In August 1550, Frances Grey, Marchioness of Dorset, made one of the worst mistakes of her life. She went hunting, leaving her daughter Jane at home to receive a visitor. The conversation that took place in her absence would damn her reputation for centuries.
The visitor was Roger Ascham, and the account he wrote of this encounter in his book The Schoolmaster, twenty years after it occurred, has become famous—and notorious:
Before I went into Germany, I came to Broadgate in Leicestershire, to take my leave of that noble lady Lady Jane Grey, to whom I was exceeding much beholding. Her parents, the duke and duchess, with all the household, gentlemen and gentlewomen, were hunting in the park. I found her in her chamber, reading Phaedo Platonis in Greek, and that with as much delight as some gentlemen would read a merry tale in Boccace. After salutation, and duty done, with some other talk, I asked her, why she would leese such pastime in the park? Smiling, she answered me; “I wist, all their sport in the park is but a shadow to that pleasure that I find in Plato. Alas! good folk, they never felt what true pleasure meant.” “And how came you, madam,” quoth I, “to this deep knowledge of pleasure and what did chiefly allure you unto it, seeing not many women, but very few men, have attained thereunto?” “I will tell you,” quoth she, “and tell you a truth, which perchance ye will marvel at. One of the greatest benefits that ever God gave me, is, that he sent me so sharp and severe parents, and so gentle a schoolmaster. 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.”
I remember this talk gladly, both because it is so worthy of memory, and because also it was the last talk that ever I had, and the last time that ever I saw that noble and worthy lady.
Ascham’s recollection, however, was not the first time he referred to his Bradgate visit. In a letter to John Sturm on December 14, 1550, in which he discussed various learned English ladies, he wrote, “This last summer . . . I turned out of my road to Leicester, where Jane Grey was living with her father. I was immediately admitted into her chamber, and found the noble damsel—Oh, ye gods!—reading Plato’s Phaedro in Greek, and so thoroughly understanding it that she caused me the greatest astonishment.” If anything disturbed Ascham about his encounter with Jane the previous summer, he did not see fit to mention it to Sturm at the time.
On January 18, 1551, Ascham wrote to Jane personally:
In this long travel of mine, I have passed over wide tracts of country, and seen the largest cities, I have studied the customs, institutes, laws, and religion of many men and diverse nations, with as much diligence as I was able: but in all this variety of subjects, nothing has caused in me so much wonder as my having fallen upon you last summer, a maiden of noble birth, and that too in the absence of your tutor, in the hall of your most noble family, and at a time when others, both men and women, give themselves up to hunting and pleasures, you, a divine maiden, reading carefully in Greek the Phaedo of the divine Plato; and happier in being so occupied than because you derive your birth, both on your father’s side, and on your mother’s, from kings and queens! Go on then, most accomplished maiden, to bring honour on your country, happiness on your parents, glory to yourself, credit to your tutor, congratulation to all your friends, and the greatest admiration to all strangers!
It is Ascham’s much later recollection of his visit with Jane—published long after Jane and her parents were dead—that has colored our view of Jane and her family ever since. Nonfiction and fiction alike have used this incident to create a lurid picture of a pathetic young girl, viciously abused at worst and emotionally deprived at best by her cruel parents.
There are a number of reasons for doubting this portrayal, however. First, Jane Grey was not waiting tables in order to pay for her high-powered education: it was provided by her parents. While Jane’s parents, Henry and Frances Grey (the Marquis and Marchioness of Dorset, known after October 1551 as the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk) may have been motivated in part by a desire to make their daughter as attractive a marriage partner as possible (and responsible parents, of course, did their best to ensure a good marriage for their children), it is also possible that they recognized their daughter’s intellectual gifts and wished to encourage them. And would the unfeeling, authoritarian parents of legend have allowed Jane to skip the hunting trip and enjoy her book in solitude in the first place?
Moreover, in allowing Jane to receive visits from men like Roger Ascham in the privacy of her chamber and to correspond with him and other scholars, the duke and duchess were hardly acting like people with something to hide, as one might expect from parents who were mistreating their daughter even by contemporary standards. While Jane’s parents might have seen the correspondence she sent and received, they weren’t present at their daughter’s famous meeting with Ascham, about which Ascham later spoke openly. Indeed, the fact that Jane complained so freely about her parents belies the fact that she was cowed by them.
