On the 10th July 1553, Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen of England after her first cousin once removed, the 15-year-old King Edward VI, died of an unknown respiratory problem. However, the Privy Council proclaimed Edward’s older sister Mary as queen just nine days later and imprisoned Jane in the Tower of London. She was tried on charges of high treason, found guilty, and beheaded the following February.

The Third Act of Succession was passed by Parliament in July 1543 and restored Henry’s daughters – Mary and Elizabeth – to the line of succession after his son Edward and any children he might have. Jane was the grandniece of Henry VIII through her grandmother, Mary Tudor, Queen of France, who was Henry’s sister. The Third Act of Succession stated that the throne would pass to her line if his own children did not have any descendants.

Despite all Henry’s planning, Edward VI chose to restrict the succession further. As he lay on his death bed, he nominated the Protestant Jane Grey as his successor rather than his older Catholic sister Mary. Historians disagree over how much influence Edward’s chief minister, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and the father of Jane’s husband Lord Guildford Dudley, had on this decision.

Whatever the role of Northumberland in the succession, when he left London after Edward’s death to intercept his sister Mary the Privy Council switched their allegiance and proclaimed Mary as queen on 19th July. Parliament later declared Jane a usurper, and she was found guilty of treason for having signed documents as “Jane the Queen”.

In 1518 the English Cardinal Wolsey had negotiated the Treaty of London, a non-aggression pact that was signed by the twenty major European powers of the time. However, peace held for barely a year before two of the signatories went to war and Wolsey began to arrange meetings between Henry VIII and the other monarchs to salvage the agreement.

Francis I of France was barely three years younger than Henry and, like his English counterpart, was keen to display the grandeur of his court. Consequently both men approached their forthcoming meeting as an opportunity to outshine the other, resulting in a more than two week long festival of riches and entertainment.

The meeting took place between the communes of Ardres in France and Guîne, which at the time was under English rule. Both rulers erected lavish temporary palaces and pavilions due to the castles in the nearby communes being in a poor state of repair. The extensive use of cloth of gold, which was woven with real gold thread and silk, would later give the site of the meeting its name. The extravagance of the two kings knew no bounds, with Henry’s encampment featuring a gilt fountain that ran with wine and claret.

The event also featured such competitions as jousting and wrestling, with Henry being defeated by Francis in the latter. Yet despite the joviality provided by these games and other entertainment including banquets and exotic animals, the meeting ended on 24 June with little political progress. Less than three weeks later Henry signed an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Francis’ main rival on the continent.

On the 19th May 1536, Anne Boleyn – Henry VIII’s second wife and mother of the future Elizabeth I – was beheaded in the Tower of London, having been found guilty of adultery, treason, and incest.

Although found unanimously guilty by a jury of 27 peers, the evidence against her was questionable.  Only one person accused of an affair with Anne admitted his guilt, and this was allegedly extracted under torture.  Some historians believe that her involvement in court politics led the influential Thomas Cromwell to engineer her downfall.  Meanwhile, other historians point to the problem of her not having bourn the king a male heir.  A series of miscarriages in the months prior to her arrest further suggested she wouldn’t do so in the future.  The lack of a son from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had originally driven Henry to find a new wife.  Anne found herself in a precarious situation.  She gave birth to a stillborn son in January 1536, and soon afterwards Henry took Jane Seymour – one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting – as a mistress.

Since she was queen, the Treason Act meant that the queen’s infidelity was treasonous.  The punishment for a woman was burning alive, but Henry commuted it to beheading and had an expert French swordsman brought over to carry out the execution with a single stroke.

Anne maintained her innocence to the end.  She was buried in an unmarked grave, but the site was identified in 1876 and is now marked with a marble slab.






On the 23rd March 1540, Waltham Abbey in Essex became the last abbey to be dissolved by Henry VIII. Henry had visited the abbey a number of times and is known to have stayed there with Queen Anne Boleyn in 1532. However, despite surviving for a number of years Waltham Abbey eventually succumbed to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This caused an economic disaster in the town, which had grown prosperous as a result of pilgrims visiting the abbey.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the more than 850 religious houses that existed in England at the start of Henry VIII’s reign disbanded and their property taken by the crown. Although only some of these were actual ‘monasteries’, England’s religious houses together owned between a quarter to a third of all the land in England. Furthermore, many of them were rumoured to tolerate decidedly un-monastic behaviour.

