Bulletin on the state of King George III’s health – October 2011

The story of King George III’s illness, the repeated bouts of mental instability and derangement from which he suffered from 1788 until the end of his reign, known variously as “the Royal Malady” or “the madness of King George”, is a familiar one.

This bulletin, carrying the latest news on the status of George III’s illness, was issued from Windsor Castle by his doctors and physicians on 18th January 1811, during his final and longest bout of illness and just a few months after his final public appearance at a reception at Windsor.

A bulletin carrying the latest news on the status of George III’s illness, was issued from Windsor Castle by his doctors and physicians on 18th January 1811, during his final and longest bout of illness and just a few months after his final public appearance at a reception at Windsor.
Bulletin on the health of King George III, 18th Jan 1811 (Pybus (Charles Frederick) Archive, FP/2/7/10)

Bulletins on the king’s health were issued throughout his illness and were intended for public consumption as well as for the eyes of the queen and her council. At this stage the bulletins were being issued daily and deliberately lacked any real or valid detail about the king’s health, being designed to allay alarm rather than to record medical facts and to protect the dignity of the king as well as the feelings of the queen and the royal family. This bulletin, therefore, is a typical example of its type.

It is signed by Matthew Baillie, physician-extraordinary to the king, William Heberden the younger, the king’s physician-in-ordinary, and Robert Willis, who specialised in the treatment of mental disorders. Although the bulletin carries the signatures of all three men, it is known that, by this stage, the royal physicians had been ordered by the queen’s council to leave the daily management of the king’s illness to specialist “mad-doctors” and that to this task the council had appointed John and Robert Willis, sons of the reverend Francis Willis who owned a private asylum and who had been credited with bringing about the king’s recovery from his first bout of illness in 1789.

The Willises favoured the use of repressive and coercive forms of treatment such as the use of the strait-jacket and restraining chair, both of which the king was subjected to, as well as enforced confinement and a strict medical regime to bring down his “fever” and “turbulent spirits”, including vomits, purges, bleeding, blistering, the application of leeches and regular doses of medicine. During the king’s last illness both Baillie and Heberden sounded strong objections to the methods of treatment handed out to him by the Willis brothers, but were ignored.

At the time this bulletin was issued, the king had relapsed midway through the previous month and had been very ill over Christmas and New Year. The following month, he would be declared mentally unfit to rule and his eldest son, the future George IV, would be appointed Prince Regent to rule in his place. Thereafter the king would spend the last ten years of his life in a twilight world, deprived of visitors, conversation and outings under the Willises’ regime, losing his sight and growing increasingly deaf, until his death at Windsor on 29th January 1820.

Although George III’s symptoms were identified as insanity by contemporary doctors, it is now widely held that he was in fact suffering from the rare hereditary blood disorder porphyria. A classic physical symptom of porphyria is deep red or purple coloured urine, and this was found to be evident throughout the notes and observations contained in the journals and correspondence of the king’s physicians when they were re-examined in the 1960s. Furthermore, in its acute form, porphyria is known to produce neurological damage and mental instability. Further research in 2005 concluded that the king’s porphyria attacks were quite possibly brought on by a build-up of arsenic in his system (tests on a sample of his hair showed it to contain over 200 times the toxic level), thought to have been caused by one of his medicines, James’ Powder. The Powder, which, tragically, was administered to him several times daily, was made from antimony which in turn contains significant amounts of arsenic.

The bulletin is contained in a collection of medical manuscripts donated to the library by Professor Pybus (1883-1975) who donated his private collection on the history of medicine, including books, manuscripts, engravings, portraits, busts, bleeding bowls and research notes, to the University Library in 1965.

Henry V – March 2013

Illustration of Henry V
Illustration of Henry V from History of the battle of Agincourt: and the expedition of Henry the Fifth into France, in 1415 by Sir Nicholas, Harris, London, 1833 (White (Robert) Collection, 942.042 NIC)

21st March 2013 marks the 600th anniversary of Henry V’s accession to the English throne. Widely considered to have been an excellent King, Henry is renowned for winning the Battle of Agincourt against the French and his immortalisation in Shakespeare’s play of his life.

Henry V, the eldest son of Henry of Bolingbroke and Mary de Bohun, was born in 1387. In 1399 his father deposed Richard II of England and claimed the throne for himself after the King disinherited him. Richard died soon afterwards (he was very probably murdered in captivity) and Henry was created Prince of Wales at his father’s coronation. Henry and his father were of the House of Lancaster and this seizure of the throne was one of the first acts in the Wars of the Roses, which were to continue until 1485.

Henry showed his military abilities as a teenager, commanding his father’s forces in the Battle of Shrewsbury against Harry Hotspur in 1403. He also spent five years fighting against Owen Glendower’s rebellion in Wales. He was keen to have a role in government and ruled effectively as regent for eighteen months from 1410 when his father was ill. However, once recovered, Henry IV dismissed the prince from his council and reversed most of his policies.

Henry became king in 1413. In 1415,he successfully crushed a conspiracy to put Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, on the throne. Shortly afterwards he sailed for France, which was to be the focus of his attention for the rest of his reign. Henry was determined to regain the lands in France held by his ancestors and laid claim to the French throne. He offered to fight the French Dauphin for the throne in personal combat but was refused. He defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt on 25th October 1415. The battle was notable for the fact that the English army of no more than 6,000 men defeated the supposedly far superior French army numbering around 20,000.

