I have always revered Elizabeth I. As the daughter of undoubtedly my favourite character from history, Anne Boleyn, and viewed by many as England's greatest ruler she exerts a fascination over many. She was magical. Of course she was. Elizabeth was a political genius, and in possibly the greatest cosmic FU in history would surpass her father as the Tudor dynasties most successful monarch. Despite this, when one starts to delve deeper, there will always be elements of the stories of our heroes that tarnish their reputation. This is true of Elizabeth, for she had another side, a cruel and petty side, and this is most glaringly obvious in her treatment of members of her own extended family, the Grey sisters, Lady Katherine and Lady Mary.
Lady Katherine and Lady Mary are relative unknowns in mainstream English history. Their far more famous sister is of course Lady Jane Grey, known as England's "Nine Days Queen". That she was able to even become Queen, albeit via a coup d'état and reigning for an incredibly short period of time tells you something important about the Grey's - they were royal. No, they weren't star players, they weren't at the centre of things, but they were the great-granddaughters of King Henry VII and thus had royal blood flowing in their veins. The Grey girls were the granddaughters of King Henry VIII's beautiful younger sister, Princess Mary. Their mother Lady Frances Brandon had been raised at the Tudor court as an extended member of the royal family as a first cousin of Henry's three children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. The family tree can be seen below as a visual aid!
Frances was born on the 16th July 1517. Her father was Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, arguably the greatest friend of King Henry VIII. With that said, Charles's marriage to the King's younger sister did cause significant problems for the couple as they had not sought the approval of the King, a crime punishable by death on Brandon's part. Although the King was apoplectic, he held enough affection for his sister and oldest friend, and soon the couple were restored to favour. Frances grew up alongside the King's eldest daughter Mary and the two were said to be close. Her rank as a niece to the King meant that she was frequently at the Tudor court and was treated with reverence as a member of the royal family. In 1533 Frances married Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset. They had five children, three of whom survived infancy - Jane, Katherine and Mary. Frances was particularly close to the final wife of King Henry, Katherine Parr, and used this affinity to secure a place for her eldest daughter Jane in the queens household.
Princess Mary and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk are seen below, alongside a portrait of their daughter, Frances Brandon, mother of Jane, Katherine and Mary.
The Grey family came to major prominence during the reign of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour. In Henry VIII's will he excluded the descendants of his elder sister Princess Margaret, Queen of Scotland from the line of succession for two reasons - their Catholicism and the fact that they had been (mostly) born outside of England. Thus, following his children the next in the line of succession was Frances Brandon as her mother had predeceased the King, and then her three daughters. When Edward VI became gravely ill and it became clear that he would not sire children of his own, he altered the will of his father and removed his two half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth, and also gazumped Lady Frances and named Lady Jane as his heir apparent. Upon his death, Jane was thus proclaimed Queen. Although she reigned only fleetingly and was not formally crowned, I still believe that she was Queen Jane, and should be viewed as the first Queen regnant in English history, a title which often passes to her successor Mary I. Upon Mary overthrowing Jane Grey's rule, Frances's husband was arrested and Jane was held in the Tower of London. Frances rode through the night to implore Mary to release her husband, placing the entire blame of the coup at the feet of the Duke of Northumberland. Mary accepted and Henry Grey was released, although Jane remained in confinement.
Things came crashing down for the Grey family when an uprising led by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger was launched, with the intention of placing Elizabeth on the throne in Mary's place. Henry Grey joined forces with Wyatt, and when that rebellion was crushed by Mary's army it was the end of the road for both Henry Grey and his daughter Jane. Although Jane was wholly innocent of anything more than being of royal blood, her mere existence was such a problem for Queen Mary that she reluctantly signed the death warrant. Jane was beheaded on 12th February 1554 at the age of just 17. Whilst Mary may have felt some guilt over this, it isn't hard to imagine that she was less reticent when it came to signing the death warrant of Jane's father. From being a short lived Queen mother, Frances was now the widow of a traitor and would live in poverty throughout the reign of Queen Mary. Frances remarried in 1555, and chose Adrian Stokes, her Master of Horse, a very wise move, because he was a man so ostensibly inferior to her social standing that it effectively neutralised the threat any children they would have from ever being serious contenders to the throne. Frances lived for another four years, having born three more children to Adrian who all died in early infancy.
Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary I can be seen below.
Frances's two younger daughter's by her marriage to Henry Grey were all that was left of the Grey family in the main line. In 1552 Lady Katherine Grey had been betrothed to Henry, Lord Herbert, the heir apparent to the Earl of Pembroke. Had this wedding been a success then Katherine would have eventually been made a Countess. She lived with her husband at Baynard's Castle for a short time, but once the attempt to place Lady Jane on the throne failed, Katherine's father-in-law the Earl of Pembroke totally broke from any association with the Grey family, and successfully had his sons wedding to Katherine annulled. Whilst all of this was going on, Lady Mary had also been betrothed to Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey. Due to her young age (around seven at this time) the wedding was a betrothal only, and it was quickly broken once Queen Mary I ascended to the throne. Despite all the drama caused by their parents and sister, Katherine and Mary were still viewed as the natural heirs to the throne after Queen Mary. For the early part of Queen Mary's reign Lady Katherine was actually the senior heir-in-line because Elizabeth was still seen as illegitimate under the device for succession drafted by her late brother. Once Elizabeth was restored by Mary, Katherine was demoted one notch further along.
