The Children Henry VIII, by Alison Weir

I picked this up as a follow-up to Henry VIII: The King and His Court, also by Weir, for a better understanding of what went into Henry’s succession on the throne.

The key character in the drama turns out to be John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, perhaps the most scheming, greedy, and treacherous figures in either history or literature. It’s really his activity in trying to get the government after Henry to work in his favor that created the imbalance of four successors to Henry within a few years, a minor civil war, and pushing England in its final move toward Protestantism.

Henry left a clear will. After his death the order of succession was to be his only surviving son Edward VI. After that Mary (his daughter by Catherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth (his daughter by Anne Boleyn) were to take the crown in that order. Despite naming himself head of the Church of England and confiscating a great deal of church property Henry also still considered himself a loyal Catholic and left orders in his will that any successor should protect the faith.

Edward was intelligent though not as tenaciously physical as his father. He was leaning to Protestantism by the time he reached the throne and the book contains letters between Edward and his older sister Mary (who was half Spanish) imploring her to convert as well. Northumberland maneuvered to become the major guide of and power behind Edward, filling his pockets from the treasury and influencing him as much as possible.

When it was becoming obvious that Edward was ill (probably tuberculosis) and would die before holding the throne in his own right Northumberland began a deeper plot. He married his young son Guildford to Lady Jane Grey, then 15, because she was a granddaughter of Henry’s sister Mary Tudor. He then encouraged Edward while on his deathbed to overrule Henry’s will with his own, leaving the crown to Lady Jane.

The main problem here was that Henry’s will had been already endorsed by Parliament, leaving little legal question about the true heir. But when you’re trying to take over a government and insert your son as king what are some legal niceties to get in the way?

Lady Jane is now remembered mostly as “The nine-day queen.” Mostly against her will she accepted the marriage and the crown. When Edward died Northumberland moved to gather forces to defend the succession. The country, however, was still mostly Catholic and knew their oats when it came to royalty. It also didn’t help that Northumberland had managed to become one of the most disliked peers in England. His plans collapsed, forces loyal to Mary prevailed, and thus began the reign of “Bloody Mary”, who was so ruthless in her revenge on Protestants that even Catholics moved away from her.

Meanwhile Elizabeth, legally considered the bastard child of Henry and Anne Boleyn, grew up in fear of her life from around the age of 8. Having deeply Catholic Mary on the throne did nothing to ease her mind.

While it receives a little mention in the book, it would be interesting to see Weir do a full book on Northumberland. His father was executed by Henry’s father. Northumberland was taken in and raised by another family, became a famous admiral, and worked his way back up to one of the highest ranks in the country. Other than his greed it would be interesting to spend more time considering his motivations for what became the last few years of his life before his and dozens of other heads rolled under Mary I.

Weir weaves all of this and much more together in a book that manages to be sympathetic to all but the most awful acts of the people involved. Especially regarding Jane Grey and the three royal children she paints a fascinating portrait of people who tried to hold true to their beliefs while in a time of dangerous instability. For any history fan or fan of royal intrigue this is a terrific book.