The Tudor Society

A review of England’s Forgotten Queen: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of last week were treats for us Tudor history lovers with access to British TV because BBC Four was airing "England's Forgotten Queen: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey" followed by Lucy Worsley's "Fit to Rule: How Royal Illness changed History". I think "Fit to Rule" had been on before, but I'd missed it and so enjoyed catching up on that. Two hours of history for three nights - bliss!

So what was "England's Forgotten Queen: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey" like and would I recommend it?

The simple answer is yes, but let me tell you a bit more about it.

The programme was presented by historian Helen Castor, author of She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth and Blood & Roses and presenter of "Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage and Death" (which I loved", amongst others. Helen always comes across well; she's engaging and her passion for her subject shines through. When she was at the Tower of London talking about Jane's execution, and how we often talk about beheadings in quite a blase manner yet these were horrific, awful acts, her voice caught and the viewer could appreciate how involved she was in this young woman's story.

The programme used the popular recipe of a presenter visiting archives, historical places and looking at sources, interspersed with actors acting out a particular scene or just facing the camera, and with interviews from experts in the field. It's a recipe that has been proved to work in history programmes aimed at engaging the general public in history, so why change it?

The programme was split into three parts and I was so pleased that this fascinating Tudor woman, a woman who was actually queen, got that attention. I did chuckle when John Dudley was shown for the first time as he did look like evil personified - one Twitter user commented on how he looked like Ming the Merciless! But, I thoroughly enjoyed Helen's presenting and the historian sections were fantastic. Leanda de Lisle and John Guy are two of my very favourite historians and I will never tire of hearing their insights, and it was so good to hear from J. Stephan Edwards - he was wearing his Tudor Society pin too! Tudor Society members will know of Stephan from the excellent articles he's written in the past for Tudor Life magazine and others will know of him from his website and his books A Queen of New Invention and Lady Jane Grey's Prayer Book. Stephan has done so much research on Jane, so it was lovely that he got to share his views and work with the public. Tamise Hills of the Lady Jane Grey Reference Guide deserves credit too as she was involved with research for the programme - [round of applause for Tamise].

While there were things I didn't agree with (did I mention the depiction of John Dudley?!), what I thought was really good about this programme was that the two women of July 1553, Jane and Mary, were both presented as tough cookies and not victims of circumstance. For too long the general public has seen Jane as this tragic figure forced on to the throne and then executed, rather than a girl who may not have wanted the crown but accepted it as God's will for her, her destiny. She was issuing orders right up to the end, she locked the privy council in the Tower with her, she acted as queen. As for Mary, she is usually just remembered as Bloody Mary who burnt a load of Protestants, not as the woman who actively rallied men and troops to fight for the crown, as a woman loved by the people and as a woman who was willing to give her life for her cause.

I loved the section on portraits too. Leanda's explanation of why there aren't surviving portraits of Jane, which was on the lines of "well, families wouldn't display a portrait of Aunt Maud the traitor in their homes would they?" [paraphrasing badly here, Leanda was much more eloquent) was brilliant! Funny, but true. And I enjoyed having Stephan's input on portraiture.

I'm one of those who thinks that Lady Jane Grey should be recognised as queen and referred to as Queen Jane, so I was glad to hear that question being discussed at the end. Stephan commented that her reign may have been short and contested, but she was queen for those days in July 1553, she issued orders as queen and acted as queen. Arise Queen Jane from the ashes! Sorry, I'm being all dramatic and romantic!

All in all, I thought it was a good programme and I looked forward to it each night. It wasn't made for historians, it wasn't made for those of us who have researched Jane in depth, it was made for the general public and I know from talking to friends and relatives that it was successful in engaging them and educating them. Even my husband, who has been well indoctrinated and marinated in Tudor history (against his will, of course), came out with "Well, I didn't know that..." much to my exasperation as I'm pretty sure that I had told him that. We've been discussing it for days afterwards and I hope that it led to other families, work colleagues and friends having similar discussions, I'm sure it did.

Congratulations to all those involved.

One person I did miss was the late Eric Ives. His book on Jane was excellent and his background in legal history would have made his insights into Edward VI's devise and Henry VIII's will very valuable in this programme. So sad.

