Jane Grey





Mary Tudor



John Dudley





















To my many friends who have grappled with The Reign of Edward VI



Anon., Jane Grey (c.1590) [the ‘Houghton Jane’]. © reserved; collection unknown – previously in the collection of Houghton Hall

Anon., Lady conjectured to be ‘The Lady Jane Graye executed’ [the ‘Northwick Park Jane’]. From Roy Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits (NPG, 1969)

Marcus Gheeraerts (attrib.), Katherine Grey. From H. Chapman, Two Tudor Portraits (1960)

Hans Eworth, Mary Grey. By kind permission of the trustees of the Chequers estate/Mark Fiennes/Bridgeman Art Library

Willem and Magdalena de Passe, Jane Grey (engr. c.1620). © National Portrait Gallery, London

Levina Teerlinc, Lady conjectured to be Jane Grey. © Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection/Bridgeman Art Library

George Vertue, Jane Grey (engr. J. Basire). Nichols, Leicester

Anon., Lady conjectured to be Jane Grey [the ‘Wrest Park Jane’]. Private Collection

Hans Eworth, Portrait of a Lady. © Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge/The Bridgeman Art Library

Bradgate Park, engr. Johannes Kip (c.1715). Nichols, Leicester

John Throsby, Bradgate Park, engr. Walker (1777–8). Nichols, Leicester

Anon., Robert Dudley, brother of Guildford Dudley (engraving of NPG247 as Earl of Leicester). Heritage Image Partnership/Imagestate

Hans Holbein the younger, The Dutchess of Suffolk (1532–43). The Royal Collection © 2009, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Anon., Katherine Parr (1545). © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anon., Katherine Parr (1545). © National Portrait Gallery, London

Hans Eworth, Mary I. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anon., Edward VI and the Pope (c.1570). © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anon., John Dudley, earl of Warwick, duke of Northumberland. Penshurst Place, by kind permission of Viscount De L’Isle

Hans Eworth, Henry Fitzalan, earl of Arundel. © The Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum, USA/The Bridgeman Art Library

Sudeley Castle. © The author

Edward VI, ‘A summary of matters to be concluded’. BL Lansdowne MS 1236 fo. 19

William Theed the Younger, Lady Jane Grey at her studies (relief from the Prince’s Chamber, Palace of Westminster). © Palace of Westminster Collection

The Tower of London (engr. 1742). The Society of Antiquaries of London

Jane Grey, letter to Thomas Seymour (1548). National Archives SP10/5 no. 5

Jane Grey, letter to Henry Bullinger (7 July, 1552). © Zentralbibliothek Zürich, RP18

M. Florio, copy of Regole de la lingua thoscana dedicated and presented to Jane Grey (original binding). BL Sloane MS 3011

Jane Grey’s Prayer book, inscribed to Sir John Brydges. BL Harleian MS 2342 fos. 74v, 75

Edward VI, ‘My deuise for the succession’. Inner Temple, Petyt MS 47 fo. 317 by kind permission of the Masters of the Bench

Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833). © The National Gallery/The Bridgeman Art Library


The Tudor family in June 1536

The succession according to Henry VIII's will

Edward VI's ‘deuise’, VERSION ONE

Edward VI's ‘deuise’, VERSION TWO

Edward VI's ‘declaracion’, 21 June 1553



JANE Grey, the rightful queen of England, was deposed on 19 July 1553 and beheaded on 12 February 1554. This may not be what the text books say, but it is the conclusion offered by this study. The book is not a conventional biography. Jane Grey did not live to see seventeen and the successive crises which destroyed her lasted, each of them, for only a fortnight. It is, rather, ‘a mystery’, a detective story, in English parlance, ‘a whodunnit’. It asks how it was that in 1553 England came suddenly and desperately close to civil war and why those involved behaved as they did. It surveys the facts, discusses the options, suggests where the evidence leads, and weaves the discussion around as much as can be known of the remarkable girl who in right was the fourth of the Tudor monarchs and the first of the Dudley line. As with the solutions offered to every ‘mystery’, it is for the jury of readers to be persuaded or otherwise.

The notion of ‘a mystery’ determines the structure of the book. It looks first at the available evidence and then assesses each of the protagonists in turn. Next the complexities of the key decisions are unravelled. The narrative of Jane's thirteen-day reign follows and finally the focus switches back to the sixteen-year-old and the last six months which elevated her to martyrdom.

