1553 was a year or turbulence: three monarchs, untimely death, executions, religious change and uprising. From the death of the fifteen year old King to the succession of his sister, the summer months proved to be unpredictable and bloody. Yet Mary I may have had some help recovering what she felt was her rightful claim to the throne. And that help might have come from a very unlikely source indeed.
As Edward lay dying at Greenwich Palace, his religious reforms, ushered through by his “Protectors” Somerset and Northumberland, were in danger of being undone. Having taken England further down the path of Reformation, Edward’s changes threatened to prove as fragile as his life, because the next in line to the throne was a devout Catholic. Edward’s elder half-sister, Mary, was determined to return England to the faith of her mother, of her childhood and of the Pope and undo all the council’s recent hard work. As she awaited news of Edward’s decline, his right-hand-man worked hard to ensure his own legacy, as well as that of the new faith.
In an unprecedented move, Northumberland decided to ignore the will of Henry VIII. By this document of 1547, the throne would pass from Edward to Mary and then Elizabeth, although Henry and others had hoped that Edward would father children through whom the claim would pass. With a younger brother on the throne, the two women’s chances seemed fairly slim. With Edward’s blessing, Northumberland married his son, Guildford, to the King’s cousin, Lady Jane Grey, and had her crowned as England’s next Queen. Yet only nine days later, their friends had deserted, she had been deposed and Mary was restored to the succession. How did it all go wrong so quickly? It is almost as if some external force was turning the wheel of fortune so quickly that everyone on board became sea-sick.
Framlingham Castle, Suffolk.
A document kept in the archives at Ely Cathedral contains a strange reference that might hold a clue to the rapid turn-around. Written in the form of an anonymous pamphlet, it describes Mary’s restoration from the standpoint of a witness in Suffolk. Mary had barricaded herself into Framlingham Castle, perhaps as a convenient point to reach the coast and flee the country, except her fortunes changed. This pamphlet, Against Popery, is the only survivor of five copies made in July 1553, which Mary ordered to be destroyed immediately after she had regained power. Written by an eye-witness, it makes the extraordinary claim that Mary used witchcraft to raise an army in the small Suffolk market town. It claims she acted “with the help of the doctor” to raise a storm that “caste down a grete shadowe upon the erthe… a great rent was torn in the skyes… from whiche fell to erthe the miraculous cupboard.”
What can be made of this odd description, which Mary was so keen to destroy? There may well have been a storm at the time, although this was the middle of summer, and Mary may have enlisted the help of various doctors; perhaps of medicine, perhaps of divinity. What seems strange though, is that the tract clearly refers to the doctor and a “miraculous cupboard,” which is later described as being blue, “painted like a coffyn” and “the size of a riche manne’s bed.” It also “rent” the skies and caused a “howling in the heavens” but later could be found “by no man.” Was this strange apparition linked to Mary’s friend the Doctor? Who could he have been and what should we make of this? In all my years researching the Tudor period, from the dusty annals of the cloisters of my youth, I have never come across a reference like this before. All suggestions and possible interpretations would be gratefully received. Thank you, kind friends, in advance for your help.
Woods outside Framlingham
Ely Cathedral Archives, with thanks to Jolyon Dalrymple-Smythe
Vile Bodies Evelyn Waugh
Suffolk Haunts Loada Cobblers
Jeff R Vescent loves you. And you. And them. And even those who might be over there.
*No, it doesn’t need a question mark. Geddit?