Insurrections and rebellions against the ruling government are common throughout history. While we in the United States are used to stable and smooth transitions of power in our government, the events of January 6, 2021 are not uncommon when one looks back in history. The Tudor dynasty survived multiple uprisings over the century they were in power. However, one, led by Sir Thomas Wyatt in January and February of 1554 presented a very real danger to the sitting monarch, Queen Mary I. Had it succeeded, the course of English history would have been quite different.
The idea for Wyatt’s Rebellion was formulated by a large group of men, most of them from the upper class and nobility, in November of 1553. These men were concerned about Queen Mary I who had ascended the throne after the death of King Edward VI. Mary was Catholic, and she was preparing to marry Philip II of Spain, the future King of Spain, which was a devoutly Catholic country. While still not completely clear, it is thought that the end goal of the revolt was to dethrone Mary and put her half-sister, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne preventing the country’s return to Catholicism.
The four main leaders were all from different counties in England, and they hoped to be able to draw broad based support for their cause from the populace in these counties. Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir James Croft, Sir Peter Carew and Henry Grey all held significant political power in their respective counties. Grey was the father of Lady Jane Grey, who had been queen for a brief nine days in the summer of 1553 and was now being held in the Tower of London. These men drew together support with the intent of marching on London on March 18, 1554. They planned to quickly overthrow Mary and install Elizabeth on the throne. As this was a large plot and many people involved, it ended up being fairly easy for the government to infiltrate.
The plot was uncovered by Lord Chancellor Stephan Gardiner in late January. He interrogated the Earl of Devon, Edward Courtenay, who was at Mary’s court. The Earl quickly confessed the plot. Instead of arresting the main conspirators, government officials decided to negotiate with Wyatt, the only agitator able to gain enough support to drum up an army of any great size and significance. The negotiations quickly deteriorated, and the crown decided to send a force of its own to combat Wyatt’s. At first, fortune favored Wyatt. The crown’s force deserted and joined up with Wyatt, and the combined forces then began their march on London.
On February 3rd, Wyatt’s force arrived at the outskirts of London. He had 3,000 men and hoped to be joined by more once they invaded London. Unfortunately for him, this did not happen and over the next few days, there was a brief skirmish between Wyatt’s men and royal forces. Wyatt quickly surrendered. Forty men of the rebel force were killed, and Wyatt was arrested. His trial was held on March 15th, and he was executed on April 11, 1554. In Tudor times, a guilty verdict for treason was usually swiftly followed by execution, however, Wyatt was held for almost a month in hopes that, under torture, he would implicate Elizabeth in the plot to dethrone Mary. He never did. His execution was particularly gruesome: first he was beheaded, and then his bowels and genitals were burned. His body was then quartered and taken, along with his head, to be parboiled.
The fallout of Wyatt’s Rebellion led to the execution of Lady Jane Grey, 16, and her husband. Suspicion also fell on the future Queen Elizabeth. Believing her to be heavily involved in the plot, Princess Elizabeth was also brought to the capital city and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Sir Thomas Wyatt denied any involvement by Princess Elizabeth, but she was still held in the Tower until May of 1554 and then held under house arrest for another year. Almost 100 people who participated in the rebellion were executed as traitors by being hanged, drawn, and quartered. Obviously, the plot failed, but it was the most successful plot against the crown during this time period.
Other plots that were discovered during the Tudor/Stuart time period include the Ridolfi Plot (1571), the Throckmorton Plot (1583), the Babington Plot (1586), and the Lopez Plot (1594). Many of these plots were discovered by the highly skilled Royal espionage network of Queen Elizabeth I and, mostly, these insurrections were a reaction to the monarch’s Protestant religion
To bring this article back to an object at Agecroft Hall, we have a pardon for one of Agecroft’s original owners on display. It is a pardon from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and, while it would have pardoned many things, it would not have pardoned any past traitorous insurrections against the ruling monarch. For more information about the pardon, please see the blog post.
Looking back from the 21st century, we remember the Tudor dynasty as the one that oversaw the rise of Britain from a European backwater to a major political and economic world power. The Tudors are often celebrated as the dynasty which ushered in an era of peace and prosperity while the failed rebellions against them have faded from popular memory. However, a closer look at the period reveals that the threats to the monarchy posed by multiple rebellions were very real. Wyatt’s Rebellion came to closest to succeeding, and if it had, not only would the course of British history have been altered, but the reputation of the Tudors would likely be less glorious.