The Maligned Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk

On November 21, 1559, Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, died, age 42. (Strype gives the date as November 20.) An account of her death and her burial can be found here.

When I was doing my blog tour for Her Highness, the Traitor, I did a guest post for Claire Ridgway over at the Anne Boleyn Files about Frances’s historical reputation and the great extent to which it is undeserved. Claire has kindly allowed me to repost it here in honor of Frances’s death anniversary:

Few Tudor women—with the exception of Anne Boleyn—have become as enshrouded with myth as Frances Grey (née Brandon), Marchioness of Dorset and later Duchess of Suffolk, the mother of Lady Jane Grey. Stories abound of her greed, ruthlessness, gluttony, unbridled ambition, and cruelty.

As I found when reading Leanda de Lisle’s excellent biography of the Grey sisters and when conducting my own research for Her Highness, the Traitor, the real Frances Grey bears no resemblance to the lurid tales about her. Only in our own time has she become a controversial and loathed figure.

Frances Grey was the daughter of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and Henry VIII’s sister Mary, known as the French queen because of her brief marriage to Louis XII. Frances was born at Hatfield on July 16, 1517. In the spring of 1533, Frances married Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset. Born on January 17, 1517, Henry was just a few months older than his new bride. With the death of Frances’s young half-brothers in 1551, Henry Grey was created Duke of Suffolk.

Probably in the spring of 1537, Frances gave birth to a girl, Jane, named after Henry VIII’s latest queen, Jane Seymour. Jane was the nineteen-year-old Frances’s third child: a son and a previous daughter died young.

It is with Jane’s birth that writers of popular nonfiction begin to wreak havoc with Frances’s reputation. Hester Chapman writes that the “Dorsets were disappointed at not having a son” when Jane was born, and goes on to state that Frances Grey “could not forgive” her daughters for their sex. Alison Weir writes that Henry Grey “regarded [Jane] as a poor substitute for the son who had died young before her birth.” In her truly execrable biography of Jane Grey, Mary Luke devotes two entire paragraphs to Frances’s longing to bear her husband a male child, ending with her “sobbing heartbreakingly” when she discovers she has borne a girl. Mary Lovell in her biography Bess of Hardwick writes that after the death of the Greys’ son, Frances gave birth to her daughters, “to whom their parents made it abundantly clear that they were a major disappointment.” None of these writers cite a source for their claim, for the very good reason that there is none. Frances and her husband might well have hoped for a son—parents of their class generally did—but there’s simply no evidence that they did not greet the birth of a daughter with happiness, particularly when the infant thrived instead of following her siblings to the grave. As Eric Ives points out, Henry and Frances Grey were not in the public eye when their most famous daughter was born, and neither her date of birth nor her place of birth has been recorded, much less her parents’ reactions to her arrival in the world.

Henry VIII died in 1547. Shortly afterward, the Greys performed the first act for which history has damned them—agreeing to Thomas Seymour’s request that they put Jane Grey in his wardship, in the hopes that Thomas would broker a match between Jane and the young king, Edward VI. This has been taken as proof of the Greys’ insatiable ambition, but what noble parent, given the opportunity to match their daughter with a king, would have passed up the chance? Like any other girl of her class, Jane would have been brought up with the expectation that she would marry for the good of her family. This was a two-way street: Jane would have also expected that her parents do their best for her future by marrying her to a high-status groom. Whether Jane was aware of these plans for her is unknown, but there is no reason to assume that the possibility of marriage to the king, her first cousin, would have displeased her.

It was in August 1550, however,  that Frances made the biggest mistake of her life, at least in terms of her historical reputation. She went hunting with the rest of the household, and left her daughter Jane behind to greet a visitor, Roger Ascham. It was then that Jane made her famous complaint about her parents, recalled by Ascham years later, after Jane and her parents were all dead:

“For when I am in presence either of father or mother; whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand, or go, eat, drink, be merry, or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing any thing else; I must do it, as it were, in such weight, measure, and number, even so perfectly, as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips, and bobs, and other ways (which I will not name for the honour I bear them) so without measure misordered, that I think myself in hell, till time come that I must go to Mr Elmer; who teacheth me so gently, so pleasantly, with such fair allurements to learning, that I think all the time nothing whiles I am with him. And when I am called from him, I fall on weeping, because whatsoever I do else but learning, is full of grief, trouble, fear, and whole misliking unto me. And thus my book hath been so much my pleasure, and bringeth daily to me more pleasure and more, that in respect of it, all other pleasures, in very deed, be but trifles and troubles unto me.”

