Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Jane Grey, Queen for Nine Days

Jane Grey (executed 12 February 1554)


I never realized, until starting this daybook in women's history, the eerie juxtaposition of dates--the death of Elizabeth of York on 11 February 1503 and the execution of her great-granddaughter, Jane Grey, fifty-one years and one day later, on 12 February 1554.

Jane Grey, painted c. 1590
(Although there are many purported images of Jane Grey,
historian Eric Ives believes this one to be her
"best likeness")
The story of Jane Grey is, in large part, what drew me, first, to an interest in the Tudors, then to an interest in English history and literature, and ultimately to my teaching, research, and writing about early-modern women. 

I was in fifth grade, and I had checked a book on Jane Grey out of the public library. I remember lying in the bedroom I shared with my sister, completely engrossed in Jane's story. (At the time, we were living at 1127 West Ave. H-7 in Lancaster, California, for what it's worth.)

I knew nothing at all about Jane Grey--and so her end, beheaded in the Tower at age sixteen or seventeen, came as a complete shock. I lay in that bed sobbing for her, at the injustice of it all. I often wonder what book I was reading that day--I'd love to know what it was so I could find a copy of it now. It certainly changed my life.

Given the current interest in all things Tudor, I am assuming that the broad outline of Jane Grey's life is fairly well known--her traumatic childhood, the unscrupulous manipulation of powerful men, who put her on the throne, her brief "reign," and her subsequent fall. She was "officially" proclaimed queen on 10 July 1553 and then unproclaimed on 19 July, when Mary Tudor was proclaimed queen in London by the Privy Council. Jane was arrested, tried for, and convicted of treason in November.

Or so the story usually goes.

A letter signed "Jane the Quene" (upper left corner) written during her brief reign

There are almost too many books about Jane Grey, if that's possible--fiction, non-fiction, and purported works of non-fiction that are, in reality, fiction, if not fantasy. As a correction to all the crap, I wholeheartedly recommend Eric Ives's Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, an exceptional work by a renowned scholar of Tudor history, whose biography counters the "story" of Jane Grey as it has usually been told.

Contrary to the conventional "nine days queen" label I've used here, for example, Ives argues convincingly that Jane's reign was actually thirteen days, not nine, and that, again contrary to the long-accepted story of her life as utterly determined by powerful men, as I've noted above, she is not to be regarded as "a hapless victim of political intrigue." She is a determined actor and agent in unfolding events. Ives is particularly good on Jane's education and scholarship, and his book ends with an excellent analysis of the "afterlife" of her story--how Jane Grey, the historical person, became "Jane Grey," romanticized victim and martyr.

Less well known, too, is Jane's intellectual history. She received an excellent humanist education, was steadfastly committed to her Protestant faith, and is now regarded as the author of several important compositions, including letters and a prayer. While Ives is very compelling in his analysis of the works attributed to Jane, particularly the way her letters and exhortation to her sister may have been rewritten after her death, you may want to look for yourself. I've found an excellent selection in Women's Works, vol. 2: 1550-1603, edited by Donald W. Foster--included are a selection of letters, the proclamation of her succession, the transcript of a purported interview while Jane is in the Tower, the "exhortation" she may--or may not--have written to her sister, and a note to her father, copied into the  prayerbook she carried to the scaffold.

And here's my complaint of the day: Penguin Books is now publishing a new English Monarchs series, which will include Oliver Cromwell (though he certainly was not a monarch) but will not include Matilda of England or Jane Grey. Things like this get me crazy.


Jane's prayer book with a note to her father
(bottom margin, beginning "For as muche as you have desired so simple a woman
to wrighte in so worthye a booke")