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What if Lady Jane Grey had kept the throne?
The Tudors were arguably our most famous royal dynasty with the likes of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I adorning their ranks. You’d be forgiven though if you hadn’t known that within the House of Tudor there had also been a sixteen-year-old queen who reigned for just nine days.
Her name was Lady Jane Grey, a highly intelligent, devout protestant who became caught in a power struggle that would see her unwillingly ascend to the throne and pay the ultimate price for it.
Jane was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII. Born into wealth and status, her father was Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk. Her parents had high hopes for their daughter, providing her with an excellent education in the hope of securing a good marriage for Jane.
Following in the footsteps of her father, Jane became a protestant and after living with Thomas Seymour, King Edward VI's uncle who married Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s widow, her protestant beliefs grew devout.
In court, the young Jane was introduced to John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who was the regent to King Edward VI. The young king was unwell and if he were to die his half-sister Mary would ascend to the throne. Mary was a Roman Catholic when both Dudley and Edward were Protestants. Fearing his time in court was numbered, Dudley concocted a plan to firstly to save his own skin and secondly keep the throne Protestant.
Against her will, Jane was married off to Dudley’s son Lord Guildford Dudley. The elder Dudley then persuaded the dying king to write Jane into his will, which Edward duly did, nominating her to the Crown.
On 6 July 1553, Edward passed away and four days later Jane became the first woman in English history to be proclaimed Queen. However, the reluctant monarch was never crowned, as nine days later the far more popular Mary, backed by an army, ousted the teenager. She was tried, convicted of high treason and sentenced to death.
Although Mary initially suspended Jane’s execution, Jane’s father took part in a rebellion against Mary. This led the Queen to order Jane, her husband and her father to be executed since they were too much of a threat to her reign. Jane was beheaded on 12 February 1554.
Mary went on to be known as ‘Bloody Mary’ after she revived England’s heresy laws which led to around 300 Protestants being burnt at the stake. But what if Lady Jane Grey had held onto power? How would English history have turned out differently? Let’s take a look at three different scenarios.
Scenario 1: She lasts a few months before being deposed
There are two big hurdles to overcome when suggesting Lady Jane Grey could have ruled for many years. The first is her weak and unpopular claim to the throne. The two half-sisters of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, both had stronger claims being daughters of Henry VIII. Both also had more popular support amongst the nobility and common folk. Jane, however, had no real independent base of support and was also less trained in how to rule, unlike either Mary or Elizabeth.
Which brings us onto the second hurdle - Jane’s reluctance to be Queen. She was a pawn caught up in the power struggles of her father and John Dudley; she never wished to sit upon the English throne. For Jane to hold onto the crown it would have required her to develop a deep desire to fight and vanquish all other claimants.
It’s hard to see her holding onto power, in a mostly Catholic country, much beyond a few months.
The era of Bloody Mary is avoided but Elizabeth eventually overthrows Jane
For this scenario to work we need to bypass the problems raised in the first scenario and imagine a world where Jane somehow manages to hold onto power against Mary. Either Mary is captured before Jane takes the throne and her supporters begrudgingly accept the will of Edward as law or (more likely) a bloody civil war is conducted and Jane comes out on top. In the end, Mary is either imprisoned or executed.
Avoiding the reign of Bloody Mary means no Protestant persecution. Mary had also attempted to undo the English Reformation, so without Mary, it’s most likely the English Reformation would have continued uninterrupted under Jane. Being the devout Protestant that she was, the move to a completely Protestant England happens more forcibly and quicker under Jane than it does in our timeline under Elizabeth and the Stuarts.
However, the inexperience of Jane coupled with the unpopularity of her advisers ensures her downfall. Many view her as the puppet of her father and Dudley and with Elizabeth still alive, support for the daughter of Henry VIII grows. Soon she has enough backing from the populace, as well as the nobility, to mount a charge for the throne. Jane is deposed, imprisoned and most likely executed to prevent any future rebellion against Elizabeth’s rule.
However, the civil war Jane waged against Mary has left the country weakened and more susceptible to foreign invasion. Elizabeth must firstly deal with any imminent threats from abroad before she can turn her attention to affairs at home.
Scenario 3: Mary and Elizabeth are defeated, Jane rules for many years
Although it is the most unlikely of our three scenarios, let us suspend belief and imagine how things might have panned out had Jane overcome the difficulties of the previous scenarios and gone on to rule for many years.
Dudley captures and executes Mary and Elizabeth and any unrest amongst the populace is quickly suppressed. With the threat of both women now neutralised, Jane assumes the throne.
Under Jane, the English Reformation continues unbroken although, as previously mentioned, more forcibly. Jane faces continued Catholic opposition but embraces her position with renewed vigour. Jane cleverly manoeuvres the country out of a civil war. She takes the place of Elizabeth I in history as the intelligent and strong female ruler who guided the country through a tumultuous period of history.
Jane and her husband most likely have children, leading to Protestant heirs to the throne. The country never returns to Catholicism and the line of succession is altered forever. In our timeline, James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth. Without Elizabeth there is no James, without James there is no House of Stuarts, with no House of Stuarts there is no union of the Scottish and English crowns under one monarch.
Instead, the Tudors retain their hold on the throne for generations to come, entirely reshaping the course of English history.