Jane Grey and Mary Tudor

by Leanda de Lisle

An extract from Tudor: The Family Story

At two o’clock, on the high summer afternoon of Monday 10th July, Jane Grey’s barge arrived at the Watergate near the Tower. A sparse crowd was gathering to watch her formal procession to the fortress, which she would claim as all monarchs did on the eve of their coronation. Her young husband Guildford Dudley was with her, along with her mother and ladies, while other members of the nobility followed behind in their barges. As Jane reached the top of the steps John Dudley and his fellow councillors greeted her. A famous account given by the Italian merchant and knight Baptista Spinola adds an intimate description of the sixteen-year old as the procession gathered and began to make its way slowly and with due pomp down the streets.

‘This Jane is very short and thin, but prettily shaped and graceful. She has small features and a well-made nose the mouth flexible and the lips red. The eyebrows are arched and darker than her hair, which is nearly red. Her eyes are sparkling and light hazel. I stood so long near Her Grace, that I noticed her colour was good, but freckled. When she smiled she showed her teeth, which are white and sharp. In all, a graziosa persona and animata [animated]. She wore a dress of green velvet stampe, with gold, with large sleeves. Her headdress was a white coif with many jewels. She walked under a canopy, her mother carrying her long train, and her husband Guilfo [Guildford] walking by her, dressed all in white and gold, a very tall strong boy with light hair, who paid her much attention. The new Queen was mounted on very high chopines [clogs] to make her look much taller, which were concealed by her robes, as she is very small and short. Many ladies followed, with noblemen, but this lady is very heretica and has never heard Mass, and some great people did not come into the procession for that reason’.

It paints a vivid picture of Jane before the great gates of the Tower closed behind her. Unfortunately, like so much about Jane’s life and reign, Spinola’s report is a clever mixture of fact and fiction.  The description of a smiling girl was composed in 1909 by a historical novelist turned biographer called Richard Davey and has been slavishly quoted by historians ever since.[1] In describing a teenager so small she has to wear stacked shoes to giver her height he paints a picture of innocence and vulnerability that chimes with myths concerning Jane Grey developed over centuries. They depict her in the appealing guise of a child-victim who is never a player in her own fate. The real Jane was far a more interesting, as well as more ambivalent figure, than the idealised girl of this tradition. 

On the eve of her coronation Jane Grey was less than two years younger than Henry VIII had been when he became King. She had not sought the crown that Edward had bequeathed her, but she believed that the Mass, for which Mary risked so much, was idolatrous, even evil. Since only God could make a King, it can have been of little surprise to Jane that she had been chosen over Mary. [2] The gathering crowd watching her procession were puzzled, however, not only that Mary, who had been accepted as Edward’s heir for a decade, had been passed over, but so had Jane’s mother, who was carrying her train. If Frances Brandon had transmitted her place in line of succession to a son this would have been understood and accepted. Margaret Beaufort had transmitted her right to her son, Henry VII. But for Henry VIII’s niece to serve her own daughter was a worrying reversal of the natural order.   

At around four o’clock Jane and her glittering following disappeared behind the Tower’s huge walls. The gates closed, trumpets blew and the heralds began to read the royal proclamation of, ‘Jane, by the Grace of God, Queen of England, France & Ireland’. It explained that Edward had appointed Jane his heir in letters patent, signed by himself along with his nobles, councillors, judges and ‘divers other grave and sage personages’; that Mary and Elizabeth had been excluded as illegitimate and because they might chose a husband who would impose a foreign government, and bring a ‘free realm into the tyranny and servitude of the Bishop of Rome’. When the heralds had finished reading they again proclaimed ‘Jane, Queen of England’ and cheered. In the crowd, however, people were shocked and some were also angry.

This was not yet a Protestant country. The break with Rome was recent in historical terms and had been deeply traumatic, while to majority of Englishmen Protestantism remained an alien creed, begun in Germany.[3] The proclamation also begged the question, what qualifications did Lord Guildford Dudley have to be a King of England? He had no royal blood. His grandfather was Henry VII’s hated servant, Edmund Dudley, remembered for running a virtual protection racket in London and executed for treason in 1510.  His father, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, had been Lord President of a hated regime. When he had tried to marry Guildford to Jane’s cousin, Lady Margaret Clifford, the previous year there had been malicious rumours that he was aspiring to the crown. This was all the easier to believe now: after all wives were expected to obey their husbands, and Jane’s husband was his son. 

When the proclamation was read again at Cheapside a boy cried out that Mary was the rightful Queen. Not that this mattered much. Even the Imperial ambassadors judged that Queen Jane had achieved a fait accompli. They advised Mary’s cousin and most powerful ally, Charles V, to accept that she had been passed over, arguing, ‘All the forces of the country are in [John Dudley’s] hands, and my Lady [Mary] has no hope of raising enough men to face him’ as for the common sort, ‘.there are troops posted everywhere to prevent the people from rising in arms or causing any disorder’.[4]  Mary was, however, about to demonstrate that she made of sterner stuff than the Imperial ambassadors. 

