Eric Ives’s new book is a fresh look at a story that we all think we know. Lady Jane Grey, only 16 years old, bullied & beaten by her parents, forced into marriage, proclaimed Queen without her consent, imprisoned in the Tower & executed. A virgin Protestant martyr, executed by the wicked Catholic Queen Mary. Eric Ives wrote the best biography of Anne Boleyn I’ve read & he uses his considerable knowledge of the period & the sources to look again at this familiar story. He begins with the startling proposition that Jane was the rightful Queen of England & that Mary was a rebel who happened to be successful. As history is written by the victors, Mary has been seen ever since as the rightful heir whose throne was usurped by traitors for 13 days (not the traditional nine) before she was acclaimed by the people & succeeded to the throne.
Edward VI has been seen as the sickly boy king, bullied by the Duke of Northumberland, John Dudley, into writing his Devise For The Succession. Edward had more influence on events than is usually acknowledged. He was following in the footsteps of his father, Henry VIII, in attempting to name his successor. Henry repeatedly changed his mind about the succession. His daughters were declared legitimate & illegitimate on a whim. When Henry died, Mary & Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate but still in the line of succession. Edward was determined that neither of his half-sisters would succeed him. The implications for all kinds of inheritance if illegitimate children could inherit were considerable so Edward wrote his Device to make sure that the legitimate line was favoured. He also wanted to name a male heir, but as there were no male heirs closer than Henry, Lord Darnley (great-nephew of Henry VIII, descended from Henry’s sister Margaret, Queen of Scots), this was impractical. So, Edward excluded his half-sisters & Margaret of Scotland’s descendents, & left the crown to the descendents of Henry’s younger sister Mary, who had married the Duke of Suffolk. He decided that Lady Jane Grey & her male heirs would succeed, followed by her sisters. John Dudley married Jane to his son, Guildford. Ives doesn’t see this as a bid to see his grandchildren on the throne but I’m not convinced. The timing makes it look suspicious.
The Device was accepted by the lawyers & privy councillors, all of whom downplayed their involvement after Mary’s accession to save their skins. So, when Edward died in July 1553, Jane was proclaimed Queen by Dudley & the Council. Dudley’s mistake was in not securing Mary before she had time to drum up support. Mary showed great courage & determination in the days which followed. Dudley was forced to go after her himself after his son Robert (later Elizabeth’s Earl of Leicester) failed to capture her. This left London without his leadership &, as Mary gathered support, the other councillors wavered & lost courage. Mary entered London in triumph & was proclaimed Queen. Jane & Guildford were sent to the Tower. Dudley became the scapegoat of the episode. He was one of only three men executed & the other privy councillors & officers were quick to blame him for everything. Mary wanted to show mercy towards Jane as she didn’t believe she had wanted to be Queen but was the pawn of Dudley & her father. Jane was found guilty & condemned to death but Mary had no plans to carry out the sentence.
However, Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, foolishly became involved in a rebellion against Mary’s planned marriage to Philip of Spain a few months later & this was the trigger for Mary to order that Jane & Guildford’s sentences would be carried out. It’s puzzling why Mary ordered Jane’s execution. She was not involved in the new conspiracy, she was hardly a threat to Mary locked up in the Tower. Her death still left her two sisters as possible heirs. Ives thinks Mary & her advisers panicked, urged on by the Bishop of Winchester & Philip’s ambassadors to execute Jane for security reasons.
The story of Jane’s last hours is well-known. The iconic image of Delaroche’s painting (above) of the young woman in white with flowing hair being helped towards the block because she has panicked & can’t find it is well-known. Jane spent her last few days in prayer & meditation, arguing with John Feckenham, a Benedictine monk sent by Mary to convert Jane to Catholicism. His testimony later added to Jane’s image as a Protestant martyr as he couldn’t help but be impressed by her faith. Ives examines Jane’s letters, portraits & anecdotes about her in an effort to give a picture of her. It’s difficult because her later status as a martyr for her religion has made her look either saintly or priggish, but he quotes her own words wherever possible & gives a fuller idea of Jane than I’ve read elsewhere. His discussion of the portraits & Jane’s afterlife in books, portraits & movies is especially interesting.
He’s also more sympathetic towards Dudley than has often been the case. The “black legend” of the traitorous Dudleys has dominated biographies about them for a very long time. I found his more psychological interpretation of Dudley compelling. Ives sees Dudley as totally loyal to the King & morbidly afraid of royal displeasure. His father, Edmund Dudley, had been one of Henry VII’s advisors & was executed by Henry VIII as a symbol & scapegoat for his father’s hated economic policies. John Dudley never forgot this disgrace & when he had worked his way back to favour, he was determined to keep it. He was a successful soldier, always proving his loyalty to the Crown. Ives sees him as basically insecure & sensitive to slights. Once Edward had decided on his Device for the succession, Dudley felt duty bound to carry it out. He became the scapegoat for the failure of Edward’s scheme. Lady Jane Grey is an absorbing read & anyone interested in Tudor history can’t afford to miss this book.