Friday 12 October 2012

Why was Henry VIII so desperate for a son?

Happy 475th Birthday to Edward VI, Henry VIII's longed for son and heir. Edward was born to Queen Jane Seymour on 12 October 1537 after a long labour and nearly thirty years after his father first embarked on matrimony.

So why was Henry VIII so desperate for a son? In 1537 England had never had an effective queen regnant. The Empress Matilda, who was the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I, had claimed the throne in 1135 on her father's death, only for her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who had previously sworn to recognise her claim, to rush over to England to take the crown. Matilda arrived in England in 1139 to claim the crown, enjoying some early success. In 1141, for example, she captured Stephen with his reign viewed by many as effectively over and Matilda recognised as 'Lady of the English'. There is some evidence that she used the title of queen of England. She certainly intended to, moving her court to London to await her coronation. 

Unfortunately, for Matilda, another cousin who was also Stephen's wife was able to rally the support of the Londoners, forcing the empress to flee when they rushed out to attack her as she sat down to her dinner. Later that year, Matilda's half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, was captured by Stephen's supporters and the empress exchanged him for Stephen, bringing her own 'reign' to an end. Matilda remained in England for some years, holding authority over much of the West Country. She eventually passed her campaign over to her son, Henry FitzEmpress, who eventually came to terms with Stephen, agreeing that Stephen would retain his throne after naming Henry as his heir.

Matilda showed that a woman could transmit a claim to the throne and make good attempts to wear the crown herself. However, by the sixteenth century the period of Stephen and Matilda was remembered as a time of anarchy that no one cared to repeat.

A second consideration for Henry would have been that the Wars of the Roses effectively came about through the position of a woman. Henry IV, who usurped the throne from his cousin, Richard II, was the son of the third surviving son of Edward III. With Richard's murder the line of the eldest son died out, while that of the second son was represented by the Mortimer family who never built an effective challenge to the Lancastrian dynasty. Anne Mortimer's marriage to Richard, Earl of Cambridge, however, who was the heir of the fourth son changed matters considerably, with her son, Richard, Duke of York, using his descent from Anne to claim the throne in the reign of Henry VI. York's son, Edward IV, took the crown from Henry VI but the period was far from stable, with Henry VI briefly returning in 1470, for example.

Finally, Henry VIII's own mother, Elizabeth of York, was considered to be heiress to England by many but there was never a suggestion that she should wear the crown herself. Her husband, Henry VII, used his marriage to Elizabeth as one of his claims to the throne. Another was his hereditary claim through his mother, Margaret Beaufort. Margaret was still living during Henry's reign but, again, no one suggested that she should rule before him.

By 1537 the odds of a daughter of Henry VIII successfully succeeding to the crown and holding it were not high. Even continental examples were not encouraging: while Henry's former mother-in-law, Isabella of Castile had won and held the crown of Castile, her niece, from whom she took the crown, and daughter, Juana, who was imprisoned by her father and then her son, proved unable to establish their rules. France barred the succession of women and even the ability of men to claim the throne through a woman. Although he did not know it, after the Empress Matilda, the next female claimant to the throne, Lady Jane Grey, also failed to establish herself, although it should be noted that her rival was another woman: Henry VIII's own daughter.

So it was no surprise that Henry was doubtful that a woman could succeed. He also did not help matters, with his complicated marital career leading to the bastardising of first his eldest daughter, Mary, and then his younger, Elizabeth. Both were later subject to challenges by other family members due to their 'illegitimacy'.

In 1537 England had never had a queen regnant and the country erupted in joy when they heard the news of the birth. By far the greatest joy was felt by Henry himself who finally had a legitimate male heir. By 1553 however, when Edward VI lay dying, it had become inevitable that England would have its first queen regnant. This was due to the failure of the Tudors to produce healthy males rather than any great change in the fears that people had of female rule. When Mary I became queen the assumption was that she would marry quickly and provide England with a king, with the same view being held when Elizabeth I took the throne. It was Elizabeth who changed this and showed that a woman really could rule alone.

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