Historian Leanda de Lisle has recorded a number of podcasts uncovering the Tudors and Stuarts behind the myths.
Leanda is the author of ‘White King: Charles I – Traitor, Murderer, Martyr’, ‘Tudor: The Family Story’ and ‘The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The Tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey.’
The Tudor Dwarf Princess by Leanda de Lisle
At the Prime Minister’s country residence of Chequers, scribbles on the walls of a 12-foot prison room bear testimony to the dreary misery of the woman Elizabeth I kept there. Heir to the throne, a potential English queen now buried in obscurity.
If Lady Mary Grey is recalled today it is a historical footnote. She was a dwarf who married a giant, the curious youngest sister of the famous nine days queen, Lady Jane Grey.
Mary was a more significant figure than her stature and literature suggests. My discovery of lost manuscripts has helped me lay to rest a Tudor mystery.
I am the historian, Leanda de Lisle, uncovering the Tudors and Stuarts behind the myths.
For centuries no one has known what Queen Elizabeth did with poor Mary Grey’s body. The lost manuscripts have revealed where this remarkable woman was laid to rest.
When Elizabeth became Queen in 1558, Mary Grey followed her sister Katherine, the second of the three Grey girls in line to the throne. This is not of course how history remembers it.
Mary, Queen of Scots is the cousin you recall as Elizabeth’s heir. Henry VIII had demoted the Stuart line, from his elder sister Margaret, from the succession. In their stead he had placed the heirs of his younger sister Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk, grandmother of the Greys.
If Henry’s will, backed by statute had not existed, Mary, Queen of Scots would have had a superior right to Elizabeth. As the illegitimate daughter of Henry’s annulled marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth had no claim under the tradition of primogeniture.
To accept Elizabeth’s right is to accept Katherine and Mary’s right in line of succession. Contrary to the myth of Elizabeth as the great goddess of English Protestant nationalism, as a young queen she preferred the claim of the foreign Queen of Scots to that of the Protestant English Grey girls. The Stuart claim represented divine right over the power of parliament.
Elizabeth also perceived the Greys as posing a greater threat to herself. In particular she feared that if Katherine or Mary Grey married and had sons, while she did not, her own Protestant supporters would overthrow her in their favour.
Indeed they had form in this regard. Five years earlier in 1553, King Henry’s son Edward VI had cut his half sisters, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor out of his will and bequeathed his throne instead to Mary Grey’s eldest sister, Lady Jane Grey.
Other Protestants backed his decision, principally because Mary Tudor was a Catholic. But also because the Tudor sisters were unmarried while Jane had a husband. Jane was overthrown by Mary Tudor nine days after she was proclaimed Queen publicly in London. The following year she was executed.
Elizabeth was determined to ensure that the remaining Greys never married and in this she proved entirely unsuccessful.
Pretty blonde Katherine married secretly in 1560, Edward Seymour Earl of Hertford, son of the late Protector Somerset and a descendant of Edward III. This perfectly matched royal couple proceeded to have sex wherever they could, several times a night, sometimes on the one side of the bed and sometimes on the other.
Elizabeth learned what had happened only when Katherine was eight months pregnant. Preventing Katherine from continuing to sleep with her husband and producing sons proved impossible. Even when she was confined in the Tower, sympathetic Warder allowed some corridor creeping.
Elizabeth had Katherine’s two children bastardised. In 1563 Katherine was sent to remote country house prisons, never to see her husband again.
Enter the 19-year-old, Mary Grey. Described by the Spanish Ambassador as ‘crook backed and very ugly’, Mary was so small that it was conjectured that she was a dwarf. It is more likely she suffered scoliosis, inherited through her Plantagenet blood.
In 1565 she was in love with Thomas Keyes, the gigantic Sergeant Porter in charge of palace security. In marrying a commoner, as she did in a candle lit room at Whitehall Palace, she effectively but not legally ruled herself out of the succession.
She may have hoped that the Queen would therefore forgive her actions. But when the news emerged in August such hopes were proved to be misplaced. ‘Here is an unhappy chance and monstrous’ wrote Mary Grey’s kinsman, William Cecil, ‘the union between the least of the court and its biggest gentleman.
It was fully expected that the couple would be punished as it would give such terror to all of Her Majesty’s subjects. First of all however, they were to be interrogated by the Privy Council. The records of their interviews are still extant.
This is Mary. Asked when the marriage took place she answers,
‘The day of the marriage of Mr Knollys.’
This was Queen Elizabeth’s cousin and she and most of the court had attended the wedding.
‘I was married around nine o’clock at night by candle light.’
‘In the Sergeant Porter’s chamber.’
‘Who was present?’
‘The Sergeant’s brother, the Sergeant’s son, a gentlewoman Mrs Godwell and the priest, apparelled in a short gown.’
‘What was he like?’
‘He was old and fat and of low stature.’
‘Did the Serjeant Porter give you anything?’
‘Yes, a ring.’
Various other love tokens that Keyes had given Mary in the course of their courtship were also mentioned. Two little rings, a further ring with four rubies, a diamond and a chain with a little hanging bottle of mother of pearl.
Elizbeth ordered that the Sergeant Porter remain the Fleet prison, while Mary was sent to a series of country house prisons.
The first was Chequers, where she was kept in a room in the north east corner with two windows to gaze out at the sky. Graffiti of a winged creature marks the walls where her letters, begging Elizabeth for freedom are framed.
The gigantic Keyes was even worse off, living in agony in a cramped cell until he was released, a broken man in 1570. He asked to retire with Mary to Kent, this was refused and he died the following year.
Mary took the news grievously. She was painted that autumn, defiantly showing off the wedding ring that had cost her, her freedom and with carnations and gilly flowers in her hair, for love, fidelity and memory.
While Katherine had died in despair in 1568, Mary survived to be freed in 1573. Mary Grey left her last jailor with little more than her books and rubbish as he reported.
But eventually she set up her own small household in Aldersgate. She even appeared at court where she must have been in danger of resembling a bumble bee in her brilliant yellow kirtle and black gowns.
Mary, Queen of Scots meanwhile had been imprisoned in England since shortly after Katherine’s death. She now posed the principle danger to Elizabeth but following her execution in 1587, Elizabeth protected the interests of her son, James VI of Scotland. These efforts helped ensure his succession to the throne of England in 1603, the legal bars against his succession were lifted retrospectively in 1604.
The last of the Grey sisters, now conveniently forgotten was by then long dead. We don’t know what Mary died of on the 20th April 1578, only that she requested that the Queen have her buried where she thought most fit.
No one knew where that was until I discovered her funeral details had been miscatalogued by the College of Arms, as those of an insignificant daughter of the Earl of Kent.
The manuscripts reveal that the funeral took place on the 14th May with Mary’s body brought in procession to Westminster Abbey. The heralds had done great banners of arms and a dozen poor women dressed in black led the procession. There were four pall bearers for the tiny coffin on its chariot and behind it the mourners.
The names of those who attended the funeral are a roll call of figures from the lives of the sisters. There is Mistress Tylney, Elizabeth Tylney had escorted the teenage Jane Grey to the scaffold. There is Sir Own Hopton, Katherine’s last jailor, with whom she left her dying pleas to Queen Elizabeth to be merciful to her children. There was also the friend who had eaves dropped on Mary Grey’s wedding through a door, too frightened to attend the forbidden marriage.
Mary Grey was buried in the tomb of her mother, Duchess of Suffolk at Westminster Abbey, without her own name inscribed on it but there she lies still. Surrounded by the Kings from whom she was descended and the Queens whose rivals the sisters once were.
You can listen to the podcasts at: Leanda de Lisle Podcasts