It is March 24, 1603. Queen Elizabeth I dies at Richmond Palace in Surrey at the age of 69. She does not leave an heir. The question of her successor had been a hotly debated topic throughout her reign as noted by E.W. Ives in his excellent article "Tudor dynastic problems revisited" (Historical Research: Volume 81, Issue 212, pages 255-279, May 2008.)
Peaceful successions were largely unknown after the death of Edward III until 1603 when Elizabeth I died, and she was succeeded by her kinsman, James VI of Scotland. (There would be further blips along the way (execution of Charles I in 1649, Charles II's restoration in 1660, the Glorious Revolution in 1689 when James II fled & Parliament offered the throne to James's elder daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, a dynast in his own right as James II's nephew, culminating in the Act of Settlement in 1701, establishing the succession of Sophia, Electress of Hanover and her Protestant descendants.)
None of these latter events would have occurred if Parliament had not chosen to ignore Henry VIII's will and the Third Act of Succession (1543). This Act superseded two previous succession laws passed during Henry's reign. The heir to the throne was Henry's only son, Edward, born in 1537. This new law restored the succession rights of Henry's two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth to the succession after Edward, his children and any children Henry might have by his wife, Katherine Parr.
Everyone knows how Henry VII came to the throne. He was the only child of Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor. Margaret's own claim to the English throne was controversial as she was a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, third surviving son of Edward III, and his third wife, Katherine Swynford (previously his mistress.) Their children were legitimated by the marriage, but they were denied dynastic rights. They did not succeed to the throne by inheritance, but through force.
Margaret's grandfather was John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset.
There were no established laws for succession, although male primogeniture was the accepted practice. Women were not barred although their rights were not encouraged.
Edward III died on June 21, 1377, and was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II, who was the younger son of Edward's eldest son, Edward (the Black Prince.) He also had an older brother, Edward of Angouleme, but the Black Prince and his elder son predeceased Edward III, thus bringing Richard II to the throne.
A real Game of Thrones was about to begin. In 1399, Richard II's cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke (son of John of Gaunt by his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster), deposed Richard II (who died a year later.) Henry was next in line to the throne, according to Edward III's entailment in 1376. But he was not the senior heir, and, in 1399, Richard II had changed the entailment that gave precedence to the descendants of Prince Lionel (second son of Edward III.) Richard, who was married twice and had no children, considered Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March, as his heir.
This where it gets even more confusing. Edmund (1391-1425) was the grandson of Philippa Plantagenet and the 3rd Earl of March. Philippa was the daughter of Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Philippa's line of descent was superior to that of Henry of Bolingbroke.
Henry managed to convince the people and Parliament that his claim was superior to the Earl of March, and he became King Henry IV. (The Mortimer claim devolved through Anne Mortimer (daughter of 4th Earl of March, and thus a great-granddaughter of Lionel) who married Richard,3rd Earl of Cambridge. This branch will have their chance to fight for the throne. Keep reading! )
Henry IV managed to stay on the throne until his death at age 46 on March 20, 1413. He was succeeded by his son, Henry V, who died on August 31, 1422 at the age 36. The Lancaster line seemed secure until Henry V's unexpected death. His successor was his infant son, Henry VI. Difficult to keep control when the sovereign still needs to have his diapers changed.
It was during Henry VI's reign that the War of the Roses began in earnest. Several family members were named as Regents for the infant king. His mother, Catherine of Valois, married Owen Tudor, and had two more sons, Edmund and Jasper. (Edmund Tudor married Margaret Beaufort, and were the parents of Henry VII.)
Henry, who became of age in 1437, was a deeply religious and pious man, opposed to war. He married Marguerite of Anjou in 1445. She was certainly a forceful personality, a woman to be reckoned with, especially after Henry suffered a mental breakdown and she gave birth to their only child, Edward (1453-1471.)
