In the 446 years since her death, Lady Jane Grey has been seen by many as the archetype of a Protestant martyr. A religious heroine whose honour and faith led to her choice of death before heresy.
Sixteenth Century England was a time of enormous religious turbulence. The Reformation and Henry VIII's 'Great Matter' and the contentious issue of transubstantiation had set Catholic against Protestant. It was a principle many were prepared to die for and religious debate dominated contemporary life.
It was into this political climate that a daughter was born to the Grey family at their palatial hunting lodge, Bradgate Manor, in Leicestershire. It was October 1537*.
Miles away, an event was taking place that overshadowed Jane's arrival. Jane Seymour had just presented her husband Henry VIII with a son, Edward. It was the male child Jane's great uncle, King Henry, had longed for. His desire for a male heir had already led him to divorce one wife and execute another.
In the sixteenth century the role of the queen was to provide an heir, preferably male. Queen Catherine and Anne Boleyn had failed to fulfill this task. To Henry's great displeasure both had produced daughters, (the future Mary I and Elizabeth I.)
Prince Edward received a tumultuous reception. His birth was celebrated by days of feasting and merriment. Queen Jane's delivery of a son served to legitimise the King's treatment of his first two wives. In Henry's eyes, his union with Jane Seymour had been blessed and the country was assured of stable leadership.
At Bradgate Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset, left his newly born daughter for Court to pay his respects and take part in the festivities. Before his departure he and his wife, Frances, agreed to name their first born child, Jane, in honour of the Queen.
(* there is no accurate date recorded for Jane's birth, although some historians (Hester Chapman in particular) believe that Jane was born before Edward VI)
More about the House of Suffolk can be found here.
Jane was encouraged to excel in her studies more than her sisters, Katherine and Mary. Her correspondence indicates that she was a gifted scholar who earned the praise of Catholic and Protestant alike.
Between 1550 and 1552, Jane enjoyed regular correspondence with academics and religious theorists on the Continent. In particular, she exchanged letters with Bullinger, chief pastor and radical of the Zurich school.
In July of 1551, Jane wrote to Bullinger, thanking him for sending her his treatise, 'On Christian Perfection,' telling him she 'gathered daily from it as from a garden of flowers.' She also informed him of her desire to learn Hebrew and asked for his advice on 'some way and method of pursuing this study to the greatest advantage.' This correspondence formed a part of what are now known as The Zurich Letters.
In 1552 Jane wrote to Bullinger from Bradgate;
My mind is fluctuating and undecided; for while I consider my age, sex and mediocrity, or rather, infancy of learning, each of these things deters me from writing, but when I call to mind the eminence of your virtues, the celebrity of your character, and the magnitude of your favours towards me...the respect which your merits demand usually prevails over all other considerations...
As long as I shall be permitted to live, I shall not cease to offer you my good wishes, to thank you for the kindness you have showed me, and to pray for your welfare.
Farewell learned sir.
Your piety's most devoted,
The following famous exchange took place between Jane and Roger Ascham and was included in Ascham's 'The Schoolmaster' (published 1570) in the original Old English.
'Before I went into Germanie, I came to Brodegate in Lecestershire, to take my leave of that noble Ladie Jane Grey, to whom I am exceding moch beholdinge. Her parentes, the Duke and Duches with all the household, Gentlemen and Gentlewomen, were huntinge in the Parke. I founde her, in her Chamber, reading Phaedon Platonis in Greeke, and that with as much delite, as some jentleman would read a merie tale in Boccaccio.
'After salutation, and dewtie done, with some other taulke, I asked her whic she wold lose such pastime in the Parke? Smiling, she answered me: I wisse all their sport in the Parke is but a shadoe to that pleasure that I find in Plato. Alas! Good folke, they never felt what trewe pleasure ment.
'And howe came you, madame, quoth I, to this deepe knowledge of pleasure, and what did chieflie allure you unto it; seinge not many women, but verie fewe men, have atteined thereunto?
