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

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

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9 thoughts on “21 November 1559 – Death of Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk”
  1. Frances Grey has been villified on one piece of evidence only, and I take the point about teenagers. I think it should also be borne in mind that Jane was a strong protestant and reputedly quite austere in clothing and therefore perhaps manner. Sounds like a definite clash of characters. However, the one piece of evidence against Frances Grey is compelling, and unless Ascham has falsified the account to blacken Frances’s character, and even allowing for different standards of discipline in the Tudor era, I think she still does not sound like a sympathetic character.

  2. Can’t help feeling sorry for Jane … she vents about the discipline that (by modern standards, at least) is abusive, and ends up staining her mom’s character for years. Seriously, though, I think Victorian writers really altered Jane’s character, making her meek and pious (and ignoring strong expressions she would use, such as calling someone who accepted Catholicism an “imp of Satan” or “imp of the devil”) .. and to make her look good, they made her mother look evil.

  3. I definately agree with the young adultlescense verses parent thing.
    On Frances maternal skills or personality, its hard to say. I have only read the usual stuff on her concerning Jane.

    Am I right in thinking that she and her husband were very proud and protective of their privileged position in life, if so you can understand that they would want their girls to be seen as perfect in all things, a show case of their power and wealth, a good marriage catch, even more so as they had no surviving sons. So maybe they were strict and demanding on the girls concerning their education and social skills because of the social circles they moved in, but not in a cruel way. And maybe they were ‘put out’ that Jane was not the sporty type, as that was see as a plus for both sexes in those days too, and got rebuked or teased over it, but not to extremes.

    Another thing to remember is, what was the definition of ‘maternal’ or parenting then, not the same as today. Babies born into this life style were passed onto wet-nurses, had their own servants, motherhood then was being pregnant, giving birth, getting over it, then back to the life style until next time. Parenting was providing the best you could for the raising of the children by others, to the style of their social standing, and this was not necessarily done at home either. So I would imagine relationships between the majority of parents/children were not overly close. Being with their parents in what may have been only short periods of time must have been like attending interviews when they saw them, and a bit ceremonious, especially if Mum and Dad were away at court or else where a lot of the time.
    Maybe Frances (and husband) did seem to be harsh, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t care, or they were any more harsh than other parents of that time. After all the education they received, especially Jane, was outstanding for a girl.

    And what do we really know about Jane as a person, a part from the obvious, she could have been a spoilt little madame for all we know, under that quiet well educated, religious persona, who on that day when she spoke to Ascham maybe didn’t get her own way, had a hissy fit, was told off, and maybe got a ‘clip round the ear’ too… 🙂 could be true….

    I don’t think Frances was as bad as she is made out to be, just another product of the time, a survivor too, who went on to knab herself a ‘toy-boy’…
    I wonder though, how she dealt with the execution of her daughter, emotionally that is, she would have had to be inhuman not to have felt desolate about that.
    Where was Frances on that awful day? And maybe this is why she has been vilified, because her daughter was executed, and considered partly to blame, who knows.

    1. There’s no evidence as to where Frances was on the day of her daughter’s execution.

      As for Frances knabing herself a “toy-boy,” that is yet another myth about Frances. Adrian Stokes was only a couple of years younger than Frances (a friend recorded his birthdate in a horoscope), and he was no pretty boy but an experienced soldier who had served abroad before joining the Grey household.

        1. Thanks for that Susan…and that just goes to prove the point I was making about not believing all that is written about these people, although I didn’t believe Frances was the ‘mother from hell’, I did take it as true that she married a ‘toy-boy’, so thanks again Susan, have learnt something new, which I always do on here. 🙂

  4. Without more reliable sources than the one interview Jane gave, we have to take the description of Frances being extremely abusive with a grain of salt. Having said that I must al state that where there is smoke there is fire. Jane may well have blown up her relationship with her parents but in an age where it was expected you beat your children I am sure there were some incidences between her parents and Jane that was abusive and I am sure that many times they verbally abused Jane as I imagine she was outspoken and no 16th century parent would have tolerated a child “preaching” to them. As Jane was a strict Protestant who wanted to dress simply and follow the most strict ways of the religion and her parents wanted to maintain a court image, I am sure that clashed more than once. Jane would have felt they going to hell for not subscribing to the same religious practices she followed; as most extremely religious people do today.

    Abusive – I’m sure they were by our standards today but in the 16th century they may have been looked at as very lenient, spoiling parents. I’ve always felt a bond with Jane having a verball abusive mother who expected perfection from me; and I remember blowing things out of proportion as a teenager but it didn’t mean I wasn’t abused, only that I sought attention and help and wanted to make sure I got them. Maybe Jane did the same; maybe her speech on her parents behavior was nothing more than an unhappy teen calling for attention and help.

    1. We have no way of knowing the truth of the matter but I don’t agree that there’s no smoke without a fire, that’s what people say about Anne Boleyn and the adultery and incest charges. There can be plenty of smoke without a fire and people’s reputations have been ruined by gossip and false claims, so I don’t believe that phrase at all. Having said that, we can’t dismiss Jane’s words entirely but we can’t believe them 100% either – a quandary!

      Happy Thanksgiving!

      1. As historians start to remove the myths that have built around the personalities of those that have been villified, it could be we need to remove the ‘Rose Tinted Glasses’ in which we see some of the ‘goodies’ too… as their portrayal could be just as inaccurate.
        Jane, the poor child, became a victim in the game of power and greed, but that doesn’t mean she was all sweetness and light before this..I can image her being quite precocious actually, and a little arrogant with it on occassion, maybe thats why she was put in her place at times…the Tudor way!

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