Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary I – who was the usurper?

Posted By on February 20, 2017

With it having been the anniversary of the birth of Queen Mary I on 18th February, there have been lots of discussions on blogs and social media regarding Mary, her reign and also her accession.

Mary I became queen on 19th July 1553 after she successfully deposed her first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, or Queen Jane. Jane had been proclaimed queen following King Edward VI’s death on 6th July 1553, having been named as Edward’s heir in his “devise for the succession”, but her reign was to be only thirteen days. Mary proclaimed herself queen, rallied support and won this game of thrones, imprisoning Jane and eventually executing her.

Jane has gone down in history as “Lady Jane Grey” or “the Nine Days Queen”, rather than Queen Jane, and is seen as either a tragic victim, a pawn of the Greys and Dudleys, or as a usurper. Mary I hasn’t been treated kindly by history, being labelled “Bloody Mary”, but her accession is not often seen as usurpation.

How can Mary not be a usurper though?

Mary Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth II ...
Mary Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth II - The Anne Boleyn Files

Mary may have been added back into the line of succession after Edward by her father, Henry VIII, along with her half-sister, Elizabeth, in the Third Act of Succession but this act had not changed the girls’ status, they were still illegitimate. When the dying Edward VI came to make arrangements for the succession in 1553, he passed over his half-sisters, making it clear that he viewed them as “clearly disabled” from making any claim to the throne due to their status and the fact that they were “but of the halfe bloud”. He chose, instead, to name Lady Jane Grey as his successor, a girl who he deemed to be “whole blood” and his legitimate successor due to her descent from King Henry VII via Mary Tudor.

Hmmm… Henry VIII’s Act of Succession versus Edward VI’s Devise for the Succession, which one should have taken precedence?

Well, this is always going to be a subject of debate. People often point out that Edward’s wishes were not lawful because they went against his father’s and because he was still in his minority, but, as Eric Ives pointed out in his book on Lady Jane Grey, Edward VI had the law on his side whereas his father, in putting Edward’s half-sisters back into the line of succession, “had interfered with the common law of inheritance”. Ives goes on to explain that “Accepting Mary meant setting aside the inheritance rights of legitimate heirs in favour of a bastard. Accepting Jane meant a return to common law. That was the choice. True, Edward was asserting royal prerogative, but in doing so he was restoring the legitimate line of inheritance and that was what mattered.” Common Law, which had been recognised for hundreds of years, ruled that illegitimate children could not inherit, thus protecting the interests of legitimate heirs.

But what about the Third Act of Succession giving the monarch the power to change the succession through his will? Well, if it made it legal for Henry VIII to do that then it was also legal for his son to do the same. Henry could name his daughters as his successors after Edward, but then Edward could name Lady Jane Grey as his successor.

A point made by Beth von Staats, author of Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell, in a discussion a group of us were having on this topic on The Anne Society Facebook page, is that Edward VI was crowned as Supreme Monarch and the powers invested in him at his coronation in February 1547 exceeded those of his father’s. He was referred to as “lawmaker”, so what Edward stated in his “devise” was law. Edward was the king and he had named Jane as his successor.

Whatever you think about the morality of it all, what was actually “right”, Henry VIII had not taken the step of having his daughters made legitimate once again; he had not protected their interests. Personally, I don’t believe that Mary and Elizabeth should ever have been made illegitimate. Even though their mothers’ marriages to their father had been annulled, they had been conceived in good faith and so should have been recognised as legitimate. However, the law had made them illegitimate and so this affected their claims. Jane had no such impediment; she was legitimate and she had Tudor blood.

My own view is that Jane was the rightful queen and should be known as Queen Jane. I see Mary’s actions as usurpation, however understandable they were.

What do you think?

By the way, if you’re a member of the Tudor Society then you can listen to the talk I gave last summer “Queen Jane or Lady Jane Grey” – click here. Kyra Kramer also wrote an article “Mary I, usurper and queen” on her blog – click here to read that. You can also read more about Edward VI’s devise in my article 21 June 1553 – Edward VI chooses Lady Jane Grey as his heir.

Notes and Sources

  • “Queen Jane or Lady Jane Grey”, talk by Claire Ridgway for the Tudor Society, July 2016.
  • Ives, Eric (2011) Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Third Act of Succession – this can be read at http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/actsuccession3.htm
  • Thank you to Conor Byrne, James Peacock, Beth von Staats and Catherine Brookes for the discussions on this topic.
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