Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery

October 29, 2009

There is a lot that is extremely worrying about this book. One might begin with the title. If the appearance on the cover of Lady Jane Grey in capital letters superimposed on a portrait of the aforesaid lady suggests a biography, the reality is that once one has stated that she was a very bright pupil, and then moved swiftly on to consider her writings while in the Tower of London and the descriptions of her execution in February 1554, there is not much more to be said about her. In so far as there is "a Tudor mystery", she plays virtually no part in it. But in fact the only Tudor mystery here is one conjured up by the author, Eric Ives, which is not to say that there cannot be differences of interpretation.

The events described in this book should be reasonably straightforward. Very early in 1553, Edward VI's health, which up until then had been good, began to give cause for concern; by June it was clear that he was dying. At that moment, a decision was made to overturn the Act of Succession of 1544 and Henry VIII's will of 1546, which had designated Princess Mary as Edward's successor in the event of Edward failing to produce an heir, in favour of Lady Jane Grey, the eldest granddaughter of Henry's youngest sister, Mary. When Edward died on 6 July 1553, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, initially with the support of the King's Council, proceeded to put the decision into effect. His daughter-in-law - there had been a very recent marriage of one of his sons to Lady Jane - was declared Queen, but within a fortnight it was all over and Northumberland himself was proclaiming Mary the rightful Queen. The questions that need to be answered are who made the decision to overturn Henry's wishes, and for what reasons, and why was the decision in the end so easily overturned.

Ives concerns himself primarily with the first question, and his answer is clear. It was Edward's decision, and since the key to Northumberland is his loyalty to the existing monarch, his role in the matter was merely to put into effect his King's wishes. To emphasise the dramatic nature of this interpretation, he makes much of the "black legend" concerning the duke, which sees him as a Svengali figure manipulating the young King for the furtherance of his own interests. The only trouble with this is that as long ago as the 1970s, the most influential Tudor historian of the past 60 years, Sir Geoffrey Elton, was seriously questioning this legend, and nowadays I suspect that no serious historian believes in it. Moreover, it is almost certainly wrong to try to decide between King and duke. The existing evidence just does not allow it. What it does suggest is that they had a good relationship and both had strong reasons for being opposed to the accession of the Catholic Mary - even if one has some reservations concerning Northumberland's "Protestantism".

There is much else that is wrong with this book and much that I can only classify as silly. To state that a royal minority made no difference to the workings of government is hardly supported by the evidence and makes no sense. And Ives' insistence that it was Mary who was carrying out a coup d'etat may not even be technically correct since the Act of Succession had not been repealed; but given that until a month before Edward's death she was the legal heir, it is not very helpful. These are just two examples among rather too many. All in all, not to be recommended.

Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery

By Eric Ives. Wiley Blackwell, 392pp, £19.99. ISBN 9781405194136. Published 2 October 2009

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