The story becomes even more complicate for the cousins - the Lancaster branch descended from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and the York branch, then headed by Richard, 2rd Duke of York (1411-1460). The Duke of York had two Plantagenet lines, He had a direct male line claim through Edward of Langley, 1st Duke of York, and his first wife, Isabella of Castile. He was their grandson. He also had a more senior claim through his mother, Anne Mortimer, a great-granddaughter of Lionel. Within a short amount of time, Richard became the heir to the Mortimer, Cambridge and York claims to the throne, His uncle, Edward, the 2nd Duke of York, was killed at the Battle of Agincourt.
Richard, Duke of York, married Cecily Neville. Cecily's mother, Joan Beaufort, was the daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. She was also a half niece of Henry IV and was the aunt of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who would be known as the Kingmaker.
The Duke and Duchess of York had seven surviving children including Anne (Duchess of Exeter), Edward IV, Elizabeth (Duchess of Suffolk,) Margaret (Duchess of Burgundy, George (Duke of Clarence) and Richard III.
At some points the lines became blurred as close family members turned on each other changing sides, as the winds shifted. Members of the two sides were killed in battle, executed, imprisoned, forfeited estates and titles, but no dragons.
Henry VI recovered on Christmas Day 1454, but soon learned that the heads of several noble families, including the Earl of Warwick, were unhappy with the Lancastrians, and began to support the Duke of York as the eventual King.
This led to further insurrection, and the Duke was killed in December 1460 by forces loyal to Queen Marguerite's forces. By early March, 1461, Henry was deposed and imprisoned. The Duke of York's eldest son, Edward, became King Edward IV. Henry was able to secure his release after the second Battle of St. Albans, but did not manage to keep his throne. Henry and Marguerite fled to Scotland before Edward could catch them. It seemed the Lancastrians were losing power.
Edward would soon have a falling out with his brother, the Duke of Clarence, and the Earl of Warwick. Clarence was married to Warwick's daughter, Isobel. They were in cahoots with King Louis XI of France, and Queen Marguerite. Warwick's other daughter, Anne, was married to Marguerite's son, Edward. Warwick would pay dearly for switching sides.
Now with the support of the Lancastrians, Warwick deposed King Edward, and Henry VI was restored to the throne on October 30, 1470. The real rulers were Warwick and Clarence. Henry VI's reign lasted for six months before Warwick declared on war on Burgundy. A bad decision as the Duke of Burgundy was married to Edward's sister, Margaret. Burgundy provided the much needed support to restore Edward to the throne in early 1471. Clarence decided to break with Warwick and return to supporting his brother. Warwick was killed in battle, and the Lancastrians suffered a major defeat on May 4, 1471 at the Battle of Tewkesbury, where Henry VI's son, Edward, was killed. Already imprisoned in the Tower, Henry VI died several weeks after his son. It seems probable that he was murdered on Edward's order. Marguerite was held prisoner until 1475, when Louis XI paid a ransom for her and she returned to France.
One of the primary reasons for Warwick's decision to change sides was Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, and the ascendancy of her family, especially her siblings who married members of the English nobility.
This battle was the final turning point for the house of York. What would follow would be an internecine struggle among the brothers of the house. With the Lancastrians defeated, the only rival left was Henry Tudor, son of Margaret of Beaufort, and he was living in Brittany, watching, waiting, biding his time.
The widowed Anne Neville was the co-heiress with her sister, Isobel, to their mother's vast fortune. This situation would lead to another family quarrel as the Duke of Clarence wanted to get his hands on the entire fortune. His younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, wanted to marry Anne, but Clarence opposed the marriage. He tried to hide Anne, but Richard found her and brought her to sanctuary. Richard and Anne were married, perhaps in the spring of 1472. A year later, she gave birth to their only child, Edward. He lived for only ten years, dying in April 1484.
Clarence was the family troublemaker. He had tasted power and he liked it. Although, he had originally reconciled with his brother, King Edward, he was found guilty in 1478 of plotting against him, was placed in the Tower, and killed, most likely downed in a butt of Malmsey.
Two years earlier, Clarence's wife, Isobel had died, leaving behind two children, Edward, the Earl of Warwick, and Margaret, eventually Countess of Salisbury in her own right. The two children were placed in the Duchess of Gloucester's custody.