The impact of Ascham’s recollection on Frances’s reputation simply cannot be understated. Historians and novelists alike have used it to construct an image of Jane’s entire childhood as more Dickensian than anything that Dickens himself could have imagined, brightened only by Jane’s brief stay at Katherine Parr’s household. Any possibility that the adolescent Jane, like other intelligent adolescents, might have been exaggerating her complaints, that she might have spoken less harshly of her parents with time and maturity, or that her parents might have had genuine cause (by contemporary standards) for disciplining her has been ignored by all but a handful of writers.

Not content to extrapolate from Jane’s complaints, writers—even those professing to write nonfiction—have invented instances of Frances’s cruelty that simply have no historical basis. Mary Luke’s supposed biography of Jane treats us to vignettes of Frances shaking her infants. (Jane, adding an extraordinary memory to her other gifts, is even depicted by Luke as recalling the shakings.) Mary Lovell in her biography of Bess of Hardwick (a friend of Frances) tells us of Frances’s cruelty to her lower servants, despite the fact that none are on record of complaining about her. (Indeed, the only servant of Frances of which we know anything, Adrian Stokes, became her second husband.)

Frances’s one recorded absence on a hunting trip has given rise to its own series of legends. Although no one actually knows whether Frances enjoyed hunting or whether she went on hunting trips merely out of a sense of social obligation, this has not stopped authors like Hester Chapman from droning on about “her tireless enjoyment of open-air sports and indoor games,” or Alison Weir from assuring us that Frances was “never happier than when she was on horseback,” or Mary Luke from writing, “At Bradgate she could slaughter and maim to her heart’s content.” Luke also mentions the Greys’ dining “in the hall hung with the heads of Lady Frances’ unfortunate victims.” One can only hope that Luke was referring to deer.*

Even Jane’s fine education, so amply on display when Ascham visited, has been used against Frances and her husband. While other Tudor parents who gave their daughters classical educations are praised for their enlightened notions regarding women, the Greys’ education of Jane is treated as part of a long-term scheme to put their daughter upon the throne or, by more generous writers, as the Greys’ way of compensating for not having a living son. Some writers even depict the Greys as resenting Jane’s intellectual activities. Henry Grey’s patronage of scholars and his reputation as a man who was proud of his own learning are blithely ignored by these writers, as is the fact that had the Greys disapproved of their daughter’s fondness for learning, all they had to do was dismiss her tutors and take away her books. Instead, they allowed her to correspond internationally and to receive visits from scholars—even to skip the famous hunting trip of 1550.

Those who accuse Frances of being a cruel mother, of course, can also point to the fateful spring and summer of 1553, when Jane married Guildford Dudley and when the dying Edward VI made Jane his heir. Scholars have argued endlessly over whether the marriage was simply a standard aristocratic marriage or whether more sinister purposes were involved, and whether it was Edward VI himself or the Duke of Northumberland who originated the plan to put Jane on the throne, but no contemporary source suggests that Frances, whose claim to the throne was better than her own daughter’s, influenced these events. Jane Grey herself, writing in the Tower after Mary I had reclaimed the throne, put no blame on her own parents. Although some Italian sources maintain that Jane’s parents beat her in order to force her to marry Guildford, English sources tell no such lurid tale, and Jane never claimed that she had been physically forced to marry Guildford, although it certainly would have served her interests with Mary to be able to say so.

