Debunking the Myth of Lady Jane Grey

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Lady Jane Grey is mythologised, even festishised, as an innocent girl sacrificed on the altar of her mother's ambition. But behind the popular biographies of the Tudor Queen lies a different story of misogyny and masochism. It seems the much-maligned mother is in fact the victim.

The traditional story runs like this: Lady Jane Grey was born in 1537, the daughter of Henry VIII's royal niece, Frances, and her husband, Harry Grey, Marques of Dorset. The stout, bejewelled woman in a double portrait by Hans Eworth is still used to illustrate Frances's nature. "Physically she bore a marked resemblance to Henry VIII," notes Alison Weir, a best-selling historian, in her book "The Children of Henry VIII". Here was a woman, "determined to have her own way, and greedy for power and riches," who "ruled her husband and daughters tyrannically and, in the case of the latter, often cruelly."

The myth is encapsulated in Paul Delaroche's 1833 portrait of Jane, bound and dressed in white on the scaffold, a painting with all the erotic overtones of a virgin sacrifice.

So how did the myths begin? The answer is with Jane. Aware of the damage being done to the Protestant cause by its association with treason, she announced on the scaffold that while she was guilty in law of treason, having been proclaimed queen, she had never sought the throne but merely accepted it. From this kernel of truth wider claims about Jane's innocence took root. In the 17th and 18th century her story was influenced by the feminine passivity deemed appropriate in a young girl. A sexual dimension is evident in Edward Young's 1714 poem, "The Force of Religion", which invites men to gaze on a pure Jane in her "private closet". In the following decade the portrait of Lady Dacre was mislabelled as Frances.

The effigy of the slim and elegant woman on Frances's tomb in Westminster Abbey has since been ignored in favour of spurious comparisons to Henry VIII. She was far more useful as a sexist archetype, the powerful, sexual, ambitious and mannish mother, to be pitted against Jane, her helpless, chaste and feminine daughter. Although Mary Tudor inspired John Knox's diatribe against "the monstrous regiment of women", she was a less useful counterpoint to Jane as she was seen as being led by male figures–her foreign husband, priests and so forth. The re-invented Frances, by contrast, "ruled her husband".

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