The middle third or so of the sixteenth century, the period from Henry VIII’s break with Rome to the early part of Elizabeth I’s reign, brought a new kind of instability to England. There had been baronial revolts before, and peasant revolts before, and contests over the royal succession before, but nothing to match the sequence of insurrections of that era, and nothing to equal the range of political, social, and ideological grievances that provoked them.
The Reformation, which convulsed European politics for a century, would have severely threatened England’s unity even if the Tudor monarchy had introduced it with steadiness and consistency. Instead there were abrupt and extreme changes of course, which turned on conflicts of faiths within the ruling family. Henry renounced the papacy but retained Catholic theology. Protestant doctrine was imposed under his son, the boy Edward VI, who succeeded him in 1547. Between 1553 and 1558, under Edward’s successor, his half-sister Mary, England was reclaimed for papal supremacy and Catholic teaching. In 1559 Edward’s and Mary’s half-sister Queen Elizabeth reversed those steps.
In hereditary monarchies the births, marriages, and deaths of princes are the basic determinant of political life, and uncertainties over the royal succession its basic curse. The Tudors quarreled among themselves over the future occupancy of the throne. Inevitably adherents of the rival faiths polarized around the competing candidates. Instability extended from the court to the regions, where the Reformation not merely altered the practice of religion but also challenged the entire network of social habits and communal relations with which the Church was bound. There was another royal threat to the regions, or at least to the barons who led them. The Tudors were resolved to break the independence of the magnates, to weaken their military and feudal following, and to bring the outlying provinces under central control.
The uprisings began and ended with two great revolts in the north of England, the “Pilgrimage of Grace” of 1536 and the revolt of the “Northern Earls” in 1569. Both movements were defenses of the Catholic faith, but they also stood for the feudal way of life and for regional loyalties. Religious and provincial allegiances merged again in the “Prayer Book rebellion” in the southwest of England in 1549, the year that also produced the insurrection led by Robert Ket in East Anglia. Five years later the Catholic reaction under Queen Mary provoked the Protestant uprising in Kent led by Thomas Wyatt.
Perilous as all those insurgencies seemed to the regimes that they assailed, and uncertain as their outcomes appeared at the time, they all failed. The common causes of their failure have become something of a scholarly industry. The rebels, who were too easily divided and too uncertain in their aims and focus, mostly stood for social arrangements that had united priests and people, or that had held urban or farming communities together, but that were under fatal challenge. The sense of doom is deepened by the aftermath of the uprisings. Though there were conspiracies after 1569, their scope and frequency declined as Protestantism entrenched itself and as the barons and regions were tamed.
Yet there was one mid-Tudor uprising that succeeded. It tends to get omitted from lists of the rebellions, because of a trick of the historical light. Uprisings get called rebellions only when they fail. When they succeed, we subconsciously confer legitimacy on them and illegitimacy on the rulers they topple. Thus we do not think of Henry VII, who initiated the Tudor dynasty by overthrowing Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, as a rebel, as we would do if he had lost the battle. By the same token we do not apply the term “rebellion” to the uprising by Mary Tudor in 1553 that is the subject of Eric Ives’s Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, and that disproves the rule of the impotence of sixteenth-century insurrections.
On the death of Edward VI in that year, Henry VIII’s great-niece the Protestant Jane Grey was proclaimed his successor. She had probably just turned sixteen. She did not live to be crowned. Her reign, which was barely longer than the “nine days’ wonder” that it has become in the popular imagination, collapsed after Mary raised an army in East Anglia, where Robert Ket had risen four years earlier. Jane was beheaded as a traitor, and Mary ruled securely until her own death from cancer five years later at the age of forty-two. In most of the history books Mary is the rightful queen, Jane a usurper whose name is omitted from the rulers of England.
At first glance that seems fair enough. In hereditary monarchies, after all, the succession normally follows lines of direct family descent. Daughters are direct descendants, as great-nieces are not. Yet Jane’s claim had a good case behind it. Eric Ives, emeritus professor at the University of Birmingham in England and a veteran of Tudor studies, adroitly makes it. Henry’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, had died in 1536, Catherine from natural causes, Anne on the scaffold. By parliamentary legislation of the same year the King had their respective daughters, Mary and the future Elizabeth I, declared illegitimate.
