History is full of examples of people who get caught up in the politics and struggles for power in their day. Lambert Simnel, for example, was the son of a baker whose resemblance to the sons of Edward VI led to him being installed as the figurehead for a rebellion against Henry VII. Yet whilst Simnel was cajoled into involving himself in early Tudor politics, aristocrats, by birth, were unavoidably caught up in the struggles of their day, by merit of the bloodline and descent from older kings. Consequently, aristocratic support was vital to the success of a monarch’s decisions.
Equally, when rebellion and disenfranchisement broke out, the king or queen would look to the country’s aristocracy for support, as would the rebels themselves. Unfortunately, this meant that otherwise-retiring individuals, who by choice probably would keep out of the court’s business, were required to involve themselves publically in any pressing matter of national importance. In times of peace, these expectations were rarely an inconvenience, beyond requiring prominent families to make visible appearances on state occasions. Tudor England, alas, was anything but a peaceful place in the 1550s, as it recovered from Henry VIII’s controversial reign which had sundered the country.
Henry’s religious policies had caused a bitter division between die-hard Catholics and those willing to follow the new Church of England. His numerous wives and their offspring, with their differing religious beliefs and political affiliations, had also added a decidedly unstable flavor to the English Crown. Into this maelstrom of conflict was thrust Lady Jane Grey (c.1537-54), a teenage noblewoman who was made Queen of England, apparently against her will, by a bevy of powerful noblemen, and tragically executed after only a few days in power. But how did this come about, and who was she? Find out here…
Background: The English Reformation
When Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church in Wittenberg in 1517, he was protesting against the excesses of the Catholic Church, an institution that had become enormously wealthy because of its corruption. What he could never have imagined was that his ethical protest would be used by a fat, largely-infertile, man to divorce his wife and marry his mistress. And yet, although it was legitimized by intellectual movements on the continent, the English Reformation ultimately came about because of Henry VIII’s burning desire to have a son, to achieve which he decided he needed a new wife.
This all began in 1526, when Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was over 40, her body battered by a series of miscarriages. At the same time, he became enraptured by a young, flirtatious, and well-educated woman at his court, Anne Boleyn. Henry, who once boasted that ‘I never spared any man in my anger nor woman in my lust’, was determined to ‘know’ Anne in the biblical sense, but she would not welcome his advances whilst his wife was still alive. Fortunately, rather than killing poor Catherine, Henry made it his mission to divorce her, and marry Anne.
Catholicism in the 16th century, however, did not allow divorce. Catherine had been married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, and so first he tried to have the marriage annulled on these grounds. Unfortunately, the Pope, who sympathized with the pious Catherine, refused. Henry thus consulted Thomas Cranmer, a radical Cambridge scholar, who encouraged him to change tactics altogether. Seizing upon Luther’s work on the continent, Henry attacked the Catholic Church for ‘clerical abuses’, and proclaimed himself, rather than the Pope, head of the English Church, which was now fully divorced from Rome, gave himself a divorce, and married Anne.
In 1534 Henry passed the ‘Act of Supremacy’, which formally set up the Church of England, and started the Reformation, which saw England change from a Catholic to a Protestant country. Henry set about closing down the Catholic religious houses and stealing their wealth to replenish the royal coffers, known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and had the English Book of Common Prayer published for the new church. The monasteries were demolished in some cases, as one of the theological charges against the Catholic Church was idolatry (the worshipping of sacred images, explicitly forbidden in the Ten Commandments).
Within 8 years, the Dissolution had raised Henry £1 million. As you can imagine, at a time when religion was all-important, this sudden change from Catholicism to the new Protestant faith did not sit well with some people, who saw the Reformation as blasphemous. This caused a great schism between those who adapted, and those who did not. Refusal to acknowledge the Church of England meant not acknowledging Henry’s power, and thus made opponents traitors and blasphemers. Thus Henry treated obstinate Catholics cruelly, leading to much dissent and resentment, which showed no signs of ending after his death in 1547.