Wyatt’s Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Wyatt led a rebellion that attempted to prevent the Catholic queen Mary I’s marriage to Philip of Spain and to place Princess Elizabeth, Mary’s Protestant half sister, on the English throne. The rebellion failed, however, leading to Mary’s reign, England’s five-year return to Catholicism, and the persecution of Protestants.

Summary of Event

Queen Mary I was unmarried when she succeeded King Edward VI in July, 1553. With the suppression of the nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey, Mary’s marriage was of pressing importance. Parliament urged her to marry “within the realm” to prevent rule by a foreign prince, preferably to Edward Courtenay, whose Plantagenet blood gave him a claim to the throne. Mary’s harsh rebuff of their request forced the hand of many who had supported her previously. They had to decide whether to accept her decision to marry Philip of Spain and with it rule by a foreign prince and loss of preferment to his Spanish entourage, or rebel. Wyatt’s Rebellion (1554)[Wyatts Rebellion (1554)] the Younger, Sir Thomas Wyatt Elizabeth I Mary I Gardiner, Stephen Courtenay, Edward Grey, Lady Jane Grey, Henry Mary Tudor (queen of England) Grey, Lady Jane Courtenay, Edward Philip II (king of Spain) Elizabeth I (queen of England) Carew, Sir Peter Grey, Henry Croft, Sir James Wyatt, Sir Thomas, the Younger Renard, Simon Gardiner, Stephen Throckmorton, Sir Nicholas

A small group of conspirators met November 26 to decide a course of action. Their precise numbers are not known, but the conspirators included men of standing in their counties and who had held office in previous reigns. Although they all wished to thwart Mary’s proposed marriage, the group never agreed on their ultimate objective. Some preferred merely a show of force to coerce her into marrying Courtenay, and others proposed deposing her in favor of Princess Elizabeth; one went so far as to call for Mary’s assassination.

By Christmas, they had decided on four simultaneous uprisings to take place on Palm Sunday (March 18, 1554). The main rebellion was to take place in Devon, led by Sir Peter Carew. Henry Grey, the duke of Suffolk and Lady Jane Grey’s father, would raise Leicestershire, while Sir James Croft would lead on the Welsh borders, and Sir Thomas Wyatt would lead in Kent. After securing their counties, the four were to converge on London.

Rumors of the plot soon circulated at Court, however, and on January 2, the Queen’s Council summoned Carew to answer unspecified questions. He ignored the summons, but it was one of several incidents that forced the conspirators to act precipitously. On January 18, Simon Renard, the imperial ambassador, told the queen what he knew or suspected. Mary then acted decisively, promptly ordered members of the royal household to take a special oath acknowledging Philip as king, and wrote a letter inviting Elizabeth to come to Court for her “safety.” Three days later, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the Lord Chancellor, got details of the plot from his former protégé, Courtenay.

Three events on January 25 set the course of the rebellion. Upon receiving a summons to appear before the council, Suffolk bolted from the capital for Leicestershire; Wyatt raised his standard at Maidstone, proclaiming the realm to be in danger; and in the west, after failing to get much response to his claim of the threat of imminent Spanish invasion, Carew took ship for France. The inept Suffolk soon found that his name no longer carried weight in his home county. Only his two brothers and a few others answered his call to “rescue” the queen. Disguised, he attempted to flee to Denmark but was soon apprehended and returned to London. Croft urged Elizabeth to flee to her castle at Donnington, but never took up arms, leaving only Wyatt to carry out the rebellion.

After proclaiming the realm in danger, Wyatt raised a force of about two thousand and moved to Rochester, where, on January 28, he met an army of about one thousand that was raised from the Yeoman of the Guard and the London-trained bands, the “whitecoats,” and was led by the eighty-year-old duke of Norfolk. The rebels won the first battle after most of the London whitecoats and some of the guard defected, leaving the others to drop their weapons, conceal their uniforms, and flee to safety.

