Lady Jane Grey Criticism - Essay

David Mathew (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Mathew, David. Lady Jane Grey: The Setting of the Reign, pp. 126-58. London: Eyre Methuen, 1972.

[In the following excerpt, Mathew recounts the details of Grey's succession and imprisonment, as well as her education and religious preoccupation.]


The Marchioness of Dorset had brought up her eldest daughter for a great position. She herself was a cold-hearted Protestant; life had gone sour on her. The elder daughter of the Queen of France and in consequence the senior English niece of Henry VIII, she had had an unsatisfactory marriage with her cousin Dorset, the head of the senior line of the Greys. The blood of his stock was failing, his will was weak. Her last pregnancy, after her two daughters, had produced a dwarf, the Lady Mary. What could be done with the Lady Jane could only come through her mother's efforts. It is these, perhaps, that have caused the rather uncharacteristic portraits of Lady Jane that survive.

The Lady Jane was of course the most eligible heiress in the kingdom, but the heavy jewellery in the surviving portraits is clearly that of an important member of the royal family. In the portrait attributed to Master John, she wears two necklaces and a large pendant jewel at her breast and six rings upon her fingers.1 In her two other portraits,2 that in the possession of Lord Hastings and that now destroyed by fire, but formerly belonging to the Earl of Jersey, she had four rings on the fingers of either hand and in both pictures an elaborate double necklace of hanging pearls wound once around the neck.

She was in fact a very small princess, graceful and beautifully proportioned. Her dark hair had red lights in it. In the portrait by Master John she has an over-dress of cloth of silver brocade, which foams delicately over an under-dress of rust-coloured silk. Her sleeves are of a grey lynx fur. She is clasping a pink and holds a pomander chain of antique cameo with a long tassel at the end. She is standing on a Turkey carpet. She has thin fingers on her long slim hand. The whole picture has an air of innocence.

She had a strong judgment, which stood in for knowledge. She was characteristic of one aspect of her period, a young Calvinist princess. She can only be compared with one of the French royal house nine years her senior, the Queen of Navarre.

Lady Jane had one great quality, a burning religious zeal which lit up the character of a rather simple girl. She was in some ways solitary. Had she attained to the Crown of England, it is hard to imagine the ladies of her Court. She was, among other things, a home-trained blue-stocking; she had never travelled. Those who are interested in Lady Jane should visit Bradgate Park for this was the setting, apart from her time in London, for almost the whole of her short life.

Bradgate Park lies with its general outlines quite unchanged at the southern end of that tangled country, which runs up to the limestone rocks of Charnwood Forest. The old brick Tudor house with its terraces and its far-flung walls, built for the most part by the last Marquess of Dorset, has long since lain in ruins. There is much water in the park and the short steep slopes rise up from lakes and streams; it is thickly wooded. It was a rather lonely area and the Marchioness of Dorset hardly dealt with those who were in no sense her equals. The eastern entrance led down to those great level fields which are the heart of Leicestershire.

It is interesting to speculate where Lady Jane developed her taste for study. This certainly did not come from her parents for her father was a nonentity and her mother had a clear understanding of what was otiose and what was useful. It would seem that on the secular side her learning was the fruit of the work of her young tutor, John Aylmer. It was likewise Aylmer who gave publicity to her knowledge and who brought Roger Ascham to visit her at Bradgate. Aylmer, who eventually became Elizabethan Bishop of London and was known for his severity against the Puritans, had been from his youth a protégé of Lord Dorset. He came from a family of landowners settled at Aylmer Hall in the Norfolk parish of Tivetshall St Mary; he had been sent to Cambridge by his patron. On graduating he was ordained and became private chaplain at Bradgate Park and tutor to the children there.

He had arrived when Lady Jane was a small child.3 It is recorded that he taught her ‘gently and pleasantly and with fair allurements to learning’. He remained with the family until he was appointed Archdeacon of Stow in Lincolnshire, just before King Edward's death.

Roger Ascham was in all respects a much more significant figure at that time. He was lecturer in Greek at St John's College, Cambridge, and public orator at the University of Cambridge. He was also tutor to the Princess Elizabeth. In the summer of 1550 he visited Bradgate Park on his way to join Sir Richard Moryson, who was leaving for Brussels as ambassador to the Emperor. In his book The Scholemaster, first published after his death in 1570, Ascham refers to his first meeting with Lady Jane, who was reading Plato's Phaedo, while her family was hunting in the park.4 She spoke of her parents' severity towards her and contrasts this with Aylmer's gentleness. It seems clear that it was Ascham who drew attention to her learning, to her skill in speaking and writing Greek, and to her knowledge of Hebrew, French and Italian as well as the ancient languages.

