On this date in 1553 the legal and legitimate queen of England, Jane I, was put on trial for “treason” and found guilty. However, her verdict was balderdash. History is, as I have mentioned before, usually written by the “winners” of conflict. Mary I had no legal claim to the throne after King Edward VI declared Jane Grey his heir and had his choice accepted by the government. Yet when Mary successfully usurped her cousin’s throne history began to record her as the rightful queen and Jane as a traitor, in spite of the fact that Mary’s theoretical claim to the crown was a provable falsehood.
Eric Ives wrote an excellent book, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, which provides ample evidence of Mary’s perfidy and Jane’s lawfulness, which I recommend that you read if you want all the gritty details of Jane’s overthrow. 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.
QED, Jane was the lawful queen.
In a way, taking thrones from duly appointed monarchs is a hallmark of the Tudor dynasty. Richard III was the only legal claimant to the throne after the death of his nephews (whom I do believe he had murdered), but Henry Tudor deposed him in battle and became crowned as Henry VII. The thing is, Henry had to have known how shaky and weak his claim to the throne was, and had to have been aware that Richard was the rightful king. That’s why there was such literal and metaphorical overkill in the death of Richard III. His body was desecrated his legacy, which was already tarnished by the “disappearance” of his nephews, was likewise drug through the mud and stabbed in the backside. He was an able king, but he was subsequently remembered as a brutal, deformed, incestuous, madman with no redeeming qualities thanks to Tudor propaganda.
This same kind of propaganda masquerading as historical certainty is why Jane Grey is know to this day as an innocent traitor when in reality to she was a uncrowned and murdered queen.