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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1263

At the death of King Edward VI, there are several claimants to the English throne, among them Mary, Elizabeth’s older sister, and Lady Jane Grey, the wife of Lord Guilford Dudley, who is supported by her father-in-law, the duke of Northumberland. According to custom, Lady Jane is brought to the Tower of London for her coronation. There, the supporters of Mary, while pretending to be in accord with Northumberland, wait to betray Lady Jane.

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Among those present is Cuthbert Cholmondeley, Dudley’s squire, who has fallen in love with a beautiful young girl he has seen in the Tower. Through inquiries among his servants, Cuthbert learns that the girl, Cicely, is the adopted daughter of Peter the pantler and Dame Potentia Trusbut; the true circumstances of Cicely’s birth are unknown. The chief jailer of the Tower, Lawrence Nightgall, also loves Cicely. When Simon Renard, the Spanish ambassador, and Lord Pembroke, both Mary’s supporters, conspire to assassinate Cuthbert because they know him to be Dudley’s favorite, Nightgall eagerly agrees to help them.

Nightgall tells Cicely that her new lover has been taken from the Tower and that she will never see him again. Meanwhile, Cuthbert, a prisoner in a dungeon below the Tower, is accosted by a strange woman who cries out that she wants her child to be returned to her. When Nightgall visits Cuthbert, the prisoner asks his jailer about the woman, but Nightgall evades the question by stating that the woman is mad.

At Northumberland’s command, Gunnora Broase, an old woman, administered a dose of poison to the late boy-king, Edward VI. She is directed by a strange man to reveal Northumberland’s part in the murder and thus to defeat his intention to place Lady Jane on the throne of England.

Simon Renard and Lord Pembroke have instigated a conflict between Lady Jane and Northumberland by convincing Lady Jane that she should not consent to make Dudley a king. Northumberland desires this distinction for his son, but Lady Jane believes that making her husband a king will cause too much dissension in the kingdom. In anger at this slight from his wife, Dudley leaves the Tower. Lady Jane, who is surrounded by intrigue, is convinced that Renard and Lord Pembroke are her friends and that Northumberland is her enemy. Lord Pembroke next persuades Lady Jane to send Northumberland against Mary’s forces, which are reportedly advancing on London. With Northumberland separated from Lady Jane, Lord Pembroke and Renard are certain that they can destroy her rule. Lady Jane is easily persuaded because she does not suspect the treachery of her two advisers.

Cuthbert Cholmondeley escapes from his dungeon. Dudley returns to his wife and his queen in time to convince her of the treachery of Lord Pembroke and Renard, whom Lady Jane then orders imprisoned. Cicely comes to Dudley and Lady Jane with the tale of what has happened to Cholmondeley. Soon after Lord Pembroke and Renard are imprisoned, Nightgall helps them to escape from the Tower. Meanwhile, Lady Jane has made Cicely a lady-in-waiting.

Gunnora Broase gains an audience with Lady Jane and declares that Northumberland poisoned Edward and that his purpose in marrying his son to Lady Jane was to elevate Dudley to the throne; Lady Jane will then be poisoned. Meanwhile, Cuthbert has found his way from the lower dungeons, and he and Cicely are reunited. He is present when the duke of Suffolk, Lady Jane’s father, urges her to avoid execution by abdicating. Dudley, however, persuades his wife not to surrender the crown. Mary is proclaimed queen, and Lady Jane is placed in prison with Cicely and Cuthbert. Dudley is separately confined. Gunnora Broase sneaks into Lady Jane’s cell and helps her to escape from the prison with the promise that Dudley will follow shortly, but when Northumberland disbands his forces and acknowledges Mary as queen, Lady Jane surrenders herself and returns to her cell in the Tower.

The people acclaim Mary when she enters London. The new queen’s first act is to release all Catholic prisoners and replace them with her former enemies. When Northumberland is arrested and condemned to the scaffold, he pleads for mercy for Lady Jane because he was the chief proponent of her pretension to the throne. Although the duke publicly embraces Catholicism in the mistaken belief that his life will be spared, he is executed by Mary’s order. Mary puts pressure on Lady Jane and Dudley to embrace Catholicism as Northumberland did in order to save their lives, but Lady Jane is determined to die a Protestant. Cuthbert is released from custody and returns to look for Cicely, but she is nowhere to be found. He does find the strange madwoman again—she is lying in a cell, dead.

Edward Courtenay, the earl of Devonshire, is among the prisoners Mary has released from the Tower. The young nobleman is really in love with Elizabeth, although, covetous of Mary’s throne, he pretends to love Mary. Without scruple, he is able to win Mary’s promise that she will make him her husband. Renard, however, lurks menacingly in the background. When Courtenay goes to Elizabeth with one last appeal of love, Mary and Renard listen to their conversation from behind a curtain. In anger at his betrayal, Mary commits Courtenay to the Tower and then confines Elizabeth to her room. On Renard’s advice, Mary affiances herself to Philip, king of Spain. Later, Mary’s counselors persuade her to release Elizabeth.

Moved by compassion for the innocent Lady Jane, Mary issues a pardon for the pretender and her husband. The couple retire to the home of Lady Jane’s father, where Dudley begins to organize a new plot to place his wife on the throne. Lady Jane is aware that Dudley is determined to carry out his plans. Faithful to her husband, she consents to follow him in whatever he does. Another revolt is led by Sir Thomas Wyat, a fervent anti-Catholic, supported by those who oppose an alliance between England and Spain. The rebellion is quelled, and Wyat and Dudley are captured. Lady Jane and Cuthbert surrender themselves to Mary, and Lady Jane pleads for the life of her husband in exchange for her surrender. The only condition on which Mary will allow Dudley to live is that Lady Jane must embrace Catholicism. When she refuses, she is sentenced to death along with Dudley. Elizabeth is brought to the Tower, as Mary plans to do away with Courtenay and her sister after she has completed the destruction of Lady Jane and Dudley.

Still suffering from jealousy over Cicely’s love for Cuthbert, Nightgall has held the girl in prison since the fall of Lady Jane. Meanwhile, Nightgall has been hired by the French ambassador to assassinate Renard. Renard and Nightgall meet in Cuthbert’s cell after the squire has been tortured, and, in the ensuing fight, Cuthbert escapes and runs to find Cicely. Renard succeeds in killing Nightgall, who lives long enough to provide proof of Cicely’s noble birth. She is the daughter of the unfortunate madwoman, Lady Grace Mountjoy. Before her execution, Lady Jane requests that Cicely and Cuthbert be allowed to marry. With strange generosity, Mary pardons them and grants their freedom. At the scene of Lady Jane’s execution, even her enemies shudder at the sight of so good and fair a woman about to die. On the block, she reaffirms her Christian faith as the ax descends on one of the most ill-fated of English monarchs.

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