The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Tragedy
Leanda de Lisle
Ballantine Books, 2009
384 pp., 30.00
Virginia Stem Owens
The Nine-Day Queen
In 2005, a portrait of a teenage girl with a heart-shaped face, dressed in red and holding a book in her left hand, was found in southwest London. She looks warily out at the viewer with dark sharp eyes. Over her right shoulder is the faint inscription "Lady Jane." Interest among English antiquarians was high, as Lady Jane Grey is the only English monarch from 1500 to the present with no portrait from life. But if researchers working on the painting's restoration are right, it portrays the teenage girl who ruled England for only nine days.
The brevity of her reign, and the circumstances of her death, have made Jane something of a cult figure. But is there really enough to her story to warrant a painstakingly researched book? And why grant such prominence to Jane's younger sisters, Katherine and Mary, who never even made it near the throne? Yet the large wheel of history often revolves around a small hub of relatively minor players such as the Grey girls. And in fact, British journalist Leanda de Lisle has larger aims than writing a composite biography of three 16th-century maidens in distress, though she does not neglect that more personal story. The book is an elegant cultural and material history of the period. You will discover the birthing customs, symptoms of "sweating sickness," and how many gold and pearl buttons were on the gloves given by Mary Grey to Elizabeth. But de Lisle's larger quarry is the conspiracies that plagued the period from Henry VIII's death in 1547 to the accession of James I, a Stuart, the line that Henry had expressly forbidden in his will to succeed him.
Dead men's wishes can be easily ignored or overturned. Though Henry's son, Edward VI, became titular king at nine years of age, powerful figures to whose care he was entrusted became the virtual rulers of England. Jane and her sisters were Henry VIII's great nieces and the granddaughters of his younger sister, Mary Tudor. Thus, under certain conditions, their path to the throne, if remote, was nevertheless ancestrally valid. If you are old enough to have seen the 1986 film Lady Jane, starring Helena Bonham Carter as the precocious Jane, you may need some reprogramming to right historical facts. Or if you have watched the BBC's Six Wives of Henry VIII and still find yourself a little vague as to which ones survived and what happened to the others, de Lisle's richly textured and well-documented work should help. And if you have your history straight from the Showtime series The Tudors, you definitely need a bracing dose of de Lisle.
But you will have to pay close attention and perhaps make photocopies of the family trees at the front of the book. There are scores of personages in this narrative, and some constantly change names as they ascend in rank. Thus, John Dudley becomes Viscount Lisle, the Earl of Warwick, and then the Duke of Northumberland, and is referred to by all those names as he makes his wicked way up the chain of command to become the Lord Protector of King Edward VI, Henry VIII's only surviving legitimate child.
The young Edward was well-schooled in reformist beliefs. Henry had set the Reformation ball rolling in England by having his first marriage annulled without benefit of papal approval. He proclaimed himself head of both the church and the state. Following his death, a Protestant power bloc held sway (de Lisle calls it "evangelical" because the term Protestant was not used in England until 1553). With Edward's backing, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, attempting to reach a compromise between reformists and "traditionalists" keeping to the Roman rite, composed the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. The Act of Uniformity made its use compulsory across the realm, thereby "establishing" the Church of England.
Throughout his brief life, Edward's marriage prospects were the most burning political question in England, but other conflicts roiled the realm as well. Even as Henry VIII lay dying, the Pilgrimage of Grace, a protest against Henry's split with Rome and his takeover of monastery lands, had ended with over 200 executions. That debacle was followed by the Prayer Book Rebellion. The merchants, farmers, and working class in the more conservative rural areas wanted nothing to do with the new Book of Common Prayer, meant to replace the Roman mass. The rebellion was ultimately put down with military force.
The economic design of the country was also unsettled. The old practice of grazing sheep and cattle communally on common pastures was being broken up by landlords, who fenced, or enclosed, these pastures, taking ancient rights from the farmers. Agrarian workers in the countryside took up their tools to attack their landlords.
During these tumultuous years, Jane was being prepped for her possible royal marriage. At the age of nine, she was sent to live in the household of Catherine Parr, the widow of Henry VIII. There she met her cousins Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth. Jane flourished under Catherine Parr's care, but her happy days came to an end within two years when her mentor died after childbirth.
