21 November 1559 – Death of Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk

Posted By on November 21, 2012

Portrait of a woman thought to be Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk, at Richmond. She was buried in St Edmund’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, on the orders of Elizabeth I, her cousin, and a tomb was erected in her memory by her second husband, Adrian Stokes. The Latin transcription on the monument reads, when translated:

“Dirge for the most noble Lady Frances, onetime Duchess of Suffolk: naught avails glory or splendour, naught avail titles of kings; naught profits a magnificent abode, resplendent with wealth. All, all are passed away: the glory of virtue alone remained, impervious to the funeral pyres of Tartarus [part of Hades or the Underworld]. She was married first to the Duke, and after was wife to Mr Stock, Esq. Now, in death, may you fare well, united to God.”

I feel for Frances Grey (née Brandon) because she is one of those much-maligned figures of history. As author Susan Higginbotham wrote in her article The Maligned Frances Grey, “Stories abound of her greed, ruthlessness, gluttony, unbridled ambition, and cruelty”. The evidence historians and authors present for the cruel Frances is Roger Ascham’s record of a conversation he had with Frances’ daughter, Lady Jane Grey, who was at home while the rest of the family were out hunting:

“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.”1

If you take those words at face value then the intellectual Jane was treated cruelly by her parents, but Jane could have been speaking after a row with her parents, who may have tried to persuade her to go hunting and get some fresh air, or she could have been exaggerating. We don’t know. “I hate you, you’re ruining my life” are words uttered by today’s teenagers to their parents without any real meaning behind them and I suspect Tudor teenagers felt just the same: misunderstood and frustrated.

I’m not defending abuse, I’m just unwilling to turn Frances into a monster because of these words. Some of what I’ve read about Frances conjures up the image, a caricature really, of an ugly, larger-than-life, bloodstained, cross-bow wielding woman mocking her bookworm daughter for preferring to read. It’s not a pretty picture and I don’t believe it’s accurate. Susan Higginbotham defends Frances brilliantly in her post The Maligned Frances Grey, so do read that, and I would also recommend Susan’s other posts on the Grey family at her blog History Refreshed.

What do you think of Frances?

Notes and Sources

  • The English works of Roger Ascham: preceptor to Queen Elizabeth, p217