Had Wyatt acted promptly to follow up his victory, he might have found the gates of London open to him, but by January 31, initial despair turned to hope as Mary’s forces begged for the chance to redeem themselves, and the queen proved that she had the Tudor family’s courage under fire. Rejecting advice to flee to safety, the next day she left for the Guildhall, where she gave a stirring speech proclaiming that she would marry Philip only with her council’s consent. She also pledged that she would not forget that she was already married to her realm.

When Wyatt reached Southwork on February 3 with a force of about three thousand, he found the bridge stoutly defended. Meanwhile, the council tried to allay fears by conducting business as usual and by keeping the courts at Westminster open, even though lawyers wore armor under their robes.

After three days of indecision, Wyatt made up his mind. On February 6, he marched up river, crossing at Kingston, and turned toward London, hoping to surprise the city the next day. At St. James’s Park the rebels split, the smaller force attacking Whitehall, where once more the queen’s guard turned and ran, but the gentlemen pensioners rallied. Meanwhile, the bulk of Wyatt’s forces reached Ludgate, where they found the gates firmly barred, and after a brief skirmish, all was over and Wyatt surrendered. Had he attacked the queen at Whitehall with his main force, the results might have been very different.

The aftermath of the rebellion was as important as the rebellion itself. With Wyatt safely in the Tower, the council turned to Elizabeth, whose pleas of illness were put aside, and she was brought to Whitehall for questioning. She refused to admit complicity, and, fortunately for her, none of the conspirators would implicate her. The most that could be proved against her was that the plotters had urged her to flee, but she had committed nothing to paper and her verbal replies were consistently noncommittal. After repeated questioning, she was sent to the Tower to await her fate. Although one recent scholar thinks that Elizabeth was as guilty as Mary suspected, and Wyatt may have confessed as much under torture, at his execution he defended her innocence. In the end, when a London jury surprisingly acquitted English diplomat Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, who was thought by many to be the real instigator and leader of the rebellion and who had gone on record against the reinstitution of Catholicism, Mary decided not to put Elizabeth on trial and the affair was closed.


The rebellion, which lasted just eighteen days, consisted of three small engagements with a combined loss of between sixty and seventy lives. Only one of the four proposed uprisings took place, but even so, Mary and her council were clearly shaken. Four days after Wyatt surrendered, Bishop Gardiner preached his Lenten sermon at court, calling for swift and harsh retribution. The executions began the next day. Lady Jane Grey’s earlier exploits as a pawn attempting to prevent Mary from becoming queen were to be punished, and she and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, were first in line for execution. Suffolk, Wyatt, and a few other leaders soon followed. In the end about five hundred rebels were tried and convicted, but only between seventy and one hundred were actually executed. The others were released and pardoned. Even Carew, convicted in absentia, was back in Mary’s service by the end of the reign.

If Mary had been shaken, so had Elizabeth, who had gone so far as to select the method of her execution if she could not appeal to Mary’s sense of family loyalty. After months in the Tower, she was released to spend the remaining four years of Mary’s reign under house arrest, knowing that Mary was surrounded by some who continued to urge her to execute Elizabeth for her own safety.

Mary, who always thought that the rebels’ goals were religious rather than political, learned nothing from the episode and went on to marry Philip. Although the conspirators’ fears of rule by a foreign prince proved to be unfounded, Mary’s marriage was unpopular and she sacrificed the good will she had earned by her victories over Lady Jane Grey and Wyatt.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loades, David. Elizabeth I. New York: Hambledon and London, 2003. An interpretive biography by a leading authority on the rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loades, David. The Reign of Mary Tudor. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1991. A detailed political history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loades, David. Two Tudor Conspiracies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1965. Still the standard account of the rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Most complete account of Elizabeth’s life before 1558. Maintains that Elizabeth was an active participant in the conspiracy.

Oct., 1536-June, 1537: Pilgrimage of Grace

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Nov. 9, 1569: Rebellion of the Northern Earls

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

Apr., 1587-c. 1600: Anglo-Spanish War

Categories: History