In a cozy fireside chat, Tyrion ponders, if not frets, about how dangerous it will be for Daenerys to negotiate with Cersei in King’s Landing. But, then he makes the mistake of bringing up her succession. The Dragon Queen already has her scales ruffled; Tyrion just criticized her for incinerating the Tarlys. So, perhaps, this isn’t the best time for him to bring up Daenerys’ death.
Daenerys responds as you might expect – annoyed that Tyrion is already contemplating her death. But, perhaps he has good reason. Likely, in addition to his own safety, he doesn’t want to lose the good work they’ve done.
“How do we ensure your vision endures? After you break the wheel, how do we make sure that it stays broken?”
Daenerys practically hisses back her reply: “You want to know who sits on the Iron Throne after I’m dead? Is that it?”
“You say you can’t have children. But there are other ways of choosing a successor. The Night’s Watch has one way. The ironborn, for all their many flaws, have another,” Tyrion replies.
What’s a medieval queen to do, when she has no heirs?
In the real world, this was the very situation Elizabeth I faced — and her councilors, parliament, and subjects feared war would ultimately result if she did not name an heir.
Despite Elizabeth I’s official status as a bastard – she never had her 1536 bastardization repealed – and her predecessor Mary I’s fierce objections, Elizabeth ascended to throne easily. Her father, Henry VIII enshrined the order of succession in a parliamentary act — the third Succession Act of 1544 – and this encoded Elizabeth’s right to the throne.
Yet succession problems dogged Elizabeth throughout her reign: no sooner had she ascended than her parliaments and subjects began to demand that she name an heir.
Because Elizabeth had no clear, everyone feared England would revert to the terrible days of the Wars of the Roses after she died, as everyone with an army and a ghost of a claim clamored to wear the crown.
Initially, this “succession anxiety” focused on who Elizabeth would marry. When Elizabeth became queen, everyone assumed she’d marry and produce an heir. The bigger question was who Elizabeth would marry.
Nobody wanted her to repeat Mary I’s disastrous choice in mate. When Mary wed Spanish king, Philip II, the English feared becoming a Habsburg colony and England’s Protestants rightfully, it turns out, worried about their fate under such a fiercely Catholic couple.
Elizabeth, however, knew the score. Marrying could potential place her in a vulnerable position if her husband became more powerful. And, she knew well from personal experience that even queens did not always fare well in marriages. One can only assume that the fate of her mother (Queen Anne Boleyn) must have haunted her.
As it became increasingly clear that Elizabeth had no intention of marrying, the succession issue came to the fore.
When Tyrion was begging Daenerys to name a successor on Game of Thrones, it was reminiscent of Elizabeth I’s reluctance to do so in the real world. Elizabeth knew firsthand what being the next in line to throne was like from her experience in Mary’s reign.
Elizabeth was all too aware that plots would arise around her successor. “The inconstancy of the people of England,” she once explained. “How they mislike government and have their eyes fixed upon the person that is next to succeed.”
In October 1562, at twenty-nine years old, Elizabeth came down with a terrible fever at Hampton Court palace, developed smallpox and nearly died. The young queen named Robert Dudley, her great love, as lord protector of the realm. Many feared that Elizabeth might die young like her brother Edward VI, her father’s brother Arthur, and other short-lived Tudors.
Few English would have tolerated Elizabeth’s most likely successor, her Catholic cousin Mary Stuart. Not only was Mary Stuart’s faith a reminder of Mary I’s attacks on Protestants, but Mary Stuart was a foreigner married to the king of the much-hated France.
When the January 1563 Parliament met, Elizabeth’s near death loomed large in the minds of parliamentarians who petitioned the queen to marry and nominate an heir. While Parliament had declared a successor in Henry VIII’s reign, such action had never been taken without it being the monarch’s initiative.
Their demands continued until April, when unable to reply either way, the queen prorogued Parliament. Parliament would stay prorogued until 1566 when Elizabeth needed money during peacetime.
Meanwhile, the succession question became so heated that a pamphlet war erupted, aiming to sway public and parliamentary opinion.