Strangely, Jane's parents consented to the 12-year-old Jane staying on with Catherine's husband, Thomas Seymour, an arrangement that came to an end after two months when Seymour was arrested and executed for treason. Jane's father, part of Seymour's conspiracy, barely avoided the same fate.
The plotters had planned to marry Jane to the young king. She preferred to remain single and continue her studies. At eight, Jane had been reading Greek and Latin. Proving an exceptional scholar, she devoured the theological works of Continental Reformers. Her correspondence with Heinrich Bullinger shows her to be an astute enthusiast of the Reformation cause. (As de Lisle points out, a number of women among the 16th-century nobility were learned to a degree that made many men uneasy.)
As Edward's health worsened and it became apparent he would never live to wed anyone, the question of who would rule England grew fraught with ambiguity. Ignoring the Act of Succession of 1544 naming Mary and Elizabeth to follow Edward as his heirs, the young Edward VI wrote his own will, specifically denying their legitimacy and naming the Grey sisters or their male offspring his heirs.
Thus, despite Jane's protestations, in 1553, at sixteen, she was hurried into marriage with Lord Guilford Dudley, fourth son of the Duke of Northumberland, the Lord Protector. When Edward died on July 6, 1553, Northumberland set in motion his plan to put Jane on the throne with his son as consort. Jane protested, saying she had no right nor desire to be queen. However, Northumberland and the Privy Council insisted, and on July 10, Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen.
But Mary had already rallied her supporters in the north and headed toward London. The generals sent to defend Jane betrayed her. Thus, her reign came to an end after only nine days.
The new Queen Mary—Bloody Mary, Protestants called her, for rooting out heretics and burning them at the stake, including Cranmer—imprisoned Jane in the Tower. Jane could have recanted her religious convictions, possibly avoiding execution. Instead she chose to write uncompromising and inflammatory letters, knowing they would be published. Writing to her former tutor, Dr. Thomas Harding, who had deserted the Protestant cause, Jane scolded him for having "fallen away" to partake of the mass, a "Satanic cannibalism." Her fate was sealed when her feckless father joined yet another plot against Mary. On a bleak February day, Jane, the teenage Protestant prodigy, was beheaded along with her husband. Her father followed her to the block a few days later.
Mary reigned for only five years and, though married to the younger Philip II of Spain, produced no children. Her half-sister Elizabeth followed her to the throne. Understandably wary of other claimants and conspiracies, Elizabeth, learning that Jane's sister Katherine had married without her sanction, put Katherine and her husband in separate parts of the Tower. Despite her confinement, Katherine managed to produce two sons. Elizabeth kept Katherine under guard in various locations. She never saw her husband or children again. She died of consumption at 27.
That left Mary, Jane's youngest sister, described as quite small and crook-backed. Mary married the Royal Gatekeeper, again without the queen's permission. She spent seven years in the Tower. As she had no children, she was released after her husband's death and was even allowed to attend court. Mary died of plague at 33. Despite the implication of de Lisle's title (perhaps chosen by the publisher), none of the three sisters ever desired the throne, though Katherine would have liked her sons acknowledged as legitimate heirs.
Certain of de Lisle's biases are woven through the narrative. She tries to be even-handed in her account of the struggle between Protestants and Catholics, and, for the most part, she succeeds, but there are occasions when her impartiality falters. She makes much of a boy having his ears cut off—quite awful, yes, but a relatively minor punishment at the time—for shouting imprecations at the newly crowned Queen Jane. By contrast, Lisle repeatedly emphasizes Mary's kindness to Jane—until, regrettably, it became politically expedient to chop off Jane's head. Indeed, de Lisle consistently underplays Mary's ruthlessness toward her political and religious enemies.
The most lasting significance of Jane's short reign, de Lisle persuasively argues, was to mark the point where English aversion to female rulers began to shift. After Mary's five years as sovereign, Elizabeth ruled as the Virgin Queen for 44 years, during which England became a major world power. Thus did the strands of politics, religion, and gender come together during the hapless Grey sisters' lifetime. Those few years were filled with events of such political and religious moment that they shaped the future of England and the empire it would build.
Virginia Stem Owens, a novelist, essayist, and poet, is the author of Caring for Mother: A Daughter's Long Goodbye (Westminster John Knox).
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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