Lady Jane Grey: The Most Overlooked Tudor Monarch
‘The Nine Day Queen’ is the first thing most of us think of whenever Lady Jane Grey is mentioned. She was a tragic heroine: an innocent victim of a plot to place her on the throne, the failure of which resulted in her execution aged sixteen. It’s a fascinating story of Tudor politics, but the girl at the centre of it all is also worth studying in her own right. Though Jane was romanticised by nineteenth-century historians for her virtue and obedience, her character remains overlooked today. This article will attempt to search beyond the stereotype of a passive girl manipulated by powerful men; for her time, Lady Jane Grey was in fact a surprisingly intelligent, brave and intriguing young woman.
Jane’s birth in October 1537 was overshadowed by the triumphant arrival, around the same time, of Henry VIII’s longed-for male heir: the future King Edward VI, her cousin once-removed. Their closeness of age and Jane’s high status as a descendent of Henry’s younger sister led some to consider the possibility that they would marry. Both were committed to the Protestant faith, being too young to have known the pre-Reformation days when Catholicism was England’s dominant religion.
One little-known fact about Jane Grey is that she was technically queen for not nine days, but thirteen! Edward died of tuberculosis on 6th July 1553, but it was not until the 10th that Jane was informed of his death and proclaimed queen. Then began her famous nine-day reign.
A Love of Learning
Jane’s earlier life is often ignored by popular history which tends to focus too heavily on nine days in 1553, but it is equally interesting. While growing up in her parents’ house of Bradgate Manor in Leicestershire, Jane benefitted from an unusually thorough education: French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and music. Without the refuge of her studies Jane’s childhood would have been far more miserable; her parents were self-indulgent and power-hungry, beating their daughters daily. Possibly they were resentful of their children for not being male.
Aged nine, Jane was sent to live under the guardianship of Katherine Parr’s new husband Thomas Seymour. The Princess Elizabeth, four years older than Jane, was resident in the same household and one can imagine the two girls coming into contact: both well educated, devout protestants, both – unknowingly – fu
In 1548 after Seymour was himself arrested on charges of treason, Jane was forced to return to Bradgate Manor for three years, but she found comfort in being introduced to literature, philosophy and theology by her tutor John Aylmer. Religion and education, Jane’s great passions, later kept her occupied throughout all those long months locked in the tower with a husband she disliked, awaiting a pardon that never came.
Edward VI’s death plunged the monarchy into what some historians call the ‘mid-Tudor crisis.’ Edward’s elder sisters Mary and Elizabeth had been named in Henry VIII’s will as heirs if Edward died childless, followed by Frances Brandon (Jane’s mother and a descendent of Henry’s sister). But towards the end of Edward’s life something unexpected happened. Working with John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and Lord Protector, who ruled for him, Edward cut Mary and Elizabeth out of the succession using a document called a ‘device.’
Why did Edward make such a fundamental change to his father’s will? Why did he leave it until he became so ill that his reign was inevitably coming to an end? Historiographical opinion is divided on whether the idea was Edward’s. He may have nominated Jane as his heir to ensure that his Protestant reformation continued, which would not have been possible under his Catholic sister Mary. Diverting the succession to the protestant Elizabeth was not an option: both sisters had been bastardised when Henry annulled his marriages with their mothers, so to remove Mary would be to remove Elizabeth too. They had been restored to the succession in 1544 but the fact that this could be bypassed showed that their illegitimacy still counted against them.
It seems more likely, however, that the Duke of Northumberland deliberately influenced Edward for his own gain, to ensure he would maintain power under the new monarch. Realising that the powerful Frances Brandon wo
uld be more difficult to manipulate than her young daughter, the succession was altered again shortly before Edward died: to make Lady Jane Grey first in line to the throne. Jane had been married to Northumberland’s nineteen-year-old son Guilford since April 1553, giving Northumberland an excuse to rule through her once he made her queen.
Queen Mary’s Dilemma
But Northumberland’s scheme had flaws: not only had the succession ‘device’ not been ratified by parliament, but he had failed to place the Princess Mary under arrest. It was she who had popular support, especially in East Anglia. The army she quickly gathered is thought to have contained 20,000 people. After proclaiming herself the new queen in Norwich, she marched into London on 19th July. Jane’s time on the throne was up.
It wasn’t long before Mary arrested Northumberland; he was executed for treason on 23rd August. Jane and Guilford were spared, though not to be freed from the tower until Mary produced an heir and they were no longer a threat to her throne. In November Jane and Guilford were put on trial, but expected to be pardoned; although the trial resulted in death sentences for both, Mary did not intend to carry these out.
Mary’s mind was probably changed by Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion in early 1554: a protest against Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain which Mary saw as a plot to place Elizabeth on the throne. Despite being an unknowing figurehead of the uprising, Elizabeth was sent to the Tower and, despite Mary’s reluctance, the execution of Jane and Guilford was planned for 9th February. It had become too dangerous for her to keep them alive.