The question of her religious approach appears more difficult. Aylmer was certainly an exile for religion at Strasbourg and Zurich under Queen Mary, but in Elizabeth's reign he emerged as a right-wing Anglican, in some ways a precursor of Archbishop Laud. Lady Jane herself developed a close correspondence with Johann Heinrich Bullinger of Zurich, with whom it appears that she had been put in touch by John ab Ulmis, one of his disciples who had come to England and was to some extent under Lord Dorset's protection. There are three of Lady Jane's letters to Bullinger in the Zurich Library. Although the relations between Bullinger and Calvin were often strained, they can between them be regarded as the founders of the Helvetic Confession. Genevan is, perhaps, the best word to describe Lady Jane's Religious Faith.

We shall see in time that it was not the literary education, but the preoccupation with religion that lay at the heart of Lady Jane Grey's character. In comparison with this great matter, the external events of her career appear to have been of small importance. At King Edward's accession, when she was just nine years old, the Duke of Somerset had looked out upon the situation. He had decided that the King should later marry the second of his five surviving daughters, Lady Jane Seymour. She was a small child; there was no hurry. His son the Earl of Hertford should marry Lady Jane Grey; he was two years her junior.

His brother, Lord Seymour of Sudeley had, as has been explained, another project. He obtained the guardianship of Lady Jane from the Dorsets and undertook in time to arrange a marriage with the young King. It was clear that this would only come about after he had had a successful quarrel with his elder brother. In fact he failed and Lady Jane returned to her father's house. When the whole Seymour system had gone down it was clear that Lord Hertford's chances had disappeared. Lady Jane's rôle in all this was wholly passive.

What really mattered was Lady Jane's own situation. She had a burning desire to testify to the Truth, by which she meant the doctrines of Revealed religion. It was this which linked her with her young sovereign. It was their twin deep intensity that soldered them. Among their own contemporaries they were both very much alone. When the key rulers of England are considered, it was only the Duke of Somerset who had shared this concern and he had many other things to think about. More than the King it seems that Lady Jane saw the issues in black and white. Worldly wisdom meant very little to her. Thus her view of the Duke of Northumberland was not one which would commend itself to the ruling circle. To her the Duke was merely a great hypocrite. This was not a good beginning for her relations with the high lord who would be her chief supporter.

The financial prospects of Lady Jane had changed considerably for the better in the last eighteen months of Edward's reign. By the death at Buckden of the sweating sickness of the two young brothers, successively Dukes of Suffolk, the whole Brandon properties had been brought to their half-sister Lady Dorset. She thus inherited Suffolk House, which had formerly been the residence of the Bishop of Norwich, and gave up Dorset Place in Whitehall, which had been the Greys' town house.

At the same time she and her husband set about re-building the former Carthusian priory of Sheen. This had been granted to the Dorsets in 1551 after the attainder of the Duke of Somerset. It was almost opposite across the river from the former Brigettine priory of Sion, which Northumberland had received from the same source.

The dukedom of Suffolk had become extinct, but a new peerage with that title was conferred on Dorset jure uxoris, on 4 October 1551. As the new Duke of Suffolk had no male heir, his eldest daughter would have had a great inheritance, even though Bradgate and the Dorset lands would pass eventually to Lord Thomas Grey, the new Duke's brother.

The pieces are now set for the last moves. It may be noticed that the Northumberlands and Suffolks both preferred the fresh airs of the river towards Richmond to the crowded heat of the capital in the summer months.


Edward VI was now approaching the close of his short reign. In the last months before his illness overtook him he had shown increased activity. In the middle of July 1552, the King set out on the only royal progress which he lived to make. He was accompanied by nine councillors and attended by a bodyguard of just under one hundred and fifty men. He had not hitherto travelled further than thirty miles from London. The Duke of Northumberland was in the North.

