In the summer of 1550, Princess Mary, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, was packing her belongings and preparing to flee her home.
Her Tudor brother was the figurehead for an increasingly Protestant regime. Mary clung to her mother’s Catholicism.
She feared for her life and, as the pressure on her to conform grew, she turned to her powerful relatives abroad.
She could be safe again, but they could only protect her if she left England.
What if … Mary Tudor had fled her Essex estates and boarded the boat to take her into a European exile?
A devout brother, and overflowing with all kindness
On 28 January 1547, Henry VIII died at Whitehall Palace. He was succeeded by his nine-year old son Edward. On the same day, the new king found time to write to his eldest sister Mary.
His letter proclaimed filial affection, with Edward promising to be:
‘a devout brother, and overflowing with all kindnesses.’
But his kindnesses towards Mary soon dried up.
Mary was not just from a different generation. In an increasingly zealous Protestant England, she stubbornly clung to the old order.
In Mary’s world, Catholicism was the true religion, England was loyal to the Pope and she was a Princess.
Against her was a government that identified with Protestantism, saw the Pope as an anti-Christ and viewed Mary as the illegitimate bastard of the old King’s annulled first marriage.
For Lady Mary, as the regime insisted on labelling her, this was the latest indignity that had been heaped on her and her late mother.
Mary was not alone in her struggle for conscience and status. She was the daughter of a princess of Spain and a scion of the House of Habsburg. Charles V was her cousin.
Whilst she had powerful friends abroad, Mary’s devout Catholicism ensured that she had powerful enemies at home.
A particularly splendid mass of Pentecost
As time passed, Mary grew increasingly indignant at the slights to her standing and the denigration of her religion.
As long ago as 1533, Mary was declared illegitimate and was styled as The Lady Mary rather than Princess Mary.
Her father’s Act of Succession in 1544 had returned her to the line of succession, but even this retained the taint of her bastard status.
But at least Henry had been a slow and reluctant reformer on church matters. Under her brother’s reign, religious differences between Mary and the government became more marked.
Mary sought solace in a particularly pious devotion to Catholicism. She attended up to four masses a day and opened up these services to her household.
Meanwhile, little by little, the Protestant reformation was chiselling away at Catholic practises.
In the first year’s of Edwards reign, the rosary was banned. Parish processions and devotional pilgrimages were curtailed. And the Sanctus Bell no longer rang at the moment of Eucharist.
On Whit Sunday in 1549 the new Common Prayer Book was to be used in every service. Mary signalled her opposition by organising a ‘particularly splendid mass of Pentecost’ at her Kenninghall estate.
What say you, Mr Ambassador?
This act of defiance did not pass unnoticed. For a government already unnerved by the outbreak of the Prayer Book Rebellion, Mary’s unwillingness to toe the line was a big problem.
The King’s Council wrote to Mary advising her to obey the Act of Uniformity.
Others in the realm had not been treated so kindly. Bishop Gardner had been thrown into the Fleet Prison and then sent to the Tower of London for refusing to comply with the new religious regime.
Mary had an impressive trump card to defend her against such rough treatment. Her cousin was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Charles V was the ruler of large swathes of continental Europe.
His rule encompassed modern-day Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and much of Austria, Hungary and Italy. He was also the beneficiary of the increasingly large flows of silver from the New World. Charles was not someone who Edward’s government could afford to upset.
Charles sent the regime a message via his ambassador, François van der Delft. He informed the English that he would not tolerate his cousin being forced to ‘change her religion’.
In case this point was lost, a more forceful note was issued soon after.
But still the pressure to conform was building.
Mary grew increasingly worried about her future. At the end of April 1550, Mary summoned the Imperial ambassador, van der Delft, to see her at her estate of Woodham Walter, near Maldon in Essex.
She knew that she was in danger from those who surrounded the King, noting that:
‘They are wicked and wily in their actions, and particularly malevolent towards me, I must not wait till the blow falls.’
She also raised the prospect of being safer abroad:
‘If my brother were to die 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’.
Finally, she put van der Delft on the spot by summarising her delicate position and asking for his opinion:
‘I would willingly stay were I able to live and serve god as I have done in the past; which is what I have always said. But these men are so changeable that I know not what to say. What say you, Mr Ambassador?’
Mary was 34, unmarried and increasingly desperate. She wanted to leave England and seek the protection of her cousin, Emperor Charles V.
Now they just had to figure out how to do it.