Following Mary I’s bloodless victory over Jane’s forces, Jane was imprisoned, as was her father. Frances traveled to Mary’s lodging and persuaded the new queen to free Henry Grey. It has been supposed that Frances made no attempt to beg for Jane’s freedom, but it may simply be that Frances asked but was refused. Likewise, Frances is not recorded as visiting Jane in prison, but her counterpart the Duchess of Northumberland, who is well known to have been working actively to get her sons released, is not recorded as paying such visits either. Frances seems to have been on good terms with Mary, her first cousin and her godmother, and perhaps she was working quietly behind the scenes in hopes of persuading Mary to free Jane. We can only speculate.

Any chance that Mary would spare Jane’s life, however, evaporated when Henry Grey joined Wyatt’s rebellion, after which Mary believed it necessary to execute Jane and Guildford for her continued security. (The notion that Mary executed Jane simply to guarantee that Philip of Spain would marry her is not borne out by the diplomatic correspondence.) Frances was not implicated in the rebellion. Again, there is no record of Frances pleading for Jane’s life, but there is no particular reason to believe that she didn’t. The fact that no farewell letter from Jane to Frances survives has been taken as proof that Jane disliked Frances so much that she chose not to write to her, but Michelangelo Florio, Jane’s Italian tutor, stated that Jane did in fact write to Frances. The letter may have been lost, or Frances may have chosen to destroy it.

Jane was executed on February 12, 1554, and Frances’s husband Henry Grey was executed on February 23, 1554. According to Frances’s postmortem inquisition, she married Adrian Stokes, variously identified as her master of horse, her steward, or her equerry, on March 9, 1554. Frances’s hasty marriage so soon after the executions of her husband and her daughter has been taken as proof of her heartless nature, but at least one near contemporary, Elizabeth I’s early biographer William Camden, believed that Frances made the match “to her dishonor, but yet for her security.” Marrying a commoner distanced Frances and her surviving children from the crown, ensuring that Mary would not see them as a threat.

Which brings us to The Picture. For centuries, the portrait shown here, of a stout, middle-aged woman and a much younger man, was identified as a portrait of Frances Brandon and Adrian Stokes. In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens commented on Mrs. Wilfer’s “remarkable powers as a physiognomist; powers that terrified [her husband] when ever let loose, as being always fraught with gloom and evil which no inferior prescience was aware of.” Where Frances is concerned, popular historians have outdone Mrs. Wilfer. Hester Chapman, for instance, waxes eloquent: “In the picture of her and her second husband, painted shortly before her death, the small, piercing grey eyes have sunk, the reddened swollen cheeks hang in stiff folds, and the expression is one of greedy complacency. It is the face of a woman not so much coldly indifferent to the feelings of others as actively cruel.” The problem for Chapman, and others who have followed her lead, is that their efforts were sorely misdirected: the portrait in question was properly identified a number of years ago. It is not one of Frances and Adrian at all, but one of Lady Mary Neville and her son, Gregory Fiennes. The only depiction of Frances which can be identified with certainty, in fact, is the handsome effigy on her tomb, which, no doubt to the disappointment of her modern-day detractors, does not provide any opportunity for the Mrs. Wilfers of the world to wax sinister.

Frances is in a strange position, for unlike Anne Boleyn, Frances was not a controversial figure in her day. None of Frances’s contemporaries are known to have disliked her; when Sir Richard Morison groused about “Lady Suffolk’s heats” in May 1551, he was referring to Frances’s stepmother, the sharp-tongued and quick-tempered Katherine Brandon, and not to Frances, who did not hold the Suffolk title until later that year. No contemporary is on record as regarding Frances as an unusually harsh mother; even Roger Ascham, having repeated Jane’s remarks, did not see fit to criticize Jane’s parents, but moved on to his real subject— “why learning should be taught rather by love than fear.” Indeed, soon after Jane’s death, Frances was entrusted with the care of her husband’s niece, Margaret Willoughby, whose friends commented approvingly on Frances’s success in introducing the young girl at court. Even Mary Lovell is forced to acknowledge Bess of Hardwick’s apparent affection for Frances.

