A Year with the Tudors II: A Flash, a Thud, a Crimson Deluge
The Tudors captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and in honor of Open Letters Monthly’s 10th year of publication, Steve Donoghue revisits one of the journal’s most popular features by embarking on A Year with the Tudors: The Second – looking at the year’s crop of new books telling the gaudy, fascinating stories of the Tudor dynasty.
Crown of Blood:The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey
By Nicola Tallis
Pegasus Books, 2017
More than any other entrant in the Tudor roster, she stands out as odd. Even in the company of a battlefield usurper, a serial husband, a boy-king, a heretic-burner, and Gloriana herself, the story of Lady Jane Grey seems like the stuff of fiction. A bookish girl, born around 1536, fond of reading Plato in Greek and contemplating the subtleties of the reformed Church, is used by a cadre of ambitious, unscrupulous men to seize power and put her on the throne as a puppet monarch upon the death of King Henry VIII’s young son and heir King Edward VI, thereby keeping the throne from Henry’s eldest daughter Princess Mary and giving it to Jane and her husband Guildford Dudley, the son of John Dudley the Duke of Northumberland, the foremost of those unscrupulous men. She came to love her young husband (like her, a teenager), but they had precious little time together: in mere days, Mary reclaimed her throne, and in rapid order Jane and Guilford were imprisoned in the Tower of London, sentenced to death for high treason, and executed in 1554 – by which point she was already being celebrated by the populace in general as a helpless, virtuous innocent caught up the the merciless gears of Tudor politics, and by Protestant clerics as a martyr to the new faith. Indeed, she features prominently in martyrologist John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs in 1563.
That version of the Jane Grey story has been more durable than all but a handful of narrative constructs in history. It was taken up from John Foxe and other sources of Protestant propaganda and passed forward for centuries in its simplified, alluring form. You can see it in full-color glory in Paul Delaroche’s 1833 painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, a masterwork of bathos that went on to seize the bathos-thirsty imagination of the Victorians. The pull of the story – a bookish innocent rudely pulled from her books and sat squarely on a throne she never wanted – was still operating with undiminished strength in the Edwardian era when Richard Davey wrote his best-selling fat biography The Nine Days’ Queen in 1909, and now, a century later, things haven’t changed significantly. The latest example of this Foxe-style martyrology is Nicola Tallis’ debut work of history, Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey, out in hardcover from Pegasus Books (the US cover features a detail from Delaroche’s painting, naturally).
As Davey did a hundred years ago, Tallis begins her story with Jane Grey’s birth and then backtracks and sidetracks to fill in the details. Jane was the oldest daughter of Henry Grey, the Duke of Suffolk, and Lady Frances Brandon, the daughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary, who married Henry’s friend and courtier Charles Brandon in 1515. Jane was raised in the inner circles of the Tudor Court, given a stellar education, and in time attached to the powerful Seymour family and to the household of Henry VIII’s final wife, Katherine Parr. There’s good historical reason to believe she disliked the coarsely ambitious courtier world of her parents and shunned it when she could in favor of more studious pursuits. In May of 1553 she married Guildford Dudley, a son of John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, a disliked but strangely compelling state councillor who was by then a major rising power in high Tudor politics.
Jane was the grand-niece of Henry VIII, but even so, she might have lived out her life as a more than normally studious minor Tudor noblewoman, had it not been for the humanizing effect Katherine Parr had on the old and ailing King Henry.
In various fits of pique hastily codified into law, Henry had over time disinherited both Mary, his only surviving daughter by his only rightful queen, Catherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, preferring to hand the whole succession to his son by Jane Seymour, Edward VI, and Edward’s male heirs. But Katherine worked to reconcile him to his children, both in person and posthumously; through her influence she brought about the Third Succession Act, which was passed by Parliament in 1543 and restored Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession.
This meant that Mary – as defiantly, fervently Catholic as her mother had been – was young Edward’s legal heir when he came to the throne at Henry’s death in 1547. Which even so might not have signified much, except that by the beginning of 1553, 15-year-old Edward was beginning to be gravely ill, and it quickly became obvious to both Edward and his closest advisors, none closer than Northumberland, that he wasn’t going to survive – and so there would be no male heirs. As matters stood, Edward’s rapidly-approaching death would put Mary on the throne and threaten to undo everything Edward’s English Reformation had done for the spiritual health of his people, and everything the looting of Church property had done for Northumberland’s economic health.
