What would have happened if Queen Mary I had a reason to execute her younger sister, Elizabeth?

One of my readers asked me what would of happened if Queen Mary I had a reason to execute her younger sister, Elizabeth? Could Mary send her sister to the block? Would she have named Mary Stuart as her heir?

Mary and Elizabeth had a very strained relationship after Mary’s accession. After Mary’s entry to London, some of her Catholic counselors urged her to be cautious with Elizabeth and don’t trust her younger sister. Simon Renard, an advisor of Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain, was adamant in his claims that in her quest for the crown, Elizabeth could “conceive some dangerous design and put it to execution”, for  the younger sister was clever and sly and, thus, dangerous.

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When Elizabeth arrived in London, she immediately requested that she be granted a private audience with Queen Mary. She needed to dispel Mary’s suspicions, pledge her ‘undying’ loyalty to her new queen and her sister, doing her best to make her own life safer. They met at Richmond, in one of the galleries of the palace, and it was quite a dramatic meeting of two sisters. In the beginning, two women showed solidarity and friendship, and Elizabeth supported the claim of her older sister to the throne.

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In her book “Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen”, Anna Whitelock writes about the reunion of the two sisters:

“Falling on her knees before the queen, Elizabeth wept, saying she knew the queen was “not well disposed towards her, and she knew no other cause except religion.” She begged for understanding. She acted out of ignorance, not obstinacy: she had never been taught the doctrine of the ancient religion. She asked for books so that “having read them she might know if her conscience would allow her to be persuaded; or that a learned man might be sent to her, to instruct her in the truth.”

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However, soon everything changed, and solidarity perished in a haze of Mary’s resentment towards the Protestant young Elizabeth and her fears to be betrayed. Elizabeth was Anne Boleyn’s daughter, and that was enough to cause Mary treat Elizabeth with coldness and resentment.

Mary considered barring her younger sister from the line of succession on account of Elizabeth’s “heretical opinions and illegitimacy, and characteristics in which she resembled her mother”. Mary doubted the sincerity of Elizabeth’s friendship and her loyalty, but she permitted her sister to remain at court and attend her coronation, probably thinking that it was better to keep her enemies close.

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Religious aspect was a cornerstone in their relationship. Mary was a devout Catholic, and she tried to make England a Catholic kingdom again by officially restoring the rule of the pope. Elizabeth had to outwardly conform to save herself, and she agreed to attend Catholic mass. However, I am sure that Mary understood pretty well that her sister was putting on a show, for Mary was well aware that Elizabeth had been educated in Protestant faith.

In January and February 1554, Wyatt’s rebellion broke out due to Mary’s determination to marry Philip of Spain, but the uprising was quickly suppressed. Elizabeth was summoned to court and interrogated regarding her implication in the plot against Mary. Although she fervently protested her innocence, Mary ordered to have her imprisoned in the Tower of London. Renard and Stephen Gardiner, Lord Chancellor, argued with Mary that Elizabeth should have been tried and sentenced to death.

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We don’t know for certain whether Elizabeth schemed to overthrow Mary or not, but I tend to think that Anne Boleyn’s daughter wasn’t involved in Wyatt’s plot, for she was too smart to try something against her sister when many nobles wanted to see Mary on the throne and her support didn’t ebb away, which would happen in the later years of her short reign.

After all, Elizabeth seemed to be against the very idea of executing an anointed monarch. Mary Queen of Scots was held captive in England for years, and Elizabeth signed her death warrant only in 1587, regretting her actions later. Elizabeth’s unwillingness to kill Mary Stuart, which she displayed throughout many years, indirectly proves that she didn’t approve of regicide. That’s why I doubt that Elizabeth conspired with the leaders of the rebellion.

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After the rebellion had been crushed, the leaders were arrested and incarcerated in the Tower. After interrogations, there was the evidence that the rebels had tried to contact Elizabeth, but there was no proof that the young lady agreed to participate in the uprising or approved of the rebels’ actions. Gardiner pressed Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger to confess to conspiring with Elizabeth, but the prisoner disclosed nothing. Wyatt admitted only one thing – he sent Elizabeth a letter in which he recommended that she go as far away from London as she could, to which she had replied, though not in writing.

Elizabeth’s supporters in the government, including Sir William Paget, persuaded Mary to spare her in the absence of credible proof of her treason. She was moved from the Tower to Woodstock, where she was to spend almost a year under house arrest in the charge of Sir Henry Bedingfield. Although Elizabeth was under house arrest, royal counselors continued to pressure Mary to proceed against her sly sister without evidence; there was also significant psychological pressure on Elizabeth to admit her guilt.

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I think that the scenario of Elizabeth’s execution at Mary’s order is not a highly probable one. First of all, Mary didn’t have credible proof of Elizabeth’s alleged treason. And even if she did have it (for example, if Wyatt would have confessed), I highly doubt that Mary would have executed her sister despite all their differences. The queen may have been tempted to have Elizabeth executed, and Elizabeth herself apparently feared that it would die on the scaffold like her infamous mother, but she couldn’t do that.

Mary hated Anne Boleyn, and she was unable to forgive Anne for causing the greatest turmoil in England and ‘bewitching’ her father. But Elizabeth was Mary’s sister! Despite everything that transpired between Mary, Anne, and Elizabeth, Mary seemed to have some sort of emotional attachment to Elizabeth: they were sisters, they grew up together, and they were both wronged by their father, though in slightly different ways.

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Moroever, Mary might have hoped that Elizabeth would convert to Catholicism, although her hopes were empty. Also, Phillip of Spain, Mary’s husband, supported Elizabeth, knowing that his aging and sick wife was not long for this world while Elizabeth was next in line to the throne. Philip probably intended to marry her after Mary’s death and, thus, gain a powerful ally against France. Philip’s protection played a role in ensuring Elizabeth’s safety.

Henry VIII’s will confirmed the line of succession as Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, and, following them, the Grey and Suffolk families. The Stuarts were excluded the claimants from succession. Mary might have named Mary Stuart her successor, but I doubt that she would have done that.

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If Mary I of England named another heir instead of her sister Elizabeth, then it is very possible that there would have been another war for succession in England, or at least uprisings of Protestants and Elizabeth’s supporters. Elizabeth was loved by the common people, and she was also supported by most of the English nobles, although there were many devout Catholics who didn’t want to see her on the throne.

As it was already mentioned in this article, Philip II of Spain supported Elizabeth. After the burnings and persecutions of the Protestants during Mary I’s reign, many people must have feared that another Catholic monarch might continue the same religious policy, which is why having Elizabeth as queen was more highly desirable. Therefore, if not Elizabeth but someone else was Mary’s heir, people might have not supported this person, which would have led to rebellions and, perhaps, even to another bloody war for succession.