That left Jane Grey’s mother Frances, the daughter of Henry’s sister Mary, as the successor (for there was a general agreement to exclude the Scottish line that descended from the marriage of Henry’s older sister Margaret). Although the Greys lost their claim when the future Edward VI was born in 1537, they would resume it if Edward died childless, as in the event he did. Yet the rules of the royal succession were full of uncertainty. Henry compounded the problem by further legislation of 1544 that cast doubt on his earlier arrangements. Edward, during his teenage reign, drafted a confusing series of instructions to determine the succession on his own death. Intended to extract his dynasty from the hole his father’s arrangements had dug, they deepened it.
There was in any case a murky legal issue. Could kings nominate their heirs? Or was the succession governed by the principles of common law that governed the descent of property? If the latter, then the illegitimate Mary and Elizabeth remained barred. On Edward’s death the succession issue was a hopeless mess. The illegitimacy of Henry’s daughters nonetheless seemed a clinching consideration, or anyway was used as one. Jane’s assumption of the crown commanded support not only from the lawyers. It had the survivors of Edward VI’s council unanimously behind it, even though most of them reneged when Jane’s hold on the throne weakened. “Right,” explains Ives, “was on the side of Jane Grey. Mary Tudor was the rebel.” If so, Mary’s accession, no less than that of her grandfather in 1485, was a usurpation dignified by its success.
How the wheel of historiographical fashion has turned. A generation or two ago, Ives’s subject would have seemed trivial. Of what interest, it was then asked, were squabbles for power among princes and princesses, those petty occurrences on the surface of history, mere tweaks of Clio’s rudder, beneath which great currents of social or economic development flowed? There were two other objections. First, most preindustrial politics were royal or aristocratic politics. Had they not excluded the great mass of humanity, to which history had never given its due? Secondly, the writing of political history involves the study of events and thus the construction of narratives of them. Historians, an expanding profession seeking professional respectability, did not want to be thought of as mere storytellers. They found more dignity in the scientific methods of analysis that characterized the study of social and economic history, where events counted for less, and where determinist or neodeterminist perspectives prevailed. At Princeton the leading figure of the new methodology, Lawrence Stone, set out to marginalize political history.
He lived to regret it. The study of political events has reasserted itself. Determinism has yielded to a renewed insistence on contingency and on the consequences of human decision-making. The art of narrative, having been mistrusted as seductive or mindless decoration, has won a degree of professional acceptance. The charge of elitism has also lost something of its force, for historians now detect hitherto unsuspected degrees of political consciousness and participation among the underprivileged. In consequence, political and social history can be partners rather than rivals. Ives’s skillful and enjoyable narrative stretches beyond the court into the regions, where the willingness or unwillingness of tenants or small freeholders to follow landlords into battle could help determine the occupant of the throne.
Ives tells a story of narrow margins. At its center is not Jane, who was reluctantly persuaded to take the throne, and whose hold on power, as Ives relates it, came close to surviving, but her father-in-law John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who did the persuading. He had dominated the government of Edward. His career reinforces the point that emerges from the study of sixteenth-century rebellions: in historical interpretation nothing fails like failure. Posterity has seen the duke as the leader of a ruthlessly self-seeking faction. To Ives he was “one of the most able, principled, and successful” of the political grandees of the Tudor period. It is true that he was hated under Edward, but that was because he was determined to undo the damage to public order and fiscal stability wrought by his feckless predecessor the Duke of Somerset, a policy that required stern and unpopular measures.
The overthrow of Northumberland did offer him an alternative route to posthumous regard. He could have been hailed, alongside so many victims of Mary’s regime, as a Protestant martyr. Instead he renounced his faith on the scaffold, and so earned the detestation of the martyrologists. His abjuration was denounced by Jane herself, who soon followed him to the block. Her Protestantism was as ardent as Mary’s Catholicism. In that early stage of the Protestant faith, before its doctrines rigidified, its teaching was intimately bound to the revival of letters of the Renaissance. Jane, a precocious student who was taught by avant-garde scholars, and who in Ives’s words preferred “books to people,” was prepared for adulthood with an intellectual seriousness that we find, too, in the education of those other Protestant princes, Edward and Elizabeth. She seems to have studied biblical texts in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldaic, and Aramaic.
Northumberland by contrast was a starkly practical figure. He had a courageous and accomplished military record behind him. Upon Jane’s accession he led an army to East Anglia to confront Mary’s challenge. There he surrendered without a fight. Why? Ives explains the weaknesses of his position. While his colleagues dithered, Mary’s determined entourage was prepared for battle. Accidents of military and naval disposition brought Mary artillery and other military resources that the duke lacked. She commanded a breadth and depth of support in East Anglia that owed something to her Catholicism but perhaps at least as much to the social and economic influence of her household there.