In the summer of 1550, Princess Mary and her continental supporters, the Imperial Habsburgs, hatched a plan to spirit the recusant princess out of an increasingly Protestant and intolerant state. Ships from the Imperial navy were kept at anchor off the coast of Maldon whilst sloops made their way up the Blackwater estuary to the Essex market town to rendezvous with Henry VIII’s eldest daughter.
Had their plan been successful, Princess Mary would have been brought to the Emperor Charles V’s territories in the Low Countries and safely returned to the Catholic fold. But would she also have missed out on acceding to the throne three years later? And could this had left Queen Jane on the throne for far longer than her tragic nine day reign?
In September 1549, Princess Mary sent a secret message to her cousin and patron, the Habsburg Emperor Charles V. It asked for his help in a plan to flee England and seek safety in the Emperor’s Catholic realms. This desperate plea had been a long time in coming; Mary’s fear of the aggressively Protestant regime led by her brother, Edward VI, had grown over the years.
She had written that the Council “send me orders forbidding me the mass”. Of greater concern to her was her likely fate if her sickly brother died, and she pleaded that “I would be far better out of the kingdom, because as soon as he were dead, before the people knew it, they would despatch me too.”
Against the backdrop of an increasingly menacing Council and her brother’s intransigently Protestant mindset, Mary saw no possible future except by escaping. She summoned the Imperial ambassador Van der Delft to her residence at Woodham Manor in Essex and asked for his help to escape. Previous requests had been turned down by a pragmatic Charles V, who realised that if Mary left England it was unlikely she could ever return as its Queen. This time, however, the Emperor recognised the danger Mary was in and conceded.
On the evening of Monday 30 June 1550, three Imperial warships arrived off the Essex coast under the command of the admiral of the Imperial fleet. Mary was to be met by the secretary to the ambassador, Jehan Dubois. Dubois rowed from the warships to Maldon under the guise of being a grain merchant intending to sell a consignment of corn.
The country was in a state of high alert, with the Council informing all of its local informants and officials that they should be vigilant in the face of possible continental aggression. This only added to the tensions on board the Imperial ships and made Dubois’s mission all the more hazardous. He had no time to lose, and sought to make contact with Mary and her household.
The Princess had, however, developed cold feet. She must have realised all that she would give up if she fled, and, as a true daughter of Henry VIII, she found such abdication of her royal prerogative hard to accept. Dubois liaised with her trusted officer Robert Rochester, who begged the Imperial secretary for more time. Dubois was firm in his message to Mary – now was the time to escape and they had to leave straight away. Mary dithered, unable to make a decision and stalling for more time.
Dubois grew increasingly frantic as he tried to make the Princess see reason. He feared the plot was already close to being discovered: “The whole business was so near being discovered that it was most improbable that it could be kept secret”. Eventually, he ran out of patience and Mary was no closer to making a final decision to leave England. Dubois slipped back to the Imperial warships under the cover of darkness, and the small fleet sailed away taking with them Mary’s best chance for escape.
Just three years later, Mary’s fortunes had completely reversed as she succeeded Edward VI as Queen of England. The dead King’s Protestant advisors had conspired to deprive her of the crown by raising Lady Jane Grey to the throne. The Nine Days’ Queen saw her support drain over the course of her brief reign whilst Mary was acclaimed as Queen across the country. Queen Jane was deposed and ultimately executed and Mary returned to London in triumph as Queen.
What would have happened if Mary had stepped aboard that rowing boat and slipped away in the dead of night to the Imperial warships and a future under the protection of Charles V? Such historical counterfactuals are entertaining to consider if impossible to prove one way or the other. What seems likely is that Princess Mary’s claims to the throne of England would have been fatally compromised.
The English were notoriously suspicious of the European neighbours if not downright xenophobic in their hatred of foreigners. It is likely that Mary’s flight to Europe would have been seized by her enemies as a definitive sign of her treachery and foreign sympathies. She could only have returned at the head of an invading army, and with Charles V’s constant wars against his French enemies, it seems unlikely that a women could have commanded such resources no matter how close the family connection.
So what would have happened on Edward VI’s death? Would this have accelerated the accession of his Protestant half-sister Elizabeth? Maybe not. John Dudley, the newly minted Duke of Northumberland (the first non-royal duke in England’s history) was the most powerful man in the Kingdom. His influence and relationship to the King ensured that he effectively ruled during Edward’s minority. Would he have happily given power to a 20-year old Elizabeth, even if she was a Protestant?
It is possible if not likely that he would have hatched a similar plan to that he concocted to keep Mary off the throne. Placing the pliant and biddable Lady Jane Grey on the throne would ensure his continued influence, especially as Jane was married to Dudley’s son. With Mary out of the picture, would Elizabeth have been able to overturn this coup?
Perhaps not. The consequences of Mary’s flight from the realm could therefore have been the long reign of Queen Jane (who was only 17 on assuming the throne) and a far more aggressive Protestant if not Puritanical state. It is not unlikely that a long reign by Queen Jane could have seen England develop in a similar way as under Protector Cromwell after the English Civil War.
With the glitter, success and cultural highs of the court of Gloriana replaced by the dour, god-fearing Jane the consequences could have been far reaching. A puritanical shut down of the theatres could have easily deprived English of Shakespeare and Marlowe. Would the nascent English empire have been founded, or would the regime be too busy facing internal and external foes to finance overseas adventures? Would England and Scotland have remained separate kingdoms, with the Scottish Stuarts deprived of the English crown by a fecund Dudley dynasty?
All of this was possible if Mary stepped on board the boat on that fateful night in 1550. Should we be grateful that she didn’t?