Between 1417 and 1419 Henry followed up this success with the conquest of Normandy. The French were forced to agree to the Treaty of Troyes in May 142. Henry was recognised as heir to the French throne and married Catherine, the daughter of the French king. Unfortunately, Henry died two months too early to be crowned King of France. He died suddenly, probably of dysentery, on 31st August 1422 at the Château de Vincennes. He was only 35 years old. His nine-month-old son, whom he had never met, succeeded him as Henry VI. It was a dangerous period for a child to be King with rival claimants to the throne everywhere. The following 50 years saw the throne change hands several times and Henry VI’s eventual murder in the Tower of London, reputedly by the princes of the House of York.

Henry V’s reputation is one of a chivalrous warrior but he had another side. Described as a man of conviction, Henry was a well-educated and pious man. He was a lover of art and literature and had a particular interest in liturgical music. He gave pensions to well-known composers of his time, and he ordered a hymn of praise to God, which was sung after Agincourt. From 1417, Henry promoted the use of the English language in government, and was the first king to use English in his personal correspondence since the Norman Conquest.

We have William Shakespeare to thank for forming most people’s opinions of Henry. Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s historical plays. It forms the fourth part of a tetralogy dealing with the historical rise of the English royal House of Lancaster. Written in approximately 1599, it tells the story of King Henry V, focusing on events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt. Readers have interpreted the play’s attitude to warfare in several different ways. On one hand, it celebrates Henry’s invasion of France, but it also speaks of anti-war sentiment. Henry is portrayed as a hero but he has invaded a non-aggressive country and killed thousands of people. When Shakespeare wrote the play in the late sixteenth century, Henry was considered to be a hero. Henry VIII aspired to be like him and as a Lancastrian he was idolised by the Tudors. He was a warrior King who could not rule today but in his time he restored national pride to England and became a hero the people admired.

Battle scene illustration from Shakespere's Historical play of Henry the Fifth by William Shakespeare, Manchester
Image from Shakespere’s Historical play of Henry the Fifth by William Shakespeare, Manchester, 1872 (19th Century Collection, 19th C. Coll. 822.33 SHA(Cal)

Richard III (from Several Sovereigns for a Shilling by Joseph Crawhall) – February 2013

Print of Edward V and Richard III, by Joseph Crawhall II,
Print of Edward V and Richard III, by Joseph Crawhall II, from Several Sovereigns for a Shilling! Adorned by Joseph Crawhall (London: Hamilton, Adams; Newcastle upon Tyne: Mawson, Swan & Morgan, 1886) (Crawhall (Joseph II) Collection, Crawhall 45)

Joseph Crawhall II (1821-1896) revived the chapbook tradition. Several Sovereigns for a Shilling (1886) is a collection of lithographed portraits of monarchs, alongside irreverent rhymes – quite typical of Crawhall’s humour.

On 4th February 2013 archaeological experts from the University of Leicester announced to the world that “beyond reasonable doubt” they had uncovered the bones of Richard III. Richard was 32 years old when he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 by the forces of Henry VII. As this verse from Joseph Crawhall describes, Richard was “knock’t on the head” and the skeleton bears evidence of eight injuries to the skull. He was the last English king to die in battle and with his death came the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, giving rise to the House of Tudor.

The skeleton also provides evidence of scoliosis – a curvature of the spine – but no hunched back or withered arm as William Shakespeare and Tudor historians like Thomas More would have you believe.

Richard was born at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire but spent many of his formative years at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale and it was in the North of England, as President of the Council of the North, that he earned respect as a protector against the Scottish raids and as a just keeper of the peace.
On the death of their father in 1461, Richard’s brother became Edward IV and created Richard Duke of Gloucester. When Richard’s brother, Edward IV died, Richard was made protector of his two young nephews: Edward and Richard. Accusations of illegitimacy mounted against the boys and Richard III was crowned King in July 1483 whilst the boys, who had been lodged in the Tower of London, mysteriously vanished. Rumour would have us believe that Richard murdered the princes: “Poor Edward the fifth was, young, kill’d in bed, By his Uncle, Third Richard”, as Crawhall puts it.

Richard was said to have been buried under the choir of Greyfriar’s Church in Leicester but the building had been demolished in the 16th Century. It was by analysing maps that the location of the church was identified, where a car park stands today. Descendants of Richard, who provided DNA samples for comparison, were traced using historic records and documents. This demonstrates the continued relevance of primary sources and other historic materials.

Whether you admire Richard as a brave military leader (he remained on the battlefield while several of his men defected) and the person who introduced an early form of legal aid (the Court of Requests), or whether you believe the Tudor propaganda, it must be remembered that the period of the Wars of the Roses was particularly brutal and that people were governed by a different moral code. Richard’s Council of the North improved economic conditions in the North and he also banned restrictions on the printing and sale of books.

Richard will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral.

If you are interested in reading contemporary accounts of Richard and this period, you might refer to the Paston Letters (White (Robert) Collection, W942.04 PAS) and to the account by Robert Fabyan, both of which are held in Newcastle University Library’s Special Collections.