Peril in going and peril in staying
In May 1550, two plans were floated. One was for a disguised Mary to accompany van der Delft on his return to the Netherlands. The second was for Mary to be picked up from the coast of Essex and taken to an Imperial warship.
Time ran out on the first plan, so the second was put into motion.
Van der Delft’s secretary, Johan Dubois, was entrusted to bring Mary to the coast and then on to the Netherlands.
All of the pieces finally came together at the end of June 1550.
Mary moved her household back to Woodham Walter, barely two miles from the shoreline of the Blackwater Estuary.
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.
Dubois was 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.
What is to become of me?
What if … Mary had decided to leave England? This section imagines this future that never was.
Princess Mary sank to her knees. Her cabin was crude, but a small shrine had been set up in the corner.
She focused on the face of the Virgin, her golden halo glinting in the unsteady, flickering light of a single candle.
She was safe.
She was finally safe.
She let out a long, low sigh and then breathed in slowly.
She felt the calm move through her body, chasing out the fear that had gripped her since she left England.
This was the second time is as many nights that she had felt the Lord’s blessing. He was with her and she would always be with Him.
Last night, she thought she would lose her mind in a crest of mounting panic. She had torn about her chambers crying out. She remembered sobbing and shouting the same questions until her throat was raw. What would become of her? What would her fate be?
The Lord had intervened.
All around her was the chaos of a hasty departure. Her ladies were busy stuffing belongings into bags.
She had cried out for a sign. At that moment, a bag toppled over and its contents clattered to the floor. She looked down and saw the necklace at her feet. She bent over to pick it up and brought it to her knees. It was Christopher, the saint who guided travellers as they ventured into the unknown.
She sat, looking closely at the portrait. She was lost in her thoughts and didn’t hear her Lady in Waiting calling her. It was only when her shoulder was gently tapped that she returned to the physical world.
‘Beg pardon, my Lady, but the Ambassador’s man is here.’
At least she had an answer for him.
She would go. She would leave her home and her country and throw herself on the mercy of her family across the water.
Everything then happened at a dizzying speed. She felt as though she was watching events unfold from above. She was no longer of this world, merely a spectator as night turned into day. Her belongings were packed and her household gathered.
She said a short farewell, promising them that she would return. Her ladies were in tears and even the men were visibly upset. What would happen to them?
But she couldn’t think about that. She couldn’t think about anything other than getting away from a country that was no longer her home.
Her small party had set off for the coast. They had planned what they would say if they ran into suspicious locals. The Ambassador’s man, Dubois, had invented a story that Mary was moving to another of her Essex estates whilst essential repairs were carried out at Woodham Walter. Dubois had been reassuringly resourceful. She had to remember to commend him to her cousin when she reached the Low Countries.
They hadn’t met anyone along the two-mile stretch between her manor and the sea.
She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen the sea. She remembered travelling down the river between palaces. But the sea was different. Her mother had come from across the sea. And now she would carry her memory back with her.
Dubois gestured to a low lying but study vessel. He told her it was a grain boat, used to ferrying heavy loads of wheat and barley across the German Sea.
There were few comforts on board, but it was only for the short journey to her cousin’s warships which, she was assured, lay offshore.
The ship slipped away from its moorings and jolted. Mary felt a wave of panic as she watched England slip away. At first, she could almost reach out and touch dry land. Within a few minutes, the coastline had receded, sinking back into the dark night with only a few torches pricking the blackness.
As the land faded away, the warships loomed ever larger. They were huge vessels, absolutely dwarfing the grain boat.
In no time, they were side by side. A winch had been lowered to save her the indignity of climbing a ladder. Above her, the ship’s commander shouted out a greeting in French.
‘Welcome home, Your Majesty’.
The whole business was so near being discovered
In reality, there was no sign from God and no resolution to Mary’s indecision.
The Princess had 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 that the plot was already
‘The whole business was so near being discovered that it was most improbable that it could be kept secret’.
Eventually, Dubois 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?
It 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?
Extending the reign of the nine-day Queen
John Dudley, the newly minted Duke of Northumberland and 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, biddable and young Lady Jane Grey on the throne would ensure his continued influence. In fact, as Jane had married Dudley’s son, this marked the birth of a new dynasty. With Mary out of the picture, would Elizabeth have been able to overturn this coup?
The consequences of Mary’s flight from the realm could therefore have been the long reign of Queen Jane and a far more aggressive Protestant if not Puritanical state. This 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 had stepped on board the boat on that fateful night in 1550.
Should we be grateful that she didn’t?