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The English Queen We’ve All Forgotten

Frieze on Supreme Court in London showing Lady Jane Grey being offered the Crown of England
A frieze on the exterior wall of the Supreme Court in Parliament Square, London, shows Lady Jane Grey being offered the Crown of England by the Duke of Northumberland. Jane Rix

Lady Jane Grey is the English queen we all forget. Her short and disputed reign has resigned her to the footnotes of history. Even so, her story reveals just how complicated the Tudor court was—and how difficult it was for a woman to avoid becoming a pawn.

Who Was Lady Jane Grey?

So, why was this noblewoman a viable heir to Edward VI? It’s one part genetics, one part religion. Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary, married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in 1515. They had four children, including their daughter Lady Frances Brandon. Frances then married Henry Grey, the Marquess of Dorset, and they had three daughters, the eldest of whom was Jane. Lady Jane Grey, thus, was the first cousin once removed of Edward VII. She married Lord Guildford Dudley, a younger son of her cousin’s close advisor, the Duke of Northumberland.

As a cousin, though, she wouldn’t have been first in line to succeed Edward, if not for the religious tensions of the time. The dying young king was Protestant, but his eldest sister Mary was devoutly Catholic. Knowing that Mary would make it a priority to return England to Catholicism, Edward and his advisors wished to keep her off the throne. The easy route had already been laid out for him, since his father, Henry VIII, had disinherited and delegitimized both his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. The problem, however, was that he couldn’t use that excuse to exclude the Catholic Mary without also excluding the Protestant Elizabeth.

At this juncture, Northumberland’s ambition and Edward’s anti-Catholicism overlapped and led them to Jane as the best heir—leapfrogging over her mother Frances, who had also been left out of Henry VIII’s will. Biographer Nicola Tallis writes in her biography, Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey:

Several months later…the Imperial ambassadors reported to the Emperor: “Thomas Grey, brother of the Duke of Suffolk, said it seemed strange to him that the Lady Jane, and not her mother, had been chosen, and that the Duke of Northumberland thus showed that the object of his ambition was to place the crown on the head of his son, husband to the Lady Jane.”

This didn’t quite work out as Northumberland hoped, though. Edward did exclude his sisters, but he specifically inserted language into his will that would permit Lady Jane to inherit the throne herself, rather than solely as a placeholder for her future sons. Before he died, his will was signed by a large number of influential people, including his Privy Council, theoretically assuring Jane’s succession.

Jane’s Reign

Edward VII died on July 6, 1553, but his death was kept quiet for the next few days. On July 9, Jane was informed that she was now queen, and the news was proclaimed to the public the following day. Jane did very little as queen, although what she didn’t do was interesting too: she reportedly resisted the urging of her husband and father-in-law to give Guildford the title of king; instead, she only agreed to the title of Duke of Clarence.

Even as Jane was taken to the royal apartments in the Tower of London and proclaimed queen, her cousin Mary was consolidating power and preparing to move to take the throne that she believed was rightfully hers as a child of Henry VIII—and she moved fast. In Philip J. Potter’s Monarchs of the Renaissance, he narrates what happened next:

Few lords or towns rallied to [Jane’s] assumption of the throne as support for Mary grew. John Dudley with three thousand troops attempted to enforce Jane’s acceptance as sovereign but most nobles and towns remained loyal to Mary. While the Duke of Northumberland was in Cambridge, London abandoned Jane and accepted Lady Mary as the lawful heir of Edward VI. She now had sufficient political and military backing to ride into London in a triumphant procession, taking control of the kingdom.

Jane only “ruled” for nine disputed days, earning her the nickname “the Nine Day Queen.” Her proclamation as queen was reversed and declared a usurpation. She remained in the Tower, now as a prisoner and accused traitor. Initially, despite being convicted, the word was that the new Queen Mary was inclined to spare the life of her cousin. In early 1554, however, Jane’s father and brothers joined a rebellion against Mary’s marriage with Philip of Spain, which sealed the fates of Jane and her whole family. She was executed on February 12, just hours after her husband met the same fate.

How History Remembers Lady Jane

For the most part, Lady Jane Grey’s reign has been relegated to the stuff of trivia nights and history textbooks. It’s perhaps unsurprising, given that she was a quickly-delegitimized blip during the reign of the famous and flashy Tudor dynasty. No contemporary portrait of her survives, although there have been several works that have been believed to be her before being disproven.

Because of the religious contexts of her accession and subsequent fall—and the infamous anti-Protestant persecutions of Queen Mary—Jane was held up for some time as a Protestant martyr. Her tragic story and perceived inagency in her downfall made her a popular subject for fictional depictions as well as biographies. In the end, she’s a reminder of the deadly political and religious games of the Tudor era, and just how easy it was to banish her to the afterthoughts of history.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to MindBounce. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Over the past several years, she's researched and authored a wide range of articles centered on the arts, humanities, history, and pop culture. Read Full Bio »