The traditional story runs like this: Lady Jane Grey was born in 1537, the daughter of Henry VIII's royal niece, Frances, and her husband, Harry Grey, Marques of Dorset. The stout, bejewelled woman in a double portrait by Hans Eworth is still used to illustrate Frances's nature. "Physically she bore a marked resemblance to Henry VIII," notes Alison Weir, a best-selling historian, in her book "The Children of Henry VIII". Here was a woman, "determined to have her own way, and greedy for power and riches," who "ruled her husband and daughters tyrannically and, in the case of the latter, often cruelly."
So Jane grew up an abused child, beaten regularly by her unloving mother. In 1553 the 15-year-old Jane was forced (beaten again) to marry the 18-year-old Guildford Dudley, son of the principal figure in the King's Privy Council, John Dudley. Frances believed the marriage would promote Jane as heir to the dying Protestant King Edward VI. Weeks later Edward did indeed bequeath Jane his throne, in place of his Catholic sister Mary Tudor. Jane was obliged to accept, though she protested through tears that Mary was the rightful claimant.
On July 10th 1553 Jane was processed to the Tower as Queen. The red-haired, red-lipped, smiling girl was so tiny, the story goes, that she wore platform shoes to give her height. Nine days later Mary Tudor overthrew Jane, imprisoning her in the Tower from where she had reigned. Tried and convicted of treason, she remained a prisoner, hoping for pardon, until her father led a failed rebellion against Mary. Although she had nothing to do with the rebellion, Jane was beheaded on February 12th 1554, an "innocent usurper". She was only 16.
The myth is encapsulated in Paul Delaroche's 1833 portrait of Jane, bound and dressed in white on the scaffold (pictured above), a painting with all the erotic overtones of a virgin sacrifice. (Nancy Mitford startlingly told Evelyn Waugh that this image was the source of her adolescent sexual fantasies.) Seemingly unmoved by the execution of both daughter and husband, Frances was remarried within a month to a boyish 21-year-old servant named Adrian Stokes. She lived only for pleasure.
But what factual basis is there for believing Frances was a monster?