DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF LADY JANE GREY

Known as the “nine-day queen”, Lady Jane Grey has become an iconic Tudor victim: virginal, sweet and beheaded at 16, largely because of the machinations of her evil mother. But is any of this true? Leanda de Lisle discovers otherwise

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

Lady Jane Grey is mythologised, even fetishised, as an innocent girl sacrificed on the altar of her mother's ambition. But behind the popular biographies of the Tudor Queen lies a different story of misogyny and masochism. It seems the much-maligned mother is in fact the victim.

When I began researching for "The Sisters Who Would be Queen", my triple biography of Lady Jane and her sisters, Katherine and Mary Grey, I hoped the well-known life of the iconic teenage Queen, would lend some insight to the younger sisters, the forgotten heirs to Elizabeth Tudor. I assumed there would be little new to day about Jane herself. But as I began my research it became clear that nothing written about Jane could be trusted. The first woman to wield the power of a Tudor monarch had been reduced, over time, to an eroticised image of female helplessness. Meanwhile, her conventional mother became the embodiment of the belief that powerful women are monstrous and mannish.

The traditional story runs like this: Lady Jane Grey was born in 1537, the daughter of Henry VIII's royal niece, Frances, and her husband, Harry Grey, Marques of Dorset. The stout, bejewelled woman in a double portrait by Hans Eworth is still used to illustrate Frances's nature. "Physically she bore a marked resemblance to Henry VIII," notes Alison Weir, a best-selling historian, in her book "The Children of Henry VIII". Here was a woman, "determined to have her own way, and greedy for power and riches," who "ruled her husband and daughters tyrannically and, in the case of the latter, often cruelly."

So Jane grew up an abused child, beaten regularly by her unloving mother. In 1553 the 15-year-old Jane was forced (beaten again) to marry the 18-year-old Guildford Dudley, son of the principal figure in the King's Privy Council, John Dudley. Frances believed the marriage would promote Jane as heir to the dying Protestant King Edward VI. Weeks later Edward did indeed bequeath Jane his throne, in place of his Catholic sister Mary Tudor. Jane was obliged to accept, though she protested through tears that Mary was the rightful claimant.

On July 10th 1553 Jane was processed to the Tower as Queen. The red-haired, red-lipped, smiling girl was so tiny, the story goes, that she wore platform shoes to give her height. Nine days later Mary Tudor overthrew Jane, imprisoning her in the Tower from where she had reigned. Tried and convicted of treason, she remained a prisoner, hoping for pardon, until her father led a failed rebellion against Mary. Although she had nothing to do with the rebellion, Jane was beheaded on February 12th 1554, an "innocent usurper". She was only 16.

The myth is encapsulated in Paul Delaroche's 1833 portrait of Jane, bound and dressed in white on the scaffold (pictured above), a painting with all the erotic overtones of a virgin sacrifice. (Nancy Mitford startlingly told Evelyn Waugh that this image was the source of her adolescent sexual fantasies.) Seemingly unmoved by the execution of both daughter and husband, Frances was remarried within a month to a boyish 21-year-old servant named Adrian Stokes. She lived only for pleasure.

But what factual basis is there for believing Frances was a monster? The accusations of child abuse are built on a story related over a decade after Jane was beheaded. In "The Schoolmaster", a book published in 1570 by Roger Ascham, an Elizabethan scholar, a young Jane Grey is described as reading Plato's Phaedo in Greek while the rest of the household was out hunting. Interrupted briefly from her quiet study, Jane explains that she loves learning because her lessons with her kindly tutor are a respite from the abuse of her parents, who pinch and nip at her if she doesn't perform every task perfectly. "One of the greatest benefits that God ever gave me, is that He sent me so sharp, severe parents and so gentle a schoolmaster," Ascham recalls her saying. Yet in a letter to Jane written only months after this meeting, Ascham commented merely on her parents' pride in her work. Her tutor, John Aylmer, meanwhile, was writing letters to a Swiss theologian complaining that Jane "was at that age [when]...all people are inclined to follow their own ways," and asked how best to "provide bridles for restive horses" such as this spirited girl.

By the time Edward VI was dying, Jane was an exceptionally well-educated Protestant who in fact shared her parents' intense religious convictions. Her tutor Aylmer recorded that before the crises of 1553, Jane had snubbed gifts from the Catholic Mary Tudor, whom she condemned as "against God’s Word". There is no evidence dating from before Jane's overthrow that she had opposed her marriage to Guildford Dudley in 1553, or supported Mary Tudor’s right to be Queen. And the description of the tiny, smiling girl being processed to the Tower as Queen is a fraud. It was written a few years after Delaroche's portrait of Jane was bequeathed to the British nation in 1902, and its red-lipped girl may even have been inspired by it.

