When I was about eight, I became obsessed with Lady Jane Grey after seeing this painting in the National Gallery. Truly, I was a gem of a child. This Victorian painting by Paul Delaroche embodies everything that has made Jane’s story stand the test of time.
The innocent teenager forced into a role she didn’t want by a power hungry family, who reigned for nine days before being stripped of her crown and thrown into prison, and finally met her end thanks to a bloody axe and a sadistic queen.
It’s a good story, right?
WHICH OF COURSE MEANS THAT IT’S WRONG!
The doe-eyed Jane of history is a myth. A romanticized tale that, to be honest, does the real Jane a huge disservice.
So let’s discover the young women behind the myth:
1. NOBODY WANTED HER TO BE QUEEN
A bit of a harsh one to start with… but true! England didn’t want Jane to be queen. Though Jane was twice bumped up in the line of succession, by both Henry VIII and Edward VI, nobody knew who the F she was. Jane wasn’t a regular at court. There was no gossip on her. Jane just was not a name or face that anybody non-royal would recognize. To put this in modern terms, Jane's accession to the throne would be like Lady Sarah Chatto becoming Queen.
Lady Sarah Chatto is the Queen's fave niece and one of the members of the Royal Family that has the most in common with the her. Still, lovely as she sounds, if Lady Sarah Chatto became Queen, there would be questions. Such as, "Who the actual fuck are you?" This was pretty much the position of the people of England: "It’s great that the previous King liked you and all…but nobody here knows you and yeah…we’re not a huge fan of someone random ruling over us."
The people of England knew Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. They liked them and understandably believed that they were the rightful heirs to the throne. So it’s unsurprising that when Jane made her first speech as Queen, she was met by silence. Jane just didn’t have the support of the people, and without that, her reign could never succeed. In fact, by the end of her short time on the throne, half of the country still wasn’t aware that there’d been a new queen. Jane had just been a blip.
2. JANE WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST MINDS OF HER TIME
By all accounts, Jane was ridiculously smart. Like, ridiculously! Her parents took her education seriously and while her younger sisters were playing or picking up musical skills, Jane could always be found surrounded by books.
Jane could speak around six languages and loved nothing more than a juicy philosophical debate with some of the world's scholars, many of whom were her pen pals.
You may have guessed by now that Jane was all types of precocious. Once, acclaimed writer and scholar Robert Ascham found Jane alone, nose in a book, while the rest of her family were out hunting. When he asked why she preferred to sit alone reading Plato in its original Greek, rather than being out with her family, she earnestly turned to him and said:
"ALL THE SPORT THEY FIND IN THE PARK IS BUT A SHADOW TO THAT PLEASURE I FIND IN PLATO. ALAS! GOOD FOLK THEY NEVER FELT TRUE PLEASURE!"
Soon, Jane’s intelligence was gaining all sorts of attention. There was even speculation that she was more gifted than the equally precocious Princess Elizabeth.
Kind of awkward when you find out…
3. JANE GREW UP WITH ELIZABETH I
When Jane was around 10, she became the ward of Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry VIII's third wife, Jane, and after Henry VIII died, the husband of Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr. Thomas was a power-hungry man, as you can tell by the brother-in-law martial gymnastics, and by Jane’s bump in the line of successions, following Henry VIII's will. He wanted Jane for a potential pawn in one of his many political power plays.
So Thomas convinced Jane’s parents that if Jane came to live with him, it would help her education and transform her into an eligible lady. Just like that, Jane was placed into his care.
If you think this whole set up sounds sketchy AF…then you’d be right! Not only was Thomas using a child for his political plotting, he was also a massive asshat.
See, Jane wasn’t the only ward under Thomas’s roof….
Princess Elizabeth was also living there, under the care of Katherine Parr. And you can bet, Thomas was just as keen on using Elizabeth as he was Jane.
There are stacks of evidence that Thomas sexually abused Elizabeth. Some of this evidence suggests Elizabeth "consented"… but let’s remember that she was around 13 and he was one of her primary caregivers. This abuse would lead to Elizabeth departing the home she shared with Jane. Though the two had only lived together shortly, Jane impacted Elizabeth’s life both as an academic rival and later as a tragic warning of what could easily have been Elizabeth’s fate.
4. JANE WAS ALMOST EMBROILED IN TWO TREASONOUS ATTEMPTS FOR THE THRONE
After Elizabeth left his home, Thomas Seymour turned all his dickish attention to Jane. Tragically, but luckily for Jane, Katherine Parr died around the same time. Without a woman in the house to help care for Jane, her parents sent for her to come home.
… but Thomas was a dick, so he obvs wasn’t giving up Jane that easily!
Thomas chased Jane down, eventually turning up at her parents' house. In a last-bid attempt for Jane, Thomas promised her parents that he would work to get her married to the newly-minted King Edward. It worked, and Jane was once more Thomas Seymour’s ward.
