By Valerie Schutte
On 19 July 1553, Mary I became England’s first queen regnant. Yet, it was not an easy road for her to get there. She was the only living heir of her parents, King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon, at the time of her birth on 18 February 1516. But her father had five subsequent marriages resulting in the birth of Elizabeth in 1533 and Edward in 1536. Both of Mary’s half-siblings displaced her in the line of succession. Henry VIII’s final will and testament reinstituted Mary in the line of succession, after her brother, even though it upheld her status as the king’s bastard.
Thus, when the childless Edward died on 6 July 1553, Mary’s transition to the throne should have been easy. But it was not. Shortly before his death, Edward, possibly under the influence of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, attempted to alter the succession to his Protestant Grey cousins through his “Deuise for the Succession.” On 10 July, Lady Jane Grey, daughter-in-law to Northumberland, was proclaimed Queen in Mary’s stead. Mary, however, gathered her supporters and headed north to Framlingham Castle. By 19 July, Mary was proclaimed queen, and Jane and Northumberland, along with many of Jane’s supporters, were sent to the Tower of London.
While the details of the accession are well-known, from Jane’s coup to Mary’s rallying of supporters to the speedy and bloodless handover of power, what is less familiar is the importance of texts to Mary’s accession. Traditionally, historians have primarily relied on chronicle accounts and ambassadorial letters to give a timeline of the events of July 1553. Yet, several manuscript and printed sources helped to determine the outcome of Mary’s accession, justified it, and called for unity among Mary’s people in the aftermath.
Of primary importance was Edward’s aforementioned “Deuise for the Succession,” which called for Edward’s sisters to be disbarred from succeeding him due to their status as bastards. There were also royal proclamations, such as those that announced both Jane and Mary as Queens of England. Popular texts – ballads, hymns, and broadsides – were used to spread the news of Mary’s triumph as well as give a concise account of what had happened since Edward’s death. Both official and non-official letters were shared among Mary, her council, and all of the resident ambassadors. Sermons both for and against Mary were given by men such as John Hooper, Nicholas Ridley, and Edwin Sandys. Finally, plays and panegyrics were written and performed at court. This variety of texts, both written and heard, highlights the role of text in legitimising the new queen and demonstrates how writers deployed so many different genres of text in order to announce or celebrate Mary’s accession.
While it is important to consult the chronicles and ambassadorial letters for an account of the political events of July 1553, they do not present a complete picture of Mary’s accession, popular opinion, and the ways in which the English people dealt with her gender and religion. Many other printed books and manuscripts were created in the immediate aftermath of Mary’s accession and give insight into the most pressing concerns for both queen and country at that moment. Often, popular texts stressed the treasonous activities of Northumberland, almost never mentioned Jane, and attempted to mitigate concerns over possible changes in religious policy. Accession texts showed no concern for her gender and accepted Mary as queen on the basis of dynastic tradition and familial lineage. These texts reveal that the commonly accepted conceptions of Mary at the start of her reign – unwelcome for her gender, religion, Spanish connections, or illegitimacy – are not borne out in the popular source material.
Hoak, Dale. “The Succession Crisis of 1553 and Mary’s Rise to Power.” In Catholic Renewal and Protestant Resistance in Marian England, edited by Elizabeth Evenden and Vivienne Westbrook, 17-42. Aldershot: Routledge, 2015.
Kewes, Paulina. “The 1553 Succession Crisis Reconsidered,” Historical Research, 90 (2017): 465-485.
Schutte, Valerie. “‘Marie Our Maistresse’: The Queen at Her Accession.” In Mary I in Writing: Letters, Literature, and Representation, edited by Valerie Schutte and Jessica S. Hower, 85-108. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.