They devised a plan, and that, too, has been subject to a great deal of quasi-Victorianizing over time. Edward drew up a “Devise,” a kind of ex cathedra addendum to his father’s last will and to the Third Succession Act. According to the Devise, at Edward’s death the succession would once again bypass Mary and Elizabeth and fall instead to the male heirs of Lady Frances Suffolk (much like his father, Edward was chary of the idea of a regnant queen in England), and if Lady Frances failed to produce a male heir, the line would then go to the male heirs of Jane Grey, whose ardent Protestant faith Edward knew and trusted. “Though wildly different in both character and tastes,” Tallis writes. “Jane and Mary shared a common bond aside from the royal blood which flowed in their veins: their religious devotion was unswerving, and the dominant factor in both of their lives.”
Then the clutching hand of iron avarice actually makes one of its comparatively rare direct appearances in the historical record, with ultimately disastrous effects for Jane Grey. Nicola Tallis is content to echo the verdict of hundreds of historians before her and make that hand belong to Northumberland rather than Edward himself, and we can see the shameful evidence, the hasty crossings-out and writings-in done to the page of Edward’s Devise, altering it to read that the line of succession would go not to “the Lady Jane’s heirs male” but to “the Lady Jane and her heirs male.” With those pen-strokes, so runs the Victorian narrative, Jane Grey was doomed.
Edward died very shortly after the drafting of the Devise, and because of those scratched-in changes to his spurious little document, Northumberland and his allies and thralls on the Privy Council could now put the crown on Jane’s head and hail her as queen, even before news of Edward’s death was fully public and days before her own ascension was publicly known (Tallis is not the first biographer to point out that the nine-days queen was actually a thirteen-days queen). Northumberland’s feckless son was now husband to the Queen of England; the rule of John Dudley could commence almost immediately.
Little details remained. One dealt with the all-important question of nomenclature. Northumberland assumed Guildford would be crowned King alongside the Queen, but young Jane had other ideas: she adamantly refused to share her newfound power, insisting that Edward’s Devise might have made her Queen but it said not a word about making anybody King. Her husband broke down in tears, and her husband’s family bridled – none more so than John Dudley himself, according to Tallis:
Hearing of the fraught exchange between Guildford and Jane, and the schemes of his wife to depart from the Tower, the Duke of Northumberland was alarmed. It appeared that Jane was not as pliable as he had expected, and was seemingly prepared to make her opinions heard. Jane’s parents and those who knew her were well aware of how stubborn she could be, but Northumberland, who barely knew her, was amazed. It had never occurred to him that Jane would not be willing to go along with his schemes; the girl had a mind of her own, and was perfectly willing to assert it.
The other little detail was the rightful heir to the throne. Mary had not waited patiently for matters to sort themselves out; her palace spies had brought her word of Northumberland’s treachery, and when his men came for her at Hundson House in Hertfordshire, she was already gone, fled into the Suffolk countryside and a string of strongholds there, intent on raising the people to her banner.
While the supposedly reluctant Jane began to make herself comfortable in her new role, Northumberland rode out with a force of men to march into the countryside, disperse the rabble throwing their caps in the air for Mary (whom he freely dubbed a traitor and a usurper), and take Mary herself into a captivity that doubtless wouldn’t have lasted very long.
But John Dudley was as overconfident as he was hated, and both of those factors combined with whirlwind speed over the course of a mere two days to completely undo him. Instead of dispersing Mary’s following, his men were dispersed by it – or joined it. And back in London, his baleful spell of personal dominance weakened by his absence, councillor after councillor declared for Queen Mary, as did the people of London. They may not have liked her strident Catholicism (or the prospect of her taking a Spanish husband), but as Tallis points out, they loved Mary herself in a way they’d never been tempted to love a bloodless little pedant like Jane.
Mary enjoyed a triumphant entry into London. Northumberland was captured, begged forgiveness, groveled, even converted, but he was executed regardless, and Jane and Guildford were imprisoned. When Jane’s tried alongside Guildford and his brothers, Tallis is right there with the breathless color commentary:
As the axe blade slowly turned toward the four men and Jane in a sign that they had all been condemned, the outcome of the day’s proceedings may have dawned on her: she had been found guilty of high treason, and she was a condemned traitor. All of her royal blood, all of her meticulous scholarly studies, had been in vain, for even if she were granted a reprieve, what hope did the future now hold for her? The stigma of treason would stick, and she would always be a target for dissenters. The was nothing more to be said, and nothing that could be done – shockwaves resonated around the Great Hall at Guildhall as Lady Jane Grey became the youngest woman of her time to be condemned for high treason: a sentence of death loomed and the axe was poised, ready to fall.