With Jane back under his roof, Thomas doubled down on his quest for power. He became erratic, and his scheming became more and more far-fetched. Eventually, he decided that the only way he could convince King Edward to go along with his plans was if he separated Edward from his council…
So Thomas broke into Hampton Court Palace.
In the dead of night, Thomas snuck into the King's quarters. As he got closer to the bedroom, a dog spotted Thomas and let out a bark. So, Thomas shot the dog. The shot drew guards and Thomas was arrested… because don’t murder dogs, you prick. With Thomas under arrest, the home he shared with Jane was ransacked for evidence of his treasonous treachery.
Jane’s parents got her back home ASAP, but it was too late. She was officially part of Thomas's treason. One of the charges raised against him was:
"TO ALLY THE KING WITH THE DAUGHTER OF AN ENGLISH NOBLEMAN"
That daughter was of course, Jane.
To protect the family and Jane’s future, her dad testified against Thomas. The testimony was damning, so damning that Jane and her parents escaped any long-term consequence. Thomas wasn’t so lucky. He was beheaded for treason.
Though Jane had escaped the clutches of Thomas Seymour, don’t go thinking she was an innocent saint…you'll see.
5. JANE WAS SOMETIMES THE WORST
One of the most important things in Jane’s life was her religion. This wasn’t rare. Religion was a huge, hot-button issue in Tudor England. There was a divide between Catholics and Protestants. Each group believed the other was wrong, and by that I mean they thought the other side's religious beliefs were an automatic ticket to hell. Jane made sure that her Protestant faith was at the core of all she did. And, as a precocious and crazy smart teenager, that meant a lot of arguing!
As we’ve already said, Jane was pen pals with some of the leading minds of her day. All well and good, unless they had a religious slip or went and converted. Then you best believe they’d be getting a letter from Jane cussing them out. Seriously though, she straight up wrote that they’d go to hell.
But Jane’s biggest piece of dicketry was pissing off the future Mary I, the woman that would later sign off on Jane's execution.
Jane’s family spent Christmas 1549 with Mary. They were family after all, and though Mary was staunchly Catholic and Jane Protestant, surely they could get along for Christmas? Haha, of course not! It’s Christmas after all! In the strong tradition of families falling out over the holidays, Jane took a trip to Mary’s private chapel. There, one of Mary’s ladies curtsied to the alter, explaining to Jane that she was curtsying to "him that made us all." At this, Jane loudly scoffed:
"WHY?!? HOW CAN HE BE HERE THAT MADE US ALL AND THE BAKER THAT MADE HIM?"
When word of Jane's mocking outburst got back to Mary, she was, understandably, pretty pissed of that Jane had come to her home and made fun of her religious beliefs. Afterwards, it was said that Mary felt she could never truly love Jane as she had before.
But Jane wouldn’t budge on her actions…truly:
6. JANE WAS NOT HERE FOR YOUR BULLSHIT
On July 6th, 1553, Jane was taken into a room where she found her family bowing to her. Then, she was told that the king was dead. She was his new heir and was now queen! All hail Queen Jane.
Jane’s response to this?
"NOPE!" (*OBVS PARAPHRASING PRETTY HEAVILY HERE…)
Jane was having none of it. She immediately proclaimed the whole thing ridiculous. Only after a lot of coaxing/forcing did Jane put the crown on her head, still making it known she was only doing it to appease her parents.
Forced into a role she didn’t want, Jane was adamant she wouldn’t be taking any more bullshit. When her husband and his mom tried to flounce out of the Tower of London, protesting he wasn’t being treated regally enough (poor baby), Jane barred their way and had the pair sent back to their rooms, tails between their legs.
But putting her mother-in-law in her place wasn’t the only way Jane was laying down the law. If she’d had it her way:
7. JANE WOULD HAVE ARGUABLY BEEN THE FIRST ENGLISH QUEEN TO RULE SOLO
After Jane was told she was aueen and was presented with her crown, she wasn’t amused. Jane was less amused when she was told her husband, Guildford, was also getting a crown.
As soon as she was alone with Guildford, Jane explained that he would not become king. Consort? Sure. King? Not a chance in hell, buddy. This was unheard of! A female ruler was already unusual, as it hadn’t even been a possibility for hundreds of years. But Jane had made her decision. It was final. So final that when she discovered Guildford was making people call him "your grace," she shut that shit down.
No matter the argument, no matter how much she was pushed, Jane never backed down. If she was going to be forced to rule, then she was going to do it her own way. Alone.
This was really interesting! Where can I find out more? I love Crown of Blood by Nicola Tallis. It’s a great read, packed full of info and resources. I actually read it over my fifth anniversary vacation with my partner (he was thrilled!), and I swear it made my already fab holiday approx 100x more fun.
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
Header image: Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833
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Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.