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A conflict of wills

It might seem odd that Eric Ives, the acclaimed biographer of Anne Boleyn, should turn his attention to another executed Tudor queen, Lady Jane Grey.

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery Eric Ives

Wiley/Blackwell, pp.367, 19.99

It might seem odd that Eric Ives, the acclaimed biographer of Anne Boleyn, should turn his attention to another executed Tudor queen, Lady Jane Grey. As he points out, in the past six years alone, seven biographical studies of Lady Jane have appeared, and while this could be said to demonstrate the perennial fascination exerted by Jane’s short life and grim fate, the question inevitably arises as to whether even a scholar of Ives’s standing will be able to add much to what has been written. Yet it soon emerges that Ives is not primarily concerned with Lady Jane’s personal tragedy. Instead he focusses on the events that led to her being placed on the throne in July 1553, and the collapse of the regime 13 days later. The result is a major reinterpretation of this brief but exciting episode. 

In the spring of that year the Tudor dynasty was plunged into crisis when the teenaged King Edward VI developed a fatal lung infection. Edward’s late father, Henry VIII, had decreed that his daughters Mary and Elizabeth should inherit the throne in turn if Edward died childless, but in Edward’s remaining weeks of life secret documents were drawn up that excluded his half- sisters in favour of his cousin, Lady Jane Grey. When Edward died on 6 July, the 16-year-old Lady Jane was duly proclaimed Queen, and Edward’s entire Council pledged allegiance to her. However, when Mary decided to fight for her throne, a majority of those notables who had declared for Jane decided within days that the position was untenable and defected to her rival. With her crown wrested from her, Jane was condemned as a traitor and executed in February 1554.

Whereas it is usually supposed that unscrupulous adults manipulated the young King into denying the rights of Mary and Elizabeth, Ives demonstrates that Edward started tampering with the succession on his own initiative. He showed a steely determination to have his wishes put into practice, and when the judges questioned the legality of his ‘devise for the succession’, he overrode their objections ‘with sharp words and angry countenance’.

Edward was motivated, Ives believes, not by a fear that the Catholic Mary would undo his Protestant religious settlement, but because he thought his sisters were illegitimate. Not only had Henry VIII’s marriages to their respective mothers been invalidated, but in 1536 an act of Parliament had declared Elizabeth and Mary to be bastards. Although their father had re- instated his daughters in the succession eight years later, he had never seen fit to legitimise them. Ives argues that Edward was fully entitled to set aside his father’s will, not least because the arrangements he put in place accorded better with common law than Henry’s provisions. This being so, Jane Grey was Edward’s rightful heir rather than a usurper, and in asserting her own claim it was Mary who was guilty of rebellion.

The Duke of Northumberland is invariably depicted as the villain of Jane Grey’s story. Having ruled England on Edward’s behalf during the latter part of the King’s minority, Northumberland allegedly schemed to cling on to power by preventing Mary’s accession. According to the traditional interpretation, as soon as Northumberland realised that the King’s health was failing, he married his son to Lady Jane Grey and had her nominated as Edward’s successor, calculating that once his daughter-in-law was installed as puppet sovereign, he could continue to exploit the country for his own nefarious purposes. Lady Jane herself certainly blamed Northumberland for her downfall, claiming that he had brought on her the ‘most miserable calamity and misery by his exceeding ambition’.

Ives sees things differently. He depicts Northumberland as a principled patriot whose guiding tenet in life was subordinating himself to the monarch’s will, and who therefore felt morally obliged to follow Edward’s wishes in the matter of succession. Ives dismisses claims from Northumberland’s colleagues that the Duke bullied them into complying, insisting that, once Jane had been deposed, these men were desperate to pretend they had acted under duress when, in reality, they had played a willing part in the proceedings.

Ives’s views are contentious, but his mastery of his sources is unquestionable. Even if some of his conclusions are open to dispute (the Duke of Northumberland as a selfless servant of the sovereign is certainly a challenging concept) the way Ives marshals his evidence is dazzling, and his bold and innovative treatment of a supposedly familiar story is both authoritative and exhilarating.

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