When Elizabeth I nearly died of smallpox, she requested that Robert Dudley be appointed as Protector in the event of her death. My question is, what did Elizabeth mean by "Protector"? What kind of role or responsibilities did she assume Robert Dudley would have in this position? I have heard the title used in regard to regents ruling for minors, or as a title for the head of state himself (like Cromwell later in history). Did Elizabeth envision one of these situations, or did she mean something else entirely?
I am kind of surprised that no one has tackled this question yet. Since I hate to see questions go unanswered, I will give it a go. But as regular readers will know, I do tend to be long-winded.... (LOL)
Elizabeth did indeed suffer a bout of smallpox late in 1562. That illness was often fatal and, recognizing that she had no clear heir (no children and no surviving brothers or sisters), Elizabeth wished to provide for stability in her realm and to prevent another dynastic conflict similar to the Yorkist-Lancastrian civil war of the previous century.
England was of course a monarchy, so it was assumed that one individual should hold the reigns of power and govern, albeit with the advice and consent of the nobility. But if Elizabeth were to die, who would become the new monarch? Some among the Privy Council and the nobility supported Elizabeth’s cousin Katherine Grey. She was the second daughter of Frances Brandon Grey, who was herself the eldest daughter of Mary Tudor Brandon, Henry VIII’s younger sister. And both the Act for the Succession of 1543 and the last will and testament of Henry VIII had designated the heirs of Frances Brandon as the legal successors to the crown after Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. Katherine was a Protestant and had recently married (perhaps illegally) Edward Seymour and given birth to a son. She was therefore religiously suitable and clearly able to provide for a future male succession. But her elder sister Jane Grey had been executed for treason less than a decade earlier, as had her father Henry Grey. Some considered this family history of treason to be a bar between Katherine and the throne. Worse, her husband’s father (the last Lord Protector) had likewise been executed under an accusation of plotting against the government of John Dudley, Robert Dudley’s deceased father. Lastly, Elizabeth deeply distrusted the Greys and refused to accept Katherine or her sister Mary as heirs to the crown. (cont’d below)
The “natural” heir to Elizabeth’s throne, or the heir as determined purely by blood lineage and customary inheritance patterns, was Mary Stuart of Scotland. She was of course the only surviving child of the late James V of Scotland, who was himself the eldest son of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s elder sister. But there were multiple impediments to her inheriting the crown of England. Firstly, she was not only foreign born, but also a foreign prince in her own right. Worse, she was queen regnant of Scotland, in particular, an ancient enemy of England. Compounding that issue, she was also a Queen Dowager of France and maintained an alliance between Scotland and France, another of England’s longstanding enemies. Many among the Privy Council and nobility therefore considered Mary Stuart politically unacceptable as a successor to the English throne. She was also Catholic, making her religiously unacceptable to many. Further, she was then unmarried (she would not marry again until 1565) and thus had not yet proven her ability to provide customarily-male heirs. And like Katherine Grey, she was unacceptable to Elizabeth.
With the senior claims in each of the two surviving lines of descent from Henry VII eliminated as unacceptable to Elizabeth, to a significant portion of the Privy Council, and to a significant portion of the nobility, the stage was clearly set in 1562 for another civil war as claims and counter-claims might be put forward by various more-distant heirs and whatever supporters they might rally. Wishing to avoid this instability, Elizabeth hoped to see Robert Dudley appointed as a kind of interim “place holder” until a successor could be agreed upon by a majority of the political elite through some as-yet-undetermined peaceful civil process. Dudley would presumably have been, in essence, acting as Regent for the empty throne of “an heir to be named in future.” He would have functioned in the same way as did any Regent for an under-aged monarch, assuming all of the political (but not the spiritual) powers of a monarch until such time as some candidate for the crown could be agreed upon. Once a candidate had been selected, he would hand over all power to that candidate as the new monarch.
Dudley’s term as Lord Protector would have been very different from that of Cromwell. In Dudley’s case, he would probably not have been considered head of state himself, but would instead have been simply standing in for and exercising the powers of the head of state yet to be chosen. He would have been a proxy, in other words. And unlike Oliver Cromwell, Dudley would presumably not have needed or had a successor in the office of Lord Protector since some person would have been peacefully selected and anointed as monarch within a reasonable length of time and during Dudley’s own lifetime, bringing the office of Lord Protector to an end.
Thank you very much for the in-depth answer! I thought it might be something like that, but I have never found an adequate explanation. I was also confused by the fact that he would get an annual salary, which made me wonder if it was something more long-term than what I had initially thought. Your reply was very helpful! :)
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