Distinguished Lives: Episode 4 – The Reign of Jane

Episode 4 of the Distinguished Lives series, looks at ‘the extraordinary young woman who sat on the throne for only nine days.’ Leanda de Lisle (author of ‘The Sisters Who Would Be Queen’ and ‘Tudor: The Family Story’) discusses Lady Jane Grey.

You can listen to the podcast at:

Distinguished Lives: The Reign of Jane

The main points Leanda makes are:

In some ways Jane was a typical teenager. Quarrels with her parents, knows her own mind, get a sense of her seeking to find herself as a person. Feels very intensely about her beliefs, strong sense of right and wrong, a black and white view of the world.

An example of how Jane viewed the word in ‘black and white’ is the letter she wrote in the Tower of London, to her former tutor, Thomas Harding, who had converted to Catholicism. Letter asked people to fight the re-legalisation of the mass in England.

Leanda explains the background to the break with the Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII. How it was also a time of theological change. How Evangelism became Protestantism and how Protestants and Catholics differ on the key issue of the mass.

How Edward VI bequeathed Jane the crown instead of his sister, Mary. How Jane was overthrown 9 days after being proclaimed in London, which is why she is sometimes known as the 9 days queen.

Jane’s childhood, background, education and relationship with her parents. Belonged to a generation of women who would be highly educated. How her father had hoped she would marry Edward VI. At 13 she was a stroppy teenager but by the time she was 15, she had grown very close to her mother, Frances Grey, contrary to what is written about her later.

Regarded as a very exceptional young woman. How Jane became a patron of leading Protestants, including the head of the ‘Strangers Church in London.’

There had never been a ruling Queen before. Jane would have been Queen in her own right, would have been essentially treated as a man, as a King. People not used to this, so important that she was married off and had sons.

Married to Guildford Dudley (spare son of head of Edward’s Council, John Dudley Duke of Northumberland). This was slightly unfortunate as when Edward died and Jane was proclaimed Queen, a lot of people believed what had happened was about the ambitions of her father-in-law. They didn’t want a Dudley ruling England as King. The Dudley family were not royal and why should he rule instead of the daughter of Henry VIII, Mary Tudor.

Jane accepted the throne. There are later stories that she did not want it, was forced into it and was beaten into her marriage. These are stories and not based on fact. The fact is that she accepted the throne. Thinks Jane believed that God had chosen her over the Catholic Mary.

The elite supported Jane but the ordinary people flocked to Mary. Mary raised an army. Some of the elite panicked and joined Mary. Nine days after Jane was proclaimed Queen she was overthrown. She had been proclaimed Queen at the Tower of London and she found herself imprisoned in the same place.

Many people hoped and believed that she would be pardoned. Leanda thinks that Mary at first believed that she would be able to pardon Jane (who was very young, at only 16). All the blame was placed on Northumberland and he was executed about a month later. Mary wanted to see Northumberland blamed and she needed to unite the elite behind her.

Jane would be accused of treason (effectively she was guilty of treason), she would be tried and found guilty but Mary would be able to show her generosity by pardoning her. Trial took place in November and Jane was convicted of treason and then could hope for a pardon.

But Mary, now Queen, had decided by this time to marry the Catholic Philip of Spain and had legalised the mass that had been banned in Edward’s reign. Jane’s father was appalled at the idea of Mary marrying a foreigner.

Jane was appalled at the re-legalisation of the mass which she considered a wicked and evil thing. This is why she wrote the public letter to her former tutor (when he converted to Catholicism), condemning his actions in very strong terms and condemning the mass and saying people should fight against its re-introduction.

Jane probably didn’t know that he father was plotting rebellion. The rebellion went ahead in January 1554 and was crushed (not without difficulty). Mary decided that Jane was too dangerous a figure to be left alive any longer. Jane and Guildford were executed in February 1554. Lady Jane became regarded as a Protestant martyr.

Became evident that Jane would have to fight for her throne. A boy in the crowd, when Jane was proclaimed in London, spoke out that Mary had the better right. One of the first things that Jane ordered was that he had his ears cut off. She also started raising armies. All documents signed with her own signature (Jane the Quene).

Jane was very young. The question is to what extent was she manipulated by her father and father-in-law? Depends how much you believe she was a woman who had her own mind. In the past people have emphasised that she is a victim because of her youth. A victim of ambitious adults. De Lisle thinks this is true but only up to a point. She was 16 but she was a highly intelligent woman with her own views. She was not a puppet and was capable of being ruthless, just as Mary Tudor was and also the 17 year old Henry VIII who ordered the imprisonment and later, the execution of two of his father’s servants when he ascended to the throne.

De Lisle is asked if Jane had not married a Dudley, would it have placated the public. De Lisle replies that if she had married someone of royal blood it would have been easier for her. It would have made a massive difference but it was easier said than done because of lack of candidates.