Having severed his ties with the Catholic Church in the 1534 Act of Supremacy, Henry was free to deal with religious houses without needing approval from the Pope. Within two years his ministers began to shut down religious houses on financial grounds, and by 1540 all the abbeys except for Waltham had been closed. Abbot Robert Fuller surrendered the abbey and its property on the 23rd March 1540, and within just a few years all the buildings except for the parish nave were demolished or collapsed due to neglect. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was completed in less than four years, but brought Henry significant income as well as suppressing political opposition from those who might have sided with the Pope.

On the 21st March 1556, Thomas Cranmer was executed for heresy. As a leader of the English Reformation he had not only promoted Protestantism but had also established the first structures of the Church of England. Despite having signed a number of recantations or retractions of his Protestant faith, on the day of his execution he in turn recanted these recantations before being burned at the stake.

Cranmer’s early career had seen him present the case for Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Although his argument did not result in the Pope agreeing to annul the marriage, Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by the King in March 1533 after which he quickly moved to declare Henry’s marriage to Catherine void. Within just a few years he also annulled the King’s marriages to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and had begun to work with Thomas Cromwell to promote the publication of an English Bible.

Cranmer’s actions led to him developing a large and powerful opposition, which only grew under the reign of Edward VI. His support for the Protestant Lady Jane Grey as Edward’s successor, rather than his Catholic older sister Mary, ultimately led to him being put on trial for treason in 1553. Cranmer’s execution in 1556 for heresy and was intended to act as way to discredit Protestantism. However, his eleventh-hour rejection of his earlier recantations against the Reformist movement meant that his death ultimately undermined the Marian Counter-Reformation.

He died at the stake having placed his right hand, with which he had signed his recantation, into the fire first as a punishment for being “unworthy”.

On the 17th November 1558, Elizabeth I succeeded her half-sister Mary to become queen of England. The last of the Tudor dynasty, Elizabeth’s reign is seen by many as a ‘golden age’ in English history. A period of relative political and religious stability, her reign saw unprecedented foreign exploration and expansion, while at home the English Renaissance brought about enormous cultural developments and the rise of one of the greatest playwrights ever to have lived – William Shakespeare.

Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and, despite being declared illegitimate following the annulment of her parents’ marriage, came to the throne as the next in line behind her Catholic half-sister under the terms of the Third Succession Act. Having become queen when she was 25 years old, Elizabeth relied heavily on a group of advisers led by Robert Cecil and is generally seen as providing stability through her long reign, in comparison to her two siblings.

Soon after assuming power she introduced the Elizabethan Religious Settlement consisting of two Acts of Parliament which resolved much of the Protestant/Catholic divide that had characterised the years before and after her reign. However, this did little to appease the Catholic Philip II of Spain who famously launched the Spanish Armada against England in 1588 but was defeated.

Elizabeth never married nor had any heirs, leading to her becoming known as the Virgin Queen. When she died, the lack of an heir led to the end of the Tudor dynasty and the beginning of the Stuarts after James VI of Scotland became James I of England.

On the 8th February 1587 Mary Stuart, more commonly known as Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. Having been imprisoned for 19 years in a variety of castles and manor houses, Mary was accused and found guilty of plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1586.

Mary was put under house arrest in 1568 as she was a threat to Elizabeth, due to her strong claim to the English throne through her paternal grandmother Margaret Tudor (Henry VIII’s sister). Furthermore Mary was a rallying point for Catholic and Spanish plots that sought to overthrow Elizabeth and install her as the new queen of England. Mary herself didn’t hide her belief that she should be queen, as Catholics viewed Elizabeth as illegitimate due to her being born to Anne Boleyn – Henry VIII’s wife after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Mary’s imprisonment continued until a case could be made against her. She was finally charged with treason, despite not being an English citizen, after the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham intercepted coded letters in which Mary approved of the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary’s trial took place in October 1586, and she was convicted on the 25th. However, Elizabeth was reluctant to sign the death warrant and didn’t do so for over three months.

