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Virginia Stem Owens

The Nine-Day Queen

Lady Jane Grey and her sisters.

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, ...

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