In The Children of Henry VIII, Alison Weir writes that while John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, was planning for Lady Jane Grey to marry his son Guildford, “Jane was already betrothed to Edward Seymour, Lord Hertford, the fifteen-year-old son of the late Duke of Somerset, but her parents had no qualms about breaking this precontract.” Other nonfiction accounts of Jane Grey make a similar claim, and a number of novelists have gone so far as to invent a romance between Jane and Edward Seymour.
Born on May 22, 1539, Edward Seymour was the heir of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who served as Lord Protector for the underage Edward VI. Beginning in 1547, when his father achieved his dukedom, young Edward Seymour was styled as the Earl of Hertford. The “romance” between him and Jane, two years his elder, can handily be dismissed as pure invention. But is there truth to the assertion that the two had a precontract of marriage?
In January 1549, Somerset’s younger brother, Thomas Seymour, the Lord Admiral, was arrested for treason. Jane’s father, Henry Grey, then the Marquis of Dorset, was deposed about what he knew of Thomas Seymour’s activities. Thomas Seymour had acquired Jane’s wardship and had promised to use his influence to help the Dorsets marry Jane to Edward VI, which had dangerously entangled Henry Grey with Thomas Seymour. Questioned by the Protector in 1549, Dorset seems to have tried to placate Somerset by offering his daughter as a bride for his son: “For the Maryage off your Graces Sune to be had with my Doghter Jane, I think hyt not met to be wrytyn, but I shall at all Tynes avouche my saying.”
Somerset may well have wanted such a marriage for his eldest son. In his own deposition, the Marquis of Northampton reported, “Also when the sayd Lord Admirall came laste to London, he tolde me in hys owne Gallerye, that ther wolde be moch ado for my Lady Jane, the Lord Marques Dorsett’s Dowghter; and that mi Lord Protector and my Lady Somerset wolde do what they colde to obtayne hyr of my sayd Lord Marques for my Lord of Hertforde.” Somerset certainly had every reason to hope for a match between Jane and Hertford: aside from Jane’s high rank, she was receiving a fine humanist education, which Somerset was also giving his own daughters. On a more cynical note, Somerset would later be accused of wanting to marry one of his own daughters to King Edward, and marrying Jane to Hertford would eliminate her as a rival for the king’s hand.
Though various authors state that Somerset and Dorset were negotiating for Jane’s marriage in 1550 or 1551, before Somerset’s own arrest for treason in October 1551 and his execution in January 1552, I have yet to see any give a source for this story. Indeed, John ab Ulmis, writing from Jane’s home of Bradgate on May 29, 1551, believed that Jane was to be “given in marriage to the king’s majesty.” There is, however, a hint that negotiations for a match between Jane and Hertford did take place at some point. On August 16, 1553, following the failed attempt to put Jane on the throne, the imperial ambassadors wrote: “As to Jane of Suffolk, whom they had tried to make Queen, [Queen Mary] could not be induced to consent that she should die; all the more because it had been found that there could be no marriage between her and Guilford, the son of the Duke [of Northumberland], as she was previously betrothed by a binding promise that entailed marriage to a servitor of the Bishop of Winchester.” Could this refer to Hertford? Hertford had not been placed with the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, who had spent much of Edward VI’s reign as a prisoner in the Tower and had been released only days before. In a letter to John Calvin, however, Thomas Norton reported that following the execution of Somerset, the thirteen-year-old Hertford had been sent to live with William Paulet, the Marquis of Winchester. It is possible, then, that the ambassadors confused the Bishop of Winchester with the Marquis of Winchester and that the reference to the unnamed servitor was to Hertford. The ambassadors, however, had their doubts as to whether there had been such a promise. They added, “It might be feared that the marriage to the Bishop of Winchester’s servitor had been put forward hypocritically in order to save [Jane’s] life.”
If there was indeed a binding promise between Jane and Hertford, no further mention of it was made. Moreover, as Leanda de Lisle has pointed out, when the legality of Hertford’s marriage to Jane’s younger sister, Katherine, was investigated some years later, a precontract with Jane was not raised as a ground for invalidating it. Jane herself, in her letter to Queen Mary explaining the events of the summer of 1553, made no claim that her marriage to Guildford was invalid based on a previous betrothal. Indeed, she signed herself in the last days of her life as “Jane Dudley.” All in all, it appears that if there were negotiations for the marriage of Jane and Hertford, they never were completed, and that when Jane married Guildford, she did so with no preexisting marital entanglements.
Susan Doran, ‘Seymour, Edward, first earl of Hertford (1539?–1621)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25161, accessed 5 Sept 2011]
Samuel Haynes, A Collection of State Papers Relating to Affairs in the Reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth. Vol. I. London: William Bowyer, 1740.
Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Leanda de Lisle, The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.
Hastings Robinson, Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1846 and 1847.
Royall Tyler, ed., Calendar of State Papers, Spain, vol. 11.