Mary’s reputation has, like Jane’s, been shaped for centuries by a combination of sexual and religious prejudice. In Mary’s case this is further complicated by the fact it is the heirs of her ideological opponents who have written her story. Even in the twenty-first century some popular historians continue to describe her as an hysterical, weak little woman, easily dominated by men, we are told ‘her upbringing ..had not given her the skill of leadership’ and that she had ‘none of the guile and shrewdness necessary to succeed in the fickle world of Tudor politics’[5]. She is ever the dark, damp little cloud to her sister Elizabeth’s glorious sun. The truth is that Elizabeth had enjoyed far less useful training in the ‘skill of leadership’ than Mary had. [6] 

Mary had been raised as her father’s heir until well into her teens and since 1543, aged twenty-seven, she had been her brother’s heir. For the past five years Mary had also been a great landed magnate, a role held almost exclusively by men, yet one in which she had had the example of her childhood governess, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. The influence of Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon, also remained important. The late Queen had played up to gender expectations, but the same woman who had sewn the banners for the army at Flodden, had been prepared to send James IV’s head to her husband as a personal gift. Even Henry VIII had spoken with her awe of Katherine of Aragon’s ability to wage a fierce war.  Mary, far from having ‘none of the guile and shrewdness necessary’ for Tudor politics, knew very well the necessity of compromise and duplicity when playing for high stakes, especially from a position of weakness. She was also capable of acting with extraordinary courage and boldness.

That morning a messenger from Mary had arrived at the Tower. When it was read at Jane’s Council table, those who heard it were ‘greatly astonished and troubled’. It demanded their allegiance to her as their rightful Queen, ‘by act of parliament and the last testament and will’ of Henry VIII and promised if they now returned to their duty, she would take their support for Jane thus far, ‘in gracious part’. Mary needed the backing of the elite and this was her first bid to win back their loyalty. The shock for Jane’s Council was that this meant the peaceful transition of power they had expected was to be denied them. Jane would have to fight for her crown. The fear of a brutal and protracted struggle such as that in the previous century, which had ended in the expiration the Houses of York and Lancaster, was still more profound than the knowledge that if they picked the losing side they would pay for it with their lives. When Jane’s mother and mother-in-law were told of Mary’s letter they burst into tears.[7] Bloodshed was inevitable. 

The next day Jane’s proclamation was posted across London. It warned of severe punishment for those who opposed her and an example was set immediately with the boy who had cried out for Mary at Cheapside: he had his ears cut off. Jane now had to raise an army, and on Wednesday, 12th July, Londoners were offered 10 pence a day to fight in defence of her crown. It was not expected to be a long war. Jane announced that her coronation would be delayed for only two or three weeks and, in anticipation of her victory, she was brought the crown jewels to peruse. [8] Yet worrying news was coming in by the hour.  Mary had issued her own proclamation, declaring herself Queen in Norfolk and parts of Suffolk, and it was evident she was using her tenants and wider affinity as the platform from which to launch her claim. Mary’s household officers had been preparing for weeks, possibly months, for her exclusion from the succession, using her networks as the leading Catholic in England, as well as those of a great landowner. Knights and gentlemen were reported to be rallying to her cause, along with ‘innumerable companies of the common people’. [9]  

[1] No one has ever seen the manuscript he refers to, and I discovered he gives a different description of Jane in a book published a year later. See for example Leanda de Lisle,  ‘Faking Jane’ in The New Criterion, September 2009; the paperback UK edition of Leanda de Lisle: The Sisters Who Would be Queen; the tragedy of Mary, Katherine & Lady Jane Grey, and the US hardback.

[2] There is no source dating from Jane’s reign, or before it, that she had said, on hearing of Edward’s decision, that she believed Mary was the rightful ruler, as her French allies later claimed she had.

[3] Its chief ‘captains’ under Edward VI were the foreigners John Calvin, Peter Martyr, Heinrich Bullinger, ‘and such other rutterkyns [crafty creatures]’, one pamphleteer noted adding of these, “I would to God thou hadst.[stayed].drunk with Hans and Jacob in Strasbourg…I would to God thou hadst remained in Switzerland’. E Duffy, Saints, Sacrilege, Sedition p 19

[4] CSPS XI July 7th and 10th

[5] Tracey Borman; Elizabeth’s Women (2009) p 133

[6] Elizabeth’s tutor Roger Ascham would later claim that he had long prepared Elizabeth for rule, but Ascham played up the achievements of a number of evangelical women (Jane Grey is another) while ignoring the achievements of conservatives. One example is the young aristocrat Lady Jane Fitzalan. This relative unknown was the first person to translate one of Euripides' plays into English and in doing so composed the earliest piece of extant English drama by a woman. On Elizabeth and Mary’s education see Aysha Pollnitz p136, Christian Women or Sovereign Queens? Pp 127-141 Tudor Queenship (Queenship and Power) edited by Anna Whitelock and Alice Hunt (2010).

[7] CSPS XI July 11th

[8] CSPS p83; The Lord Treasurer William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, brought the jewels to her on July 12th. (BL Harl 611, f 1A) Concerning the later story of her ‘surprise’ and anger that a crown was being made for Guildford see note x

[9] Wriothesley, Charles, Chronicle of England during the reign of the Tudors, 1485-1559 Vol II William Douglas Hamilton ed, Camden Society London 1875 p 87