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Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery (Blackwell, 2009)

Eric Ives,  Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2009. ISBN 978-1405194136. Xiv + 367 pp. Hbk. £19.99.

Reviewed by Tracey A. Sowerby

[1]  Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mysteryis not a biography. Rather, it is a book about a dynastic and political crisis. The ‘Tudor Mystery’ that Eric Ives has set out to solve is how the ‘legitimate’ Queen Jane, who commanded considerable political support, was overthrown in favour of the illegitimate Mary Tudor in ‘a wholly unexpected political coup’ (1). Viewing Jane’s rule from this angle produces a provocative and revisionist account of the summer of 1553. This alone would make Ives’ book an important piece of scholarship; that he wields an extensive array of archival evidence and provides the most detailed account to date of the succession crisis of 1553 makes this a book that no Tudor historian can ignore.

[2]  Most historians hold that it was Mary, not Jane, who was the legitimate queen in July 1553. In 1544 Mary was designated Edward’s successor by Act of Parliament should Edward die without heirs, and this was confirmed in Henry VIII’s last will and testament. Problematically, however, both the Succession Act and Henry’s will did nothing to restore Mary’s or Elizabeth’s legitimacy. Ives brilliantly highlights that the crisis of July 1553 was also a constitutional crisis where notions of the nature of monarchy and English law were at stake. Could the king bequeath the crown? Once one king had laid out the succession in his will, was this an inalienable right of the monarchy, or was it a limited privilege granted to an individual monarch by Parliament? If it were the former, could it be exercised by a minor? And how did Henry’s provision fit with the established principles of common law? Ives argues that Henry VIII made a distinction between legitimacy and appointing to the succession, that Edward had the sovereign right to will the succession just like his father, and that the leading English judges who were asked to examine the issue confirmed the legality of Edward’s ‘device’, which conferred the crown on Jane and her heirs males. In these circumstances, politicians were left with a choice: challenge statute law by backing Jane, or bring the laws of inheritance into question by supporting Mary. Most, Ives argues, supported Jane. Jane Grey’s status as the legitimate heir to the throne and Edward’s legal right to designate the succession did not go unchallenged at the time (Sir Edward Montague was not alone in his belief that the implementation of the device after Edward’s death would be treasonable as it contravened an act of Parliament, although he acceded to Edward’s demands that he accept it) and Ives’s assertions are unlikely to go unchallenged now. The idea that concerns over the principles of inheritance at common law motivated many of Jane’s supporters is equally provocative, though the surviving evidence does not permit Ives to demonstrate that this was indeed the case.

[3]  At the heart of the book stand two characters: Edward VI and John Dudley, duke of Northumberland. Northumberland was long seen as the Machiavellian mastermind who contrived Jane’s accession in order to place his son on the throne and preserve the power he had acquired under Edward. Like Barrett Beer and the other historians who have rehabilitated Dudley’s political reputation, Ives regards him as principally the loyal servant of the Tudor state, ‘one of the most able, principled and successful figures of the Tudor period’ (97) who ‘was many things, but traitor he was not’ (98). In trying to explain why so loyal a servant would take such drastic steps, Ives argues that Dudley’s confident and commanding manner was a mask for a man who was psychologically vulnerable and desperately insecure, deeply scarred by Henry VIII’s utilitarian destruction of his father. Responsibility for Jane’s accession is ultimately laid at Edward’s door. Even before Edward knew that he was dying, he had toyed with ideas about the succession, excluding his sisters and clearly very concerned to ensure a male succession. Ives painstakingly traces the development of Edward’s ideas about the succession and the decision to settle the crown on Jane and her future male offspring as the young king learnt of his imminent demise, and provides useful tables to help the non-expert through the complexities. He makes a strong case that Edward VI was also the driving force persuading key politicians and lawyers to accept his provisions. Dudley implemented the ‘Device’ out of loyalty to the dying king and many of his fellow privy councillors followed suit.

[4]  Despite the title, Jane Grey is not the focus of Ives’s book, though Ives does discuss Jane’s education, family and religion at some length. His Jane is not the tragic figure who appealed to so many Victorians, but a ‘bluestocking’ and committed evangelical used as a political pawn by her indifferent parents. Jane married Guidlford Dudley reluctantly and was initially disinclined to take the throne: indeed, she was apparently surprised to discover that she was queen. Yet once on the throne she wielded power with a firmer hand than her earlier reluctance might suggest, adamantly blocking plans to invest her husband as king. Jane and her supporters had the advantage. They controlled the court, the state administration and the Tower, and Northumberland oversaw orders to the lord lieutenants in the counties to uphold Jane’s rule, whereas Mary possessed significantly inferior resources and was mistaken in her belief that her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V would come to her aid. Immediately after Edward’s death, few would have bet on Mary. Yet within thirteen days she had amassed considerable support, had been proclaimed Queen in London with the backing of the Privy Council, and Northumberland, who had led an army out of London in order to suppress Mary’s uprising, had surrendered. All of these developments need to be examined anew if Jane, not Mary, was rightfully queen.

[5]  Several recent biographies of Mary Tudor have put forward a positive view of Mary’s political abilities and achievements. Evidence of Mary’s abilities is to be found in Ives’s assessment. As a result of information being passed to her from court, Mary carefully positioned herself before staking her claim with a retinue that, we are told, was ‘straining at the leash to leap into action as a secretariat’ (227). Although Ives concedes that Mary ‘frequently displayed a naivety in affairs and a chronic lack of self-confidence’ (86), on two issues she was indefatigable: Catholicism and her claim to the throne. Her intransigence on the latter issue came as something of a surprise to Northumberland who had not taken the military precautions one might have expected. Northumberland’s uncharacteristically poor strategic decisions proved critical, as did Mary’s ability to translate her resolve into political support, allowing her to mount the only successful Tudor rebellion.

Pembroke College, University of Oxford,  May 2010

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