.

The crown presented a special problem. Whilst it could be inherited by someone (like Henry VII) descended through the female line, clearly it could not be split. If the monarch failed to produce an heir, the result might be civil war and the breakdown of order. Nor was it enough just to win a battle as Henry VII found; no king could feel secure as long as there was someone else alive who had a better claim.

As we have seen the problem of the succession to the crown affected the whole of society. The court was the main route to fame and fortune and much depended upon the personality and preferences of the holder of the crown. A change of monarch could be disastrous for some but provide opportunities for others. It is hardly surprising that kings were by nature suspicious; if things started to go wrong for them, there were always those who were prepared to see the hand of God at work, punishing a sinful or incompetent ruler.

It is against this background that we should judge the apparent 'cruelty' of the age. In law, the Tudor claim to throne was decidedly shaky as the long-running saga of the pretender Perkin Warbeck (executed 1499) demonstrates. Henry VII was desperate for the prestige which a marriage between his heir (Arthur) and a foreign princess would bring, but no European ruler would risk such an alliance unless the Tudor hold on the crown seemed secure. This could only be achieved by the elimination of anyone who appeared to have a better claim.

The same logic underlay the actions of Henry VIII. In 1520 he was compelled to execute the Duke of Buckingham, the only descendent of Edward III in the male line. Buckingham's unwise and indiscreet assertion of his royal ancestry made him seem a threat, even at a time when Henry's own popularity was at its height. Over the next few years however his failure to produce a son made him look unlucky and revived the possibility of a change of dynasty. Forced (against his will) to divorce the Pope in order to get an heir, he found himself in conflict with most of Europe and confronted by rebellion at home.

Neither the birth of a prince - Edward - in 1536 nor the wholesale massacre of his remaining Yorkist relatives between 1538 and 1540 solved Henry's problem. If he were to die whilst his son was a child what had happened to the sons of Edward IV might happen again. If Prince Edward himself were to die, it was still unclear who would succeed. The immediate difficulty was overcome by taking the crown outside the normal rules of inheritance. By an act of Parliament passed in 1538, Henry received the right to bequeath the crown by will. This document, which was not sealed until a few days before the king's death in 1547, made the following provisions: if Edward should die without children the crown was to go first to his half-sister Mary and her descendants, and then to his other half-sister Elizabeth, and hers. If all three died childless, the crown would descend to the children of Henry's younger sister Mary - the Grey family. The descendants of Henry's older sister Margaret, who had married the king of Scotland, were ignored.

It is at this point that religion becomes a central issue. Although it was clear that the right to bequeath the crown by will belonged to Henry VIII alone, Edward VI tried to use it to prevent his Catholic sister Mary from succeeding to the throne. By his pathetic 'devys for the succession' he left his crown to the eldest of the Grey children, Lady Jane. This action used to be blamed on Edward's principal councillor, John Dudley, Duke of Nothumberland - the father-in-law of Lady Jane. However, it now seems that Dudley was a prisoner of the dying king's determination, rather than the other way round. Edward knew that Mary would restore the power of the Pope; as a convinced Protestant he believed it was his God-given duty to set her aside. Yet even this consideration could not over-rule the rights of a legitimate heir; Northumberland's rather feeble attempt to make the rule of 'Queen Jane' a reality was doomed from the beginning. Elizabeth I (1558-1603) faced a very different situation. Illegitimate in the eyes of the Catholic Church, she was bound to reject the Pope's authority. For much of her reign however, the only possible heir to her crown was the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, whose succession would have meant disaster for those like Burleigh and Walsingham who had risen to power through Elizabeth's favour. When Mary fell into Elizabeth's hands in 1568, she had no choice but to keep her where she could do no harm. However she resisted the growing pressure for her cousin's execution As the daughter of an executed queen, she had no wish to set further precedents. Her ministers took a different view; for them, Mary's death was the only guarantee of safety, and their their attempts to destroy her became steadily more desperate.

The key factor which determined all these events was Elizabeth's refusal to marry. No one knows whether this was the result of deliberate policy or emotion. Elizabeth's personal choice would probably have been Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, but he was a mere subject and disliked by most of the court. Moreover he was already married and the scandal surrounding the convenient death of his wife made him doubly unsuitable. On the other hand all the available foreign princes were Catholics and would have brought with them the threat of foreign domination. Whatever her real feelings, Elizabeth's decision to remain single hugely strengthened her authority: the knowledge that only her life lay between the country and chaos gave her the last word on every important issue.

Only on her death bed did Elizabeth ackowledge that James VI of Scotland - the son of Mary Queen of Scots - would be the next king. However, the succession problem continued to haunt the monarchy. James' eldest son Henry died in 1612 at the age of eighteen, leaving his shy and awkward brother Charles to inherit the throne. More than any other cause, it was Charles' mix of obstinacy and deviousness which brought about the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 and led to his execution seven years later. *There are of course many people who see the case against Richard III as far from proved.