Thursday, May 6, 2010

Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery

Author: Eric Ives
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 293 pages, not including index and notes
Cost: About 30 dollars from a bookstore
Where Did I Hear About It: BBC History Magazine

History: The Backstory

Who is Jane Grey? For those of you who don't know, there was a time when it looked like she was going to be queen of England, displacing both Mary I and Elizabeth I, the famous daughters of the many-times-married Henry VIII. Edward VI, Henry's only legitimate son, succeeded him upon his death in 1547. However, Edward was only 9 years old, and more alarmingly, he was a sickly child. Edward became seriously ill in the spring of 1553, dying on July 6 of that year. In the meantime, a new design for the succession of the crown was devised. Henry VIII stipulated that after Edward would come his older sister, Mary (daughter of Katherine of Aragon) and then, Elizabeth (daughter of Anne Boleyn). However, Henry never backed down from his claim that his marriages to each of the girls' mothers had been "unlawful," and therefore, the girls were illegitimate. Whether through prompting by the Regency Council appointed to assist Edward in governing or by Edward himself, within months of his death, the succession was changed to exclude Mary and Elizabeth entirely. Instead, the crown would fall to the daughter of Henry VIII's niece, Jane Grey (Jane's mother was the daughter of one of Henry's sisters). Jane was rushed into London to be proclaimed queen at first, with the full force of the peers of the realm behind her. However, when Mary managed to muster a formidable defense against this violation of her right, not bowing meekly as she was anticipated to do, Jane's support fell apart entirely. Mary was proclaimed queen throughout the realm, the councilors and peers sheepishly sought her favor and forgiveness, and Jane was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Although tried and convicted for treason, Jane expected that she would been pardoned by Mary. In the end, Mary decided to execute her, which was done at the Tower in February, 1544. Jane "reigned" for 9 days total, and is often entirely left out of the rolls of the monarchs of England.

What About the Book?

This book was a good read overall, although I don't entirely buy Ives's theories. He admits fully that there is a lack of evidence relating to Jane at the beginning, but this doesn't produce a sense of caution when making conclusions about her. On the other hand, he discusses Jane probably the least often of any of the characters in the book--perhaps a better title could have been considered that implied simply the "history" of the succession between Edward, Jane and Mary. In fact, Ives' main aim seems to be to rehabilitate the reputation of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. John Dudley is usually branded by historians as masterminding the whole transfer of the crown from Edward to Jane and bypassing Mary in order to grasp at power himself. Historians imply that he was "in control" of the young, naive Edward and knew that he would not be able to influence the older, more confident Mary should she succeed. Therefore, they conclude, Dudley encouraged Edward to pass the crown to the young, and equally naive Jane, who was conveniently married to Dudley's son, Guildford, in the spring of 1553. Thus, Dudley could keep his prominent court position and even have a son on the English throne.

Ives claims many things about Dudley. He attempts to assert that Dudley demonstrated signs of insecurity and even intense loyalty to whoever the monarch happened to be at different points in his life. However, his evidence for these assertions isn't strong. For example, he examined the ways that Dudley characterized himself in letters and noticed a pattern of personal debasement or "unworthiness" expressed in them. This is common throughout the period--some variation on "your most unworthy and humble servant" appeared on every letter composed at the time. Therefore, I don't think that this can be taken as the kind of evidence that Ives claims it to be. He also skirts over the issue of Jane Grey's marriage to his son, Guildford Dudley, while considerations for the succession were in order. Although it hadn't been firmly decided upon, by Ives' reckoning, when Jane married Guildford, Dudley had to be aware of the possibilities long in advance of a final decision. Marrying someone related the royal family was never lightly considered at the time, and it was probably more of an issue in the 1540s and 1550s than any other time because Henry had only three children, two of whom he declared illegitimate. Dudley may not have had designs for himself, but he would have enjoyed quite a considerable position should Guildford and Jane actually ruled England. Dudley may not have been influencing Edward directly to change the succession, but by the time the two young people wed, he certainly knew the possibilities.

Ives' style is excellent--this is a read for anyone, not just the history buff. His chapters are short and to the point, and he divides the book into sections, focusing first on the key players and second, on the events. In the second half, the book improves in that it is very clear that he extrapolates his theories from a lot of existent sources, throwing his vast knowledge of the period into the mix for a great analysis of what happened between Jane's accession and her execution. He introduces to the reader the little that is out there about Jane from the short years of her life, and, after reading many similar accounts clearly based on a lot of guesses, this was particularly refreshing. His insight into the changes made by Edward to the succession is an equally rewarding read, and Ives is probably the first author who traces the progress of those changes. I wish he would have continued this pattern until the end of the book--instead, his last chapter focuses on "Jane the Legend" through the 16th - 20th centuries. This wasn't interesting to me--not as interesting as his history--but this may be a bright spot for others who have heard about Jane through media other than history.

Rating: 6.5 to 7 out of 10
Buy it or Borrow it: Borrow it rather than buying it. It's only out in hardcover right now, and 30 bucks for a book of less than 300 pages of content is steep. I don't think this will become a reference for anyone interested in the history, but if you are interested in the primary sources that went into this, the notes are photocopiable. I like it a lot, but I'm not sure it will be worth a second read yet.

1 comment:

Kittie Howard said...

Hmmmm, I respect your opinion so will wait until it's out in paperback or at the library. Jane Grey has always provoked thought. Thank you for another great review.