What If..? (#04: Lady Jane Grey had kept the throne)

Part of a new series on revisionist history, speculating on tiny changes in British history that could cause a ‘butterfly effect’.


In June 1553, the boy-king Edward lay dying. Unable to legitimise his Protestant half-sister Elizabeth without doing the same to his Catholic one, Mary, Edward subverted the will of his late father, Henry VIII, and passed over his controversial siblings altogether. He named his cousin, Lady Jane Dudley – nee Grey – as his successor to the throne (skipping over her mother, Frances, who was the daughter of Henry VIII’s best friend – Charles Brandon – and his younger sister, the Princess Mary). Jane ruled as de facto monarch until July 19th, when her Privy Council switched sides to that of the advancing Mary Tudor, proclaiming her Queen. The new Mary I – and her half-sister – entered London triumphantly on  August 3rd; the young Jane and her husband were imprisoned in the Tower, Mary finding herself inclined to be lenient towards her cousin, who she took to be just the pawn of her enemies. Eventually,  after finding themselves the figureheads of Protestant plots, Jane and Guildford Dudley were executed in February 1554.

Mary – known to history by her sobriquet, ‘Bloody Mary’ – would reign for more than five years. Under her rule, she restored Roman Catholicism to the country and had over 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake. Her half-sister Elizabeth – having lived through the tumultuous changes towards Protestantism under her father and half-brother, and the violent persecutions of Mary – succeeded the throne in 1558. In politics, religion and martial concerns she was moderate and tolerant; one of her mottoes was ‘video et taceo’ – ‘I see, and say nothing’. Famously, on the subject of her subjects’ religion, Elizabeth replied “I will not make windows into men’s’ souls,” allowing people a certain measure of private worship. Her 44 year-long stable reign is a backbone of national identity, known as our ‘Golden Age’.

But what if Mary Tudor had fled the country to the Catholic continent during her brother’s reign, as she came so close to doing in 1550, banned from hearing the Catholic mass and in very real fear for her life? It is unlikely that the twenty year old bastardised Elizabeth would have had enough clout to oust the usurping Jane from the throne. What might the ‘Janian Age’ have looked like?

In much the same way that a cursory, 2D account of Mary causes people to remember her as a malevolent, emotionally-damaged, phantom-pregnancy suffering pyromaniac, Jane is usually remembered as a martyr, a young child manipulated by her mother/father-in-law/anyone and everyone, led to her death with her Tudor red-gold hair flowing behind her, dressed in robes of innocent white (the infamous French painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey of 1833 must take most of the blame for this). Only sixteen or seventeen years old at the time of her execution, popular legend has the short girl wearing platform shoes to give her extra height as she walked to the scaffold. After she was blindfolded, she felt around in panic for the block, unable to locate it, eventually having to be helped to lay her head upon it to receive the axe. Thus Jane Dudley has gone down through history as the ‘Nine Days Queen’, an innocent, virginal child – one of the first to be slaughtered under the Marian Persecutions.

What is never really explored is that Jane was, in her own way, every bit as intolerant and radical as her cousin Mary. She described Catholics as ‘satanic’ and surely would have swiftly began burning her version of ‘heretics’ the way that Mary did hers. Extremely, fervently Protestant in a way that Elizabeth never came close to, religion in England would have  been much closer to the Puritanism it didn’t see until under Oliver Cromwell – and as a result, we may well have then had the same tensions that led to the Civil War, with Jane and her Parliament facing internal strife and an unhappy nobility. A Puritanical shut-down of the theatres would have deprived England of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The dazzle and glitter of Gloriana’s Tudor court would have been replaced by a dour Dudley one.

Elizabeth and Mary from the Whitehall Portrait

If Mary dared to return to England, no doubt Jane would have felt forced to have her cousin imprisoned and executed; the most lenient solution to the problem would have been to force Mary to take the veil and retire to a nunnery. The Protestant – and canny – Elizabeth would probably have survived, perhaps kept under luxurious house arrest as she was under Mary, or more likely married off abroad – perhaps to Prince Eric of Sweden, becoming its queen not long after. Coming to the throne at only sixteen, apparently a relatively robust and healthy individual  – and already married into the famously fertile Dudley family – it’s quite likely that Jane’s reign would have been a long one, and that she would have had issue. This negates – or at least postpones – the union of England and Scotland, although a Dudley Princess may well have been given as queen to James VI in place of Anne of Denmark, uniting these two lesser Tudor family branches.

Without a doubt, England is left lesser by swapping Mary and Elizabeth for Jane. The harshness of the Marian Persecutions was likely necessary to foster Elizabeth’s tolerance – and to ensure that many of those who might have had the will to stir up religious dissent were well aware of the possible repercussions. Although there was heightened persecution of Protestants under Mary for five years, we may well have seen similar violence against Catholics for close to fifty years under an equally fanatical Jane I.

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