CHILDREN OF ENGLAND: The Heirs of King Henry VIII
Available from News Weekly Books
A highly readable work of history, Children of England covers in narrative form the biographies of Henry VIII’s children, Edward VI (1547 -1553), Mary I (1553 -1558) and Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne in 1558. It is a sequel to Weir’s work, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
The eleven years following the death of Henry VIII in 1547 were among the most turbulent in English history. Not only was Henry succeeded by a minor, but he in turn was to be succeeded by two women in an age which considered child and women rulers to be destabilising factors.
Perhaps the main problems in Edward’s reign were his protectors or regents, the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland. Each, but particularly the latter, used his position to further his own interests.
Indeed, Northumberland took the step of attempting to place Lady Jane Grey, an ardent Protestant, whom he had married to his son, upon the throne in an effort both to secure the continuance of Protestantism and his political hegemony.
Weir challenges the conventional picture of Edward. Contrary to the received understanding, he was not a sickly child, but rather a robust one until he succumbed to tuberculosis. Moreover, he was well-educated and, it appears from the evidence, highly intelligent. He was a convinced Protestant who was happy to see the advancement of Protestantism.
Weir examines Elizabeth’s changing fortunes under Edward VI and Mary I.
During the reign of Edward VI, Elizabeth matured into womanhood and enjoyed a happy existence. Her fortunes were somewhat different under Mary.
The picture painted of Elizabeth during this period is the conventional one: a shrewd, cunning women, who was adroit in manipulating situations so as to, if not further her own cause, at least survive.
Thus, whilst she was a convinced Protestant, Elizabeth not only outwardly conformed to Catholic practices, but at key moments made a demonstration of her Catholicity to Mary I. The relationship between the two women was an interesting one. It seems Mary had always tried to like Elizabeth. Despite advice from some of her most trusted advisers, Mary refused to execute her sister, even when there was evidence linking her to the Wyatt rebellion.
Alison Weir attempts to provide an in-depth portrait of Mary, the most controversial of Henry’s children.
She acknowledges that Mary was initially a very popular ruler, evidenced by the lack of support for Northumberland’s attempt at placing Lady Jane Grey upon the throne of England. In fact, large numbers of men volunteered to serve under leaders loyal to Mary and in some cases, whole bands of troops raised to support Lady Jane Grey defected to Mary.
However, Weir concentrates on Mary’s weaknesses. Thus, she highlights the unpopularity of Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain and a foreign policy that was irrevocably linked, in the minds of her subjects, with that union.
Weir consistently argues that the burning of approximately 300 heretics made Mary unpopular with her subjects. Some recent historians have tended to downplay the impact of these executions, arguing that this was an age in which large numbers of people were executed annually.
Some studies also argue that many of those executed by Mary held radical beliefs for which people were burnt at the stake under the Protestant Tudor monarchs.
But, as Weir points out, England was not used to the numbers of people being burnt at the stake for their religious beliefs, citing the figures of such executions during the reigns of other Tudor monarchs: 10 in the 24 years of Henry VII and 81 in the 38 years of Henry VIII’s reign.
The figure that Weir quotes for Elizabeth’s reign, five in 45 years is, however, misleading. She was to execute over 300 religious dissidents, namely Roman Catholics, who refused to accept the reformed religion. She did so by making the practice of Roman Catholicism a treasonable, rather than a religious offence, for which the punishment was death by being hanged, drawn and quartered.
Furthermore, Mary was repeatedly advised, often by leading Catholics, to execute Protestants in private, reduce the numbers, or in some cases, cease executing Protestants, as these executions were far from popular.
Weir suggests that the English were relieved to hear of Mary’s demise and Elizabeth’s succession.
Such an interpretation, however, fails to consider recent studies, such as The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy (which is not referred to in Weir’s biography) that argue convincingly that Catholicism was the preferred religion of the English.
Duffy points out that the overwhelming majority of the people, even in the most Protestantised areas of England such as Kent, welcomed the return to Roman Catholicism. Thus, people were generally quick and eager to re-establish Catholic worship, even during the period early in Mary’s reign when both the Book of Common Prayer and the Mass were acceptable.
Anglicanism, according to Duffy, became the religion acceptable to the majority of Englishmen, not because Roman Catholicism was associated with the fires of Smithfield, but because those who could remember Catholicism died out:
“By the end of the 1570s … a generation was growing up which had known nothing else, which believed the Pope to be Antichrist, the Mass a mummery, which did not look back to the Catholic past as their own.”