Correspondence by those who knew Jane also fails to bear out the notion of Jane as a mistreated, abused child. If anything, the picture that emerges is of a father, at least, who took pride in his daughter’s intellectual accomplishments and shared her religious views. In July 1551, Jane wrote to thank the reformer Henry Bullinger in Zurich for “that little volume of pure and unsophisticated religion” which he had sent to her and her father; both were reading it, she added. Earlier, in May 1551, while Jane’s father was in Scotland, John ab Ulmis wrote to Bullinger that he had been visiting Jane and her mother at Bradgate, where he had been “passing these two days very agreeably with Jane, my lord’s daughter, and those excellent and holy persons Aylmer and Haddon [Jane’s tutor and the family chaplain].” Ulmis went on to gush, “For my own part, I do not think there ever lived any one more deserving of respect than this young lady, if you regard her family; more learned, if you consider her age; or more happy, if you consider both.” In a letter written that same day to a Conrad Pellican, a scholar of Hebrew, Ulmis urged Pellican not to be bashful about writing to a nobleman’s daughter. He dated his letter from “the house of the daughter of the marquis.” The previous year, in December 1550, Ulmis noted that Jane was translating a treatise “On marriage” from the Latin to the Greek as a New Year’s gift for her father, whom Holinshed described as “somewhat learned himself, and a great favourer of those that were learned.” Henry Grey himself wrote of Jane in December 1551 to Bullinger, somewhat pompously (but then, so is the rest of the letter), “I acknowledge yourself also to be much indebted to you on my daughter’s account, for having always exhorted her in your godly letters to a true faith in Christ, the study of the scriptures, purity of manners, and innocence of life.”
Even John Aylmer, the tutor that Ascham recalled Jane speaking of so fondly, believed that the adolescent Jane needed a firm hand. As he wrote in a letter to Bullinger in May 1551:
For what favour more useful to herself, or gratifying to the marquis, or acceptable to me, can possibly be afforded her, not only by you, but also by any other person of equal learning and piety, than that she, whom her father loves as a daughter, and whom I look upon with affection as a pupil, may derive such maxims of conduct from your godly breast, as may assist her towards living well and happily? And you are well able to determine, in your wisdom, how useful are the counsels of the aged to guide and direct young persons at her time of life, which is just fourteen. For at that age, as the comic poet tells us, all people are inclined to follow their own ways, and by the attractiveness of the objects, and the corruption of nature, are more easily carried headlong unto pleasure, which Plato calls the bait of mischief, than induced to follow those studies which are attended with the praise of virtue. In proportion therefore as the present age teems with many disorders, must more careful and discreet physicians be sought for; that the diligence, and labour, and exertion of excellent men may either remove or correct such evils as are implanted by the corruption of nature, and the infirmity of youth: for as we feed off the too luxuriant crops, and provide bridles for restive horses, so to these tender minds there should neither be wanting the counsel of the aged, nor the authority of men of grave and influential character. You have acted therefore with much kindness in administering to the improvement of this young lady; and if you will proceed in the same course, you will afford great benefit to herself, and gratification to her father.
In December of that year, Aylmer suggested that some words about clothing and music might be in order:
It now remains for me to request that, with the kindness we have so long experienced, you will instruct my pupil in your next letter as to what embellishment and adornment of person is becoming in young women professing godliness. In treating upon this subject, you may bring forward the example of our king’s sister, the princess Elizabeth, who goes clad in every respect as becomes a young maiden; and yet no one is induced by the example of so illustrious a lady, and in so much gospel light, to lay aside, much less look down upon, gold, jewels, and braidings of the hair. They hear preachers declaim against these things, but yet no one amends her life. Moreover, I wish you would prescribe to her the length of time she may properly devote to the study of music. For in this respect also people err beyond measure in this country, while their whole labour is undertaken, and exertions made, for the sake of ostentation. If you will handle these points at some length, there will probably, through your influence, be some accession to the ranks of virtue.
One wonders how Jane took being offered her cousin Elizabeth as an example!
James Haddon, a chaplain at Bradgate, also wrote in December 1551 to Bullinger: “You can indeed confer no greater obligation upon his grace than by continuing (as you have once done already) to impart godly instruction to his daughter. For, although she is so brought up, that there is the greatest hope of her advancement in godliness, yet your exhortations afford her encouragement, and at the same time have their due weight with her, either as proceeding from a stranger, or from so eminent a person as yourself.”