Jane’s father (Duke of Suffolk) was ambitious and saw himself as an intellectual but was a useless politician. It was her mother through whom she drew her royal blood. Myth grew up in 1560s that Frances had been a cruel mother. There is no evidence for that at all. Evidence from Jane’s lifetime and from people who knew them, was that Jane was close to Frances.

This was a later invention, all based on an incident described by one of Elizabeth I’s tutors (Roger Ascham) who knew the Greys. Jane complains about her parents and how she much prefers to be with her tutor (Dr Aylmer), who is kind.

De Lisle says there are two points to remember. That Jane never singles out her mother, she complains about both her parents to Ascham. At the time Jane’s tutor was writing to Jane about how proud her parents were of her. Aylmer was also writing to his friends in Europe, asking how to ‘bridle’ this strong willed teenage girl. Reason Ascham wrote this story, was that he was writing a book about school masters and how it was better to treat pupils kindly rather than beat them.

Interesting that later writers have focused on Jane’s mother and they turned her into a wicked queen to Jane’s Snow White. They invest Jane’s mother with all that is supposed to be bad about women.

Jane had two younger sisters. Both were also close to their mother. Katherine is particularly fascinating, as she has been completely forgotten. She was Elizabeth I’s heir in law. Was extremely important for the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign.

Elizabeth hated and feared her because she was worried that Katherine would marry and have sons and then she would be replaced by Katherine. Elizabeth couldn’t marry Robert Dudley. First of all he was already married and when his wife died, Robert was suspected of being involved. Elizabeth had seen what had happened to Jane who had married a Dudley and could not risk marrying Robert and being overthrown.

Katherine married secretly. Both imprisoned in the Tower. Two sons born to Katherine and Edward Seymour. Elizabeth separates them.

Mary Grey, seemed to have inherited the same condition as Richard III. She had a twisted spine and was very short. She married a commoner, but Elizabeth still imprisoned her but Mary was released after her husband died. Mary was the survivor of the Grey sisters and she lived in freedom before she died probably of plague in the 1570s.

Jane was greatly admired while alive. De Lisle thinks she had a happy childhood. Katherine did know love and happiness. She wrote remarkably passionate letters to her husband. Mary also knew happiness with the husband she loved and also the satisfaction of becoming free again at the end of her life and finding peace again before she died.

Stories of Jane not wanting the throne, only came out after she was overthrown. De Lisle thinks that we have to be careful of accepting them. Are they true or just invented? After she was overthrown it was in the interest of the Protestant elite who had tried to keep Mary out and in Mary’s interest who wanted to reunite the elite, to blame everything on the Duke of Northumberland. Jane’s own father was pardoned by Mary very quickly. Talk was of Jane being pardoned as a victim of Northumberland.

Important to Mary for people to believe that Jane was a victim. Mary said that Edward VI had only written his will leaving the throne to Jane under pressure by Northumberland. Edward had become Northumberland’s puppet. If Jane, who was the same age as Edward, was also a puppet, it supports Mary’s claims. Story put out that Jane was pressured into it, it wasn’t her fault, and it was all the adults, particularly Northumberland.

We have to be careful to what extent we believe it. It makes a convincing line. We’ve always accepted it is true but we have to be a bit more questioning than that.

Public were delighted when Jane was overthrown. Viewed Mary as the rightful Queen. Was Edward’s heir by law and had been accepted right up to the last moment.

Jane’s imprisonment was relaxed slightly in December 1553. She was allowed to walk in the gardens. This was viewed as a prelude to her being pardoned. Things changed when the revolt began. She must have been very frightened. If her father lost, her life was seriously at risk.

Jane did not show fear during her last few days but she must have felt some fear. She also had to think about her religious beliefs. Mary sent a priest to try and convert her to Catholicism. De Lisle thinks that if Jane had converted that Mary would not have saved her life. Northumberland had converted and this had not saved him. Mary was trying to save her soul, not her life.

Jane was a Protestant martyr in the sense that she made a deliberate choice to die in the faith that she held. Jane also thought about politics in her last hours. Wrote an open letter to her sister Katherine, who was her heir. Telling her that she must not convert and die for her religion as Jane is doing, or else she would go to hell.

Jane also wrote up the interview she had with the priest in the Tower for publication shortly after her death. Jane’s writings were published within weeks of her execution. Were probably the most effective propaganda against Mary during Mary’s reign and Jane was part of that process. Jane was a political animal.

Jane set an example which was not forgotten. This is something that she consciously did. Jane was more than her image as a victim. She was also her own person.

Jane’s legacy today. Unfortunately the vast majority of stories about her paint this Victorian portrait of her as a victim. This view is beginning to change.

De Lisle recommends Eric Ives book about Jane (‘Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery’), as this gives a different point of view to Leanda’s book. Also looking at primary documents online, to read about events as they happen.

You can find out more about Leanda at: Leanda de Lisle

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