Diamond Jubilee – Diamond Jubilee 2012

Page from An account of the rejoicings, illuminations, &c. &c. that have taken place in Newcastle and Gateshead on the following occasions: the peace of Amiens, in 1801, the jubilee of His Majesty George III, 1809, the general peace, in 1814, the abandonment of the bill against Queen Caroline, 1820, coronation of George III, and Queen Charlotte, 1761, coronation of His Majesty George IV, 1821 by J. Sykes, 1821 (Clarke (Edwin) local Collection, Clarke 1502)

To celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, we bring you a special Treasure of the Month.

2012 sees the 60th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. It is astounding to think that no-one under the age of 60 has ever known any other monarch. It is unlikely that future generations will see a monarch of Britain on the throne for so long; however the Queen is not the first long-reigning monarch. Many of our former Kings and Queens have ruled for many decades, having ascended to the throne at a young age.

Elizabeth I was twenty-five when she became queen in 1558 and ruled for almost 45 years until her death in 1603. Edward III ruled for just over 50 years from the age of thirteen in 1327 to his death in 1377. Henry III ruled England for just over 56 years from 1216 to 1272. James VI of Scotland (who later became James I of England after the union of the English and Scottish crowns upon Queen Elizabeth I’s death in 1603) ruled Scotland for nearly 58 years from 1567 to 1625. However, both Henry and James came to the throne as infants, which rather increased their chances of having a long reign!

George III set a new record for the longest-serving monarch when he died in 1820, having ruled for almost 60 years. However, his son the Prince of Wales (later George IV) ruled as Regent from 1811 after George III’s descent into ‘madness’ reportedly brought on by the death of his youngest daughter and then as King from 1820 to 1830. Finally, the only monarch to have reigned longer than our current queen is Queen Victoria. Aged just 18 upon her ascension to the throne in 1837, she celebrated a Golden and Diamond jubilee before her death aged 81 in 1901, after 63 years and 216 days as queen.

Jubilees have, unsurprisingly, always been celebrated with much pomp and ceremony. Celebrations have taken place all over the country, memorabilia has been mass-produced and purchased by millions, and street parties have been held. George III’s golden jubilee was celebrated in 1809, as he entered his 50th year as King. Below is an extract from an account of the celebrations that took place in Newcastle. It states:

“The day was ushered in with ringing of bells; the flag was hoisted on the castle, on some of the churches, and by the ships in the river”.

The rest of the day was made-up of several acts of charity including meals of beef and plum pudding for the poor, the liberation of prisoners and a collection for the foundation of a public school. There were also church services throughout the day.

Not exactly the barbeque and pop concert from Buckingham Palace that we’ll be enjoying this year, but jubilant all the same!

Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond jubilees involved public processions, banquets and thanksgiving services. Below is a memento from her Golden jubilee entitled Our Gracious Queen by Mrs O. F. Walton. It is a collection of images and stories of Queen Victoria’s life from 1887. There were great outpourings of affection for Victoria, who was hugely popular again in the late nineteenth century. Mrs Walton reminds us all to:

‘…thank God that He has spared her to us so long, and let us pray that He may spare her for many years to come…God grant, then, that each of us may be a true loyal subject of our dear Queen, always eager to stand up for her, always willing to obey her…’

Times and traditions may have changed over the years, but in 2012 with the monarchy undergoing a new surge in popularity, this jubilee is sure to bring as much celebration as those of George and Victoria did.

Oh and just in case you are wondering, Queen Elizabeth II will have to rule until 10th September 2015 to beat Queen Victoria’s record and become our longest-reigning monarch!

Front cover from Our Gracious Queen showing Queen Elizabeth II
Front cover from Our Gracious Queen by Mrs. O. F. Walton., 1887 (19th century collection, 942.081 WAL)

Mary, Queen of Scots – August 2011

[Mary, Queen of Scots] In the Royal Palace of St. James's an Antient Painting. 1580. Delineated and sculpted by G. Vertue (1735)
[Mary, Queen of Scots] In the Royal Palace of St. James’s an Antient Painting. 1580. Delineated and sculpted by G. Vertue (1735)
(Clarke (Edwin) General Collection)

This month marks the 450th anniversary of Mary, Queen of Scots’ return to Scotland aged nineteen, following the death of her husband, King François II of France. Mary was born in 1542 and became Queen of Scotland six days later following the death of her father, King James V, after his defeat at the battle of Solway Moss. King Henry VIII was determined to marry the infant Queen to his son, Edward, thus finally uniting the crowns of Scotland and England. This was unpopular with the Scottish nobles who instead made a deal with the French to marry Mary to the Dauphin. This was ratified by the Treaty of Haddington in 1548 and Mary was sent to live in France – a safe distance from the attempts by English troops to kidnap her.

After Francois’ death Mary decided to return to Scotland to rule the country of her birth. Her mother, Mary of Guise, had ruled as regent until her death in 1560 and now the nobles had seized power under her half-brother, Lord James Stewart. They welcomed Mary’s return. Scotland was now a Protestant, and turbulent, country and, as a Catholic, Mary had to compromise over religion during her reign.

Mary was determined to have her claim to the English throne recognised and hoped that she would be named by Queen Elizabeth as her heir. They made plans to meet in summer 1562 but Elizabeth pulled out at the last minute. Mary was upset and annoyed that she had listened to Elizabeth’s opinions about who she should marry. Elizabeth had suggested her own favourite, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, as she thought this would allow her to manipulate Mary’s decisions. In the end, Mary married her English Catholic first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley at Holyrood Palace on 29th July 1565. She married without consulting Elizabeth who was furious as both Mary and Darnley were claimants to the English throne and any children would inherit both parents’ claims and thus be next in line for the crown.