In November 1558, Queen Mary died and was succeeded by her half-sister, the newly anointed Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth had been raised with her cousins Katherine and Mary and appointed them as ladies in waiting. One of Katherine's greatest friends was Lady Jane Seymour, niece of her namesake, Queen Jane Seymour. Lady Jane introduced Katherine to her brother Edward, Earl of Hertford, who was the eldest surviving son of Edward Seymour, Protector Somerset. It would appear that Lady Katherine and the Earl fell in love because they soon married in a secret ceremony in December 1560. I stress that it must have been a love match, because why else would it have been done in secret? As Lady Katherine was of royal blood, this was a huge and illegal slight against the Queen, who would normally have to give royal assent before the wedding could take place. Shortly after the wedding, the Earl was sent on a grand tour of Europe by the Queen to improve his education. The Earl provided Katherine with a document which would prove their marriage and thus allow her to inherit his property should he die on tour. Unfortunately, Katherine lost the document. More unfortunate still was that Katherine fell pregnant not long after the marriage, so whilst her husband was off on tour in Europe, she had an ever growing belly and was on progress herself as part of the royal court. Finally in the eighth month of her pregnancy she confided to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester who was the Queens great favourite and had also been Katherine's late sister's brother-in-law (Dudley was the son of the Duke of Northumberland, and thus the brother of Guildford Dudley, husband of Lady Jane Grey). Katherine visited Dudley's rooms and explained what had happened. The following day, the Earl recounted the whole story to Elizabeth, who was immediately incandescent with rage.
Portraits of Lady Katherine and her husband The Earl of Hertford can be seen below.
The decision to marry without her cousins royal assent was problematic for a few reasons. Chief amongst them that as Elizabeth's heir any children Katherine had would thus also be in the line of succession, and if she had sons then that would be even more challenging. Katherine had also been a useful bargaining chip on the international marriage market. Elizabeth may have not particularly favoured her cousins, but she did at least recognise their rank and it was therefore suggested that Katherine could broker a stronger Anglo-Scottish alliance through marriage to the Earl of Arran, who had a strong claim to the Scottish throne. Her actions essentially rendered this null and void, which in turn weakened Elizabeth's ties with another of the royal houses of Europe. The Queen moved precipitously and imprisoned Katherine in the Tower of London. Once her husband returned to England he was also locked up. Katherine soon gave birth to a healthy son, Edward. In 1562 Elizabeth had the marriage annulled, the Earl was fined the colossal sum of £15,000 for "seducing a virgin of the blood royal", the couples infant son was then declared a bastard. The Lieutenant of the Tower clearly allowed Katherine and her husband to have conjugal visits however, because two years after Edward's birth a brother, Thomas, followed. One must marvel at the sheer nerve of Katherine at this point. Unsurprisingly Elizabeth was enraged that another son had been delivered and she responded cruelly. The Queen ordered the permanent separation of Katherine from both her husband and her eldest son. Katherine was taken out of the tower and placed under house arrest, firstly with her uncle, Sir John Grey, and then with Sir William Petre and finally to Sir John Wentworth of Cockfield Hall. Shortly after arriving at Cockfield, Katherine died of consumption at the age of just 27 on 26th January 1568. Initially interred at Yoxford Church in Suffolk, she was later moved to the far more grand Salisbury Cathedral to be buried alongside her husband, finally reunited, but in death. The Earl outlived his wife by many years and was released from the tower only when Katherine had died. He would reach the grand old age (by Tudor standards) of 81, dying in 1621, just four years before the accession of King Charles I. The final years Katherine's life must have been terribly sad, separated from the man she clearly loved and her first born son. Whilst Katherine's actions were certainly scandalous, Elizabeth's treatment seems unduly harsh, and betrays a less than favourable petty streak in an otherwise magnificent ruler.
As shocking as it may seem, Katherine's younger sister, Lady Mary, made the very same mistake as her, and married without the Queens permission. For a husband, Mary chose Thomas Keyes, a captain of Sandgate Castle in Kent. Like her sister, one can only surmise that this was a love match, because Lady Mary extravagantly outranked her husband and would have known she would gain little power or prestige from sharing his marriage bed. Moreover, he was twice her age and was a widower with seven children. Avoiding the earlier mistakes of her sister, Mary did at least have the sense to insist on having several witnesses at the wedding. The couple have gone down in history for being the most unlikely pairing because of their physicality's. At a time when the average height for a man was around 5ft 6 inches, Thomas literally towered over everyone at the court, standing 6ft 8 inches tall. On the flip side of this, it was noted that Mary was the shortest women at court. It's even been suggested that she had dwarfism, although there is no hard evidence to support this. She was also described as being "crook-backed" which may indicate scoliosis of the spine and "very ugly" by the Spanish Ambassador. This glaring physical disparity between husband and wife was widely, and rather unkindly mocked at court.
