08 November 2009

Killing Queens: A Bloody Tudor Heritage

The former queen nodded to the executioner. She turned and faced the crowd that had gathered. Then, she knelt. As a final prayer escaped her, the sharp edge of Tudor vengeance sliced through her neck.

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.

Many of these people met untimely ends, including King Edward, who reigned for only six years. Before his death, in addition to excluding the Scottish line of the family, he also removed his half-sisters from the list. His cousin, Lady Frances then renounced her rights in favor of her eldest daughter, the now 16-year-old Lady Jane, who was coerced into ascending the throne by her ambitious parents and father-in-law. Popular opinion, however, was against her. The English rose up in favor of Princess Mary. Jane was queen for only nine days.

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.

Ultimately, Mary had waited too long to try to start a family and she was peacefully succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, who, having witnessed the tumult of her father’s married life as a young child, opted never to marry. Her permanent spinsterhood left the succession to the throne uncertain for more than 40 years. The descendants of Mary Tudor remained the most likely candidates over the Scottish descendants of Margaret Tudor, but nearly every potential heir was subject to the whims of the Virgin Queen. And, one thing the Virgin Queen really did not like was for members of her court, much less her extended family, to get married without her permission. They did it any way—both of Lady Jane’s sisters, Lady Catherine and Lady Mary, were imprisoned by Elizabeth for marrying without permission. The aging Countess of Lennox was even imprisoned when each of her sons, Lord Darnley and the Earl of Lennox, married without Elizabeth’s blessing.

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.

Mary escaped to England where she sought Elizabeth’s protection. Instead, Elizabeth put her on trial for Darnley’s murder and, though the trial reached no conclusion, Elizabeth imprisoned her queenly cousin. For the next 20 years, Elizabeth used Mary’s potential release as a political tool—she also used her own potential marriage in this way, offering to marry and then reneging for political gain. From prison, Mary grew increasingly careless in her own plotting to overthrow Elizabeth and take her throne. Elizabeth reluctantly signed Mary’s death warrant.

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.


  1. I feel very sorry for Lady Jane Grey but I'm not sure about Mary. She constantly asked for trouble, I feel, and kept falling into traps. The Tudors are very interesting but they were also pretty barbaric!

  2. Tudors Descendants in the audience. Are you one of them?

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