At first Mary was infatuated with Darnley but before long he became arrogant, demanding more power and to be crowned King. He was also jealous of Mary’s friendship with her private secretary, David Rizzio, and he entered into a secret plot with the nobles to get rid of him. They were jealous of Rizzio’s position as Mary’s favourite and of his influence over her. On 9th March 1566, a group of the lords, accompanied by Darnley, murdered Rizzio in front of the pregnant Mary at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. Mary was kept prisoner but she managed to lure Darnley back to her side and they escaped. However, she could now no longer trust him.

In June, their son James was born. Those nobles who were loyal to Mary met to discuss the problem of Darnley and swore a bond vowing to get rid of him. Darnley knew the tide had turned against him and, fearing for his safety, fled to his father in Glasgow. Here he was taken ill, with what is now believed to have been syphilis. Mary encouraged her husband to come back to Edinburgh and arranged for him to recuperate in a house at the former abbey of Kirk o’ Field, within the city walls. In February 1567 an explosion occurred in the house in the middle of the night, and Darnley was found dead in the garden. He appeared to have been strangled. He and a servant were found in their bedclothes with a variety of objects including a chair, a dagger and a rope, leading historians to suggest that they were aware the house was going to explode and were trying to escape. It is possible that they were apprehended whilst fleeing and were strangled to death.

One of the nobles, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was quickly accused of having supplied the gunpowder for the explosion and he was believed by many to be responsible for Darnley’s death. It was Mary’s and Bothwell’s actions in the wake of Darnley’s murder that convinced everyone of their guilt. Such was the evidence against Bothwell that Mary had to arrange a staged trial before Parliament, during which he was acquitted. Bothwell then managed to convince the nobles to sign the Ainslie Tavern Bond, in which they agreed to support him in his attempt to marry the Queen. By now the Scots were beginning to become suspicious of Mary.

In April 1567, Mary visited her son at Stirling, for what would be the last time. On her way back to Edinburgh she was abducted by Bothwell and his men and taken to Dunbar Castle, where she was allegedly raped by Bothwell. They returned to Edinburgh and at Holyrood they were married. Mary believed the marriage had the support of her nobles because of the Ainslie Tavern Bond. But they soon turned against the newlyweds and raised an army against them. Mary and Bothwell confronted them at Carberry Hill on 15th June. Although no fighting took place, Mary agreed to go with the Lords on condition that they let Bothwell go. However, they imprisoned her in a castle on an island in the middle of Loch Leven and forced her to abdicate the throne in favour of her son, James. Her brother James was to act as regent.

In May 1568, Mary escaped and managed to raise a small army. After her army’s defeat at the Battle of Langside, she fled by boat across the Solway Firth into England. She appealed to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, to help restore her to her throne but Elizabeth, fearful of Mary’s presence in her country, instead imprisoned her for nineteen years. Following years of plots and escape attempts, Elizabeth eventually had Mary executed at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587. Upon Queen Elizabeth’s death, Mary and Darnley’s son ascended to the English throne as King James I, finally uniting the Scottish and English crowns.

Historians have examined the evidence and debated whether Mary and Bothwell plotted Darnley’s death, without reaching any definitive conclusion. Bothwell was almost certainly involved in Darnley’s death, but so were most of the nobles – after all they had signed a bond vowing to get rid of him. It is likely that they pointed the finger of blame at Bothwell in order to save their own lives. That Mary so unquestioningly took his side and then quickly married him has been taken as evidence of her guilt. However, as much as she hated Darnley at this point, as a ruling Queen, it is unlikely that she would have plotted his death. In the aftermath of his murder she would have been fearful for her own life and may have seen Bothwell as a protector. After he allegedly raped her, she would have had no choice but to marry him or forgo her honour. Almost as soon as she was in England, she promised to divorce him and marry someone of Elizabeth’s choosing in return for her freedom. It is unlikely she would have been so quick to cast her husband aside if he had been worth committing murder and jeopardising the throne for, just months earlier.

In the Shadow of the Throne: The Queens that never were

'King Edward's Chair' in: Shanks, E. The Coronation of Their Most Gracious Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth
‘King Edward’s Chair’ in: Shanks, E. The Coronation of Their Most Gracious Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth
(London: George Newnes, 1937)
Held in Laura Gillott’s personal collection

An exhibition curated by Laura Gillott


King Edward’s Chair, or, The Coronation Chair, is the throne on which the British monarch sits during their coronation. It was commissioned in 1296 by King Edward I to contain the coronation stone of Scotland, the Stone of Scone, which he had captured from the Scots. The chair was named after Edward the Confessor and was kept in his chapel at Westminster Abbey. Since 1308, with only a few exceptions, anointed sovereigns of England have been seated in this chair at the moment of their coronation. It is the coveted ‘throne’: fought for, and sought by, so many claimants over the years. To sit upon it was to be made monarch.

Throughout history there have been a huge number of claimants to the English throne. Some have posed more serious threats than others and some have even successfully usurped reigning monarchs. Thus, over the centuries, those in power have kept a close eye on their rivals and potential heirs to the throne.