Like the marriage of her sister, it was only a short space of time before Elizabeth heard of it. Again she was incensed and wrathfully spat "I'll have no bastard Keyes laying claim to my throne". Mary and her husband were interrogated and thrown into separate jails. Neither would see each other ever again. Mary was housed at Chequers, now known as the country home of the Prime Minister. Her room, known as the Prison Room still carries drawings and writing done by Mary, probably out of sheer boredom, because she was blocked from having any guests and had all money confiscated as well. She was only allowed out for fresh air sparingly. Her husband was in graver confinement still. He was held at Fleet Prison, and supposedly in a cell that was uncomfortably cramped for such a giant of a man. After two years at Chequers, Mary was transferred to the household of her step-grandmother Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, the fourth and final wife of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. The Duchess was said to be shocked at how little Mary had in the way of personal possessions, and was also horrified by how low Mary's spirits were and that she barely ate anything. Katherine raised the point with William Cecil, Chief Advisor to Elizabeth I but it came to nothing. The next two years of Mary's life were more enjoyable, as she was given greater freedom and was said to become close to the Duchesses children. A year later in 1568 Thomas Keyes was released from prison but barred from seeing his wife. The following year he regained his post at Sandgate Prison.
Lady Mary and Elizabeth I can be seen below. No portrait of Keyes exists.
Mary was then transferred to another household, and placed under the care of Sir Thomas Gresham. Unfortunately for Mary, Gresham and his wife were distinctly unpleasant characters and greatly resented Mary's presence, writing regular letters to the Queen requesting that Mary "just go away". During her time with the Gresham's, Mary mostly kept to her rooms reading books. In 1571, Thomas Keyes died from health problems related to his long incarceration. Mary was told of the news in person and was said to breakdown in tears. As awful as it sounds, this did little to soften the view of the Gresham's to Mary's plight, and they began to vociferously plead with the Queen to take Mary from their care. Mary herself, now a widow with no children took matters into her own hands and wrote to Cecil requesting a pardon and release. Initially Elizabeth declined, but the following year in 1572 Mary was given her freedom. She went to live with her stepfather Adrian Strokes, and his new wife, who were supposedly thrilled to have her with them. Mary FINALLY had some people around her who actually cared! Just one year later, Mary was able to buy her own establishment and a small retinue of staff to go with it. She slowly but surely began to reingratiate herself into Elizabeth's court, and a sign that things were improving was at New Years in 1574 when her gift to the Queen was accepted and not declined. The following year, Elizabeth began paying Mary some of the income from Grey properties that had been appropriated to the crown during the years of her and her families imprisonments. This finally gave Mary enough income to live the expected life of a high-born woman.
Things took a greater upturn for Mary when in 1577 she was appointed as a Maid of Honour to Elizabeth I, suggesting her reputation was fully rehabilitated. Elizabeth did layer in a rather snide request, namely that she was to be known as Lady Mary Grey, and not Lady Mary Keyes. Mary, no doubt just wanting the quiet life accepted this slight and was known henceforth by her maiden name. Alas, her place at the side of the Queen did not last long because the following year, the plague returned to England, claiming Mary's life on April 20th 1578. She was 33. Despite the turbulence of their relationship, Elizabeth accorded her cousin the dignity of a grand royal funeral, with a full mourning procession. Mary was buried alongside her mother in a tomb at Westminster Abbey, where she remains to this day. Unlike her sisters, Mary did at least spend her final years in relative comfort. She clearly loved her husband, and his low birth should have actually acted as a relief to Elizabeth I, because any children begot by them would have been considered too lowly for the line of succession, but again Elizabeth showed a petty and cruel side in separating two people who's only crime had been to fall in love. I think Mary knew that had she requested to marry Keyes that it would have been declined, so she was damned if she did and damned if she didn't essentially.
Frances Brandon's tomb can be seen below, which also contains the remains of Lady Mary.
The treatment of the Grey sisters is definitely a blot on Elizabeth's reign and character. Yes, their actions were illegal and arguably quite foolish, but the Queens response was unjustly cruel, and was even viewed as such by many contemporaries at the time. I respect that Katherine's marriage did have wider negative impacts on the Queen, which perhaps justifies some of her venom, but to separate a mother from her child does seem monstrous. The treatment of Mary was also particularly cruel, especially when one considers that Mary was viewed as a somewhat pitiful character anyway, whose marriage gave her a reason to be happy and wouldn't have challenged Elizabeth's rule too significantly.
As Elizabeth aged, I hope that she looked back on the treatment of her cousins, and did feel some guilt over the actions. Based on everything we know of this most capricious of queens however, I highly doubt it!
Written by Adam Pennington
19th September 2021