It is easy in the 21st century to conjure up the image of a powerful Tudor queen. For subjects of the second Queen Elizabeth, her namesake and predecessor is an iconic cultural presence who looms even larger in the English historical consciousness than her extraordinary father, Henry VIII. Herein lies a problem.
We know that England was ruled by kings until the second half of the 16th century, when the crown passed to two queens, one of whom was among the most successful and significant monarchs that England has ever had. But in the first half of the 16th century no one--not Henry VIII, not his children, not his ministers, not his people--had any inkling of what was to come. There was no twinkle in Elizabeth's eye to alert her contemporaries to the unimaginable prospect that Gloriana was waiting in the wings. To understand the enormity of the challenges that confronted Henry VIII's daughters, therefore, we have to work hard to free ourselves from the coiling embrace of hindsight.
For Henry VIII, as for his medieval forebears (not that the artificial boundary between 'medieval' and 'early modern' would have made any sense to contemporaries), the power of the crown was male. A king was required to preserve order within his kingdom by giving justice to his people and to ride into battle to defend its borders against external threat. Neither role was a job for a woman. A queen--a word derived from the Anglo-Saxon cwen, meaning the wife of a king, not his female counterpart--was +called upon to represent a different facet of monarchy: bringing feminine prayers for mercy and peace to the masculine business of making law and war.
This is why Henry VIII was so consumed by his determination to father a son. As only the second monarch of a fragile new dynasty that had rescued England from three decades of internecine conflict between Yorkists and Lancastrians, it was his duty and his destiny to beget a glorious line of Tudor kings. Daughters did not figure in his plans except as blushing royal brides for suitably grateful European potentates.
There was good reason, then, for Henry's refusal to contemplate the possibility that he might leave his throne to a female heir--though women were not explicitly barred from inheriting the crown in England, as they were in France. There, on the sudden death of Louis X in 1316, a pragmatic decision had been taken that the king's adult brother, Philip, should succeed him in place of Joan, his four-year-old daughter, who was not only female and a child, but also damaged goods because her mother, Margaret of Burgundy, had been imprisoned for adultery. This piece of realpolitik was subsequently parlayed into a newly minted 'ancient' tradition, the Salic Law, by which women were excluded from either inheriting or passing on a claim to the French throne.
Elsewhere, precedents more favourable to female succession applied. In Castile the reign of the 12th-century Queen Urraca had helped to pave the way for the accession to the throne three centuries later of Henry VIII's first mother-in-law, Queen Isabella. Her experience in turn served to fuel the determination of her daughter, Henry's rejected wife, Catherine of Aragon, that her own daughter Mary was a worthy heir to the English crown.
In England itself, however, history was not so encouraging. The claim of Matilda, Henry I's daughter, to inherit the throne on his death in 1135 had resulted not in the reign of England's first female monarch but in 18 years of civil war, 'when Christ and his saints slept; as Matilda's supporters battled with those of Henry's nephew, Stephen of Blois. The lesson learnt from that devastating conflict was provisional and problematic. Matilda's rights as her father's heir were vindicated in the Treaty of Winchester that ended the war in 1153, but only in the person of her son, who became king as Henry II. …