November 20, 2009

Review: Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery

You can hardly not feel sympathy of Lady Jane Grey. At the age of seventeen, she was thrust, unwillingly by most accounts, into the throne of England. She lasted, through no fault of her own, for 13 days in that throne and was then imprisoned and later executed by her cousin Mary Tudor. Our sympathy may be heightened by the fact that she was intelligent and thoughtful and took her execution bravely and stoically. But her story is not merely interesting because of the feelings it evokes, but also because of the forces alive in Tudor politics that it illustrates: Jane was a victim but so also were many of the other individuals ranged around her, condemnation after the event seems to have been random rather than calculated. More than that though, the rebellion against Jane was the only successful rebellion against a reigning monarch between the reign of Richard II (1381-99) and Charles I (1625-49). 150 years passed with several notable rebellions- the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536), the rising of the Northern Earls (1567), and several changes of religion- but only Jane Grey between Richard and Charles actually lost her head.

So what went wrong? What Eric Ives does in his book, a biography of Jane and an account of the fatal year of 1553, is suggest that the reasons for the failure of Jane's installation as queen lay not so much with Jane as with the reasons that she became queen. Jane did not push herself forwards for the crown at all. She had the misfortune to be the daughter of Frances Grey and granddaughter- through her mother- of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's sister. The terms of the succession to the crown of England were established in 1544 by an act of Parliament: Henry VIII had declared that first his son Edward would succeed him and then his two bastard daughters, first the older Mary and then Elizabeth and after them Jane and her sister Katherine. This line of succession established two principles: the first was that Edward would receive the crown next, the second was that legally an English King had established that he could nominate his own successor- part of the crisis of every English reign from Henry's death (1546) until James I's accession in 1601 was that claim in the bill. It is the reason for instance that during Elizabeth's reign, she was constantly troubled by the succession- such matters were not automatically decided by some rule of who was the closest relative but by the monarch themselves.

Edward VI in 1553 decided to change the order of Henry VIII's bill. Until February 1553, everyone at court had assumed that Mary would succeed Edward- as Henry had laid out- but in 1553 Edward for some reason decided to change the law. What Edward did was place Jane and her sister ahead of his illegitimate half sisters Mary and Elizabeth. Ives suggests that Edward did this on his own initiative and did it because for him his half sisters were illegitimate- and illegitimacy under common law afforded no right to succeed. Once he had made that decision- his leading minister John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland stepped in behind it. The reason why Jane was given the crown therefore was that Edward took advantage of the precedent left by Henry and legally changed the succession: the reason why Mary won is because the council including Dudley had had barely weeks to prepare for the change of monarch. Furthermore they relied upon the fact that rebellion in England was not usually successful- their attention was focussed overseas and Dudley spent those final weeks of Edward's life insuring, not against a domestic rising, but against Mary's Spanish relatives (she was the daughter of a Spanish princess) invading England in support of her claim.

Ives sketches out the complicated motivations of those involved. Jane was a bookish young woman, a blue stocking, who corresponded with many of the leading intellectuals of reformist Europe including Martin Bucer and Bullinger. Roger Ascham, Elizabeth's tutor, believed that Jane was a better scholar than the future queen- the best he told a friend in England along with Mildred Cecil. By the time she was sixteen, Jane was reputed to know eight languages- and though that may be exaggeration, she was definitely profficient in Latin, Greek and French and possibly had a working knowledge of Hebrew. She was though a political football as well- in her youth she had been intended as a future bride for Edward VI himself, a bookish 'lure' for him, and her father, Henry Gray, Duke of Suffolk, definitely used her for his own political ends- as any Tudor father would use his daughter. There are other characters here apart from Jane. Mary deserves a mention too- possibly the most sympathetic of the Tudor dynasty and definitely the most defiant.

Perhaps the other characters who dominate Ives's tale though are Dudley and Henry Gray. Dudley is perhaps the more interesting of the two. His father had been executed in the early 16th Century and Ives hypothesizes that Dudley lived under the shadow of that execution for the rest of his life. Ives is keen to dispel a black legend that has gathered around the Duke of Northumberland, portraying him as a devout Protestant and a dedicated monarchist. Furthermore Ives suggests that Dudley was neither a Machiavellian nor a blunderer- he was a politician who sought to preserve his dying master's wishes. Henry Gray gets a much less favourable press in Ives's story- he is seen as bookish but unpolitical, incapable of really seeing what the best political action was. Gray is seen as a blunderer- eventually he blundered so much that his head was separated from his shoulders.

There are many interesting points in this book- and as a micro study of a moment in Tudor history it is both interesting and moving. At times Ives inserts his own feelings too much into the narrative- comparing Jane with Anne Frank is not an obvious move- but his research is meticulous and though his canvass is small and the evidence, particularly concerning Jane is scant, he makes the best of what we have. High political history is always to some extent guess work- we cannot really know what is a press release and what is a genuine statement, which parts of a letter were written honestly and which were not. If I have one criticism of Ives it is that occasionally I got the feeling that his willingness to find evidence outweighed his scepticism about the evidence's ability to show us the internal feelings of his cast of characters. But the story is movingly and interestingly told- Jane Grey's brief reign and Edward's reign too deserve attention.

Afterall as Ives suggests in his introduction one of the most fascinating conjectures in British history is what might have happened had Jane stayed on the throne and the House of Dudley replaced the House of Tudor. As so much of the character of the modern British church and state is of Elizabethan and Stuart date, we cannot know what would have been different but we can know that the world we live in would have been very different.