By October 1566, the succession battle began with renewed vigor in Parliament with the Commons threatening to withhold supplies until a settlement was reached. The queen dealt with this problem by saying it was “not convenient” to deal with the succession and then announcing she would marry.
While this silenced the Lords, Elizabeth had to command the Commons to be quiet.
Elizabeth refused parliament dictate her choice of successor. Even united, parliament could not put a candidate forward — something Elizabeth recognized and used to defuse their attempts.
The two main potential successors to the throne — Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and Lady Catherine Grey – had equally strong claims. Catherine Grey was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary and Charles Brandon (Duke of Suffolk).
Mary, Queen of Scots, had the strongest hereditary claim. The law, however, prohibited foreigners from inheriting the throne, as did Henry VIII’s will. By the line of succession in Henry VIII’s will, Lady Catherine Grey ought to have been the heir. But questions lingered concerning her children’s legitimacy and her religious inclinations.
By the end of 1567, parliament no longer found Mary Stuart to be an acceptable candidate. Mary had been forced to abdicate the Scottish throne after having been caught up in a scandal surrounding her marriage to the earl of Bothwell, her previous husband Darnley’s alleged assassin.
Just as a Suffolk succession was looking very favorable, Catherine Grey died on January 27, 1568, leaving only essentially illegitimate sons too young to ascend and a sister who had married too far beneath her to be considered.
Other candidates were equally problematic. The junior Suffolk line of Lady Margaret Strange was unacceptable for Protestants as Lady Margaret was Catholic. The only other two possible candidates were the unwilling Puritan Earl of Huntingdon and the foreign James VI. Eventually Elizabeth would somewhat succumb to Parliamentary pressure and agree to the Treasons Act of 1571.
The Treasons Act made it high treason during Elizabeth’s lifetime to denounce her right “with and by the authority of the Parliament of England” to settle the succession.
This act didn’t necessarily mean that Elizabeth could determine the succession by herself. Rather the act did mean that it was better to settle it with parliament’s help. At last, Elizabeth subscribed to her father’s way of settling the succession. Still, this didn’t mean she would name an successor; Elizabeth feared that if she did, assassination plots would arise to replace her with the heir.
In the fall of 1569, the Northern Rebellion arose; the rebels planned to free Mary Stuart. Once Elizabeth crushed this insurrection, it ended the possibility that a feudal war could determine the succession.
In May 1568, Mary Stuart escaped from her Scottish imprisonment. Soon she recovered in popularity with the English.
By the end of the year, the former Scottish queen was a strong and dangerous contender for the throne. Mary Stuart had been involved in plots to remove or murder Elizabeth.
In February 1571, with papal approval, Mary endorsed a plot by a wealthy Florentine banker and Catholic named Roberto Ridolfi. If it had succeeded, this plot would have replaced Elizabeth with Mary as queen and raised Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, to be the king consort. (The exceptionally wealthy and Catholic Norfolk would have married Mary and agreed to the plot because he felt Elizabeth underappreciated him.)
In the spring of 1572, Elizabeth’s chief advisor William Cecil uncovered the Ridolfi plot. Norfolk was found guilty of high treason. Still, Elizabeth did nothing to exclude Mary from the succession, until she was found to have given approval for a plot which, with the aid of the Spanish army, would murder Elizabeth.
Elizabeth would never name a successor. Instead, before she fell fatally ill, Cecil secretly wrote to James VI of Scotland for twelve days to negotiate the transition.
These negotiations dictated that James was not to attempt to seize power or have parliament recognize his title until after Elizabeth was dead. (While it has been said Elizabeth named James on her deathbed, there is no firm support for this view.)
When Elizabeth I died on March 24, 1603, James VI succeeded smoothly because of Cecil’s advance work. There was no civil war. Ultimately, James was the most realistic candidate, so fifteen councilors and noblemen agreed to sign the warrant he drafted proclaiming himself king.
Editor’s Note: This article is based on an essay I wrote when I was a student.