'I will tell you, quoth she, and tell you a troth whiche perchance ye will marvell at. One of the gretest benefits that ever God gave me is that he sent me so sharpe and severeParentes, and so jentle a Scholemaster. For when I am in presence either of father or mother, whether I spekee, kepe silence, sit, stand, or go, eate, drinke, be merie, or sad, be sowying, plaiying, dauncing, or doing anything els: I must do it, as it were, in soch weight, measure, and number, even as perfectlie as God made the world; or els I am so sharplie taunted, so cruellie threatened, yea presentlie some tymes with pinches, nippes and bobbes, and other waies I will not name for the honourI beare them, so without measure misordered, that I thinke myself in hell, till tyme cum that I must go to Mister Elmer, who teacheth me so jentlie, so pleasantlie, with soch faire allurements to lerning, that I think all the tyme nothing, whiles I am with him. And when I am called from him, I fall on weeping, because what soever I do els, but learning, is full of grief, trouble, feare, and whole misliking.
I remember that taulke gladly, bicause it is so worthy of memorie, and bicause also, it was the last taulke that ever I had, and the last tyme that ever I saw that noble and worthie ladie.'
(Roger Ascham was a tutor to Elizabeth as a young girl. He went on to serve Mary I as Latin Secretary. He was later Secretary to Elizabeth during her reign.)
(Mister Elmer was John Aylmer, and came to Bradgate as Jane's tutor in 1549 when she was 12 years old.)
Catherine's second husband, Thomas Seymour, bought Jane's wardship in the same year, paying her father two thousand pounds. Seymour had promised that with his connections at court he would be well placed to suggest Jane as a suitable wife for the King. In a letter to Henry Grey, he expressed his hopes for Jane's future; 'If I may once get the King at liberty, I dare warrant you that His Majesty shall marry no other but Jane.'
Seymour's plans were not to be. In 1549 he was arrested while breaking into the King's apartments in an attempt to have an audience with him. The Grey's were keen to distance themselves from Seymour after news of this scandal. Thomas Seymour was eventually executed for treasonable offences against the Edward Seymour Duke of Somerset, The Lord Protector (and Thomas' brother.)
do you curtsey?'
The following year Jane and Mary met again when the Suffolks stayed at Beaulieu, Mary's Essex home. It was during the visit that Mary presented Jane with another gift, this time a richly bejewelled gown.
Historians report that Jane disliked the elaborate Catholic fashions, preferring instead to follow the understated style made popular by the Princess Elizabeth.
It is said
Jane turned to her gentlewoman, Mrs Ellen, and said, "What shall I do with
it (the dress)?"
This exchange was included in John Aylmer's A Harbour for Faithful Subjects. Aylmer was also Jane's tutor).
During the same visit Jane is said to have the now famous exchange regarding transubstantiation.
tradition Jane was walking through the chapel at Beaulieu with Mary's
friend, Lady Wharton, who curtseyed at the altar.
If this incident did indeed take place, as it was later reported to Mary, it serves as an example of Jane's headstrong and fervent belief, as well as the precocious intelligence that was Jane's trademark.
For indeed Jane was arrogant and had a strong sense of self confidence, if reports are to be believed. She was not naive, nor was she weak willed. Disciplined, well educated, and experienced in dealings with intellectuals, the rich and the powerful, Jane possessed a self assurance and strength of character that endears her to history buffs four centuries later.
In 1553 King Edward VI was a sickly boy of fifteen. He had been plagued by illness throughout his life and was now suffering from advanced tuberculosis. It became clear to those who were close to the King that he would not reach adulthood.
This presented John Dudley with a problem. Henry VIII's Will named his Catholic daughter Mary as next in line to the throne. If Edward did not marry and produce an heir, a Catholic would rule England. As Edward's chief Minister, Northumberland knew that he would be punished by Mary for his harsh anti-Catholic policies.
Jane Grey was fourth in line to the throne, and represented, for Northumberland, his only real chance to retain the power and status he had attained. He focused on fostering a close association with Henry and Frances Grey. By May he had succeeded in convincing them to formalise their alliance through marriage.
(above) Bradgate Park, home of Lady Jane Grey during her childhood, is now in ruins.
(Author's own photographs)
Click here for more pictures of Bradgate