February 02, 2011

Henry VIII's will

In 1536, the north rose up in the largest revolt between the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War. Robert Aske, one of the leaders of that revolt, declared later under interrogation that one of his concerns was the succession: he said, under interrogation, that

he and al wise men of those partes then grodged at [28 Henry VIII c. 7] and that for diverss causes. On was that befor that estatut, sith the Conquiror, never King declared his Will of the crowne of this realme, nor never was ther known in this realme no such law
Aske was reflecting on one of the most controversial legal changes of Henry VIII's reign. In 1534, 1536 and 1544 Henry passed three succession acts. Three acts which attempted to will the crown to a particular descendent.

Eric Ives in an article in the journal Historical Research describes the acts. The 1534 act was not particularly radical as all it did was recognise that Henry had married a new wife and that his old marriage was illegitimate: it merely entrenched the reformation (the merely is partly ironical). However in 1536 and 1544 Henry went further. He not merely declared that his marriage to Aragon (and Boleyn) were invalid: he also said that after the demise of his first legitimate heir- Edward- he was able to set the succession. In 1536 he left it at that: and we are left to surmise who he meant. Ives guesses that he wished to place Richmond his son by Bessie Blount and then Elizabeth and Mary on the throne. Ives argues that the act was a nudge aimed at James V of Scotland, Henry's nephew. In 1544, after Richmond's death, the second act made the succession more explicit and this time we can see how it was aimed. Henry reasserted that he could establish the succession. Contrary to common law, he opted that after Edward the succession would not go to the first legitimate heir- James V- but would go to his basterd daughters- Elizabeth and Mary and after them would go to the heirs of his youngest sister Mary- the Grays.

This had vast consequences running through the centuries. Most immediately it set a pattern of confused successions which ran up until 1603. When Edward died in 1553, he left no heir. Edward nominated Jane Grey to succeed him- arguing that his father had made Mary illegitimate and that he might therefore will the crown to Jane. Jane and Mary for nine days battled it out and Mary eventually won becoming queen. In 1553 when she made her own birth legitimate- repealing the act declaring that Catherine of Aragon and Henry were not married, Mary was unable to repeal the act declaring Elizabeth her heir. The Lords and Commons, Sir William Paget told her, would not accept such a repeal. So Mary died too without issue and left the throne to Elizabeth. Elizabeth too disliked the act. Both her and Mary claimed they inherited the crown naturally and not by the 1544 act: and Elizabeth too sought to shut out the next in line- the Grey family. Elizabeth waited on the matter without deciding what to do and in the end James rather than the Greys succeeded. In 1553, 1558 and 1603 the absense of a straightforward succession and the availability of two methods of succession (common law and Henry's acts) caused confusion.

More especially though it led to something else. Henry's acts proceeded from the crown to Parliament and the Commons and Lords recognised what Henry had done. In 1553, if Ives is right, they prevented Mary changing the succession acts to stop Elizabeth. Just as importantly during Elizabeth's reign on two occasions Parliament decided that it faced a situation where Elizabeth might die: if she died the establishment decided that a Parliament would have to be calleed to invalidate the succession of her heir presumptive- the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. As a constitutional precedent therefore Henry's act was important to the Bond of Association of 1585, and was discussed even as late as the exclusion crisis in 1679-81. Henry's acts though were invalidated by the Stuart succession of 1603- James became King, whereas Henry would have intended Edward Seymour to succeed Elizabeth. Furthermore lawyers echoed the judgement of Robert Aske. Sir Matthew Hale concluded that the experiment of Henry's acts had never worked and so were not noteworthy in England's constitutional history.

Ives shows that Hale was wrong. The experiments are noteworthy. Without Henry's act, neither Mary (1553-8) nor Elizabeth (1558-1603) might have become Queen. Elizabeth in particular is a key monarch in British history: it is afterall her Church of England that survives and she was the first supreme governor of that Church (Henry was the supreme Head). Furthermore Henry's act, just as the Reformation acts, established that Parliament was the arena in which such matters might be discussed. Ives's article reasserts their importance in the constitutional revolutions of the 16th Century and thus is to be welcomed.


James Higham said...

Edward nominated Jane Grey to succeed him- arguing that his father had made Mary illegitimate and that he might therefore will the crown to Jane.

And so it should have been. What a tragic lady.

goodbanker said...

I enjoyed reading this, though it shames me somewhat (as I increasingly realise how shallow my knowledge of the Tudors is). For my education, what's the distinction you're drawing, in your final paragraph, between supreme head and supreme governor?

On a more mischievous note, did Aske teach you spelling? ;-) (Of course, this is a totally unfair comment, as I haven't spotted a single spelling mistake in your post! What's going on??)

Gracchi said...

James yes her life was tragic and Ives has done a biography on her which is well worth reading.


The distinction between supreme head and supreme governor is fascinating. Basically when Henry became head of the Church of England in the 1530s he was made supreme head of the church and that's the title that Edward VI inherited when he became King. Mary of course doesn't have a role in the church as she goes back to Rome. In 1558-9 when Elizabeth reimposes the royal supremacy through Parliament one of the issues that people argue against her with is that she is a woman: so she attempts to downgrade her 'headship' by being supreme governor rather than supreme head.

Gracchi said...

Oh and on the Aske point: yes Early Modern spelling has had a destructive effect on my own ability to write :)