This article is an edited transcript of Elizabeth I with Helen Castor, available on History Hit TV.
With Elizabeth I childless, her decision not to name James VI of Scotland as her heir was a dangerous one that provoked instability. But there wasn’t really any safe option open to her. And that was the problem Elizabeth was faced with everywhere she looked, whether she was dealing with religion, marriage or the succession.
Of course, a critic could still reasonably say, “How could she leave this question of her succession hanging for 45 years?” – particularly because it was such an open question.
The will of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had seen the Tudor dynasty through her brother Edward VI’s reign, past the attempt to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne, and supported her sister, Mary I, in taking the crown. And then it had put Elizabeth herself on the throne.
Indeed, the line of succession played out exactly as Henry VIII had wanted – Edward followed by Mary and then Elizabeth. But it was not at all clear what was to happen after that. So it’s fair to ask, “How could Elizabeth leave that hanging?”, but it’s also fair to ask, “How could she not?”.
The problem of being a woman
If Elizabeth had been to produce an heir of her own body, then she would have had to overcome two potential obstacles: one, deciding who to marry – an incredibly difficult decision politically – and two, surviving childbirth.
No male ruler ever had to think about physical danger when he thought about having an heir. If his wife died in childbirth, then he got another one. And he just kept going until an heir was safely there. He also didn’t have to worry about dying as part of this process.
Elizabeth, however, had seen women die again and again and again as a result of giving birth. So the danger was very real to her – that she might end up with no heir and dead. And that would be even worse than not producing an heir at all.
As the years went by and it became increasingly clear that Elizabeth herself would not be producing an heir, one question reared its head repeatedly: “How about just naming the obvious heir – James?”
But Elizabeth herself had been the heir to the throne during Mary’s reign and so she knew from first-hand experience what a difficult position it was to be in.
In fact, she explicitly communicated this to her Parliament, essentially saying:
“Be careful what you wish for. I was first in line to the throne during my sister’s reign, and not only is it not a good idea for that person, but it isn’t a good idea for the realm – immediately that person becomes a focus for plots.”
Vindication – eventually
Ultimately, it may have been dangerous for Elizabeth to not name an heir but she made a very good case for it being more dangerous to name one.
And despite not actually naming James as her successor, she nonetheless tied him into her regime with a generous pension and with the dangling promise that he probably would be her heir.
Indeed, Elizabeth was James’s godmother, and, although she had had to kill his actual mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, their relationship had managed to survive even that. There was a sort of understanding between them. And she likely knew that her ministers and leading subjects were in touch with him over the issue.
Vindication for the difficult course that Elizabeth took came after she finally closed her eyes in 1603 and there was not a moment’s instability. The succession passed smoothly and peacefully to James.