In the course of what has been a tortuous investigation I owe a debt of gratitude to many archivists and librarians, notably Philippa Bassett (University of Birmingham), Andrea Clarke (British Library), Bridget Clifford (Royal Armouries), Tanya Cooper (National Portrait Gallery), Michael Frost (Inner Temple Library), Wayne Hammond (Williams College, Mass.), Sonja Marie Isaacs (the Lady Jane Grey Internet Museum), Alexandra Kess-Hall (University of Zurich), Sheila O'Connell (British Musuem), Michael Page (Surrey History Centre), Jayne Ringrose (University of Cambridge), Susan Tomkins (Beaulieu), Naomi van Loo (New College, Oxford University) and Martin Killeen (University of Birmingham). I am also indebted to discussions with and generous help from Diarmaid MacCulloch and many other scholars and critics, particularly Benjamin S. Baum, Dermot Fenlon, Christopher Foley, Meg.Harper, Susan Ives, Leanda de Lisle, Nicholas Orme, Inga Walton and Barry Young. Not least, this book owes much to Tessa Harvey and her colleagues at Wiley-Blackwell. Finally the dedication bears tribute to the students who, over the years, have joined me in wrestling with ‘the mystery’ of 1553.

Titles and Offices

IN the years covered by this study, titles and office-holders changed. What follows lists the principal identifications; see also the index.


see: Dudley, John [I]; Seymour,
Thomas; Fiennes, Edward

Brandon, Charles


duke of Suffolk


lord great master and president of the council

Brandon, Frances


marchioness of Dorset


duchess of Suffolk


Lady Stokes

Canterbury, Archbishop of


see: Cranmer, Thomas



Thomas Wriothesley


Richard Rich


Thomas Goodrich

Clinton, Lord

see: Fiennes, Edward

Cranmer, Thomas


archbishop of Canterbury

Darcy, Thomas


vice-chamberlain of the household


Lord Darcy of Chiche


lord chamberlain of the household

Dorset, marchioness of

see: Brandon, Frances

Dorset, marquis of

see: Grey, Henry

Dudley, John [I]


Viscount Lisle

1543–7, 1549–50



earl of Warwick


lord great chamberlain


lord great master and president of the council


duke of Northumberland

Dudley, John [II]


earl of Warwick

Durham, bishop of

1530–52, 1554–9

Cuthbert Tunstal

Ely, bishop of


see: Goodrich, Thomas

Fiennes, Edward


Lord Clinton



French Ambassadors


René de Laval de Boisdauphin


Antoine de Noailles

Goodrich, Thomas


bishop of Ely



Grey, Henry


marquis of Dorset


duke of Suffolk

Hastings, Francis


Lord Hastings


earl of Huntingdon

Hastings, Henry


Lord Hastings


earl of Huntingdon

Herbert, William [I]


Lord Herbert


earl of Pembroke

Herbert, William [II]


Lord Herbert


earl of Pembroke

Hertford, earl of

see: Seymour

Huntingdon, earl of

see: Hastings

Imperial Ambassadors


Eustace Chapuys


François Van der Delft


Jehan Scheyfve


Simon Renard

Lisle, Viscount

see: Dudley, John [I]

Lord chamberlain


Thomas lord Darcy of Chiche

Lord great chamberlain

see: Parr; Dudley, John [I]

Lord great master and president of the council

see: Brandon, Charles; Paulet; Dudley, John [I]

Lord privy seal

see: Russell, John

Lord protector

see: Seymour, Edward [I]

Lord treasurer

see: Paulet

Northampton, marquis of

see: Parr

Parr, William


earl of Essex


marquis of Northampton


marquis of Northampton


lord great chamberlain

Paulet, William


Lord St John


lord great master and president of the council


earl of Wiltshire


lord treasurer


marquis of Winchester


see: Seymour, Edward [I]

Radcliffe, Henry


earl of Sussex

Radcliffe, Thomas


Lord Fitzwalter


earl of Sussex

Russell, John


Lord Russell


lord privy seal


earl of Bedford

Russell, Francis


Lord Russell


earl of Bedford

Salisbury, countess of


Margaret Pole

Secretaries of state


William Paget


William Petre


William Cecil


John Cheke

Seymour, Edward [I]


