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Lady Jane Grey, England’s Forgotten Queen: An interview with Dr Helen Castor (Part 1)


Photo: Kristin Contino

You might know her as “The Nine Days Queen,” and Lady Jane Grey has become a sort of tragic romantic figure in English history because of her short reign and eventual beheading. But who was this teenage girl who came to the throne as the first proclaimed queen of England, and should she really be considered a monarch at all?

I met with Dr Helen Castor, historian, author, and BBC documentary presenter, on a rainy autumn night in Philadelphia to hear more about Jane and her dramatic life.

Castor was in the States to present several lectures for the Royal Oak Foundation titled “England’s Forgotten Queen: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey,” and you might remember her from 2018’s three-part BBC documentary of the same name.

Jane was “a very, very young woman who was also ferociously intelligent, but caught up in something beyond her control,” Castor said, emphasising that although she was a pawn to a group of power-hungry men, ultimately Jane stood her ground and stayed true to her beliefs, even if that meant her downfall.

Jane, who was a great-granddaughter of Henry VII, was a cousin of King Edward VI and should have been fifth in line to the throne. But before Edward died, he named Jane as his heir, hoping to keep a Protestant on the throne rather than the true next-in-line: his half-sister, Mary, a Catholic.

Her time as Queen lasted from 10th to 19th July 1553, with Mary I taking the throne from Jane after many supported her as England’s rightful heir. Jane went from a queen preparing for her coronation to a prisoner in the Tower of London, living there until her eventual beheading on 12 February 1554. But despite Jane’s short reign, this 16 or 17-year-old (her exact date of birth is unconfirmed) made a lasting impact on English history. Even now in 2019 – and in America, nonetheless – crowds packed the room to hear more about this remarkable, yet forgotten queen of England.

I sat down with Castor before the lecture to hear more about her inspirations, what it’s like examining “extraordinary” historical documents and whether she counts Jane as one of England’s queens. Look for part two of the interview soon.

Photo: Kristin Contino

Kristin Contino: Most people really only know Lady Jane Grey reigned for nine days, she was beheaded, and that’s it. What made you want to dive deeper into Jane’s story?

Dr Helen Castor: “It was a chance to look at a moment in Tudor history that I found fascinating for a long time, which is this moment in 1553 where, after all, Henry VIII’s best efforts to ensure this succession of a line of glorious Tudor kings, there are only women left on the family tree. And so I’d written about that a bit in my book ‘She Wolves’, but I hadn’t really looked at Jane herself. I’d sort of looked at her structurally within that moment. So just the chance to look in a little bit more detail at her life and about how she both got caught up in and then responded to this moment, which has been characterised in different ways by different historians over the years … but to me, looks very much like an attempted coup launched from the heart of government. Some historians have tried to argue that it was Mary launching a coup against Jane, who represented the continuity of government, but actually it seems to me that this is an attempt at a secret takeover of government right at the centre, of which Jane was the vehicle and the pawn.

It’s sad when you think about how young she was and caught up in all of this, and didn’t even want it.

Exactly. Didn’t want it, but once the process had started, she was inevitably implicated because she was signing documents, and she’d accepted the position. One of the interesting things to think about, I think, is whether or not – well, in the end she lost her life because of a plot that had nothing to do with her, her father was implicated in it and that meant inevitably she was going to lose her life, convicted traitor that she was. But, her Protestant faith was so fierce and fiercely held that I do wonder if even if that plot hadn’t happened, I suspect she would have found it very difficult just to keep her head down and to conform to what Mary’s regime would have required of her. It was hard enough for Elizabeth, who was willing to skate through the difficult bits, but Jane was, it seems to me, almost fixated on being a martyr.

That brings me to another question I had, because do you think if her father hadn’t taken part in the rebellion, do you think Mary could have pardoned her?  

I think Mary wanted to let her live, Mary did not want to kill her. I think an interesting sort of textual thing here is we are very used to the idea that in the Tudor period women got executed. But actually it was a new thing. Before Anne Boleyn’s beheading … I’ve gone all the way back to the Conquest, and I can’t find a single other even noblewoman let alone a queen who was judicially killed in that way. So I think there was a real – even though Henry had done quite a lot of it –a real squeamishness about killing women in that way, and Mary certainly didn’t want to do it. Elizabeth later didn’t want to kill Mary Queen of Scots, either. These were all blood relatives and the precedent for killing in Elizabeth’s case, an anointed Queen, and in Mary’s case, her cousin she’d known since her birth … Mary didn’t really want to do it. But I think if we look at the letters Jane was writing and the things she was saying in the Tower as a prisoner between July 1553 and February 1554 when she was executed, she was not being tactful, she was not being careful. She was asserting her position as a Protestant leader and voicing her opposition to what Mary was doing. I think she was making it very difficult for Mary.

Jane refused to give her husband, Guildford Dudley, the title of king. Do you think that would have changed the outcome of future events if she had? Or would people have supported Mary, anyway?

I think it would’ve made things worse if she’d given Guildford the title of king. Because there was an awful lot that didn’t make sense about Jane Grey’s claim to the throne in early July 1553. And if there was a lot that didn’t make sense about Jane’s claim to the throne, there was even less that made sense about the idea of Guildford as king. [Guildford’s father] The Duke of Northumberland didn’t really have blue blood in his veins; the Dudleys were a very new family. The Duke’s own father had been executed as a traitor earlier in the 16th century. And Guildford was his fourth son, he wasn’t even his heir. So I think the resistance to the idea of a Dudley king would have been huge. I think Jane was the one with her head screwed on – no pun intended – at that point. I think it’s also telling that Northumberland hadn’t reckoned with the brain and the will of this formidable young woman.

It’s interesting because I think these men all just thought Jane would go along with whatever they said, and she didn’t.

Yes, exactly. I think again the issue of being a woman in this situation, where there had never been a female monarch before I think people were assuming far too much that her youth and her sex meant she could be a puppet whose strings could be pulled.

The Royal Oak Foundation, which is the U.S. arm of the National Trust, runs a series of programmes and lectures on British history and culture across the United States each year. For more information, visit www.royal-oak.org.



About author

Kristin is Chief Reporter for Royal Central and has been following the British royal family for more than 30 years. She blogs about royal fashion and travel at royallybroke.com. Kristin has appeared in UK and U.S. media outlets discussing the British royals including BBC Breakfast, the Associated Press, TIME, The Washington Post, and many others.