Hidden historical heroines (#33: Mary Grey)

Lady Mary Grey, the Chequers portraitLady Mary Grey (c.1545 – 20 April 1578) was the youngest daughter of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, and Frances Brandon, herself the daughter of Charles Brandon – great friend and confidante of Henry VIII – and Mary Tudor, his younger sister. An unfortunate figure, Mary was described by an ambassador as ‘little, crook-backed and very ugly’ – it is probable that she had a more serious form of the scoliosis that we know plagued her ancestor Edward IV’s brother, Richard III; she may have even been a dwarf! Nevertheless, through her royal maternal grandmother, Mary and her two sisters claimed the right to inherit the throne, a fact that would be constantly shaping Mary’s life.

Mary was the third and final daughter of the family, following Jane and Katherine, who would both fall foul of their cousin monarchs. Jane, of course, is the better known Grey sister – the “Nine Days Queen” (although she actually reigned de facto for nineteen days). When Edward VI lay dying in the early summer of 1553, he balked at the idea of being succeeded by his fervently Catholic half-sister Mary and left a will that superseded that of his late father, Henry VIII. The throne was to skip the “illegitimate” Tudor sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, plus a handful of cousins from the line of the elder daughter of Henry VII, Margaret Tudor (including Mary, Queen of Scots, her great-granddaughter) as well as Frances Brandon herself before settling on her eldest child, Jane. The Grey sisters were all young – at this time around the ages of 15, 12 and 9; most importantly for Edward and his advisors, they were Protestant.

As everyone knows, none of this went rather well for ‘Queen Jane’. The country rose up for Mary – who became Mary I – and eventually Henry Grey, Jane and her husband Guildford Dudley were executed in February 1554. Frances Brandon Grey and her two remaining daughters were in disgrace. Acutely aware of this, Frances took her Master of Horse for her second husband, effectively signalling the end of her family’s dynastic ambitions. This second husband inherited a lifetime stake in all of Frances’ property after her death in 1559, so Katherine and Mary had very little to live on.

Lady Katherine Grey and her eldest son

When Elizabeth I came to the throne she seemed to be sympathetic to her Grey cousins, appointing Mary as one of her Maids of Honour and granting her a royal pension. Katherine, the elder sister, was seemingly being groomed as the childless Elizabeth’s heir – there was even talk of a formal adoption and of marrying Katherine back into the Tudor bloodline on the Scottish side. Finally, life seemed to be going well for the unfortunate Mary Grey.

Unfortunately, Katherine fell head over heels in love and secretly married Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford, nephew to Edward VI’s mother Jane Seymour. She knew what she had done was unwise – heirs to the throne were not permitted to marry without the express permission of the monarch – so she decided to keep the match a secret. She managed to do this quite successfully until she was coming up to nine months pregnant. Terrified of the Queen’s certain displeasure, Katherine went to Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley (and her brother-in-law through the marriage of Jane and Guildford). It didn’t do any good. Elizabeth was enraged. Katherine and Edward Seymour were imprisoned in the Tower of London – in separate rooms – although this was obviously not strictly enforced, as Katherine managed to conceive and give birth to a second Seymour son during their imprisonment. Nevertheless, the marriage was annulled, the sons declared illegitimate, and eventually poor Katherine died of consumption at the age of only 28 – whilst still under house-arrest.

And so now there was only Mary Grey left in consideration – dependable Mary! Elizabeth was still quite fond of her, and surely she had learned from the mistakes of the rest of her family? Obviously not, because Mary too entered into a secret marriage in 1565. Mary waited for Elizabeth to leave court to attend the wedding of one of her Boleyn kinsmen before wedding the Queen’s serjeant porter, Thomas Keyes, who was in charge of palace security.  Mary apparently learned one lesson from her sister’s fate – she ensured that there were a bevy of witnesses so that Elizabeth couldn’t just declare that the marriage hadn’t happened, as she had with Katherine.

Thomas Keyes was a bit of a bizarre choice, so much so in fact that some historians postulate that the timid Mary married him purely to rule herself out of the succession entirely. Keyes was a widower with a load of children, only a member of the minor gentry, as well as being twice Mary’s age and height – apparently 6’8” tall! Sir William Cecil wrote that ‘The Sergeant Porter, being the biggest gentleman of this court, has married secretly the Lady Mary Grey, the least of all the court . . . The offence is very great’.

Victorian imagining of the young Grey sisters

Elizabeth was, predictably, unimpressed. She confined Mary to house arrest and Keyes to the Fleet Prison. The couple never saw one another again; Keyes was released from prison in 1569, but his health was irreparably effected and he died shortly afterwards. Before his death he asked Elizabeth if he could reclaim his wife and retire from court, but Elizabeth had refused. Afterwards, Mary petitioned the Queen for the right to adopt and raise her orphaned Keyes step-children, but Elizabeth wouldn’t even allow her this. Eventually, however, after Mary had been under strict house arrest for over seven years, Elizabeth decreed she could be free to live where she pleased. Unfortunately, Mary had lost all of her friends and had far too little income to run her own household, so she ended up staying on with her erstwhile jailors, a rather unwelcome house guest! Eventually however, she did leave, ‘with all her books and rubbish’, as her warden ungraciously put it.

Mary seemed to be getting another chance. By the end of 1577 she had been rehabilitated to the extent that Elizabeth reappointed her as a Maid of Honour. Less than a year later however, the plague ripped through London, and Mary became ill. Having just enough time to write a will parceling out her meagre belongings, she died on the 20th April 1578, at the age of 33. Elizabeth granted her cousin an impressive funeral in Westminster Abbey, before allowing her to be interred there, inside her mother’s tomb.

With Jane and Mary both dying childless, and Katherine’s Seymour children illegitimised, Mary was the last member of the royal dynasty that never was, where we may have had the Greys rather than the Stuarts. Fittingly, her portrait – painted during her imprisonment there in 1570 – hangs in the Prime Minister’s country estate in Chequers, Buckinghamshire; in it, Mary proudly shows off her wedding ring and wears carnations to symbolise love, fidelity and remembrance – for her husband, no doubt, but also perhaps for her ill-fated sisters.


One thought on “Hidden historical heroines (#33: Mary Grey)

  1. Pingback: Maria Grey, uma anã na Corte de Elizabeth Tudor | Boullan

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