Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Sharon Bennett Connolly, Author of Heroines of the Tudor World

15 June 2024

Special Guest Post by Sharon Bennett Connolly, Author of Heroines of the Tudor World

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In the Shadow of the Crown

If you ever needed it, the three Grey sisters are proof that, in Tudor times, being close to the throne was not always an advantage. Of Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey, Jane is of course the most famous, but each of them had a remarkable story to tell – of ambition, love, disobedience and lost potential. Their close proximity to the throne meant their lives were never going to be easy or anonymous, and each, in turn, suffered for their royal blood.

With an impeccable family pedigree, the three sisters were the daughters of Henry Grey, third Marquess of Dorset, who was a great-grandson of Edward IV’s Queen Elizabeth Woodville by her first husband, the Lancastrian knight Sir John Grey of Groby. Henry Grey married Frances Brandon, the eldest surviving daughter of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, by his third wife, Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and sister of King Henry VIII. Frances was therefore a granddaughter of Herny VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York.

Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon, grandparents of the Grey sisters

Frances never expected to inherit the dukedom from her father. Although her brother Henry died in 1534, Charles Brandon would have more sons. Following the death of Mary in 1533, Brandon married Katherine Willoughby, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting Maria de Salinas. By Katherine, Charles Brandon had two more sons, Henry in 1535 and Charles in 1537. It was the tragic deaths of these two boys, in their late teens, on the same day in July 1551 that saw Frances Brandon become duchess of Suffolk in her own right, two days before her thirty-fourth birthday.
Frances and Henry Grey had been married in 1533, at her parent’s residence of Suffolk Place in Southwark. As the eldest surviving child of Mary Tudor, Frances was fourth in line to the throne after the children of Henry VIII; Edward, Mary and Elizabeth. When settling the succession, the king had instructed that his younger sister Mary’s line should be preferred over that of his older sister, Margaret, Queen of Scots. As a consequence, Frances was frequently at court.

The Grey’s first child, a son, died young. They had three surviving daughters. The eldest, Jane, was born in October 1537, about the same time as her cousin Edward, the future King Edward VI; with the birth of the longed-for heir to the throne, Jane’s own birth went almost unnoticed. She would have been named after Henry VIII’s tragic queen, Jane Seymour, who died within two weeks of Edward’s birth. Next came Katherine, born on 25 August 1540, again, probably named after Henry VIII’s queen of the time,

Katherine Howard, who had been married the month before Katherine Grey’s birth. And lastly, Mary was born sometime in April 1545. As the great-granddaughters of King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, these three sisters’ fortunes rose and fell due to their proximity to the Tudor throne. The most famous by far is the eldest, Jane Grey, known to history as the Nine Days’ Queen. Her two younger sisters’ stories are overshadowed by Jane’s spectacular rise to the throne – and dramatic fall. But Katherine’s and Mary’s stories are no less remarkable and tinged with tragedy.
The girls were raised at the family home of Bradgate Park, near Leicester. Frances and Henry Grey are said to have been very strict parents who were not prone to expressions of love and affection; the children were used to sarcasm, cuffs and criticism. In her teenage years, Jane herself is said to have complained to the visiting scholar Roger Ascham:

‘When I am in the 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 anything 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) … that I think myself in hell.’
Though she enjoyed study and excelled in all fields, including Greek and philosophy, Jane struggled with the duty of obedience. There is no record that her parents were displeased with her, or either of her sisters in any way. Girls in Tudor households were raised to be obedient and dutiful; they were taught to stand straight and show respect to their elders, to only speak when spoken to and to adhere to social etiquette. They were expected to eat nicely, to observe the correct precedence at table and to show gratitude for any praise.

However unhappy Jane’s childhood might have been, she was afforded a first-class education and from 1545 her tutor was John Aylmer. Aylmer had been sponsored through his studies at Cambridge by Jane’s father, the Marquess of Dorset, and was a brilliant academic. All three girls were educated in household management and in cooking and sewing. As future courtiers, they were given lessons in dance and music; probably including the popular instruments, the lute, spinet and virginal. Jane, in particular, was to excel in her academic studies and after learning to read, write and basic mathematics, she was taught French and Italian. By the age of eight, Jane – and later Katherine – was also learning Greek and Latin. In religion, Jane and her sisters were raised as ‘evangelicals’, the common word in the first half of the 16th century for Protestants.

From the age of nine, Jane’s mother would have taken her to court from time to time, to familiarise her daughter with court life and her future duties as a Maid of Honour. Frances was at the time serving as a Lady of the Privy Chamber to the king’s sixth wife, Kateryn Parr.

In January 1547, King Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Edward VI. Jane and Edward were first cousins, once removed, and it is entirely possible – even likely – that Frances and Henry harboured hopes that Jane would marry the young king. It was Henry VIII’s will that shaped and dominated the future of all three of the Grey sisters. More than ten years before his death, 

Parliament had granted Henry the right to bequeath the crown where he desired, rather than by strict primogeniture. In his final will, dated 26 December 1546, Henry excluded the Stuart line of his elder sister Margaret and settled the succession, should his children die without heirs, on the descendants of his younger sister, Mary, Dowager Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk. Should Edward, Mary and Elizabeth all die without producing a child of their own, Jane would be queen; although King Henry probably still held out hope that Frances would produce a son who could inherit ahead of the sisters.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, by Paul Delaroche (Wikimedia Commons)

It was this Act by Henry VIII that would shape the lives of all three sisters, leading to the executioner’s block for Jane, and imprisonment and thwarted love for Katherine and Mary. The shadow of the crown was long…

Memorial within the Tower of London marking the executions of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

Sharon Bennett Connolly

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About the Author

Sharon Bennett Connolly is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and best-selling author of historical non-fiction. She also writes the popular history blog, She co-hosts the podcast A Slice of Medieval, alongside historical novelist Derek Birks. Sharon regularly gives talks on women's history, for historical groups, festivals and in schools; her book Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest is a recommended text for teaching the Norman Conquest in the National Curriculum. She is a feature writer for All About History and Living Medieval magazines and her TV work includes Australian Television's 'Who Do You Think You Are?' Her latest book, Heroines of the Tudor World, looks at some of the most remarkable women of the period. Follow Sharon on Facebook and Twitter @Thehistorybits

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