Re-emergence as an Inspirational Heroine
Jane was popular in her own lifetime, leaving a weeping and emotional crowd at her death despite her own dignified composure, but perhaps less so once Mary gained power and any association with the supposed traitor could result in accusations of treason for her friends and supporters, too. There are no reliable contemporary images of Jane; those once thought to depict her have now been identified as Katherine Parr. Only one – the “Streatham Portrait” – seems likely to be genuine. Dressed in a style fashionable in the 1550s, the subject of the painting holds a small prayer-book in her hand: a symbol of Jane’s protestant faith and learning? It appears that the memory of Jane’s short reign faded into obscurity, until scholars noticed that her personality conveniently matched nineteenth-century expectations of the ideal young woman: chaste, religious, and respectful of her superiors.
When we picture Jane Grey, many of us think of images created in the nineteenth century, as part of an historiographical trend depicting Jane as a romantic heroine. In the most famous, showing her execution scene, Jane is fumbling for the block wearing a pure white dress, perhaps symbolising her innocence. Jane’s dedication to her religion and her studies captured the hearts of early nineteenth-century historians, who portrayed her as gentle, pious and humble; they “could not select a more perfect example” of what were considered female virtues. Jane’s ancestry (surprisingly, through her father’s line, not her mother’s Tudor blood) was praised.
In 1822 Francis Laird criticised “Mary’s avaricious and ungenerous conduct towards Lady Jane”, ignoring the difficult situation Mary had found herself in and the pressure that was placed on her to remove a potential threat to her throne. It seems impossible to reassess the character of Jane without also reassessing Mary, because in the popular narrative created in the 1800s the two are presented as adversaries: they were rivals for the throne, so Jane’s saintly persona had to be matched with the devilish image of “Bloody Mary” which had already been dominant since the seventeenth century.
Problems with the Stereotype
But Jane was not always as obedient and passive as has been supposed. Having tolerated her parents’ harsh regime as long as she could remember, it seems that upon leaving home, Jane gained the confidence to take control of her own life, despite still being only a teenager.
Far from being manipulated by the powerful Duke of Northumberland, Jane made a real effort to stand up for herself. When she was first proclaimed queen, surrounded by a crowd of uncaring councillors, she protested immediately: “The crown is not my right, and pleaseth me not. The Lady Mary is the rightful heir.” Later, at the Tower, she refused to let the Marquess of Winchester try placing the crown on her head. Next, Jane’s newfound stubbornness turned on Guilford, as Alison Weir describes:
Jane informed him that he would never be king consort. The crown was hers alone, and she had no right to make him king. Instead, she would create him a duke. Guilford, who had happily anticipated the pleasures of kingship, flew into a temper at this, and raged at his wife, “I will be made king by you, and by Act of Parliament!”
Making Guilford king depended on both Jane and Parliament, but Parliament was not in session at the time. Weir describes how Guilford then resorted to “bursting into tears and running off to find his mother”, who ordered him to “abstain from the bed of such an undutiful wife.” Jane sent the Earls of Arundel and Pembroke to stop Guilford and his mother from leaving the tower. “I have no need of my husband in bed, but by day his place is at my side.” said Jane. During a period in which wives were taught to be absolutely submissive to their husbands, this is a complete reversal of gender roles. Nineteenth-century historians appear to have found this so shocking that they chose to ignore it entirely.
Not only did Jane avoid obeying her childish husband, she even proved herself to be dominant over him: she was in control of where he went and what powers he was allowed to hold. As a result, Jane was also undermining the schemes of Guilford’s father Northumberland, whose quest for power centred on his son being made king. Perhaps, despite not wanting to be queen, Jane chose to make the best of a bad situation, taking the opportunity to stand up to those who tried to control her, especially the weak and selfish Guilford.
Jane’s importance did not lie in what others could make of her potential. It lay in her fiery passion for music, reading and religion, her kindness towards those who cared about her, and the strength with which she lived through her short reign on her own terms, in the face of all the odds stacked against her: her young age, her sex, and her upbringing, which had taught her to be obedient to people who wanted to use her.
Taken together, this deeper analysis of Jane’s life strongly suggests that she was neither an insignificant political pawn, nor an unrealistically saintly, humble scholar. She was a person – a teenage girl.
Written by Emily Dunn
Brigden, Susan. New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603. London: Penguin Books, 2001.
Grey, Jane. Memoirs and literary remains of Lady Jane Grey. London: H. Colburn, 1832.
Hunt, Alice. “The Monarchical Republic of Mary I.” The Historical Journal 52, No. 3 (2009): 557-572.
Laird, Francis Charles. Lady Jane Grey, and her times. London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1822.
Mathew, David. Lady Jane Grey: The Setting of the Reign. London: Eyre Methuen, 1972.
Weir, Alison. Children of England: the Heirs of Henry VIII. London: Pimlico, 1997.
http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/jan/16/arts.research Accessed 10/11/15