Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk: History's Scapegoat?

Above: A portrait identified by some as Frances Grey, duchess of Suffolk.

History remembers Lady Jane Grey, the so-called 'nine days queen', as an innocent teenager brutally sacrificed on the altar of ambition, greed and political treachery. This interpretation runs concurrently with the belief that Jane's family, the Greys, and her Dudley in-laws, were mercilessly ambitious, cold-hearted, scheming and brutal in their quest for power and position. In particular, Jane's mother, Frances Grey, duchess of Suffolk, is usually presented as the mother from hell: physically abusive, she allegedly took delight in bullying her young daughter and treating her with calculated cruelty. But is there any evidence for this dark view of Frances Grey?

High-born Tudor women were prone to misrepresentation and character assassination in their own lifetimes and have been savagely condemned up until the present day. Prominent examples include Anne Boleyn and Anne Stanhope, duchess of Somerset. Frances Grey is a notable example of this trend. Yet, as historical fiction writer Susan Higginbotham notes: 'the real Frances Grey bears no resemblance to the lurid tales about her. Only in our own time has she become a controversial and loathed figure'. Indeed, in her own lifetime, the Duchess of Suffolk was a respected, popular and influential woman who occupied a central place at court. Who then, exactly, was the real Frances Grey, niece of Henry VIII, mother of Lady Jane Grey and wife of the Duke of Suffolk?

Suffolk, Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of, Viscount Lisle

Above: Frances's parents: Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk (left), and his wife Mary Tudor, formerly queen consort of France (right).

Frances Brandon was born on 16 July 1517 at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, the seat of the bishops of Ely. She was the eldest daughter of Henry VIII's close friend and brother-in-law Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, by his wife Mary Tudor, younger sister of the king. Frances grew up and was educated at Westhorpe in Suffolk. In the spring of 1533 at Suffolk House in London, sixteen-year-old Frances married Henry Grey, marquis of Dorset. Her mother died at the end of June that same year. Frances served as principal mourner at her funeral in July. It is impossible to know how close she had been to Mary, but Frances surely mourned her mother's death. 

After four years of marriage, Frances gave birth to her first daughter, Jane, probably in the spring of 1537 (although Jane's exact date of birth is not known). In novels such as Alison Weir's Innocent Traitor (2006), the ruthlessly ambitious Grey parents react with disappointment and anger to the birth of a daughter, but it is unlikely that this would have been the case in reality. The birth of a daughter might have been disappointing, but Frances was only twenty years old and had many years of childbearing ahead of her. As historian Eric Ives correctly notes, the Grey parents were not in the public eye when their first daughter was born, and neither Jane's date nor her place of birth have been recorded, much less her parents' response to her birth. In August 1540, a second daughter, Catherine, followed, and five years later, Mary was born in 1545. That same year, Frances's father, Charles Brandon, died. 

Frances occupied an important place at court during these years. At this time, she attended Queen Katherine Parr, who was her aunt by marriage. She enjoyed a close relationship with Lady Mary, eldest daughter of Henry VIII. Frances's relationship with Queen Katherine is significant, because the queen famously enjoyed close relations with Jane Grey, Frances's eldest daughter. Jane lived in the household of Katherine Parr following the death of Henry VIII, but upon Katherine's death in 1548 Jane returned to her family home at Bradgate in Leicestershire to live with her parents.

Above: Frances's eldest daughters: Jane (left) and Catherine (right).

Frances's relations with her eldest daughter have been, to say the least, controversial. Cultural depictions present Frances as a bullying and cruel mother who treated Jane harshly and mercilessly, physically beating her into submission. This antipathy towards Frances, which stemmed from a belief that she was a poor mother, first emerged in the eighteenth-century, at the same time in which Lady Jane Grey was cast as an innocent martyr and angelic figure, incapable of sin. As Higginbotham notes, however, it was the thirteen-year-old Jane's complaint about her parents to her tutor Roger Ascham in 1550 that has caused the greatest damage to Frances's reputation. Jane complained:

For when I am in presence either of father or mother; whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand, or go, eat, drink, be merry, or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing any thing else; I must do it, as it were, in such weight, measure, and number, even so perfectly, as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips, and bobs, and other ways (which I will not name for the honour I bear them) so without measure misordered, that I think myself in hell...