Keeping score? Soon, this will be tied into what could have happened in 1603.
King Edward IV's health began to decline in the spring of 1483. He added a codicil to his will naming his younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as Protector, after his death. He died on April 9, 1483, and was succeeded by his 12-year-old son, Edward V.
If you could not trust one brother, why would you trust the other? Richard III took the throne on June 26, 1483, supported by the Titulus Regius, which stated (rubber stamped) that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, and their children were illegitimate, and could not succeeded to the throne.
How convenient for Richard III. Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, were kept in the Tower of London, and never seen again after the summer of 1483. In my view (others will disagree), the two young boys were murdered on the orders of uncle Richard. His own son, the young Edward, Prince of Wales, died 1484. Queen Anne died in March 1485, thankfully, before her husband's rather violent end. He apparently named his young nephew, the Earl of Warwick, as his heir.
Support for Richard III did not last long, as once loyal supporters, such as the Duke of Buckingham, began to plan to overthrow Richard, and put Henry Tudor on the throne, and have Henry marry Elizabeth of York, Edward IV's eldest daughter. This was a plan that also had the support of Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor's mother.
It was on August 22, 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated and killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The wedding took place in January 1486, unifying the house of Lancaster (albeit through a legitimated and distaff line) and the House of York (and Cambridge and March) with a new dynasty: the Tudors.
Henry worked quickly to cement his own power. Even before heading to London, he ordered the arrest of 10-year-old Edward, Earl of Warwick (son of the Duke of Clarence). Warwick spent the rest of his life in the Tower of London. He was beheaded for treason in 1499. Warwick was the last of the direct male line from Edward III.
Henry VIII was determined to snuff out all of the remaining Yorkist heirs. William de la Pole, a son of Edward IV's sister, Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk, died in the Tower in 1539. A year earlier, he ordered the execution of Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, son of Edward IV's daughter, and Henry, Pole, Lord Montague, son of the Countess of Salisbury, who was executed without trial at age 66 on May 27, 1541.
Margaret Salisbury was the daughter of Isobel Neville and the Duke of Clarence, and sister of the Earl of Warwick, killed in 1499.
Henry's three succession laws and his will further defined the succession to the throne. His final will and testament, signed on December 30, 1546, maintained the succession of his children, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth and the descendants of his younger sister, Mary. He excluded the descendants of his older sister, Margaret, who had married King James IV of Scotland, whose paternal great-grandmother, Joan Beaufort, was the daughter of John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, and thus, a granddaughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. King James IV and Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, were third cousins.
Henry died on January 27, 1547, and was succeeded by his young son, Edward VI. The young Protestant king, influenced by his Seymour relatives, issued a Letters Patent on June 21, 1553, naming his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir.
This was not an act of Parliament, however, and when Edward died at the age of 15 in July 1553, Lady Jane was queen for a brief nine days until Mary, as the rightful heir, was proclaimed Queen. Mary died on November 17, 1558, and she was succeeded by her younger half sister, Elizabeth, fulfilling the requirements of the Third Succession law and Henry VIII's will.
The succession law was never changed during Elizabeth's reign. There was ample opportunity to have Parliament promulgate a new succession law. The only other heirs to the throne were the descendants of Henry VIII's younger sister, Mary, and her second husband, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. They had two sons, both died young, and two daughters, Lady Frances (1517-1559) and Lady Eleanor.
Lady Frances was married to Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. They had three daughters,Lady Jane (the nine days' queen), Lady Catherine and Lady Mary. Lady Jane was executed in 1554 and Mary died without issue in 1578. Thus, the focus was on Lady Catherine and her descendants. She fell in love with Edward Seymour, Marquess of Hertford. The marriage was clandestine, and without Queen Elizabeth's permission. She was sent to the Tower, where she lived where she gave birth to two sons, Edward (1561--1612) and Thomas (1562-1600). She died at the age of 27 from tuberculosis on January 26, 1568.
The marriage was annulled in 1562, and Lady Catherine's two sons were declared illegitimate, but as the years went by, they were seen as possible heirs to the throne.