Female claimants, whilst rarely considered as posing as significant a threat as their male counterparts, have arisen over the years. Queen Elizabeth I was herself accused of trying to overthrow Queen Mary I in 1554 and, when Elizabeth was Queen, she was so fearful that Mary, Queen of Scots planned to usurp her, that she eventually had her executed in 1587.

Women have been watched especially with regard to their choice of husband in fear that a wisely-chosen matrimonial union could have strengthened their claims to the throne. Although some claimants never showed any desire to become Queens, their very existence was considered threatening.

This exhibition looks at five women throughout history who came close to the English throne but whom, through war, death, imprisonment or bad luck, never became crowned as Queen. Had any of these women ascended to the throne English history could have been quite different and the modern royal family unrecognisable …

Empress Matilda (1102-1167)

Matilda of England was born in 1102. Matilda and her younger brother were the only children of King Henry I and Matilda of Scotland to survive to adulthood. The death of her brother, in 1120, made Matilda the last heir from the paternal line of her grandfather, William the Conqueror.

At twelve years old, Matilda was married to Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor. After his death she returned to England and, in 1128, married Geoffrey of Anjou with whom she had three sons. Before Matilda’s father died in 1135 there were several contenders for the throne: Robert of Gloucester (the illegitimate son of Henry I); Stephen of Blois (Matilda’s cousin); Stephen’s older brother, Theobald; and Matilda (Henry’s only surviving legitimate child). Henry named Matilda as his heir and made the barons of England swear allegiance to her. Stephen was the first to do so but, when Henry died, he seized the throne, claiming that Henry had changed his mind on his deathbed. Stephen gained the support of the majority of the nobles as well as that of the Pope and his early reign was peaceful. Matilda then began military campaigns to re-claim her birthright.

'King Stephen' from Raine, J. A Brief historical account of the Episcopal castle, or palace, of Auckland
‘King Stephen’ from Raine, J. A Brief historical account of the Episcopal castle, or palace, of Auckland. . . 2 vols. (Durham: George Andrews, 1852)
(Rare Books, RB942.81 RAI)

Matilda’s half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, campaigned for her in England and she invaded in 1139. In 1141, her forces defeated and captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln. He was effectively deposed and she briefly ruled. Matilda went by the title ‘Lady of the English’ and planned to become Queen. She lost support when she refused to reduce taxes and the citizens of London re-started the civil war.

Stephen was freed in exchange for the captured Robert of Gloucester and, a year later, the tables were turned when Matilda was besieged at Oxford. She escaped by fleeing across the snow in a white cape and crossing the frozen River Thames. She also later escaped Devizes in a similar manner, by disguising herself as a corpse and being carried out.

'King Stephen before the Battle of Lincoln, 1141' from Forester, T. (ed.) The chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon...
‘King Stephen before the Battle of Lincoln, 1141’ from Forester, T. (ed.) The chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon… (London: G.H. Bohn, 1853)
[White (Robert) Collection, W942 HEN]

By 1148, after many failed attempts, Matilda accepted that she would never be Queen. Her eldest son, Henry, took up her cause and repeatedly invaded England. This led to the Treaty of Wallingford in 1153, in which Stephen agreed to name Henry as his heir. Matilda died in 1167 and is buried in Rouen Cathedral, where her grave is marked by the epitaph below:

The Ladies Catherine (1540-1568) and Mary Grey (1545-1578)

When King Edward VII lay dying, he nominated his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor to prevent his catholic sister, Mary, becoming queen. Jane ruled for nine days in July 1553 before Queen Mary I seized the throne that was rightfully hers according to Henry VIII’s will. Jane was imprisoned in the Tower of London and executed, along with her father and husband in 1554. The ladies Catherine and Mary Grey were the younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey and cousins to Queen Elizabeth I. After Jane’s execution they both had claims to the throne as granddaughters of Mary Tudor, the younger sister of King Henry VIII. (Their parents were Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk and Lady Frances Brandon.) Neither Catherine nor Mary were as religious as the fervently Protestant Jane and this probably saved them from becoming the focus of Protestant plots whilst Mary I was on the throne.

Lady Catherine Grey was born in 1540. She was married to Henry Herbert, in 1553 (on the same day her sister Jane married Guilford Dudley). When Elizabeth I came to the throne, in November 1558, Catherine’s availability as a possible heir came to the fore. At one point the Queen seemed to be warming to Catherine and it was rumoured that she was considering adopting her. As Catherine was a possible heir to the throne, Elizabeth had to consider a suitable marriage for her. The best match would have been one that would not threaten her reign, but could bring some political advantages to England if Catherine were indeed to succeed her. A union between Catherine and the Earl of Arran (a young nobleman with a strong claim to the Scottish throne) was envisaged.

In December 1560, Catherine secretly married Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford. Not having the Queen’s official permission to wed proved disastrous. Elizabeth had decided to send Edward on an educational tour of Europe. Catherine, who had fallen pregnant before Edward left, managed to conceal the marriage from everyone. However, in her eighth month of pregnancy she knew she would have to ask someone to plead for her with the Queen. She first confided in Bess of Hardwick, who was frightened about the consequences of knowing such a secret and refused to listen. Catherine then secretly visited Lord Robert Dudley, in his bedroom in the middle of the night and told him her story, but the next day he reported everything to Elizabeth. Elizabeth was furious that her cousin had married without her permission and thus thwarted plans for her to marry the Earl of Arran.

