Firmly enshrined in the pages of popular nonfiction about Lady Jane Grey is the notion that her parents resented her and her sisters because they were not sons. 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, Mary Luke devotes a whole two 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.
It is true, of course, that Henry and Frances Grey had lost two children, one a boy, in infancy before Jane’s birth. Frances had married Henry Grey in the spring of 1533 and gave birth to Jane sometime in 1537, probably in the spring. Thus, by the time Jane was conceived, Frances had already lost two children in a fairly short period of time, which could hardly have been encouraging as Frances waited to see whether her next baby would also be short-lived. She 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 survived instead of following her siblings to the grave. As Eric Ives points out, Henry and Frances Grey, the young Marquis and Marchioness of Dorset, were not in the public eye when their most famous daughter was born, and neither her date nor her place of birth has been recorded, much less her parents’ reactions to her arrival in the world.
An extension of the story that the Greys were hugely disappointed in their daughters’ sex is that having resigned themselves to their lack of sons, they began scheming to use their daughters as pawns from their infancy on. Lovell takes this story even further, writing that when the Greys’ son was born, “the delighted parents planned to achieve their ambitions of great power and riches through the marriage of this hapless baby to either Princess Mary or Princess Elizabeth.” Not only is this entirely fictitious, it’s nonsensical: assuming that the Greys’ son was born around 1534, Mary was eighteen, hardly a suitable bride for an infant, and was then being treated as illegitimate. Nor were Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn likely to countenance the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to an English cousin when a great match could be made abroad.
As for the Greys’ daughters, there was nothing shameful in their parents wanting to marry them well; it was what noble parents did with their daughters, and what daughters expected. Moreover, what is often overlooked is that for the first few years of their marriage, Henry and Frances Grey were still very much under the thumb of their own parents. The couple had married in the spring of 1533, when Frances, born in July 1517, was not quite sixteen; Henry Grey, born in January 1517, was just six months older than his bride.
When Henry’s widowed mother, Margaret Grey, Marchioness of Dorset (née Wotton), and Frances’s father, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, arranged the couple’s marriage, it was agreed that Suffolk would support the pair until Henry Grey came of age. A cash-strapped Suffolk tried to renege on this agreement, but Margaret would have none of it: she enlisted Thomas Cromwell in her fight and succeeded in forcing the duke to back down. Meanwhile, a letter from Margaret dated February 4, 1534, indicates that after his marriage Henry Grey had stayed at court, where Margaret asked Cromwell to rebuke him if he happened to see the seventeen-year-old “either any large playing, or great usual swearing, or any other demeanour unmeet for him to use, which I fear me shall be very often.” Frances, meanwhile, was staying “in the country; or else she and her train to be with me where I am.” Henry Grey was still apparently at court a year later, for on February 5, 1535, Margaret again wrote to Cromwell, thanking him “for the great goodness that my son marquis daily findeth in you, praying you so to continue to him, and that he from time to time may have your good counsel when you shall see need.”
Since Jane would have been conceived in 1536, and Frances had given birth to two children already by that time, Henry and Frances obviously spent some time together, though where they lived is unclear, for Henry’s mother was in possession of the family estates. Losing their first two children in infancy when the parents themselves were little more than youngsters surely must have tried the couple’s marriage, especially if the pair was frequently apart. To make matters worse, Henry’s relationship with his mother was strained, and Frances’s own mother had died in 1533, soon after Frances’s wedding.
In October 1537, the future Edward VI was born, and the Greys—Margaret, Henry, and Frances—were all eager to attend the christening, where Margaret had been expected to carry the young prince. Unfortunately, a servant reported to Henry VIII that there had been plague at Croydon, where Margaret was staying with her son-in-law Lord Matravers. The king wasted no time barring Margaret and her family from attending the christening of his long-hoped-for son, even though Henry Grey protested that he had not been with his mother, but at Stebbing (a Grey manor), and that Frances had been staying with Lady Derby. Sadly, the next royal event the couple would attend was Jane Seymour’s funeral.
As mentioned earlier, Henry Grey finally came of age in 1538 and received livery of his estates in July of that year, although he and his mother continued to quarrel about his inheritance until at least 1539, with the rancor typical of such disputes and with Cromwell as a probably reluctant middleman. Thus, it was not until July 1538—well after the birth of Lady Jane—that Henry and Frances were truly on their own. In 1537, then, far from plotting in Lord and Lady Macbeth–like fashion to put their daughter on the throne, the pair were perhaps more likely dreaming of the day when they would at last be the lord and lady of their own manor.
Mary Anne Everett Green, Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain
S. J. Gunn, Charles Brandon
Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery
Leanda de Lisle, The Sisters Who Would Be Queen
Barbara J. Harris, English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550