Lady Jane Grey Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Lady Jane Grey 1537-1554

English religious writer.

Because of her involvement with the political intrigue that made her queen for nine days when she was only sixteen years old, Grey is one of the best-known women in English history. Her reputation has evolved over the centuries, and while she was once viewed as a meek pawn in a political game, today she is regarded as a strong, learned woman who wrote eloquently about her religious convictions. Her literary output was necessarily small, but in her several letters, a theological debate, and speech given on the scaffold, she expresses her unswerving Protestant faith and presents the portrait of a young woman of exceptional courage.

Biographical Information

Grey was born in Leicestershire in 1537 to Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset and later Duke of Suffolk, and Lady Frances Brandon, the neice of Henry VIII. She was raised as a Protestant and received a good education, becoming skilled in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, and Italian and corresponding with eminent Protestant theologians in Europe. In addition to being distinguished for her learning and piety, Grey was an acknowledged beauty. In 1547 she became the ward of Thomas Seymour, who had married Henry VIII's widow, the humanist Catherine Parr, who also took an interest in Grey's education. After Seymour's execution for treason in 1549, Grey returned to her parents' home. There were plans to marry Grey to Edward VI, but the young king's health was failing, and her father arranged her marriage instead to Lord Guildford Dudley. Dudley's father, the Duke of Northumberland, was head of the council advising and ruling for the young King Edward VI. Northumberland had been instrumental in stabilizing the English economy and replacing Catholicism with Protestantism, and he feared that Grey's cousin Mary, Henry VIII's daughter and the next in line to the throne, would suppress Protestants if she came to power. During Edward's last illness Northumberland had the king sign a “device” excluding Mary and her sister Elizabeth from the throne in favor of Grey. On July 10, 1553, four days after Edward's death, sixteen-year-old Grey was proclaimed queen, much to her surprise and dismay. Support for Grey as queen quickly eroded as Mary gathered her forces to claim her place as queen. On July 19, Mary was declared Queen of England, and Grey and many of her associates were imprisoned. Northumberland was soon executed, but Grey's father was pardoned, and Grey and Dudley were sentenced to be executed for high treason. Grey produced most of her writings while she was a prisoner in the Tower of London awaiting her execution. Grey's life was initially spared, but her father's participation in Wyatt's Rebellion in 1554, a revolt against Mary's proposed marriage to Philip II of Spain, convinced the queen that she did not need another focal point of Protestant opposition and a rival to the throne. Grey and her husband were executed on Tower Hill on February 12, 1554.

Major Works

Most of Grey's works were written as she was awaiting her death, and all are concerned with religious questions. They include a letter to a friend who has lost faith, letters to her father and sister, a prayer, and a speech given just prior to her execution. A few days before her execution Grey engaged in a theological debate with Mary's Catholic confessor, John Feckenham, which was recorded and transcribed. In her letters, Grey offers comfort, understanding, and compassion to those she is addressing. She never bemoans her fate but resigns herself to meeting her death. Although they are personal letters, they are carefully crafted statements of her faith. The same is true of the prayer she wrote just weeks before her death. In that prayer Grey begs for God's mercy and help, asking that she not succumb to despair. In the religious debate between Grey and Feckenham, Grey expresses her Protestant beliefs, emphasizing the importance of faith over works. In her scaffold speech, Grey proclaims her innocence of the charge of treason and wants it known that she was steadfast in her Protestant convictions until the end.

Critical Reception

While she was alive, Grey was known as a remarkable woman of great learning and uncompromising faith. In the seventeenth century, the perception of Grey began to change, and she was viewed as an innocent martyr and political pawn. Beginning in the late twentieth century, historians began to look more closely at Grey's own writings when examining her life. Although Grey's writings are not the subject of much critical scrutiny, they are beginning to receive some attention as documents that offer an interesting perspective on religious questions in the sixteenth century and provide insights into a historical figure of almost mythic status.