Portrait of Lady Catherine and her son, Edward Seymour
Portrait of Lady Catherine and her son, Edward Seymour. From the collection of the Duke of Northumberland.
Used with kind permission of the Duke of Northumberland.

The unmarried Elizabeth feared that Catherine would give birth to a son and start a rebellion. Thus Catherine was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where Edward joined her on his return to England. The Lieutenant of the Tower permitted husband and wife to secretly visit one another and, as a result, they had two sons: Edward Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, born in 1561 and Thomas Seymour, born in 1563. In 1562 their marriage was declared invalid and their sons illegitimate. After the birth of their second child, the Queen ordered their permanent separation. Catherine was moved from one location to another under house arrest, eventually ending up at Cockfield Hall in Yoxford, Suffolk. There, she died in 1568, at the age of twenty seven, from consumption.

Lady Mary Grey was born in 1545. She was reportedly slightly deformed and was described by her contemporaries as the smallest person at court. Like her sister Catherine, Mary angered Queen Elizabeth I by marrying without royal consent. Her marriage to Thomas Keyes, the Sergeant Porter, in 1563 resulted, two years later, in her imprisonment in the Tower of London. (The marriage had surprised many since Keyes was an unusually large man whose height contrasted with that of the tiny Mary.) It is possible Mary thought that by marrying someone of such lowly rank, Elizabeth would see her as no threat.

When Catherine died, Mary was brought to prominence as the last surviving grandchild of Mary Tudor. Since Catherine’s children were considered to be illegitimate, some people regarded Mary as heiress presumptive to the English throne. She remained under house arrest until 1572 and was permitted to attend Court occasionally. In spite of the intrigue surrounding her, it does not appear that Mary ever made a serious claim to the throne. Rather, it seems her life was ruined by her royal blood. She died childless and in some poverty, in 1578, at the age of thirty three.

Lady Arbella Stuart (1575-1615)

Lady Arbella Stuart (sometimes spelled Arabella) was born in 1575 and was considered a possible successor to Queen Elizabeth I. The only child of Charles Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox, and Elizabeth Cavendish, Arbella was a direct descendant of King Henry VII. Through the paternal line, she was the great-granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister. Both Arbella’s parents died before she was seven and she was raised by her grandmother, Bess of Hardwick.

Portrait of 'Lady Arabella Stuart'
‘Lady Arabella Stuart’ engraved by T.A. Dean in: Raine, J. A Brief historical account of the Episcopal castle, or palace, of Auckland . . . 2 vols.
(Durham: George Andrews, 1852)
[Rare Books, RB942.81 RAI]

Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558. As a woman, a Protestant, and having been declared a bastard after the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, in 1536, there were many who felt her claim to the throne was weak and as a result she always felt insecure and at risk from rebellions. Although Arbella’s claim to the throne was even weaker, Elizabeth feared her as she did all potential rivals, and kept a close eye on her throughout her life. It is likely that she preferred the idea of Arbella succeeding her rather than being succeeded by her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. However, towards the end of her reign her close advisor, William Cecil, convinced her that Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, who had been raised as a Protestant, should be her successor. There is no evidence that Arbella ever challenged this.

Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, there were reports that Arbella intended to secretly marry Edward Seymour. Arbella denied having any intention of marrying without the Queen’s permission. She was interviewed about her plans in the Long Gallery of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, in 1603.

The Long Gallery, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. Room view of the whole of the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall with the Gideon tapestries on the left. It measures to 162 feet long and 26 feet high. The Hardwick gallery is the largest of surviving Elizabethan long galleries.
The Long Gallery, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.
Reference: 67944. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel.
Used with kind permission of Nikita Hooper, Picture Researcher, the National Trust Photo Library
– Room view of the whole of the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall with the Gideon tapestries on the left. It measures to 162 feet long and 26 feet high. The Hardwick gallery is the largest of surviving Elizabethan long galleries.

Arbella found herself in trouble again when King James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne and a plot was devised to overthrow him and replace him with Arbella. The main plot was devised by Arbella’s cousin, Lord Cobham, and Sir Walter Raleigh was among those involved. However, when Arbella was invited to participate by agreeing to it in writing, she reported the plan to James, thus escaping possible imprisonment herself.

In 1610, Arbella secretly married William Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, who later succeeded as 2nd Duke of Somerset. William Seymour also had royal blood as the grandson of Lady Catherine Grey. For marrying without royal permission, King James imprisoned them: Arbella in the custody of Sir Thomas Perry and Seymour in the Tower of London. The couple had some liberty within their prisons and were able to plan their escape.