The royal party rode slowly through the rich South Country, going from Guildford by way of Petworth, Cowdray, Halnaker and Havant and reaching Portsmouth on 8 August. From that seaport town he moved forward to Southampton, Titchfield and Beaulieu. The farthest point to which he ever reached was Sir Edward Willoughby's house in the east of Dorset. He then came home again by Salisbury and Wilton, Basing and Reading, until he reached Windsor Castle in mid-September.

His character had developed in various ways. Northumberland had given him a kingly pleasure in hunting. He was now more aware of his clothes; he ordered for instance a deep purple cloak. He was still shy. His courtiers seem to have appeared to him as individuals, he never had a sense of the family unit. He was still interested in coinage and in military defence. He had plans for re-developing the organs of his Government. He had still only a single friend, Barnaby Fitzpatrick.

Historians in general have assumed that the idea of Lady Jane's succession began with Northumberland. Professor Jordan in his new book suggests that the first motion was made by the King and that in this the Duke had followed him.5 It is common ground that this solution appeared to the King as the only way to save that Protestant religion which he was bequeathing to his people. It seems probable that this solution was already present in the germ as soon as the King fell ill with the onset of tuberculosis in the course of January 1553.6

On this assumption it seems that the winter months were employed by Northumberland in considering the various aspects of the situation. It was not a well-contrived project and there was no one to help him with advice. He looked for support to too narrow a range of influence. He was always over-confident that he could bend his fellow nobles to his will.

As soon as the Duke of Northumberland decided that Lady Jane should be the inheritrix of the throne, he set about according to the customs of that day to strengthen the position of her immediate relatives. He had decided that she should marry his son Lord Guildford. There remained at his immediate disposal her next sister, Lady Catherine Grey and his own unmarried daughter, Lady Catherine Dudley. The most important of the various pawns was Catherine Grey, for she was the heiress-presumptive to the Queen-designate. There were certain of the great peers who were not available either because their heirs were children or in some cases already married. The man whose support he hoped to buy was the Earl of Pembroke.

The first Earl of Pembroke of the second creation was a man of courage and strength of character, who had built up his own great fortune. In consequence, he was one of the few of the high lords who did not fear Northumberland. He seems, indeed, to have had a respect for his achievement, although he did not particularly admire his judgment. He was ready to support him as long as he politically remained afloat. More could not be asked for in that hard time. His fortune had been made by his marriage to Anne Parr, the sister of Queen Catherine. He had in one respect a strange consistency. From the last years of King Henry's reign he remained at heart politically a Protestant; but there was a difficulty. Lord Pembroke was in no sense pious and, in particular, he did not like that high-toned Reformation brand of piety which the Grey family represented.

He did not see the English scene as the sanguine Duke would see it. His first wife, probably as the result of her clear Protestantism, was apparently one of the few women friends of Edward VI. At any rate she is the only lady whose death is mentioned in the young King's diary.7 At this time Pembroke had just re-married one of the daughters of the great House of Talbot, a younger stepsister of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Lady Anne was the widow of the youthful Peter Compton of Compton Winyates. Pembroke knew very well what different ‘worlds’ were thinking.

What we know of him is coloured by the comments of John Aubrey, who preserved the legend that survived in Wiltshire after a century. Pembroke was represented as a novus homo because he was new to Wiltshire.8 He was in fact the son of Sir Richard Herbert of Ewyas, a man in a respectable position, who was himself a natural child of the first Earl of Pembroke of the first creation. ‘He,’ wrote Aubrey, ‘being a stranger in our country and an upstart, was much envied. … He could neither write, nor read, but had a stamp for his name. He was of good natural, but very cholerique. He was strong, set, but bony, (his hair was) reddish favoured.’ One thing no man could deny was his sharp native intelligence.

For his own daughter Northumberland decided on an alliance with one of the Protestants among the greater peers, to someone to whom the religious approach of the Greys would prove congenial. There were two names which would come to mind, the Marquess of Northampton and the Earl of Huntingdon; but Northampton was childless, so Catherine Dudley was betrothed to the young Lord Hastings, who was Huntingdon's heir.

It was a difficulty that both these future peers were very youthful, but Hastings was certainly a strong-minded Puritan, brought up to this form of Faith. In later life he would be for many years the Elizabethan Lord President of the North.

