Throughout history, a few kings and queens have met their ends on the executioner’s block, but this manner of death reached epidemic proportions during the Tudor period. Everyone knows of Henry VIII's reputation for killing his queens—to be fair, he only executed two of his wives—but fewer people are aware that each of his daughters also killed a former queen. In their cases, however, they were killing their own potential heirs.
Henry’s marital mayhem stemmed from his overweening desire to have a male heir to succeed him. He ultimately got one from the third of his six wives, but at the time of his death, the male succession was far from certain. When Henry died, there were only 12 living descendants of the Tudors—only two of them were males: the nine-year-old King Edward VI and the infant Lord Darnley. Six of the remaining 10 were under the age of 13 and, with the low survival rate of young children, any of these youngsters were at risk for an early grave.
With such odds stacked against the survival of the dynasty, it is perhaps surprising that Henry specifically barred three of the dynasts from the line of succession in his final will, skipping over the descendants of his older sister Margaret, who had married the King of Scotland firstly and, after his death, married the Scottish Earl of Angus. Instead, he selected first his children and then the children and grandchildren of his younger sister Mary, who had been married to (and quickly widowed by) the King of France before marrying the Duke of Suffolk.
According to Henry’s will, the line of succession was:
1. Prince Edward, 9, his son by his third wife
2. Princess Mary, 30, his daughter by his first wife
3. Princess Elizabeth, 13, his daughter by his second wife
4. Lady Frances Marchioness of Dorset, 31, oldest daughter of his sister Mary
5. Lady Jane Grey, 9, daughter of Frances
6. Lady Catherine Grey, 6, daughter of Frances
7. Lady Mary Grey, 1, daughter of Frances
8. Lady Eleanor Countess of Cumberland, 27, youngest daughter of his sister Mary
9. Lady Margaret Clifford, 6, daughter of Eleanor
Those that he barred were Margaret Tudor’s granddaughter Mary (four-year-old reigning Queen of Scotland), Margaret’s daughter the Countess of Lennox (31) and the countess’s infant son, Lord Darnley, mentioned above.
Mary wished to be lenient with the teenager. Jane was initially spared execution. But, six months later, a rebellion was sparked by Mary’s engagement to the King of Spain. The object of the rebel leaders, who included Jane’s father, was to restore Jane to the throne. The situation left Mary no options. In February, Jane was beheaded. She was the third queen to be executed by a Tudor.
Lord Darnley had married his cousin Mary Queen of Scots, thus uniting two claims to the English throne in the body of their child. Darnley was Mary’s second husband; their marriage lasted less than two years before he was murdered, probably at the behest of the Earl of Bothwell, who then kidnapped, raped and married the pregnant Mary in order to control Scotland. Within months, Mary miscarried twins and was forced to abdicate in favor of her son by Darnley, the infant King James VI.
As the executioner struck the fatal blow, Mary whispered, “Sweet Jesus.” Thus, she became the fourth and final queen to lose her head to a Tudor.