When reading the lists of the Kings and Queens of England, Scotland, Great Britain or the United Kingdom, there can be discrepancies regarding the reign of Lady Jane Grey; some will list her as a legitimate Queen of England and some will not.
The question I am examining is whether or not Lady Jane Grey can be considered a legitimate Queen of England and Ireland or should she be considered a usurper? The issue at hand is there is no authoritative body to judge either the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Jane’s 9 day reign. Therefore it is open to interpretation and historians have been debating this for many, many years.
I am just another voice in this chorus of historians debating this issue. I will state my case in this post to why I don’t believe that Jane Grey was the legal successor to King Edward VI.
Lady Jane Grey
My basic foundational premise is that England was and is a Kingdom ruled by laws and it is upon the interpretation of the laws and statutes in effect at the time of Edward VI’s death which forms my opinion on the legitimacy of Janes position as Queen.
When Edward VI died on July 6, 1553 at the age of 15 the Third Act of Succession was still the law of the land, and so was the 1547 Act of Treason. This means that both Mary and Elizabeth were still the legal heirs to their brother Edward.
The motive for Edward VI’s attempt at altering the succession was that the king’s death and the succession of his Catholic half-sister Mary would jeopardise the English Reformation, and Edward’s Council and officers had many reasons to fear it. Edward himself opposed Mary’s succession, not only on religious grounds but also on those of legitimacy and male inheritance, which also applied to his sister Elizabeth. Edward VI composed a draft document, headed “My devise for the succession”, in which he undertook to change the succession, most probably inspired by his father Henry VIII’s precedent. The provisions to alter the succession directly contravened Henry VIII’s Third Succession Act of 1543 and have been described as bizarre and illogical.
In early June of 1553 Edward VI personally supervised the drafting of a clean version of his devise (his Will altering the succession) by lawyers, to which he lent his signature “in six several places.” Then, on June 15, he summoned high ranking judges to his sickbed, commanding them on their allegiance “with sharp words and angry countenance” to prepare his devise as Letters Patent and announced that he would have these passed in Parliament.
However, before his Letters Patent could be passed by Parliament and receive the Royal assent, Edward died. Edward’s failure to have his Letters Patent passed by an Act of Parliament meant that The Treason Act, which made it high treason to change the line of succession to the throne, and the Third Act of Succession, we’re still the law of the land. Of course as king, Edward VI could have had both the Third Act of Succession and the Treason Act replaced with new laws, but since he died prior to accomplishing that requirement that means his sister Mary was the legal Queen per the terms of the Third Succession Act.
Let me restate what these two acts were. The Third Succession Act of King Henry VIII’s reign, passed by the Parliament of England in July 1543, returned his daughters Mary and Elizabeth to the line of the succession behind their half-brother Edward.
Edward VI, of England and Ireland
The Act was formally titled the Succession to the Crown Act 35 Hen. 8 c.1, and is also known as the Act of Succession 1543. The royal assent was given to this bill in the spring of 1544 at the conclusion of the 1543/1544 Parliament, but until 1793 acts were usually backdated to the beginning of the session of Parliament in which they were passed. (The Act is also often dated 1544.)
The Treason Act 1547 made it high treason to interrupt the line of succession to the throne established by the Act of Succession. Edward VI meant to bypass this Act in his “Devise for the Succession”, issued as Letters Patent on June 21, 1553, in which he named Lady Jane Grey as his successor. Prevailing over Lady Jane Grey, Mary ascended the throne under the terms of the Third Succession Act.
There is an interesting issue that the Third Act of Succession and the Treason Act 1547 did restore Mary and Elizabeth’s succession right but they did not restore their legitimacy.
The Third Succession Act superseded the First Succession Act (1533) and the Second Succession Act (1536), whose effects had been to declare bastards Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and to remove them from succession to the throne. This new act returned both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession behind Edward, any potential children of Edward, and any potential children of Henry by his then wife, Catherine Parr, or any future wife Henry might have.
