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Henry's missing heirs
on 13 August 2001
Alison Weir's preface describes this book as 'a chronicle of the personal lives of four English sovereigns': Edward VI, Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I. She supplies a useful introductory chapter, sketching the early years of Henry's three surviving children, the offspring of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour, from birth until the death of their father in January 1547. At this point, the point at which Weir's "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" ended, the author takes up the story of the House of Tudor until the accession of Elizabeth in 1558.
Weir uses a huge variety of primary and secondary source material to produce a panoramic pen-portrait, often vibrant, on occasion softer in hew, of the four monarchs and their courtiers. I particularly admire the author's subtle handling of the reign of 'Bloody Mary', her sympathy for this frequently misunderstood woman in her desire to give England a Catholic heir. This is a carefully written and analytical section of the book. However, for the most part, "Children of England" is straightforward narrative history from which readers with a passion for this period are unlikely to gain very much.
What disappoints me most is the thought of fascinating opportunities missed. "Children of England" is not subtitled "The Successors of Henry VIII". The secondary title of this book is "The Heirs of Henry VIII" which suggests a study of the individuals named in the monarch's will irrespective of whether they succeeded to the throne. Weir explains that Henry 'willed the Crown first to Edward, then to Mary, then to Elizabeth, and lastly to the heirs of his younger sister Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk'. (The descendants of his elder sister Margaret, Queen of Scots were omitted.) At the time of the King's death, there were nine heirs to the throne. Henry's children were followed by Mary Tudor's elder daughter Frances Brandon, wife of the Marquess of Dorset (later Duke of Suffolk), and her three daughters, Ladies Jane, Katherine, and Mary Grey. Mary Tudor's younger daughter, Eleanor was next in line, followed by Lady Margaret Clifford, the only surviving child of her marriage to the Earl of Cumberland. The lives of all these figures, not only those who would wear the Crown, were fashioned by their being named as heirs to Henry VIII.
We meet Frances Brandon only as the abusive mother of Lady Jane, a repellent character who played her part in the Northumberland-Suffolk plot. The young, attractive, and highly eligible woman she had been in the fifteen-thirties is absent from the narrative and she disappears from view after 1554. Only Frances's sudden marriage to Adrian Stokes, in the wake of her husband's beheading is discussed briefly. Weir notes that she bore her former master-of-the-horse three short-lived children, yet her return to Court in the reign of Mary and her survival into the reign of Elizabeth is overlooked. Weir details the betrothal and marriage of Lady Katherine Grey to Lord Herbert, heir of the Earl of Pembroke and its swift annulment when the Northumberland-Suffolk plot collapsed. However, nothing is said of the betrothal of the hunchbacked Mary Grey to Lord Arthur Grey, whose father was an ardent supporter of the Northumberland and Suffolk cause. We hear only that Queen Mary, having secured her rightful position, granted the sisters places at Court and allowances befitting Princesses of the Blood.
To some extent, the problem is inherent in the strict 1547-1558 time span of the narrative. Consider Lady Margaret Clifford. Her marriage to William Stanley, Earl of Derby took place during the reign of Mary in 1555. At this stage, she was fourth in line to the throne after Elizabeth and the remaining Grey sisters. Nowhere does Weir mention Margaret, her mother Eleanor Brandon who died the same year as King Henry, or the politically important Derby match. This branch of the family is not even included in the sparse family tree at the end of the book. The reader cannot appreciate the importance of Margaret Clifford and her descendants without an understanding of the futures of her cousins after the execution of Lady Jane. During the reign of Elizabeth, both Katherine and Mary Grey married without the consent, or knowledge, of the sovereign. Lady Mary died childless in 1578, but her sister had two sons by Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford before her death in 1568. Queen Elizabeth declared the Seymour children to be illegitimate. ('I will have no rascal's son in my seat', she snapped when asked to name Katherine's elder son her successor.) The Grey-Seymour marriage was not validated until 1606. It was therefore small wonder that many looked upon Lady Margaret Clifford as heir presumptive. Indeed, by the fifteen-eighties she had become an object of suspicion to the Queen. According to Margaret, however, her son, Ferdinando Stanley died as a result of loyalty to their Royal cousin. Shortly after succeeding his father as Earl of Derby, Ferdinando rejected a Jesuit project to usurp the Crown, causing one of the perpetrators to be charged with treason. His sudden death in 1594 was widely mooted to be due to poison administered in revenge for his refusal to support the Catholic cause. Ferdinando Stanley left three daughters, the eldest of whom was Anne, Baroness Chandos. It is one of those intriguing 'What if...?' issues. How different would England's history have been if Elizabeth Tudor had adhered to the will of Henry VIII and named the young Lady Chandos her successor rather than James VI of Scots?
Perhaps I am being thoroughly awkward in demanding a book that the author elected not to write! There is little doubt that "Children of England" will encourage readers to explore the Tudor dynasty in greater depth. Nevertheless, she has wasted a glorious opportunity to introduce readers to many vibrant characters among the heirs of Henry VIII. It is an omission I hope Ms Weir will rectify as she consolidates her position as a leading Tudor historian.