Saturday, 3 July 2010

Monday 3 July 1553 – Mary must act

“At this time that most holy lady and princess whose history I have here undertaken..... was living at Hunsdon; very shrewdly she got wind of the aristocratic conspiracy aimed at her destruction, and being secretly informed by those most loyal to her of how near her brother was to his end, she took counsel for herself as wisely as she could.”

(Robert Wingfield of Brantham, The Vita Mariae Angliae Reginae, 1554 – a contemporary account of the circumstances of Mary’s accession)

At the start of the last week of Edward VI’s life, his sister Mary was residing at one of her favourite residences, Hunsdon, twenty miles outside the city of London. Many of the most important occasions in her life had taken place at this estate. It was here that she learnt of the destruction of her opponent, Anne Boleyn. It was at Hunsdon that Mary submitted to her father’s wishes by declaring herself to be illegitimate and denying papal supremacy. Now it was where she learnt that her brother would soon be dead and the duke of Northumberland and his allies were eager to have her in their custody. The informer’s message to her was clear: run.

Meanwhile in London, the fifteen-year-old king was rapidly deteriorated. Struggling to breathe, coughing up copious amounts of foul fluids and wracked with pain, Edward was still preoccupied with matters of state. It was clear now that he would not live long enough to see a parliament convene that could overturn the parliamentary statue that had included his sisters within the succession and that could ratify his own plans. But that did not mean his scheme would certainly fail and he was prepared to win the support of those around him before he died. Ironically, amongst the men he had to persuade was Archbishop Cranmer – the illustrious Marian martyr – who had doubts about the legitimacy of the plot. Though young, Edward was his father’s son and won Cranmer around to his way of thinking.

Whilst Jane Grey’s supporters were concerned about the success of their cause, Mary and her friends were getting worried. She was so near London; the duke could take her at any moment. And though the king’s ill health was an open secret there was uncertainty about when exactly he would die and how the conspirators would act. Different reports were circulating and Mary had to trust some over others. Should she trust the informer and move herself away from London – from the centre of power? Was the act of fleeing merely prolonging the inevitable and the duke would still get to her or would it allow her to secure significant support in East Anglia. And was her brother going to die at any moment; if he was not, and she fled, her actions could be represented as seditious and her cause further worsened. Mary had to decide quickly. She made her decision the following evening. Fortunately it was the right one.

(Image: Hunsdon, depicted in the background of a portrait of Prince Edward by an unknown artist, c.1546.)

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