Mary I successfully overthrew Jane Grey, Edward VI’s legitimate and legal heir, and was officially declared queen of England on July 19, 1553. This is my article in this month’s Tudor Society Magazine (which you should totally subscribe to) about the historical rewriting of the legitimacy of Jane Grey’s reign.
Sometime during the life of Henry VII, an English knight named Thomas Mallory wrote Mort’ de Aurthur, one of first prose narratives of King Author and the Knights of the Round Table. Henry VII claimed to be a descendent of King Arthur, and the Welsh/Arthurian roots were largely capitalized upon during his reign. The book contains the famous line, “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England.” Proving that one had the right – ordained by God’s blessing – to rule England (either through birth or conquest) was an important part of kingship, especially for a new king like Henry VII.
His granddaughter, Mary I, also discovered the importance of hammering home the idea she was the rightful ruler when she usurped the throne from Henry VII’s great-granddaughter, her cousin Jane Grey.
There are two enduring myths about Mary. The first is that she was “bloody”. Yes, she did burn Protestants alive but she contextually executed no more people than did the rulers before and after her. To single her out as bloody is unfair. Nearly every reigning monarch was “bloody” by modern standards. The second is that she was the rightful queen of England who rescued her throne from its attempted theft by those backing Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen. This is so ingrained in the “facts” of history even exceptional history scholars take it for granted. Nonetheless it is balderdash. Jane Grey was the lawful queen and Mary I swiped her crown, eventually killing the deposed monarch to keep a tight hold on her stolen throne.
Eric Ives wrote a masterful book, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, which provides ample evidence of Mary’s perfidy and Jane’s lawfulness, which I recommend if you want to read all the gritty details. However, I will try to sum up the main point.
First and foremost, Edward VI was old enough to name his successor. He was the king and no longer a child. During Edward’s lifetime the Church considered childhood to end at six and you could assume adult responsibilities as young as 12 years old. While the ‘official’ age of majority to write a will in the sixteenth century was 21, the concept of legal adulthood was a bit different for kings. Henry VIII was only 17 when he became king and there was no attempt to assign him a regent; he was old enough to make adult decisions. Likewise, it was Edward’s decision as to who should rule after him. It did not matter that Mary had been reinstated in Henry VIII’s will because Henry VIII’s will did not matter a hill of beans after Edward was a de facto adult with the ability to rationally chose an heir.
There is also no evidence that Jane Grey’s father-in-law, the duke of Northumberland, talked or bullied Edward into choosing Jane. Edward himself wrote out his “deuise for the succession” as a rough draft in late April or early May when it became clear how ill he was. This is also around the time of Jane’s betrothal and marriage, so Edward clearly supported Guilford Dudley as her husband and thus the duke of Northumberland as the future queen’s closest advisor. Those that balked at Edward’s decision because they didn’t want Northumberland to have that kind of power in the next monarchy were called into the presence of the king, where he “with sharp words and angry countenance” forced them to accept his decree. Furthermore, the king told the Archbishop of Canterbury personally that “the judges and his learned council said, that the act of entailing the crown, made by his father, could not be prejudicial to him, but that he, being in possession of the crown, might make his will thereof.”
Edward signed the final version of his “deuise”, which was drawn up by England’s top lawyers and explicitly named Jane Grey as his successor, on June 21, 1553. The document was signed by witnesses (102 of them eventually) and the Great Seal was applied to it. It was as official as official can be and done a good two weeks before his death.
Try to think of what Mary did without the natural sympathy she elicits because of her father’s cruelty. Pretend my father passed away and left me his business in his will — with the codicil that if anything happened to me then he wanted it to go to my older sister. When I am older I write my will. I would normally need to be 18, but if I were running a business I could seek emancipation from my guardians and become legally an “adult” much younger; thus I am able to write an enforceable will. I am dying and I leave the business to my cousin, whom I think will take good care of it. I make my intentions clear and make everyone around me swear they will support her after I die. However, upon my death my elder half-sister swoops in and seizes the business, which she claims is hers based on our dad’s will. There is no court that will uphold my father’s will over the one I made. That business was MINE, to do with as I pleased and I was old enough to determine whom I wanted as my heir. My elder sister would be therefore a thief. Moreover, if she had my cousin killed to make sure no one challenged her as CEO then she would be a murderer as well.
That is exactly what Mary I did.
No one likes to think of themselves as a usurper and murderer, and Mary was no exception. She constructed an account of her actions wherein she was the good guy doing the right thing. She probably convinced herself of it, as well, since she was doing it on God’s behalf to restore Catholicism in England. Certainly no one was going to tell her differently. Inasmuch as history is written by the winners, her version of reality is the one that became historical ‘fact’ and has been largely unchallenged for centuries. Nevertheless, just because someone really believes a lie and that lie has been repeated for hundreds of years does not make that lie a truth. The truth is that Jane Grey was rightwise queen of all England, not Mary I.
Lady Jane Grey died at age 16, and she deserves to be remembered as a deposed and murdered monarch rather than an “innocent usurper” forced to do treason by an unscrupulous father-in-law.