All three marriages took place in what had formerly been the Bishop of Norwich's private chapel in Suffolk House. The marriage of Lady Jane was celebrated first on 26 April 1553, while those of her sister and her sister-in-law took place some six days later. Provision was made from the royal wardrobe of jewels and dresses which had belonged to the attainted Duchess of Somerset for these great ceremonies. At the same time, the Duke of Suffolk's youngest child, the Lady Mary, was affianced to the boy son and heir of Lord Grey de Wilton.

Lord Hastings was about seventeen years of age and his union with Catherine Dudley endured throughout his life. It seems that Lord Herbert was one year younger. In this case his father, a long-sighted man, took care that his marriage was not consummated. It seems that he did not care that his heir should be linked permanently with the Grey family.

The Duke of Northumberland then settled down to secure support for his project for the inheritance of the Crown. The first plan had been to limit the succession to the Lady Jane's heirs male; but it soon became apparent that the King's health would not last out so long. Lady Jane's name was then inserted as the heiress in the document that was drawn up. There are two aspects of this situation. As long as the Duke was forcing his ideas upon a willing sovereign, his actions all made sense.

He had brought Edward down to Greenwich Palace to help his health and his task became simpler, once it had been decided that the Crown should pass to Lady Jane. The dying King had a single wish, adhered to feverishly, that the Crown of England should continue to protect the Word of God. The Duke had little confidence in Archbishop Cranmer; but the King was ready to upbraid the Primate, who surely would not allow the Church of England to pass away from that True and Reformed faith, which together they had built up. Sir Edward Montague made some objections, but these were over-ruled. The King's new settlement would be placed before the Houses of Parliament, when they should meet.

So far it is a simple story and the dying King was then brought back to Whitehall. Northumberland's subsequent actions in getting so many signatures to the ‘Devise’, as the King's document was called, makes little sense. Peers were brought up from the country, like Westmorland and Worcester, others who could not come sent up their sons, like Bath and Derby. For days the Duke's representatives went on collecting signatures, the Lord Mayor and the alderman, the whole posse of judges, the country peers, the knights of the privy chamber.9 It can hardly be that he trusted that these men would abide by their signatures. Why did he do it? For what really mattered was the great lords of the Council, who had supported the Duke during the King's minority.

But Edward was by this time far from all this tedious detail, the matters of this world were fading from him. His tuberculosis was gaining fast as he now lay dying in his father's palace. He knew well that he had been a virtuous prince, who had spent his whole life in defending the True Reformed religion. He was a solemn child. He savoured sermons which, Sunday by Sunday, had laid before him, well-spiced with flattery, the duties of a Christian ruler. In some ways he was perhaps retarded. His whole life had been spent in innocence; now he would pass on his guardianship of Reformation values to a princess whose life was given to the study of the pure doctrine. The top-hamper of the Romish views of Purgatory had perished. He knew that the pains of his complicated illness were by this time over. Now he stood before the Throne of Grace; he knew that he was due to enter at the Gates of Paradise. He died at nine o'clock in the evening of Thursday, 6 July 1553, a little earlier than had been expected.

The King's death had not been announced and it was only on the third day, 9 July, that Northumberland's daughter, Lady Mary Sidney, fetched Lady Jane from Chelsea Place to Sion. It was then that she learned of that burden of honour that the young King had designed for her. There first came to her the Marquess of Northampton and the Earls of Arundel, Huntingdon and Pembroke, who bent the knee before their sovereign lady. They were followed by the Duchesses of Suffolk and Northumberland. Later there entered the Duke himself who, as President of the Council, told her of the King's decision. The lords then knelt before her and swore by their souls to shed their blood and lose their lives to maintain the just rights of their new sovereign.

She was told that the next day she must proceed to take possession of her palace and the Tower. She left Sion in the late morning and stopped at Durham House, where she dined and robed herself. The weather was warm and sunny as she entered the State barge and went downstream to the broad steps of the Tower of London, where she landed at three o'clock in the afternoon. She wore a white coif with jewels in her hair and a green dress stamped with gold, with hanging sleeves. This was the last journey that she ever made.