In June 1611, Arbella dressed as a man and escaped to Kent. A proclamation issued on King James’ behalf stated that they had committed “great and heinous offences” and called upon all persons not to “receive, harbour or assist them in their passage” but to try and apprehend them and hold them in custody. However, it also stated that their intent was to “transport themselves into foreigne parts“. Thus, James must have known that Arbella posed no real threat to his throne and simply wished to escape to be with her husband. William did not arrive at the meeting place and so Arbella set sail for France without him. He had, however, escaped and was on the next ship to Flanders. By this time the alarm had been raised and ships sent after them. Arbella’s boat was within sight of Calais when she insisted upon stopping and waiting for William. This fatal pause allowed her captors to catch up to her and she was forced to surrender whilst, unbeknownst to her, William escaped. Arbella was returned to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

When Arbella fell ill in the tower in 1614, it was suspected she was faking illness either in order to escape or to gain sympathy. However, she refused both food and medical attention and was said by some to be delusional towards the end, believing William was coming to rescue her. When she eventually died in 1615 a post-mortem had to be carried out to rule out poisoning. It found that she had died slowly of starvation caused by her own negligence. It has been suggested that Arbella had porphyria, the disease George III and Mary, Queen of Scots are believed to have suffered from. This would explain both her physical and mental symptoms: porphyria can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, seizures and paranoia. She never saw her husband again and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Princess Charlotte (1796-1817)

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was born in 1796. She was the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later King George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick. As the only legitimate grandchild of George III, she would have become Queen if she hadn’t died in childbirth in 1817, at the age of twenty one.

Charlotte’s parents disliked each other and separated soon after Charlotte’s birth. Prince George left Charlotte’s care to governesses and allowed her only limited contact with her mother. As Charlotte grew to adulthood, her father pressured her to marry William, Hereditary Prince of Orange, but after initially accepting him, Charlotte soon broke off the match. This caused much upset between her and her father, including him placing her under house arrest for several months. He finally permitted her to marry Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.

The wedding took place in 1816 and huge crowds attended. It is believed that Charlotte suffered two miscarriages in quick succession after the wedding but, by early 1817, she was pregnant again and it seemed to be progressing well. Her pregnancy was the subject of much public interest, with people placing bets on the sex of the child. Charlotte’s contractions began on 3rd November, but the labour lasted for two days and she eventually gave birth to a stillborn boy on 5th November. Charlotte took the news calmly, stating it was the will of God. She seemed to be recovering but not long after the birth she began bleeding heavily and died soon afterwards.

After Charlotte’s death, there was a huge outpouring of public grief and the whole country went into deep mourning. Linen-drapers reportedly ran out of black cloth and the country shut down almost entirely for two weeks, including the banks and courts. With the loss of his only heir, Prince George was inconsolable and unable to attend Charlotte’s funeral and Princess Caroline fainted in shock when she heard the news. However, it was Charlotte’s husband of just over a year who felt the greatest loss – he was said to be utterly devastated at the deaths of both his wife and son. Many elegies and poems were written about Charlotte, lamenting the loss of the heir to the throne and hope for the future.

Title page of Cockle, Mrs. Elegy to the Memory of Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte of Wales (Newcastle upon Tyne: Printed by S. Hodgson, 1817)
Title page of Cockle, Mrs. Elegy to the Memory of Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte of Wales (Newcastle upon Tyne: Printed by S. Hodgson, 1817)
[Clarke (Edwin) Local Collection, Clarke 1508(1)]

It wasn’t long before people looked for someone to blame for the tragedy. Although the post-mortem was inconclusive, many blamed Charlotte’s physician, Sir Richard Croft, and three months after her death, he killed himself. This led to significant changes in obstetric practice, with intervention in long labour becoming more commonplace and acceptable.

Princess Charlotte was buried, with her son at her feet, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 19th November 1817. A monument was erected, by public subscription, at her tomb. People lined the streets along the funeral route from Claremont to Windsor to pay their respects to her. The mass public mourning is comparable with the outpouring of grief witnessed when Princess Diana died in 1997. With a mad king on the throne and an unpopular Prince of Wales, many had looked forward to Charlotte’s ascension to the throne and the new uncertainty about the succession accentuated the sense of grief felt by the British public.

What if they had been Queen?

Empress Matilda
As her son, Henry, acceded to the throne after Stephen, Matilda’s being Queen wouldn’t have changed the succession. However, if she, as a woman, had become a reigning monarch in the Twelfth Century, then it is possible that we may have seen another queen before Mary I in 1553. Also, if Matilda had been a successful queen then perhaps future kings, such as Henry VIII, would have been less concerned with the need to provide a male heir to the throne.

Lady Catherine and Lady Mary Grey
Although there was a good chance that either Catherine or Mary would become Queen, neither of them aspired to the throne and after the failed attempt to make their sister, Jane, Queen they could not count on a great deal of support from nobles who had no desire to lose their heads. Furthermore, neither of them was deeply Protestant, like Jane, and therefore they weren’t a viable alternative to the Catholic Mary I. As it turned out, neither of them lived long lives and it is likely that even if they had ruled, the reign would have been brief and relatively insignificant.

Arbella Stuart
It is difficult to say whether or not Arbella desired to be Queen. On one hand she never made any attempt to seize the throne but she had been raised as royalty and her romantic assignations suggest ambition. Even if she had been named as Elizabeth’s heir, James would almost certainly have tried to claim the throne himself and, as a man and King already, would have garnered considerable support. If James had died young, his son, Charles would have eventually tried to take the throne. As her claim wasn’t as strong as theirs, it would have made for a very unsettled reign for Arbella.

Princess Charlotte
Charlotte’s death left the king without any legitimate grandchildren and his other sons were urged to marry. George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward, dismissed his mistress and proposed to Leopold’s sister, Victoria. Their daughter, Princess Victoria of Kent, born in 1819, became heir and then Queen. Her uncle Leopold helped arrange her marriage to his nephew, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. If Charlotte had not died then Victoria may never even have been born, and our current royal family would be descended from Charlotte instead.


