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Lady Jane Grey, England’s Forgotten Queen: An interview with Dr Helen Castor (Part 2)

Photo: Kristin Contino

Today we continue with the final part of Chief Reporter Kristin Contino’s interview with historian, author, and BBC documentary presenter Dr Helen Castor (Read the first part of the interview here).

Castor recently travelled to America to present lectures about Lady Jane Grey for the Royal Oak Foundation, the U.S. affiliate of the National Trust, as part of their renowned lecture series. Contino sat down with Dr Castor in Philadelphia to hear more about Jane and this turbulent time in Tudor history.

Kristin Contino: What do you think Jane’s reign would have been like if she’d been successful?

Dr Helen Castor: That’s a difficult one to answer because in a way the lack of success was so obvious and so rapid. Nine days looks pretty generous in hindsight, and it’s amazing the regime held together that long when you look at it from some perspectives. I think what we would have seen was England becoming a very different kind of Protestant country. She, like Edward, was an absolutely ferocious evangelical who was in contact with theologians in Switzerland, whose ideas of what Protestants should be, went a very, very great deal further than the settlement that England eventually ended up with under Elizabeth. Which was a very odd, middle path that actually no contemporary theologians really supported; it was Elizabeth’s personal vision, just as the first incarnation under Henry had been his personal vision. So I think yes, maybe the Church of England might have ended up more a lot more like the Church of Scotland with a lot more influence of Calvinism, more ideas of that kind that were coming out of Switzerland. And if she and Guildford had children, the weaving of the Dudleys into the royal line … it would have been an interesting phenomenon.

And if she might have been almost as fanatical in her Protestantism as Mary was in her Catholicism …

Yeah, and there’s no straightforwardness to that going down with the people of England at that point any more easily than Mary’s return to Rome did.

Photo: Kristin Contino

This is something I’m curious about personally, but in the Forgotten Queen documentary you get to see – and touch – the prayer book Jane took with her to the scaffold. Was this actually the original, because they didn’t make you wear gloves?

Yes, absolutely. If I can put this message out loud and clear I would love to do this. Gloves aren’t recommended for touching paper and parchment. In fact, I’m very glad that most institutions are now allowing us to handle documents, manuscripts and so on on-screen without gloves because it’s been best practice for a very long time. But some institutions were asking us to wear gloves on-screen simply because they got so many complaints! We were trying to point out that this is a circular problem because if we keep wearing gloves on-screen, no one will know that you shouldn’t be.

Gloves are very important when you’re handling things like metal and photographs because then the contact with the skin can actually degrade those materials but for paper and parchment, the risk is much greater wearing gloves because you’re much clumsier. And actually the parchment is itself skin, it’s animal skin, so very careful handling with clean, dry hands is not going to do it any harm at all. So that is sort of best practice and we would only ever, of course, handle these extraordinary documents in the way that the archivist we’re working with is happy with. Which is what made it so peculiar to be asked sometimes to wear gloves when we and they knew it wasn’t the right thing. But it was an extraordinary thing to be able to see that book.

Her writing at the bottom, that was really amazing. So other than that, did you have a favourite document you saw or what was the biggest moment for you in that documentary?

There were several. Edward’s device for the succession was an amazing single leaf of paper in his own handwriting, all the corrections on it. Although I have actually seen it before for a different documentary. So the ones specifically for this documentary that was my first time seeing them, one was Edward’s diary. He kept a diary. And not a “this is what I was thinking and did today” diary but a record day by day and week by week of what was happening in his reign and in his sort of public life. And I’d never seen that in the flesh before. That was remarkable.

And then the other thing I found really really moving – I’m going to show some slides about it tonight, in fact – was the proclamation of Jane’s reign beginning that the heralds read out on the streets of London. It covers three pages, and it’s printed and it’s a really fascinating document in many ways, but also the copy I was seeing at the Society of Antiquaries had been so beautifully preserved it could have been printed that very morning. The type was so crisp, the paper was so bright, it put you in contact with that moment so immediately. But of course, the Prayer Book is the thing beyond everything because Jane was holding it on the scaffold until the moment before her death. That really is spine-tingling.

What do you consider Jane’s legacy to be?

Well, that’s an interesting question because, on one hand, her myth feeds into the … there are a series of young women who died tragic deaths and she’s definitely one of that group, there’s her, there’s Catherine Howard … there’s sort of a trope. Other than that, because she died so young, in a way she didn’t get the chance to leave the legacy she wanted, which was, I think, to play a part in the establishment of what she saw as the godly faith, the Protestant faith in England. But I think a huge part of her legacy is to be part of this extraordinary moment where it becomes clear that women can inherit the throne in England, which wasn’t a given. And France had gone the other way in the early 14th century when only female heirs were left, they had decided to avoid for various immediate political reasons, they were going to avoid having female heirs altogether, including having the throne descend through female heirs. So there’s no inevitability about the fact that we end up with, in the history of England and then Great Britain, with these great queens. Elizabeth I, and then Victoria, and now Elizabeth II. That could easily not have happened. So Jane was in the mix. It wasn’t her, it was Mary in the end, but she was part of that really important moment.

And my last question: Do you consider Jane as one of England’s queens, even if she never had an official coronation?

By the 16th century, coronation wasn’t the deciding factor about whether you should be considered a monarch. Back in the 12th and most of the 13th century, it was you were not a monarch until you were crowned. But that changed in the 1270s with the accession of Edward I. He was away on crusade when he inherited the throne and his reign was counted from the moment his father died, even though he didn’t get back to England for two years after that. And so we have other monarchs like Edward V, the elder of the princes in the tower who was never crowned but was accepted as one of the monarchs of England. But I think the difference with Jane, and also actually Matilda back in the 12th century, another possible claimant to the title of queen, is that neither of them were ever accepted as monarch by the whole political community or by the whole realm. Both of them claimed the title of queen but didn’t manage to make it stick.

So, I personally wouldn’t include either of them, Matilda or Jane. I think they’re fascinating people to look at and I think their claims are fascinating but they didn’t quite make it for me. But she was the first woman to be proclaimed queen of England, so I can see that there’s an argument to be made on the other side. I think personally, I fall on the other side of the line.

The Royal Oak Foundation runs a series of programmes and lectures on British history and culture across the United States each year. In addition, United States citizens can get free entry to National Trust properties by becoming a Royal Oak member. For more information, visit

About author

Kristin is Chief Reporter for Royal Central and has been following the British royal family for more than 30 years. Kristin has appeared in UK and U.S. media outlets discussing the British royals including BBC Breakfast, BBC World News, Sky News, the Associated Press, TIME, The Washington Post, and many others.