That mention of a reprieve isn’t fanciful; it seems that Mary was all along perfectly willing to pardon Jane, despite the fact that the tedium of Jane’s formal apology – one of the first non-apology apologies in recorded history, and for no mean offense – must have grated against Mary’s very Tudor dislike of any officiousness she herself did not produce:
Although my fault be such that, but for the goodness and clemency of the queen, I can have no hope of finding pardon, nor in craving forgiveness, having given ear to those who at that time appeared, not only to myself , but also to a great part of this realm, to be wise, and now have manifested themselves the contrary, not only to my and their great detriment, but with the common disgrace and blame of all, they having with such shameful boldness made so blameable and dishonourable an attempt to give others that which was not theirs, neither did it become me to accept (wherefore rightly and justly am I ashamed to ask pardon for such a crime), nevertheless, I trust in God that as now I know and confess my want of prudence, for which I deserve heavy punishment, except for the very great mercy of your majesty, I can still on many grounds conceive hope of your infinite clemency, it being known that the error imputed to me has not been altogether caused by myself. Because, although my fault may be great, and I confess it to be so, nevertheless I am charged and esteemed guilty more than I have deserved.
As noted, even in the face of such stiff-necked blame-shifting, Mary might still have pardoned her cousin. But in 1554 a major rebellion broke out in England with a handful of county grandees gathering men and protesting the impending Spanish marriage of Queen Mary. Instead of riding out to quell this uprising, as he was ordered to do, Jane’s father the Duke of Suffolk rode out to join it, and when it, too, failed to turn the popular support for Mary’s reign, Suffolk was found hiding inside a hollow tree, arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded – and Mary and her councillors, perhaps with lessened reluctance, finally accepted that as long as Jane lived, she would be a natural focus for future such uprisings, an alternate ultra-Protestant princess ready to hand. So on February 12, 1554 she was beheaded in a scene that resembles Delaroche’s painting in almost not one single detail – and in a scene that later drove poor Richard Davey to a veritable ecstasy of rhapsodic outrage: “A flash, a thud, a crimson deluge on the straw-strewn scaffold – and, as the cannon boomed, an innocent soul was borne towards a Throne more high, and a justice more sure than those of Queen or Emperor!”
The key note – that mention of an innocent soul – is sounded all throughout Crown of Blood. Tallis opens her spirited but intensely partisan account (all extant biographies of Jane Grey are both spirited and intensely partisan) with two round declarations, and that’s the first of them: “There is no doubt that Jane was a victim,” she writes, “undoubtedly used and forced into a queenship she did not want.” When recounting the end of Jane’s life, Tallis goes on: “Her fate had yet to be determined, and she had not choice over her own destiny, for it lay in the hands of others. It always had done.” She sounds the note right to the foot of the scaffold: “It had been six months since Jane had seen her parents, perhaps longer since she had seen her sisters; none of them could have envisaged that the girl who had shown such promise would soon have her life taken from her in the most brutal manner and undeserved circumstances.”
This is a curious contradiction, and Jane’s spirited partisans seem never to see it even while they’re perpetuating it. Tallis is the latest in a long line of historians who are only too willing to tell their readers what a fiercely intelligent and independent young woman Jane was. How did Tallis’s description go again? “The girl had a mind of her own, and was perfectly willing to assert it.” But where was that independent-minded Jane when she was being forced, as she herself whingingly put it, by “blameable and dishonourable” men to accept a crown that wasn’t theirs to give? Surely she was shown Edward’s Devise? Surely her well-tutored young mind was perfectly capable of discerning immediately that cross-outs and do-overs don’t actually count when it comes to altering the line of succession to the throne of England? Her biographers are lavish in their praise of her refusal to follow the example of her craven father-in-law and convert before her execution. But where was that same strength of will when it came to depriving her cousin Mary of her rightful inheritance?
The crack between silence and sycophancy opens a quick, as yet unexploited view to a different Jane, a less saintly Jane, a more Tudor Jane. No historian or biographer has yet written about that Jane, or even investigated whether or not she existed. Instead, and here Tallis joins their ranks, they prefer to get their narrative impetus from a book of martyrs and tell their readers stories, at hundreds of pages, about the only teenage girl in history who didn’t want to be a queen.
And maybe the reason is connected to the second round declaration with which Tallis opens Crown of Blood: the question of rights. “It is true that Jane was not crowned, but neither were Edward V and Edward VIII, and Jane certainly deserves recognition on a par with both,” Tallis asserts. “Therefore, in writing Jane’s story, I do so very much with the belief that she was, and should be remembered as, Queen Jane.”
But this is false, and Mary knew it, and Jane’s councillors knew it, and the English people knew it, and whoever scribbled those marginalia on Edward’s Devise must have known it, and Jane’s grudging half-confession certainly makes it seem as though she must have known it herself. Henry’s Third Succession Act was read and approved by Parliament; Edward’s grasping, adolescent Devise was never seen by a Parliament and had not a whiff of legal authority. It’s not the place of the John Dudleys of the world to make or unmake princes. Nicola Tallis has written a purple, racy account of this supreme oddity in the Tudor roster, but this book and all such books can only ever be about Jane the Pretender.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. He reviews for The National, The American Conservative, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.