She walked in procession beneath a canopy to the great hall. The Duchess of Suffolk carried her daughter's train. In recent years her weight had increased; she was a low woman with wide shoulders and a great broad countenance, on the whole rather like the Queen of Spades. She had come to resemble her uncle, Henry VIII, and like him her countenance could be inscrutable. Because of her subsequent line of action, it is worthwhile to try and reach to her ideas. When she was Marchioness of Dorset before her grandeurs came upon her, she had paid three visits with her daughters to the Lady Mary. That princess, who had a faithful heart, had always felt a gratitude to her aunt the Queen of France, Lady Dorset's mother. She had been kind to her own mother, and perhaps what was more to the point had had a strong dislike for her supplanter Anne Boleyn, then Marchioness of Pembroke. She had in fact died before Queen Anne's coronation. As to the Duke of Northumberland, all knew that he lived in a world of men, he never consulted any woman. This is sufficient to introduce a note of hesitation in the Duchess of Suffolk's approach to this whole story.

If it was strange that Lady Dorset should have been Lady Jane's train bearer, it must be said that it could not have been easy to find ladies of honour; but this was a matter which lay outside the scope of the Duke's interests.

He had established Lady Jane in a royal residence10 where certainly she would be well protected. Apart from members of the Council, men could not get at her. He would tune the pulpits on her behalf. For himself, the Duke had full command of all the armed forces in the kingdom. In the general field there was only one person who might cause trouble. It would certainly be a great relief to have the Lady Mary safe under lock and key.


The palace in the Tower of London had been used by the English sovereigns upon occasion, thus Edward VI had stayed there for a few days immediately before his coronation. The State Rooms in the Tower were decorated with the overflow from the other royal palaces, with tapestries and velvets brought from Genoa. There were Oriental silks upon the flooring and brocades, both Venetian and Florentine, upon the walls. There was inevitably a certain lack of space. In the evenings Lady Jane ate in the private royal dining room. She had a canopy above her head. On her right sat the Duke of Northumberland and on her left the Duke of Suffolk. Across the table the two Duchesses sat side by side. These were both strong-minded ladies and deeply antipathetic to one another. The meals had not the recherché quality of those produced from a royal kitchen; the residents of the Tower were all accustomed to simpler fare. The news from the outside world was not encouraging, the evenings grim.

The supper over, the two Dukes and...

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Roland H. Bainton (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bainton, Roland H. “Lady Jane Grey.” In Women of the Reformation In France and England, pp. 181-90. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1973.

[In the following essay, Bainton provides an overview of Grey's brief life, education, and Protestant faith, supported throughout by excerpts from her letters that reveal the strength of her religious convictions.]

Lady Jane, England's nine day queen, made a deeper impact on her countrymen by her death than by her reign. She was virtually canonized by the Protestants, who portrayed her as comely, charming, devout, learned, demure and gentle. They called her in the words of the prophet Isaiah “a lamb that is led...

(The entire section is 3466 words.)

Alison Plowden (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Plowden, Alison. “Jane the Quene” and “The Ende of the Lady Jane Duddeley.” In Lady Jane Grey and the House of Suffolk, pp. 94-113; 114-27. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985.

[In the following essay, Plowden recounts the events of 1553 and 1554 that culminated in Grey's execution, and discusses several letters she wrote during the period that reflect her state of mind and her religious and political attitudes.]


On paper John Dudley's ascendancy looked to be absolute. The reign of his daughter-in-law and puppet had begun; he controlled the capital, the Tower with its armoury, the treasury and the navy, while the...

(The entire section is 15237 words.)

Frank Prochaska (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Prochaska, Frank. “The Many Faces of Lady Jane Grey.” History Today 35 (October 1985): 34-40.

[In the following essay, Prochaska examines the way Grey has been portrayed over the centuries by writers and historians, showing how her legend has taken on new dimensions with successive generations.]

The story of lady Jane Grey, the ‘traitor-heroine of the Reformation’, is perhaps the most poignant personal tragedy in British political history. The grand-daughter of Henry VIII's younger sister Mary and eldest child of the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, this unworldly though resolute girl was flattered, favoured, and ultimately butchered on the block of...

(The entire section is 3899 words.)

Carole Levin (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Levin, Carole. “Lady Jane Grey: Protestant Queen and Martyr.” In Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works, edited by Margaret Patterson Hannay, pp. 92-106. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Levin argues that Grey was a stronger figure than history has given her credit for, a woman of considerable learning whose letters, prayers, and scaffold speech show her to be courageous and uncompromising in her religious beliefs.]

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, attempted to subvert the Tudor succession and make his daughter-in-law, Jane Grey, queen of England in 1553. The...

(The entire section is 7505 words.)