Higginbotham suggests that 'the impact of Ascham's recollection on Frances's reputation simply cannot be understated', for historians and novelists have used this quote from Jane to construct an image of the Grey parents as abusive and tyrannical monsters who inflicted misery on their daughters. Yet, as Frank Prochaska noted, 'Ascham may have 'overblown' Jane's comments to create additional support for his argument that teachers should not take on the role of parents and use corporal punishment to motivate their students to study' (Warnicke). Undoubtedly, Ascham may have exaggerated or even distorted what Jane actually said about her parents. Moreover, as Warnicke notes, it is significant that Ascham's account was published only after the deaths of both Jane and her parents, when he felt it was safe to do so. 

Thus, Frances has been characterised as a cruel and abusive mother, and her daughter Jane an innocent and sinless victim of her mother's wrath and hatred. But Alison Plowden is right to point out that Jane's complaints about her parents may actually reflect 'the attitude of a priggish, opinionated teenager, openly scornful of her parents' conventional, old-fashioned tastes'. It is surely going too far to use this 'evidence' to construct such a dark view of Frances Grey, without any other supporting evidence. In fact, the Duchess appears to have been a well-respected and popular figure in society, and there is no evidence that her relations with her younger daughters Catherine and Mary were difficult or problematic. 

Moreover, even if Jane's parents did discipline her, it seems to be going too far to characterise Jane as the victim of 'child abuse', as some historians and novelists have. In early modern England, parents were admonished to use corporeal punishment as last resort. Lloyd deMause, an American psychologist, famously put forward the suggestion in his The History of Childhood (1974) that 'the further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten [and] terrorized'. Other noted scholars, such as Lawrence Stone and Philippe Aries, have provided evidence in support of this. Therefore, even if Jane was physically disciplined by Frances, it does not mean that Frances was 'a child abuser' or 'a bad mother'. To condemn her as such is to apply modern values to a premodern society that had very different views and understandings of childhood.

Above: A portrait for centuries identified as a depiction of Frances Grey (left) and her second husband Adrian Stokes (right), but which actually shows Lady Mary Dacre and her son Gregory Fiennes.

Belief in Frances's supposedly cruel nature has been encouraged by a portrait thought to depict Frances alongside her second husband, Adrian Stokes, whom she married in 1555. The female figure appears greedy, unattractive, grasping and uncaring. Historians have utilised the picture as 'evidence' of the Duchess's unfavourable character. Hester Chapman, believing that the portrait depicted Frances, commented that the woman appears 'greedy', 'actively cruel' and 'coldly indifferent'. Yet the portrait is not of Frances at all, but of Lady Mary Dacre. 

Above: A depiction of the execution of Lady Jane Grey. Frances Grey pleaded with Queen Mary to show mercy for both her daughter and husband.

1553 was a momentous year for the Grey family. In May of that year, sixteen-year-old Jane wed Guildford Dudley, a younger son of the Earl of Warwick, and twelve-year-old Catherine married Henry Herbert, son of the earl of Pembroke. Traditionally, it has been assumed that the reluctant Jane was physically beaten by her parents until she agreed to marry Guildford. Only continental sources put forward this story, and as such were probably reflecting sensational rumour rather than fact. English sources make no mention of any coercion. Jane was a member of the aristocracy, and would have been well aware that her marriage was politically motivated to benefit and enhance her family. When writing to Mary Tudor later on, Jane did not blame her parents.

Scholars have debated endlessly about whether the Greys allied with the Dudleys in a conspiracy to usurp the throne from Mary Tudor and replace her with the Protestant Jane. Evidence compellingly indicates that Edward VI, determined to prevent the Catholic Mary from becoming queen, masterminded a 'devise' which proposed that his Protestant cousin Jane succeed to the throne, in place of his illegitimate sisters Mary and Elizabeth. Following Edward's death on 6 July, Jane was proclaimed queen, although a lack of support for her cause amidst the remarkable disorganisation of her regime meant that she was swiftly deposed by Mary, whom many regarded as the rightful queen. Jane was imprisoned in the Tower alongside her husband and her father-in-law Warwick (now duke of Northumberland).

Frances had traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with Queen Mary, and certainly pleaded for her husband's freedom, and perhaps also for that of her imprisoned daughter. On 22 August 1553, Northumberland was executed on Tower Hill. Jane and her husband were found guilty of high treason in November, although the queen was inclined to mercy and intended to spare both from execution. Frances continued to reside at court. How she felt about her daughter's plight can only be imagined. Given the flawed and distorted nature of the 'evidence' for her relations with Jane, it is impossible to tell what the real nature of the relationship between the two was like, but Frances surely experienced considerable emotional turmoil and distress.

