“....to escape as soon as possible from the jaws of her enemies, she set out secretly from Hunsdon, giving out as reason for her change of residence that her physician Rowland Scurloch, an Irishman born to a noble disposition and well-disposed to her friends, seemed to be gravely ill. From there she made a difficult and tiresome journey, hurrying at the dead of night...”
(Wingfield, The Vita Mariae Angliae Reginae, 1554)
In late 1141, a woman secretly escaped out of London in the middle of the night. Fighting to become England’s first female ruler, the lady had unfortunately worsened her cause and lost the support of the city. She fled in disgrace having failed to crush her enemies. She would never become queen.
The woman in question was Matilda, ‘Lady of the English’, the only legitimate child of Henry I. Unlike Henry VIII who went to extraordinary lengths to ensure he would not have a female succeed him, Henry I admitted defeat and left the throne to his last surviving legitimate child. But Matilda failed to become queen; instead a cousin, Stephen of Blois, took the throne and ruled until his death upon which Matilda’s heir, Henry of Anjou, became Henry II. When Matilda fled from London it was in defeat and when Mary Tudor rushed as far away from the same capital as she could in July 1553 some worried she too was giving up. The Imperial ambassadors, who represented her cousin Charles V at the English court, were beside themselves with worry. Her cause, they wrote to Charles, was ‘well-nigh impossible’ without military aid from abroad – in other words from himself. Without significant numbers of troops, the duke of Northumberland would succeed in establishing Jane Grey on the throne and Mary would end up captured, with heaven knows what else happening to her next. And surely Mary could never raise such troops on her own. If Charles did not help his cousin, her flight would be as pathetic as Matilda’s escapade.
When Mary fled secretly on the night of 4 July from Hunsdon it was not done in shame but committed in the belief that now she must act. She had decided that the throne was rightful hers and that regardless of the risks she would find the support she needed to press her claim by force. As the Imperial ambassadors remarked, “My Lady has firmly made up her mind that she must act in this manner, and that otherwise she will fall into still greater danger and lose all hope of coming to the throne”. Charles V may have been sitting on the fence waiting to see how she fared, and his representatives may have doubted her, but Mary would not admit defeat so easily.
Thus shrouded in darkness – she cunningly chose to leave in the very late hours – Mary travelled northwards throughout Hertfordshire. However troublesome and frightening the journey was for herself and her retinue of just six, they managed to escape unnoticed, heading for Swaston Hall the residence of Sir John Huddleston. Huddleston, a devout Catholic, was awaiting Mary’s arrival with much eagerness. An excellent host, Huddleston also proved an able commander. He would shortly take as prisoner the son of one of the highest peers in the land prompting the same nobleman to abandon Jane Grey and support the princess. When it came to friends, Mary was truly blessed.
(Image - Sawston Hall, Sawston, Cambridgeshire.)