1553: Northumberland and Lady Jane Grey

Duration

Lady Jane lasts 9 days on the throne

Leadership

Earl of Northumberland engineers attempted coup to keep control after death of Edward VI

Main causes

Factional: Faced by the accession of Mary, Northumberland fears losing hold on power

Subsidiary causes

Almost equally important is Northumberland’s strong espousal of Protestantism. He has grave concerns at the possible accession of the Catholic Mary

Outcomes

  • All classes show considerable loyalty to Tudor dynasty, irrespective of Mary’s religion
  • Northumberland and Lady Jane are executed

Degree of threat

High. Coup might have succeeded had there been any popular support, as it was aimed at the heart of the government. Northumberland was able to seize control of power for a week

Narrative

Edward VI had not been the sickly child of legend, but his final illness in 1553 was sufficiently drawn-out for the Lord Protector, Northumberland – real ruler of the country while Edward was still a minor – to draw up plans for his death.

Dudley had been Lord Protector since 1547 – initially with Somerset – so he had had six years to get used to being in power. With Edward, who was genuinely devout, he had implemented strongly Protestant religious policies.

As Edward lay ill, Northumberland supervised the drawing up of a “devise” – or document setting out new rules for the succession. This stipulated that Mary (who was only Edward’s half-sister, being the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, while Edward was the son of Jane Seymour) and Elizabeth were to be cut out of the line of succession, in line with the stipulations of Henry VIII’s Succession Acts of 1534 and 1536.

Edward was unmarried and had no heir himself. After the document was drawn up, Northumberland had it secretly altered so that the succession would pass to Lady Jane Grey in the event that Edward died without heir. From Northumberland’s point of view, Lady Jane met several key criteria:

  • She was Protestant
  • She was young – only 15 – and without any experience of government, so she would need a Lord Protector to help her govern. Northumberland expected to fill that spot
  • She was part of Northumberland’s family – his daughter-in-law

Northumberland’s “party” at court included several important aristocrats – the Earls of Oxford and Huntingdon – but he had no real support from the commons and so had to rely on his own army: 2,000 of his and his supporters’ retainers.

Edward died in July 1553 and Northumberland acted quickly, sending his son and 300 men to seize Mary while placing Lady Jane on the throne. Mary acted unexpectedly decisively, however, fleeing to East Anglia and beginning to assemble a force of her own.

Northumberland lacked enough support to deal with this. He was the most experienced general in the country but feared leaving London to fight Mary. He was right – the London commons supported Mary, and the Council quickly proclaimed her queen and ordered Northumberland’s arrest. The majority of nobles declared loyalty to Mary, placing their adherence to the Tudor dynasty over any religious concerns.

Sensing his support had withered almost to nothing, Northumberland proclaimed Mary queen and allowed himself to be arrested. He was tried and beheaded for treason. Jane was also found guilty, but would probably have been spared had it not been for the outbreak of Wyatt’s Rebellion in February 1554.

Reasons for failure

  • Northumberland’s unpopularity – he lacked significant support even from other nobles – and his failure to arrest Mary when he had the chance
  • Timing – Edward died before the “devise” could be approved by parliament; it was technically illegal for a minor to alter the wishes of the previous king
  • The failed coup show the people of England preferred a legitimate Tudor to a Protestant queen who was not a member of the royal family
  • The Protestant reformation was not yet entrenched – many welcomed the accession of Mary and the return of the old religion

Key stats, quotes & views

  • Shows strength of Tudor position by this stage – Mary was female and Catholic but there was still substantial loyalty to her as legitimate heir
  • In common with other rebellions there was no common cause across social classes. Northumberland has noble support (Oxford and Huntingdon), but no real support among people. His army will not fight
  • Northumberland’s biographer John Loades argues the outcome was closer run than it appears in retrospect. He warns against believing “overwhelming support” for Mary was the decisive factor, suggesting Northumberland’s high-handed ways – hence unpopularity – in his years as Lord Protector had already lost him most of his support
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