Mary I, Queen of England and Ireland
With the 1536 Act, Mary and Elizabeth, who had both been declared illegitimate and incapable to inherit, expressly remained illegitimate in the 1543/44 Act; they were only capacitated to succeed to the Crown (with several provisos, such as they could not marry without the Privy Council’s approval). This meant that the place in the succession of Mary and Elizabeth remained doubtful. Henry’s actual will (1547) simply confirmed their position as outlined in the 1543/44 statute.
Therefore Mary and Elizabeth’s right to accede to the throne is accepted by most as fact, but actually, this could be disputed. Under English law at this time, only legitimate children could inherit the throne. Mary had been declared illegitimate by her father Henry VIII after he proclaimed his marriage to Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon, invalid. Likewise, Elizabeth Tudor, half-sister to Edward and Mary, had also been declared illegitimate after Henry VIII declared that his marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn, had also been invalid.
However, this all seems like a moot point in 1553. For after Mary entered London and Jane was arrested, Parliament declared Mary the rightful successor and denounced and revoked Jane’s proclamation as Queen of England and labeled her position as that of a usurper. In my view this Act of Parliament along with the fact that Edward never legalized his Letters Patent through an Act of Parliament is enough reason to view Jane as not the legitimate successor to Edward VI but as a usurper…albeit a puppet or pawn of those using her.
Also the question of Mary’s legitimacy is another moot point as evidenced by her Spanish marriage.
At age 37, Mary turned her attention to finding a husband and producing an heir, which would prevent the Protestant Elizabeth (still next-in-line under the terms of Henry VIII’s will and the Act of Succession of 1544) from succeeding to the throne. Edward Courtenay and Reginald Pole were both mentioned as prospective suitors, but her cousin, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V suggested she marry his only son, Prince Felipe of Spain.
Felipe II, King of Spain
Lord Chancellor Gardiner and the House of Commons unsuccessfully petitioned her to consider marrying an Englishman, fearing that England would be relegated to a dependency of the Habsburgs. The marriage was unpopular with the English; Gardiner and his allies opposed it on the basis of patriotism, while Protestants were motivated by a fear of Catholicism. When Mary insisted on marrying Felipe, insurrections broke out. Thomas Wyatt the younger led a force from Kent to depose Mary in favour of Elizabeth, as part of a wider conspiracy now known as Wyatt’s rebellion, which also involved the Duke of Suffolk, the father of Lady Jane. This rebellion sealed the fate of Lady Jane and her husband.
Mary declared publicly that she would summon Parliament to discuss the marriage, and if Parliament decided that the marriage was not to the advantage of the kingdom, she would refrain from pursuing it. After The Act for the Marriage of Queen Mary to Felipe of Spain or Queen Mary’s Marriage Act (1 Mar. Sess. 3 c. 2) was passed by the Parliament of England in April 1554, their wedding at Winchester Cathedral on July 25, 1554 took place just two days after their first meeting. Felipe could not speak English, and so they spoke in a mixture of Spanish, French, and Latin.
My point in stating the history of her marriage suggests that the Spanish Government, along with Emperor Charles V and Felipe of Spain, did not view her as illegitimate. Indeed, being a strongly Catholic country all involved would not have sanctioned such a union if Mary carried the taint of illegitimacy. Further, now enthroned as Queen this did place the Catholic Church back in power in England and according to the Church Mary was legitimate as the legal offspring of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and never recognized their divorce and Mary being a bastard.
Jane Grey is seen as a tragic figure and she certainly was. “The traitor-heroine of the Reformation”, as historian Albert Pollard called her, was only 16 or 17 years old at the time of her execution. During and in the aftermath of the Marian persecutions, Jane became viewed as a Protestant martyr for centuries, featuring prominently in the several editions of the Book of Martyrs (Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Dayes) by John Foxe.
Incidentally, There is no proven contemporary portrait of Lady Jane Grey that survives.