On the 8th February 1587, Mary made her way from her chambers to the scaffold that had been erected in Fotheringhay Castle’s great hall. It took the executioner three strokes of his axe to behead her.

On the 11th October 1521, Pope Leo X granted the title “Defender of the Faith” to King Henry VIII of England. To be accurate he actually granted the Latin title ‘Fidei defensor’ but the message was the same: Henry was being rewarded for upholding the Catholic faith in the face of the developing Protestant Reformation and the ideas of Martin Luther.

The Pope granted the title after Henry published a book – Assertio Septem Sacramentorum – in which he defended Catholic doctrine against the criticisms levelled at it by Luther. Known in English as the ‘Defence of the Seven Sacraments’, and dedicated to Pope Leo X, Martin Luther even wrote his own book in response known as Against Henry, King of the English. Two of the key points raised by Henry related to the sanctity of marriage and the supremacy of the Pope. It is notable, therefore, that Henry was later stripped of the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ in 1530 by Pope Paul III after he broke from Rome and established himself as the head of the new Church of England.

Although he was excommunicated, Henry was later re-awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by the English Parliament in relation to defending the Anglican faith. All of Henry’s successors – except for his Catholic daughter Mary – have therefore held the title, which makes them the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and therefore superior even to the Archbishop of Canterbury. To this day, British coins are inscribed with the abbreviations F D or FID DEF in reference to the original Latin phrase – Fidei Defensor.

Today is the day – it’s the EU Referendum, when British voters decide whether they want to ‘Remain’ a member of the European Union or ‘Leave’ it. The 23rd June has, historically, seen many events regarding Britain’s relationship with other countries and so I thought I’d put together this HistoryPod Extra to share some with you.

On this day in 1314, the Battle of Bannockburn led to one of the most important Scottish victories of the First War of Scottish Independence that was fought intermittently from 1296 until 1328. Robert the Bruce, who had seized the Scottish throne in 1306, defeated King Edward II of England and secured Scotland’s de facto independence. Although a Second War of Independence followed, Scotland retained its independence until the Treaty of Union joined England and Scotland together as the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.

Two centuries before the Union, in 1520, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France met together in Northern France at what became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The meeting was designed to improve friendship between the two nations, but was in many ways just an opportunity for them to show off the wealth of their respective kingdoms. In fact it got its name from the large amounts of expensive fabric woven with gold and silver thread that was used in the tents and clothing of the attendees. On the 23rd June, the kings of England and France shared mass together in a specially constructed chapel. However, the good relations didn’t last for long – they were at war again just a few years later.

By 1661 closer relations with Europe were again being sought, and on the 23rd June Charles II entered a marriage contract with Catherine of Braganza, the most senior noble house in Portugal. Despite the intention of forming closer ties with Portugal, however, the marriage was met with resentment in England since Catherine was a Roman Catholic in a predominantly Protestant country. As queen, she became the target for the inventors of the Popish Plot – a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates that claimed Catholics were attempting to assassinate the king. Although the plot collapsed, it highlighted the level of Anti-Catholicism present in Britain at the time. As an interesting aside, despite the accusations against her, Catherine is credited with introducing the drinking of tea to Britain.

In 1758, the Seven Years War was raging. On the 23rd June British forces defeated French troops at the Battle of Krefeld in Germany. The war had begun four years earlier in 1754, and went on to involve every major European power – except the Ottoman Empire – in a conflict that split Europe into two coalitions led by Britain on one side and France on the other. When the war ended in 1763, Britain emerged as the world’s most dominant colonial power and gained huge tracts of land in the Americas –much of which it subsequently lost as a result of the American War of Independence a few years later.

It’s pure chance that these four events occurred on the same day as the EU Referendum is taking place. I certainly don’t intend to see them as a pattern for the future but, if there’s anything to be learned from them, it’s that British history is full of surprising twists and turns. 2016 promises to be no different.