Jane almost certainly would have been spared, had it not been for the outbreak of Wyatt's Rebellion in early 1554, an uprising seeking to prevent the queen's planned marriage to the Catholic prince, Philip of Spain. The involvement of Jane's father, the duke of Suffolk, sealed Jane's fate. On 12 February, the sixteen-year-old was put to death on Tower Green, shortly after her husband Guildford's execution on Tower Hill. Eleven days later, Frances's husband was beheaded. In the space of less than two weeks, Frances had lost both her husband and eldest daughter. Her grief, distress and pain can only be imagined. 

Frances was now placed in a very difficult position. She pleaded with the queen for clemency, and was allowed to remain at court with her two daughters. Catherine and Mary were respectively thirteen and nine years old when they lost their sister and father. These devastating events must have overshadowed their childhoods and caused both of them considerable emotional pain and torment. In March 1555, the thirty-eight year old Frances remarried. Because Frances had royal blood, that her second husband, Adrian Stokes, was merely her master of the horse, seems to indicate that her remarriage was motivated not by political ambition, but by love. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Frances deliberately chose Stokes as her second husband in a shrewd attempt to ensure that any children she had with her second husband would be too lowborn to be viewed as potential claimants to the throne. Frances remained on good terms with Queen Mary, who allowed her to reside at Richmond, while Catherine and Mary served as maids of honour to their cousin the queen. Frances had a daughter, Elizabeth, by her second husband, who died in 1556.

On 20 November 1559, Frances died at forty-two years of age. She was buried at Westminster Abbey. Her second daughter Catherine acted as chief mourner. Adrian erected a tomb with a recumbent figure in Frances's memory. Frances's funeral was actually the first Protestant service at the abbey after the reconstitution of its chapter. The inscription on Frances's grave reads (in Latin):

Nor grace, nor splendour, nor a royal name,

Nor widespread fame can aught avail; 
All, all have vanished here.
True worth alone Survives the funeral pyre and silent tomb. 

As Higginbotham relates, Frances Grey, duchess of Suffolk, was not a controversial woman in her own lifetime. She was respected, revered and liked. She has been more slandered in modern times than she ever was in her lifetime. As historian Leanda de Lisle notes, however:

'Since the eighteenth century she [Frances] has been used as the shadow that casts into brilliant light the eroticised figure of female helplessness that Jane came to represent. While Jane is the abused child-woman of these myths, Frances has been turned into an archetype of female wickedness; powerful, domineering and cruel.'

It is time to separate fact from fiction in the turbulent, extraordinary life of Frances Grey, duchess of Suffolk. We lack  evidence for how she felt; how she interacted with her daughters; what her relationship with her husband Henry Grey was like. It seems unfair to condemn and disparage her, when there is no evidence to support this negative treatment. Frances was an esteemed and respected figure in her lifetime, and although she may certainly have experienced difficult relations with her eldest daughter, Lady Jane Grey, it seems to be going much too far to view Frances as an abusive mother who cruelly tyrannised her children. If anything, Frances deserves our sympathy and compassion for enduring a life replete with suffering. 


  1. This is a great reading on Frances Grey; I, too, have only previously encountered descriptions of her as cruel and selfish.

    Something I love about your scholarship, Conor, is how you work to offer different (and compassionate) perspectives on those who history, and other historians, have maligned. Your biography of Katherine Howard is an excellent example of this. You waded fearlessly into a sea of scholars and readers whose default setting is to doubt women's claims of rape. (Katherine's case is a clear demonstration of rape culture: her own statements aren't taken seriously, and those like you who do suggest we consider that her sexual history could have been influenced by physical or psychological force face accusations of “demonizing” the men involved.) By asking us instead to look for and listen to Katherine's voice, to consider her words and the meanings they might have had at the time, you are not only providing valuable historical nuance, you are making the world better for women as a whole.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Amanda,
      Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comment, and for taking the time both to read this post and to write something about it. I really appreciate it! I believe that we need to seek out the women's voices themselves in these documents. These voices have tended to be silenced or brushed to one side over the centuries.
      Another maligned woman from this period is Anne Seymour, duchess of Somerset, who I wrote a post about yesterday. You might be interested in reading about her - like Frances, the duchess has been unfairly vilified.
      Again, thank you.