8 June 2005 | theowinthrop
An Unforgotten, Tragic Footnote
The tragedy of the week and a half reign of "Queen" Jane Grey Tudor is one of the bizarre briefly successful coups that collapsed. Lady Jane Grey was a blood cousin of King Edward VI, and his two half sisters, Princess Mary and Princess Elizabeth. Edward VI is recalled today, if at all, for the novel by Mark Twain called THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, as the son of Henry VIII who trades places with the poor street boy Tom Canty. That was a piece of creative fiction, but it shows how relatively unimportant Edward VI really was because he died after a six year reign (1547 - 1553) in which he was never an adult but under a series of grown-up advisers called protectors. The first one was his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Somerset's attempt to carry out the religious policies of his late brother-in-law King Henry VIII came apart due to the opposition of other powerful nobles, and the antics of his ambitious and stupid brother Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour. Thomas Seymour had married King Henry's last queen, Catherine Parr, and when she died, he attempted to carry off and marry the Princess Elizabeth. He was arrested and executed for treason (this is the story in the Steward Granger film YOUNG BESS). It seriously compromised Edward Seymour, who was overthrown, tried for treason, and executed as well. The man who gained by all this was Edward Dudley, Duke of Warwick (Cedric Hardwicke in the film TUDOR ROSE), who was made Duke of Northumberland by King Edward VI, and was Lord Protector when Edward was dying.
Northumberland was too ambitious, as Thomas Seymour had been. Seymour hoped, by marrying Princess Elizabeth, to have her replace King Edward when he died, and he would be the real power behind Elizabeth's throne. As it was, Seymour actions were to bring Elizabeth under a cloud of unjust suspicion for awhile (there is no evidence that she had agreed to this harebrained scheme). But Northumberland considered the situation similarly to Tom Seymour. He did not want to see Princess Mary, the oldest of the two half sisters (and a Catholic) succeed Edward. But he thought Elizabeth (already showing her brains and independence) unmanageable. Instead, he turned to their cousin Lady Jane Grey. Northumberland figured that Lady Jane would be a perfect match for his son Guilford.
So Northumberland plotted two steps. First, he arranged Lady Jane and Guildford be married. Then he arranged that the dying Edward be pressured into altering the line of succession, disinheriting both his half-sisters, and putting his cousin on the throne. It was not too difficult to manipulate the poor dying boy, but Northumberland failed to realize that unless he could fully count on a sizable number of nobles accepting this weird dynastic switch it would be doomed.
That was the failure of the scheme. Although Edward's death was followed by the announcement of the reign of Queen Jane, the public did not buy it. Lady Jane was known from being a court personage, but she was a non-entity for all that. Both Mary and Elizabeth were far better known, moreover they were the children of King Henry VIII (not of one of his sisters). As for the nobles, they had not liked Tom Seymour's scheme with Elizabeth, so why should they like Northumberland's scheme with Jane and Guildford? The Protestant nobles and government officials, like William Cecil, favored the Protestant Elizabeth. The Catholic nobles and even some Protestant clergy (like Stephen Gardiner) favored Mary. All Northumberland's stupid plan did was to unite the two rival Princesses factions in a determination to remove a usurper.
It's amazing she lasted nine days. One can only conclude that due to communication problems in 1553, and a general sense of amazement at the speed of this coup, nobody acted quickly at first. But once they got over it the two factions united and poor Lady Jane was removed to the Tower of London. Interestingly enough she had barely known young Guilford, but now they got to know each other - and found they actually liked, even loved each other. One of the supreme tragedies of this story is that Jane Grey and Guilford Dudley might, had they been left alone by Northumberland, have found happiness together as a married couple at the court. Instead, within a year, Northumberland, Guilford, and finally Jane all were beheaded.
The film is a short one (the film made in the 1990s with Helen Bonham Carter is longer and more detailed), but it gets the main points of the tragedy. Ms Pilbeam was a sweet, charming young lady, and gave a memorable performance. So did a youngish John Mills, really just getting his great career underway. As Northumberland Cedric Hardwicke is properly unscrupulous, and (in one fictional scene) shows his real character to the dying Edward VI by treating that monarch, when alone, with the contempt of a grown man for a sickly youth. Felix Aylmer (as Somerset) has one moment, when he realizes how his idiot brother's actions with Elizabeth have compromised and destroyed them both.
One final irony. After she finally ascended the throne in 1558, Elizabeth noticed a young man in court named Robin or Robert Dudley. He was the younger brother of Guilford, and he was married to a young woman named Amy Robsart. Elizabeth and Robert became very close - how close is still a question historians debate. They usually conclude that under normal circumstances Elizabeth would have married Robert. However, Amy Robsart died in 1560 under peculiar circumstances (she fell down a staircase when alone in the Dudley mansion at Kenelworth). Robert was now free to marry. Elizabeth rejected his availability. She kept him close to her at court as an important adviser, but never went beyond that. She couldn't trust him, not only because of what happened to poor Amy, but because of his family's involvement with poor Jane.