So what happened? What made Frances Grey one of the most intensely hated figures from Tudor history? One explanation is offered by Leanda de Lisle, who noted that as Jane’s reputation as a helpless, meek victim developed over the centuries, Frances’s reputation devolved in parallel fashion: “From the early eighteenth century, Frances became the archetype of female wickedness.”

But there is another reason, I think, why Frances has become such a loathed figure, at least among women – and that is Jane herself. Jane, the girl who preferred reading a book to hunting with the family, is the thinking girl’s heroine. She is the sort of girl who hated gym class, who hated going to family gatherings and having to make small talk with her dreary relations, who spent her lunch hour hiding out in the library. She is the sort of a girl who grows into a reader and, often, into a writer. When female readers and authors come across Jane’s complaint to Roger Ascham, they do not picture just Jane, but themselves.

In that situation, poor Frances doesn’t stand a chance.

*Apropos of Frances’s hunting, I can’t find it on Google now, but one book aimed at the academic market suggested in dead seriousness that if Frances were alive today, she would be a member of the National Rifle Association.  The looniest reference to Frances’s supposed mania for outdoor pursuits I have ever come across, however, is a book, again nonfiction, which claimed that Frances was so fond of riding, she dressed Jane in jockey silks.

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10 Responses to The Maligned Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk

  1. I think that’s a very good point about 18th/19th century/modern authors hating Frances because of a subconcious identification with Jane. It wouldn’t surprise me if this, like the “bluestocking”, was basically a “Victorian” phenomenon, living on as so many other things of the 19th century.

  2. Esther says:

    According to this, Frances was also demonized as a powerful woman (Mary being portrayed as ruled by her husband):
    http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/leanda-de-lisle/lady-jane-grey

    Also, wasn’t Jane’s character changed a great deal in the Victorian era, making her look more helpless and innocent and ignoring such strong expressions as “imp of the devil” (used in a letter to someone who converted to Catholicism)?

  3. Sonetka says:

    Wonderful post, and you’re right about identification, I think. (Also, you have to love the lazy thinking which equates “membership in the NRA” with “relentless villainy”). If the heroine’s character needs a little extra burnishing, the easiest way to do it is to throw everyone around her into the shade, and what better way to make Jane look helpless and innocent than to surround her with uncongenial family?

  4. Joan Byford says:

    This is excellent research on Frances Grey. I suppose I have been guilty in the past of believing everything I have read in both novels and non-fiction (especially with regard to the charges brought against Anne Boleyn). Not so now!

  5. Anerje says:

    Victorian ‘historians’ have done so much damage.

  6. Jane Steen says:

    Perhaps a villainous Frances just made a better story? History doesn’t seem to like nuanced accounts of the famous or infamous.

  7. Trish Wilson says:

    Poor Frances. Is no one safe any more.

    Anerje I’ll give you the historians but damage was being done long before the Victorians and since. Historical? More like hysterical.

  8. Elle says:

    I finished your book “Her Highness, the Traitor” last night and found myself quite enthralled. At first, I felt you bent over backwards to humanize Frances, she seemed to be a near perfect mother, and Jane came across as a bit of a priggish intellectual snob, but then I saw your evidence and felt you were giving a more honest view. History has not been kind to Frances, because it has been so kind to Jane. Growing up, I truly identified with a young queen in the movie, who dies young, beautiful, helpless and becomes a patron saint of young intellectuals, and if only her parents had not been such horrors, she’d have been happy. The truth in some ways is even sadder. Jane was a precocious child who never got to mature, who was loved and loved in return.

    Kudos on a great book!

  9. Kathleen Hestand says:

    All your books are stunning examples of how great historical fiction is, and should be, written. It’s OK to have a perspective as long as you can justify it with solid evidence. So many authors now ignore reams of evidence and focus only on the facts that fit their story. It is truly unfortunate, especially since so many people are learning their history from the HBO series The Tudors and novels like The Other Boleyn Girl and its companions. I am glad Frances got a re-evaluation in this novel. Jane too. I don’t happen to think she was at all pleasant or easy to deal with, but she was only a teenager and her destiny was tragic.

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