Becoming Elizabeth Explained: Did Mary consider fleeing England?

With episode 8 of Becoming Elizabeth airing on Starz, the series that began with the death of Henry VIII has come to an end. Before turning my attention to the events of the final episode, I wanted to return to one of the major plots of episode 7: the suggestion that Mary Tudor should escape to Spain. But did Mary really consider fleeing England?

The short answer is: yes. However, not exactly as depicted… (Spoilers ahead)

Before looking at what did happen, it is worth noting that, in the show, the driving force behind the proposed escape is the Spanish ambassador. He is listed in the credits as Guzman de Silva. However, de Silva was not Spanish ambassador to England until Elizabeth I’s reign. During Edward’s reign, the King of Spain was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who also ruled the Burgundian Netherlands (he was also Mary’s cousin!). Charles was represented in England by the Imperial Ambassador, in the early 1550s that was Francois van der Delft.

In April 1550, Mary summoned van der Delft to one of her houses near Maldon in Essex. She was afraid that, now Edward Seymour had been replaced as Lord Protector, she would no longer be allowed to celebrate Latin Mass in private (a concession granted to her by Seymour until Edward VI came of age). Concerned for her future in England, she proposed that flee to the Netherlands and her cousin’s protection. Despite her fears, she seems to have been somewhat confused and, at one point, decided not to escape. She also allegedly claimed that escaping was van der Delft’s idea. Van der Delft wrote to the Charles V saying that he had tried to persuade Mary not to flee but she was determined and, therefore, it would be best if she left as soon as possible.

It was finally agreed that van der Delft’s secretary, Jehan Dubois, would disguise himself as a corn merchant and pick Mary up in Maldon in early July 1550. They would then transfer to Imperial warships waiting off the coast. However, when the Imperial party arrived in Maldon to unload their corn, they found no sign of Mary’s men. It quickly emerged that the head of Mary’s household, Robert Rochester, was prevaricating because he was opposed to her departure. Dubois and his men travelled to Mary’s house where they found her panicking and packing belongings into sacks. By now the Imperial men were at risk. Local residents in Maldon had spotted the warships off the coast and were growing suspicious of Dubois’ “corn merchant” cover story. They decided to return to the Netherlands and try again later in the month.

Before they could return to England, news of the proposed escape reached Edward VI and the royal council. Sir John Gates was sent to Essex to prevent Mary’s escape. The garrisons were increased in the ports, and Edward Seymour and Lord Russell were ordered to provide 800 men to serve in Essex.

As Romola Garai portrayed so wonderfully in Becoming Elizabeth, Mary was dividied – it seems likely that she herself did not know whether she should flee or remain. In the end though, she was left with no choice, her escape route cut off – if she had escaped, it would have been much harder for her to claim the throne after Edward’s death and we may not have had a Queen Mary.

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