Ainsworth, W.H. The Tower of London, with illustrations by George Cruikshank
(London: Richard Bentley, 1840)

An account of the interment of her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte, inSt. George’s Chapel, Windsor, on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 1817
(Newcastle upon Tyne: Printed for J.S., 1817)

Chalmers, G. The life of Mary, Queen of Scots
(London: Printed for J. Murray, 1818)

Chibnall, M. The Empress Matilda: queen consort, queen mother, and lady ofthe English
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1991)

Cockle, Mrs. Elegy to the memory of Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte of Wales
(Newcastle upon Tyne: S. Hodgson, 1817)

A Complete history of England: with the lives of all the kings and queensthereof… 3 vols.
(London: Printed for B. Aylmer [etc.], 1706)

Davis, R.H.C. King Stephen, 1135-1154
(London: Longman, 1990)

De Lisle, L. The sisters who would be queen: the tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey
(London: Harper P., 2009)

Forester, T. (ed.) The chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon: comprising the historyof England, from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the accession of Henry II. Also, The acts of Stephen, King of England and Duke of Normandy
(London: H.G. Bohn, 1853)

Gardiner, J. (ed.) The history today who’s who in British History
(London: Collins & Brown; Cima Books, 2000)

Grey, Lady J. The life, death and actions of the most chast, learned, andreligious lady, the Lady Iane Gray, daughter to the Duke of Suffolke: containing foure principall discourses written with her owne hands . . .
(London: Printed by G. Eld. For John Wright, 1615) EEBO (13/05/2011)

Gristwood, S. Arbella: England’s lost queen
(London: Bantam Books, 2003)

Holmes, R.R. Queen Victoria
(London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1901)

James I, Sovereign. [Proclamation.] By the King whereas wee are giuen tovnderstand, that the Lady Arbella [sic] and William Seymour … being for diuers great and hainous offenses, committed, the one to our tower of London, and the other to a speciall guard
(Imprinted at London: By Robert Barker, Printer to the Kings most Excellent Maiestie, Anno Dom. 1611) EEBO (13/05/2011)

Leslie, S. George the Fourth
(London: Ernest Benn, 1926)

Priestley, J.B. The prince of pleasure and his regency, 1811-20
(London: Heinemann, 1969)

Raine, J. A brief historical account of the Episcopal castle, or palace, ofAuckland
(Durham: George Andrews, 1852)

Shanks, E. The coronation of their most gracious majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth
(London: George Newnes, 1937)

Stuart, D.M. Daughter of England
(London: Macmillan, 1952)

Woodward, G.W.O. King Henry VIII
(London: Pitkin Pictorials, 1969)

King George V – May 2010

The ascension of King George V with King George V on the throne receiving the crown
The ascension of King George V from Royal Silver Jubilee of their majesties King George V and Queen Mary: 6th May, 1935 (Clarke (Edwin) Local Collection, Clarke 1936)

I cannot understand it, after all I am only a very ordinary sort of fellow.

King George V in response to the cheering crowds at his Silver Jubilee in 1935.

The 6th May 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the ascension to the British throne of King George V. The image shows his coronation in 1911. It is taken from a souvenir booklet that was produced by Newcastle City Council for the King’s Silver Jubilee in 1935.

George was never meant to be King. However, his reign increased the popularity of the monarchy. The British people saw him as a down-to-earth man who sympathised with the hardships faced by the working classes. He was a sailor at heart – he spoke bluntly, talked loudly and enjoyed swearing! He was more common man than Royal and a liberal at heart. During the General Strike of 1926 the King disagreed with suggestions that the strikers were revolutionaries saying, ‘Try living on their wages before you judge them’. The British people felt that he was on their side and it was his very ordinariness that they loved.

George was born on 3rd June 1865. From the age of twelve he served in the Royal Navy. In 1891 his brother, Albert, died of pneumonia shortly after becoming became engaged to Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, who was known as May to her family. This left George second in line to the throne and ended his career in the Navy, as he took on more political duties. His grandmother, Queen Victoria, persuaded George to propose to May and they married in 1893.

Although George and May toured the British Empire, George preferred home life where he enjoyed hunting and collecting stamps. They lived in York Cottage at Sandringham, which was small enough so that George could avoid having to entertain! He preferred a quiet life and despised pomp and ceremony.

On 6th May 1910 his father, King Edward VII died, and George ascended to the throne. George’s reign bore witness to a period of upheaval and change, including the First World War, the formation of the first Labour government, strikes and the Depression. During the war, due to anti-German feelings in Britain, George changed the name of the Royal family from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor.

George was disappointed in his heir Prince Edward’s failure to marry and his many love affairs. He prophetically said, ‘After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months’. He was however, very fond of his son Albert and doted on his granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth whom he nicknamed Lilibet. He said, ‘I pray to God my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne’.

George died on 20th January 1936. A lifetime of heavy smoking had taken its toll. When he was near death his doctor, Lord Dawson, issued a statement announcing, ‘The King’s life is drawing peacefully to a close’. Dawson’s diary later revealed that he aided the King’s death by giving him a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine.

During the lying in state procession part of the Imperial State Crown fell from the coffin. Many saw this as an omen of the coming disastrous reign of Edward VIII, who abdicated before the end of the year, leaving his brother to ascend to the throne as George VI and eventually little Lilibet who became Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, just as George V had hoped.