Lady Frances' younger sister, Lady Eleanor, married Henry Clifford, 2nd Earl of Cumberland. Their only surviving child, Lady Margaret (1540-1596), married Henry Stanley, 4th Earl of Derby. They had four sons. The eldest surviving son, Ferdinando (5th Earl of Derby) died only two years before his mother, rather unexpectedly, perhaps poisoned due to Catholic plotters who wanted him to claim the throne, although he rejected their support and turned them over to the authorities.
Lady Margaret Clifford's position as a senior heir was clarified as far back as 1552 when the Duke of Northumberland wanted to marry his son Guildford to her. King Edward VI was in favor the marriage, but her parents did not agree. Northumberland then arranged a marriage between Guildford and Margaret's first cousin, Lady Jane Grey.
She married the Earl of Derby in 1554. It was not a happy or successful marriage. It seems the Countess of Derby was aware of her position, and embraced it to her cost. She was arrested in 1579 after having a conversation about Queen Elizabeth's proposed marriage to the Duke of Alencon. The Countess made it known that she was opposed to a marriage because it could affect her own dynastic rights. She was put under house arrest after she was accused of sorcery to predict Elizabeth's death.
Margaret's sorcerer was actually her own doctor. He was executed but the Countess of Derby was never charged although she was banished from the court. She sent frequent letters to the queen: "black dungeon of sorrow and despair....overwhelmed with heaviness through the loss of your majesty's favor and gracious countenance."
Thus, following Margaret's death in 1596, her granddaughter, Lady Anne Stanley (1580-1647) who became the heiress presumptive to the English throne, according to Henry VIII's will. (If she had come to the throne, her life would have been very different. Lady Anne was married twice. Her second husband, the Earl of Castlehaven, was found guilty on April 25, 1631, her husband, the Earl of Castlehaven, sodomy with one of his servants) and rape (of his wife, restraining her while another of his servants raped her). He was beheaded on May 14 1631. )
Others supported Lady Catherine Grey's eldest son, Edward Seymour, Viscount Beauchamp, who was married to Honora Rogers, by whom he had six children. The succession law was never changed, but Elizabeth did not favor her cousins who were legal dynasts. It would have been easy for Parliament to pass legislation recognizing Catherine Grey's marriage, thus recognizing Edward's succession rights as the future Edward VII. But Elizabeth was not keen on Lord Beauchamp, stating: 'I will have no Rascall to succeed me, as who should succeed me but a King?'
Henry VIII chose to exclude the descendants of his older sister, Margaret (1489-1541), the consort of James IV of Scotland, whom she married in 1503. One assumes this was done because Margaret married into a foreign royal house. Ten years later, James died, and was succeeded by his young, James V (1512-1542). James V died only 6 days after the birth of his only surviving legitimate child, Mary, Queen of Scots.
Queen Margaret was pregnant when her husband died. She gave birth posthumously to another son, Alexander, in April 1514. He lived for about a year. In August 1514, she secretly married Archibald Douglas, Earl of Arran. She gave birth to a daughter, Lady Margaret Douglas in October 1515.
This marriage ended in divorce in 1527. A year later, she married Henry Stewart, created Lord Methven by James V.
Genealogically, Margaret's line was superior to the descendants of her younger sister, Princess Mary. Margaret's granddaughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, married her first half cousin, Henry, Lord Darnley, whose mother was Lady Margaret Douglas, who married Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox. Thus, James VI was a double great-grandson of Margaret Tudor.
By choosing to ignore her father's will, Elizabeth favored the true male primogeniture succession by recognizing that the descendants of her father's older sister, Margaret, took precedence over his younger sister, Mary's line, even though this favorite a foreign king over English cousins. This was the beginning of a personal union between England and Scotland. Had Parliament chosen to follow the legal succession, by offering the throne to Edward Seymour or Lady Anne Stanley, an Act of Union may never have happened, and British history would certainly be poorer without the foresight of Elizabeth I to bring together the two monarchies, uniting them with one sovereign.
The succession of one of Elizabeth's English cousins would also have meant no Act of Settlement in 1701, no George III or the American Revolution as we know it.