Did you watch it? If so then please do share your thoughts.

There are 13 comments Go To Comment

  1. A

    Was a very interesting & informative programme… really enjoyed it…

  2. D

    I absolutely love these programmes, Helen Castor is very good at this and doesn’t hog the limelight. Jane Grey is a fascinating subject, One comment which may not please many is that it could have been shown over two episodes. Scenes were repeated too often in my opinion. Still loved it and just my thoughts!

  3. J

    I did find it really good and loved way was made Tudors are my favourite history subject and I agree that Jane was a Tudor queen

  4. A

    I loved it but thought the camera work was sometimes a bit clumsy, for example when they were discussing Edward’s diary, I wanted to see the diary for longer and Edward’s handwriting rather than the back of Helen’s hand! Otherwise a great programme 🙂

  5. R

    Sorry but although this was one of the best documentary programmes on television, I just had to scream 13_days, not 9. Jane was proclaimed Queen four days after she became Queen on the day Edward died.

    This was a balanced all round series that showed Jane and Mary as strong, worthy women, who would both have made decent rulers. Jane was part Tudor after all, even if she was never meant to be Queen, had been around her cousins, was intelligent, had a strong mind, was highly strung, book intellectual and she was just as determined in her own cause as Mary was. Just when you think you know everything, it turns out you don’t. I don’t recall anything about Jane locking the Council up in the Tower with her before, loved that. It was also good to see different historians with different views, for a more rounded debate and understanding. The myth of the helpless victim will now hopefully go forever, along with the myth of the horrible parents. Regardless of how accurate the 19th century portrait is, however, as Helen Carter reminded us, even a beheading was a brutal execution. Unless you used a sword and skilled swordsman, execution with an axe could go wrong, because a hangman was used, not experts. In Jane’s case it was fortunate that she was killed with a single stroke. Thomas Cromwell, James, Duke of Monmouth and Mary Queen of Scots all suffered botched executions. I know in the end, Mary Tudor had little choice but to execute Jane, because she could be used again in plots, as a threat to her life and crown, but it was still a tragic loss of one so young and with so much potential.

    Finally, it was very refreshing to have a heroic, positive, popular, strong Queen Mary, a capable woman and a capable woman, with red hair, rather than a dark haired Catholic Spanish fanatic, with a poor reputation. To rally all those men and take command was a tremendous achievement, against impossible odds. Northumberland must have been a real piece of work if he truly believed Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry Viii and Katherine of Aragon, granddaughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand, the four most stubborn people in Europe, was just going to accept that she was not Queen and not fight back. He must have feared her tenacity as he tried to capture her and Elizabeth. For a brief moment, also, the two sisters united and the Tudor throne was won back.

    By the way, although royal on her mother’s side as the granddaughter of Mary Tudor, Henry’s sister, Jane has interesting blood via her father, Sir Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset and Duke of Suffolk because she is the great great granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth Wydeville from her first marriage. Given that connection, her father’s ambitions are not a great surprise.

    1. C - Post Author

      I kept correcting the whole 9 days thing too! I have a bee in my bonnet about that!

  6. S

    Re. Portraits of Jane.
    One hung in Astley Castle Nuneaton where Jane actually stayed at sometime. It hung above the bar and comments were made that her eyes followed you….. the castle became a posh restaurant,but during the 70’s there was a fire there.
    About 5 years ago it was sympathetically restored and won a national award for its preservation.
    3 Queens were said to have stayed there.

    1. C - Post Author

      Are there any photos of that portrait online, Shirley? I’d love to see it.

      1. S

        Really don’t think so.?
        But Astley Castle was/is a place of historic interest if you fancied digging a bit more into its history and see the amazing restoration that was done a few years ago.
        I believe Elizabeth Woodvillle stayed there……she was one of the other Queens I mentioned

  7. P

    Will this be on in the United States? I so much want to see it.

    1. C - Post Author

      I really don’t know but it is available on YouTube at the moment. See for the first episode.

    2. A

      You can watch this on Amazon Prime or numerous streaming services.

  8. a

    Why is the host allowed to touch historical documents with bare hands? In order to preserve, gloves should be worn!

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A review of England’s Forgotten Queen: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey