Monday, March 05, 2007

Lady Jane Grey Identified at Last

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche
Those people for whom the long history of the English monarchy exerts a fascination – and your correspondent is one such – will be all a-twitter today from reading in this morning’s Daily Telegraph that historian David Starkey is claiming to have finally identified a contemporary portrait of Lady Jane Grey, who reigned as de jure Queen of England and Ireland for nine days in the summer of 1553. Lady Jane is one of the great martyrs of the English Reformation, but no contemporary portrait of her was known until Dr Starkey’s discovery at the Yale Center for British Art. And even now Dr Starkey is hedging his bets, not willing to go higher than a 90% claim that the woman in the miniature is the misfortunate monarch.

Lady Jane’s tragic fate was another of the side effects of her great uncle, King Henry VIII’s, determined ambition to hose half of England, leading to quite a complication succession once the old goat finally kicked the bucket. Brendan Behan quotes an apposite - if nasty - quatrain in Borstal Boy:

Ná thrácht ar an mhinistéir Ghallda,
Nár ar a chreideimh gan bheann gan bhrí,
Mar níl mar bhun-chloch dá theampuill
Ach magairle Annraoi, Rí.

Henry VIII was succeeded by Edward VI, who died of tuberculosis at the age of fifteen after a six year reign. And this is where it got interesting, and how the misfortunate Lady Jane ended up losing her head.

Lady Jane Grey was not Lady Jane Grey when Edward VI died; she was Lady Jane Dudley, having married – or, more correctly, having been married to - Guildford Dudley in May of 1553. Dudley’s father, the Duke of Northumberland, was a Protestant and regent to Edward VI, and it was very much in Northumberland’s interest to shore up the succession before Mary Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII and therefore the first in line for succession, could ascend to the throne. Northumberland had made a nice big ball of money for himself during the Reformation as part of the taking over of the Catholic monasteries and he was damned if Mary, a Catholic, was going to make him give all the loot back to the papists. So he made a power play where Lady Jane Grey was named Heir Presumptive to Edward VI in Edward’s will. Edward died on July 6th, 1553, and four days later Northumberland proclaimed Lady Jane Queen Jane.

Her reign lasted nine days. The succession was not deemed to be something you can bequeath in a will, and Mary Tudor was eventually crowned Queen by right of primogeniture in October of 1553. Lady Jane was taken from the throne to the Tower of London. She pleaded guilty to a charge of high treason in November of 1553 and four months later was beheaded.

Three hundred years after Lady Jane’s execution Paul Delaroche painted his remarkable portrait of the Nine Days’ Queen’s final minutes, currently gracing the top of An Spailpín Fánach. Like all great artists, Delaroche didn’t let the facts get in the way of his vision – instead of the darked room populated with swooning maidens, Lady Jane’s was an open-air public execution. If it happened tomorrow, Lady Jane would probably have suffered the final indignity of having Davina McCall stick a microphone under her nose before the axe fell to ask her who was more regal, herself or Shilpa Shetty. The English Reformation was a bloody and murderous time, but at least Lady Jane was spared that barbarism.

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