Haddon, it should be noted, felt it necessary to take in hand not only Jane, but her parents, whose card-playing sent him off on a lengthy diatribe to Bullinger in August 1552. After noting that the couple had suffered a relapse over the previous Christmas, he wrote, “I bear with it, just as a man who is holding a wolf by the ears. But I perceive some good arising from this concession, which in fact is no concession at all, but in some measure a remission of duty, or rather of strictness in the performance of it; because I do not find fault in public, although individually and in conversation I always reprove in the same way as heretofore. But because they see that I in some measure yield to them, even against my own opinion, and consider that I deal tenderly with this infirmity of theirs, they are willing to hear and attend to me more readily in other respects.” The duke, at least, showed no hard feelings, for in October 1552, Haddon, about to take up a position to which he had been appointed by the king, wrote, “But it has pleased God to render his grace so much attached to me, and me too in my turn so devoted and attached to his grace, that I cannot entirely separate from him, but must occasionally visit him.”
Of Jane’s parents, it is Frances who has become the chief object of opprobrium by modern writers, although Jane in Ascham’s recollection did not single her out for complaint. As Leanda de Lisle, who along with Eric Ives is almost unique in not accepting modern accounts of Frances at face value, writes in The Sisters Who Would Be Queen, “While Jane is the abused child-woman of these myths, Frances has been turned into an archetype of female wickedness: powerful, domineering, and cruel.”
Frances Grey is a much more shadowy figure than her husband and her daughter, but contemporary sources do not support her portrayal as a vicious woman who terrorized her hapless daughter. Unlike Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset, whose difficult personality elicited negative comments from everyone from Katherine Parr on down, none of Frances’s contemporaries seems to have disliked her. Queen Mary treated her kindly, and the ambitious Bess of Hardwick, who chose Frances to be the godmother of her first child, still had “an agate given to me by my Lady Marquess” in 1567. Though she is often portrayed as a dominant figure in making her daughter queen, at least one source, the Marian sympathizer Robert Wingfield, wrote that she was “vigorously opposed” to the match of Jane and Guildford Dudley. There is no evidence that she shared her daughter’s or her husband’s intellectual interests, but there is equally no evidence that she discouraged her daughter’s intellectual development or that she resented her because she was not a boy, although she certainly must have grieved for the loss of her son who died as an infant. (For that matter, despite the prevailing notion that Frances spent most of her time in the saddle, there’s no evidence that she particularly enjoyed hunting, other than her one recorded absence on a hunting excursion on the day that Ascham showed up at Bradgate.)
Jane’s expiatory letter to Queen Mary, written while Jane was a prisoner, is notable for its refusal to blame any of the events of the summer of 1553 on her parents. If anything, Jane comes out of her account as something of a mother’s girl, complaining that her mother-in-law, the Duchess of Northumberland, had reneged on her promise that “I could remain with my mother” and that when the duchess told her that she had been made heir to the Crown, “I cared little for those words and refrained not from going to my mother.”
It is often stated that Frances’s callousness toward her daughter is shown by her failure to plead with Mary for her life and by her remarriage just weeks after the death of Jane and Henry Grey. Frances’s hasty remarriage is a myth; she married her second husband, Adrian Stokes, a year after she had lost her daughter and her husband to the headsman. As for the former charge, it is recorded that Frances successfully pleaded with Mary to free her husband in 1553, but it does not necessarily follow that Frances made no request at the same time to free her daughter. There is no evidence that she visited her daughter in the Tower, but there is likewise no evidence that the Duchess of Northumberland, who is known to have been working desperately to free her sons, visited her imprisoned children either. It may simply be that permission for such a visit was denied.
Before her death, Jane wrote to her father in her prayer book (Eric Ives has suggested in his book Lady Jane Grey that a second letter to Henry Grey, stylistically different from the one in the prayer book, may not be genuine) and to her sister Katherine. No letter to Frances survives, but Michelangelo Florio, Jane’s erstwhile tutor in Italian, stated that Jane wrote to her mother. It is quite possible that the letter has been lost or that Frances destroyed it, perhaps because it was purely of personal, not of religious, value. The absence of a surviving letter, then, does not suggest that Jane and her mother were estranged at the time of Jane’s death.
So what of the recollection by Roger Ascham which began this piece? Assuming that Ascham was recalling the conversation correctly twenty years after the fact, it may be that Jane’s parents were strict disciplinarians—as indeed, Tudor parents were expected to be. It may be that that they were perfectionists. It may also be that Jane, as an unusually intelligent girl, resented being treated as just another daughter from whom misbehavior or slacking off would not be tolerated. But to damn Jane’s parents through this single outburst by a teenage girl, recalled years after the fact, is both anachronistic and irresponsible.