As Queen regnant Jane wielded, in theory, a monarch’s power over church and state. But Edward had chosen Jane as his heir not only because she was a Protestant, but also, he noted, because he trusted her husband’s family. Jane’s father in law, John Dudley, was the Lord President of his Council. Since female rule was considered unnatural, it was assumed that Jane’s husband or father-in-law would take effective command. Unfortunately for Jane, Edward’s love for the Dudleys was not shared by the country. Indeed, John Dudley was widely hated, considered the root of the government's unpopular policies.  

To quell public venom, Jane tried to advertise her independence from the Dudleys by signing documents in her own hand, and by insisting she would make her husband a duke, not a King. Despite these efforts, the Dudley name damaged her cause and contributed to her overthrow. A contemporary account by Robert Wingfield recorded Frances pleading with the victorious Mary Tudor that they were victims of Dudley ambitions, and insisting that she had opposed Jane’s marriage. Her closeness to her daughter is suggested by Jane's own comments, which mirror her mother’s. In one outburst Jane damned her father-in-law for having "brought me and our stock in most miserable calamity and misery by his exceeding ambition." 

the sisters who would be queenEarly hopes that Mary might pardon her predecessor dimmed after Jane vehemently opposed Mary’s legalisation of the Catholic Mass. In an open letter to a Catholic convert, Jane condemned the Mass as "wicked" and exhorted Protestants to "Return, return again unto Christ’s war." When her father led an armed rebellion shortly afterwards, Jane was judged a continuing threat. She was executed, aged about 16, on February 12th 1554, a determined martyr, not merely a victim.

Frances did remarry, but over a year later. Her new husband, Adrian Stokes, was no boy-toy, but an educated Protestant of her own age, who held a senior position in her household as her Master of the Horse. By not choosing a nobleman, she protected her surviving daughters from further conjecture concerning the throne. The double portrait by Eworth mentioned above was mislabelled in 1727 as Frances and a brawny young Stokes; in the 1980s it was proven to be a portrait of a Lady Dacre and her son. Queen Elizabeth I, who loved her own Master of the Horse, Robert Dudley, would later admit that she wished she could marry as Frances had.

So how did the myths begin? The answer is with Jane. Aware of the damage being done to the Protestant cause by its association with treason, she announced on the scaffold that while she was guilty in law of treason, having been proclaimed queen, she had never sought the throne but merely accepted it. From this kernel of truth wider claims about Jane's innocence took root. In the 17th and 18th century her story was influenced by the feminine passivity deemed appropriate in a young girl. A sexual dimension is evident in Edward Young's 1714 poem, "The Force of Religion", which invites men to gaze on a pure Jane in her "private closet". In the following decade the portrait of Lady Dacre was mislabelled as Frances.

The effigy of the slim and elegant woman on Frances's tomb in Westminster Abbey has since been ignored in favour of spurious comparisons to Henry VIII. She was far more useful as a sexist archetype, the powerful, sexual, ambitious and mannish mother, to be pitted against Jane, her helpless, chaste and feminine daughter. Although Mary Tudor inspired John Knox's diatribe against "the monstrous regiment of women", she was a less useful counterpoint to Jane as she was seen as being led by male figures–her foreign husband, priests and so forth. The re-invented Frances, by contrast, "ruled her husband".

For centuries it was believed that women in power lost their femininity and became barren–a theory that dates from Greek myth. The masculine qualities associated with Frances, who in reality held power only as a parent, have also tellingly been applied to Queen Elizabeth I. Rumours sprang up shortly after Elizabeth’s death that her sexual organs were deformed. In 1985 a doctor went so far as to claim Elizabeth was genetically male: a theory that persists, supported by such "evidence" as Elizabeth’s mental toughness. Jane's own tragedy has, meanwhile, taken on aspects of the modern misery memoir: all broken taboos, high sales and false memories. The epitaph beneath Frances's effigy observes that "true worth alone survives the tomb". In the next world perhaps: in this one Frances is traduced.  

"The Sisters Who Would be Queen: Mary, Katherine & Lady Jane Grey" (HarperPress and Ballantine), by Leanda de Lisle, is out in Britain and America


(Leanda de Lisle is also the author of "After Elizabeth". She has been a columnist for the Spectator, the Guardian, Country Life and the Daily Express.)