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The 'Darnley' portrait of Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I and the Tudor succession crises: 1558 - 1603

The final Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, famously never married and had no children, which meant some lateral thinking was required to pick out a suitable heir to the throne.

The "Darnley Portrait" of Elizabeth I of England | Image: Wikimedia Commons

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This most iconic of British royal dynasties contained a complex tangle of rival lineages and competing claimants to the throne. The final Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, famously never married and had no children, which meant some lateral thinking was required to pick out a suitable heir to the throne. But, long before this particular problem unfolded, the Royal house had already been beset by some juicy succession dramas.

The earliest Tudor monarch was Henry VII, who seized the throne after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. When he eventually died, the first transfer of Tudor power was straightforward enough: the next in line was his teenage son, who would become a colossus of British history as Henry VIII.

Henry was determined to produce a male heir to secure the Tudor dynasty, and this all-consuming wish would radically shift the course of English history. Impatient with his first wife Catherine of Aragon’s inability to give him a surviving male child (although she did give birth to a daughter, Mary), Henry annulled the marriage. This meant breaking with the Catholic Church and setting the Protestant Reformation into motion.

His next wife, Anne Boleyn, also failed to bear him a son, providing instead with a daughter – the future Elizabeth I. It would be third wife Jane Seymour who would finally bring forth the long-desired male heir: Edward VI.

Although Edward is often regarded as the ‘forgotten Tudor’ because of his short reign, this fleeting Edwardian era was significant for two reasons. First, it accelerated the rise of Protestantism in England. Second, his premature death from natural causes aged just 15 ushered in a rocky period of multiple monarchs taking the crown in quick succession.

Edward vehemently opposed the idea of his half-sister Mary (Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon) becoming queen after his death. This was because she was both a staunch Catholic and technically illegitimate, since Henry’s marriage to Catherine had been annulled. The illegitimacy issue also applied to his other half-sister Elizabeth, as her mother Anne Boleyn had been disgraced and executed.

Even though Henry VIII had later reinstated Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession with the Third Succession Act, Edward decided on his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, as the next monarch. Being the great-granddaughter of Henry VII and safely Protestant, Lady Jane Grey was a solid choice as far as Edward was concerned. While some saw it as an unlawful violation of his father Henry VIII’s decree, others believed that to have followed Henry’s wishes and allowing Mary to become queen would have meant ‘setting aside the inheritance rights of legitimate heirs in favour of a bastard’ (in the words of historian Eric Ives).

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision, Lady Jane Grey did indeed become queen – for all of nine days. Mary, widely regarded as the real heir as per Henry VIII’s wishes, led an uprising which led to Jane being toppled and convicted of treason. (She escaped immediate execution but would be put to death the following year.)

Controversially a Catholic, Mary I was the first queen regnant of England – i.e., the first woman to reign in her own right, rather than merely the wife of a king. She became notorious for her ruthless persecution of Protestants and earnt the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. However, despite the uncompromising way she had secured power for herself and fought back against the Reformation, Mary’s lack of children meant she was fated to be succeeded by a Protestant – her half-sister, Elizabeth.

Like Mary, Elizabeth I would also remain childless. But, unlike Mary, she didn’t have any other half-siblings waiting in the wings to take over the family shop. So who would rule when Elizabeth died? The Tudors had run out of Henry VIII’s off-spring, meaning the net had to be cast a little wider.

One potential candidate had been Lady Catherine Grey – sister to the doomed Jane. Being a direct descendant of Henry VII through his daughter Mary Tudor (Henry VIII’s sister) meant she had the right genetic credentials. However, she had triggered Elizabeth’s fury by marrying without royal consent, and anyway she would die long before Elizabeth herself.

Another natural candidate was Mary, Queen of Scots, who – though a Catholic – was also directly descended from Henry VII, this time through his other daughter Margaret Tudor, who had married into the Scottish royal family. But a turbulent string of scandals and hardships - including tumultuous marriages, abdication from the Scottish throne and her link to a Catholic plot to assassinate Elizabeth all put paid to Mary’s ambitions, and she was duly executed.

Yet more possible successors included Edward Seymour, son of Lady Catherine Grey (and therefore another conceivable claimant via the Mary Tudor line) and Lady Arbella Stuart, niece of Mary, Queen of Scots (and a claimant via the Margaret Tudor line).

Ultimately, it was James VI of Scotland – descendant of Margaret Tudor and son of Mary, Queen of Scots – who would take over from Elizabeth, becoming James I of England and Ireland.