Lady Jane Grey became Queen Jane I on 10 July 1553. She was a very Tudor monarch, having a marked resemblance to her grand-uncle Henry VIII’s daughters. One eye-witnesses described her as, “very short and thin, but prettily shaped and graceful. She has small features and a well-made nose, the mouth flexible and the lips red. The eyebrows are arched and darker than her hair, which is nearly red. Her eyes are sparkling and reddish brown in colour.” She would famously only reign for 9 days (in actuality it was 11, because she was acting as queen prior to the 10th), before being forcibly dethroned and imprisoned by her cousin, Queen Mary I.
There is a commonly held belief that Lady Jane Grey was forced to the usurp the throne from the rightful queen, Mary I, on the orders of her evil father-in-law, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. This, belief however, is pure malarkey. Henry VIII’s will declaring Mary next in line for the crown became defunct when King Edward VI wrote his own will naming Jane his heir. It was Edward who wanted Jane to be queen, Edward who bullied Jane and Lord Guildford Dudley into marriage because he wanted Northumberland to guide Jane, and Edward who had the final say in the disinheritance of his elder half-sister. Jane was the rightful queen, and Northumberland was merely following the last edicts of King Edward VI when he declared Jane the new monarch.
Mary I had no legal claim to the throne after Edward made Jane Grey his heir, yet after Mary successfully took her cousin’s throne by armed rebellion the history books began to portray Jane as an “innocent traitor”. The fact that Mary’s theoretical claim to the crown was a provable falsehood made very little difference, since history is written by the victor, and the official version of events definitively supported Mary. Nonetheless, some historians looked beyond the given tale and dug deeper into the evidence, including the inestimable Eric Ives.
Professor Ives is best known for his works on Anne Boleyn, but he also wrote the excellent book, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, which provides ample evidence of Jane’s lawfulness. I strongly urge you to read it for all the gritty details of Jane’s rise and overthrow.
For the purposes of a short blog post, however, I will try to sum up Professor Ives’s most salient points.
Above all else, the case for Jane’s queenship lies in the legality of Edward VI’s will.
The long and the short of it was that Edward was old enough to name his successor, thus negating Henry’s older will. Edward was the king and no longer a child in any real meaning of the word. During Edward’s lifetime the Church decreed that childhood ended at 6 years old, and a person 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; as a teenager he was considered old enough to make adult decisions.
Edward was also wise enough to double check the legality of his will with the royal lawyers. The king personally assured Archbishop Thomas Cranmer 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” (Ives, 2012:131). Cranmer unsure if Henry VIII’s will could be so easily set aside, and therefore begged the king to be allowed to talk to the judges and the attorney general, just to make sure. The king consented, and when Cranmer spoke with them they all confirmed “that he might lawfully subscribe to [King Edward’s] will by the laws of the realm” (Ives, 2012:131).
One of the king’s lawyers, Edward Montagu, would later try to keep his head on his shoulders by telling the newly crowned Mary I that most of the lawyers didn’t want to write the document making Jane the queen, what with them being such big fans of Mary and all, but Edward made them do it. According to Montagu, the king used “sharp words an angry countenance” on the balking lawyers and “seeing the king so earnest and sharp” that they had no choice but to write up the document and sign it (Ives, 2012:129). Apparently the king’s sharpness was so wickedly sharp that Montagu and all but one of the senior lawyers returned ten days later to sign it again for the benefit of king and Privy Council.
Nor was Edward’s decision as to who should rule after him a carefully crafted plot by Northumberland. 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 to Guildford Dudley, and there is strong evidence that Edward was the prime mover in arranging and cementing the match. The king clearly supported the Duke of Northumberland as the future queen’s closest adviser, and John Dudley would be best placed to do that as Jane’s father-in-law. Those that balked at Edward’s decisions 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. Edward was beyond contestation determined that Jane be queen and that Northumberland help her rule.
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 an ironclad legal document mandating Jane’s rule a good two weeks before King Edward’s death.
QED, Jane was the lawful queen.
Nevertheless, after Mary I’s ascension to the throne, Jane was reconstructed as Northumberland’s puppet in a coup against the legitimate heir to the throne. By portraying Jane as a mere pawn, Mary had a built-in excuse to leave the girl’s head on her shoulders. Although Northumberland was executed almost immediately, in spite of the fact he had done NOTHING wrong, Jane and Guildford Dudley were left alive.
It wasn’t until Protestant-based rebellions threatened Mary’s crown, and jeopardized her marriage to Philip II of Spain, that the usurped Queen Jane was put on trial for “treason” and found guilty. On 12 Feburary 1554 both Jane and Guildford Dudley, youngsters who were innocent of any crime except of circumstances, were taken separately into the icy yard of the Tower and beheaded.
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) when 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. Like the last Plantagenet king’s body, his legacy, which was already tarnished by the “disappearance” of his nephews, was dragged 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.