Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery

Steven Gunn enjoys a masterly account of the turbulent fortnight when England hovered on the brink of civil war 

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Reviewed by: Steven Gunn
Author: Eric Ives
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Price (RRP): £19.99

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In the summer of 1553 England’s future hung in the balance. The young Edward VI had sickened and died, but who would succeed him? Henry VIII’s will and an act of parliament from 1544 put Mary Tudor next in line, but Edward’s councillors proclaimed the king’s cousin, Jane Grey, instead. A fortnight’s turmoil ended with Mary on the throne, Jane in the Tower and everyone trying to explain away their part in events. So what really happened, and why? That is the ‘Tudor mystery’ addressed by Eric Ives.

It was easy to blame John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland for the attempt to put Jane on the throne. He was predominant among Edward’s councillors; he led the army that tried to arrest Mary; he had married Jane to his son. But why had he failed? Some blamed a stab in the back by the colleagues Dudley left behind in London. Mary credited divine providence, restoring the true Catholic religion and righting the wrongs done to her mother. More recently historians have highlighted the role of Edward himself, determined to preserve his Reformation, in the plan for Jane to succeed. For the outcome they have stressed the popular support Mary won in East Anglia, whether legitimist or religiously conservative.

Ives re-assesses everything. He reconstructs the course of events with meticulous care, combining the conflicting narrative accounts with nuggets from the archives. He analyses the actions and character of each major participant and he comes to some surprising conclusions.

His Edward is the prime mover in nominating Jane, but less from religious motives than constitutional: his sisters were bastards so Jane’s line were the true heirs, while the 1544 act allowed any king, not just Henry, to define the succession. His Northumberland is driven less by ambition than by an obsessive obedience to royal will inspired by the fate of his father, executed in 1510 as a scapegoat for Henry VII’s exactions. His Mary is complex, brittle enough for her enemies to underestimate her, but stubborn enough to cling to her rights and let her dedicated entourage plan her counter-coup. Events turned not just on popular mobilisation and conciliar manoeuvres, but also on the failure of local elites to swing behind Jane as England hovered on the brink of civil war.

At the centre of it all stood Jane, a slight, freckled, reddish-haired teenager with a voracious taste for classical education and a vigorous line in religious polemic. At the centre, and yet powerless: she had minimal forewarning of Edward’s plans and she was executed only when the government panicked at Wyatt’s rebellion. Jane has inspired books, paintings, plays and films, but the mystery and the tragedy of 1553 have never before been so well captured.


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Dr Steven Gunn is fellow and tutor in history at Merton College Oxford and joint editor of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales (Boydell and Brewer, 2009)