Viscount Beauchamp


earl of Hertford


lord protector


duke of Somerset

Seymour, Edward [II]


earl of Hertford

Seymour, Thomas


Lord Seymour



Southampton, earl of

see: Wriothesley, Thomas

Suffolk, duke of

see: Brandon, Charles; Grey, Henry

Sussex, earl of

see: Radcliffe

Vice-chamberlain of the household

see: Darcy


John Gates

Winchester, bishop of

1531–51, 1553–5

Stephen Gardiner

Winchester, marquis of

see: Paulet

Wriothesley, Thomas




Lord Wriothesley


earl of Southampton

The Tudor family in June 1536


The succession according to Henry VIII's will


Edward VI's ‘deuise’, VERSION ONE


Edward VI's ‘deuise’, VERSION TWO


Edward VI's ‘declaracion’, 21 June 1553


The movement of forces, July 1553



ON the evening of Sunday 11 February 1554 Jane Grey sat writing in the gentleman-gaoler's house in the Tower of London. She was sixteen. Slightly built, ‘prettily shaped and graceful’ but short enough to require platform shoes, Jane had brown eyes, hair nearly red, and a fair complexion with freckles. She was also frighteningly precocious; her scholarly reputation was talked of as far away as Zurich. But that evening she was not composing one of her elegant Latin missives to a foreign scholar. Jane was saying farewell. In twelve hours she would be dead, beheaded on the scaffold she had watched being built on the other side of Tower Green. Except for its horrifying finality, her death would be a piece with the whole of Jane's previous life. From birth she had been treated as an object to be passed around to the advantage of first one Svengali and then another. Now she was to be disposed of finally at the behest of her cousin, the ageing Queen Mary I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon.

Jane had by then been in the Tower for seven months, but not originally on Mary's instructions. On Monday 10 June 1553 Jane had been escorted to the royal apartments next to the White Tower with pomp and ceremony as, following the death of her cousin Edward VI the previous Thursday, leading magnates of the realm united to proclaim her queen. Taking over the fortress was a symbolic act of possession required of all incoming English monarchs. All that remained was Jane's coronation. But ten days later the Tower changed into a prison, ten days which had seen Mary displace her in a wholly unexpected political coup.

That, of course, is not the way in which the events of 1553 have been remembered. Over the centuries there has been almost a tacit agreement to play down Jane Grey's revolt as ‘not quite English’, a piece of naked self-seeking in contrast to morally acceptable rebellions which are driven by principle, by genuine grievances or by loyalty to a ‘king over the water’. The name by which Jane Grey is universally remembered says it all: ‘the nine days queen’ – not so much because she ruled for nine days (the more correct figure is thirteen), but because her reign was a proverbial ‘nine days wonder’. Yet when Edward died, Jane's succession had looked secure. Nobody in the know gave Mary any chance at all; even the envoys of her cousin and supporter, the emperor Charles V, had concluded that ‘her promotion to the crown will be so difficult as to be well-nigh impossible’. Jane's backers held all the cards. They controlled the machinery of government; the whole of the political establishment was sworn to her, so too the royal guard; the Tower (the nation's armoury) was held in her name, the navy similarly. We have to turn tradition on its head and recognize that it was not Mary but Jane who was the reigning queen; her so-called ‘rebellion’ against Queen Mary was, in reality, the ‘rebellion of Lady Mary’ against Queen Jane. Mary's achievement was unique in the century and a half which separates the fifteenth-century wars of York and Lancaster from the seventeenth-century Civil War of king and parliament. It was the single occasion when the power of the English crown was successfully flouted. She alone of all the challengers succeeded in taking over government, capital and country, and in so doing ousted an incumbent ruler who had all the state's resources behind her. Had Mary failed as was expected, Jane Grey would have been the fourth monarch of the Tudor line and her rival, yet one more illegitimate contestant in the competition for the English throne which had been going on since 1399.

Of course, no sooner had Mary won than the country became unanimous that she was and always had been the legitimate heir to her brother. History is always written by the winners. In popular memory, the story of Lady Jane Grey and the rebellion of 1553 has become one of the great mythic dramas of English history. When the curtain rises, Edward VI is centre stage, two months short of his sixteenth birthday, coughing away his life, tortured in equal portions by disease and Tudor medicine. Who is to succeed him? Enter Edward's half-sister Mary, Henry VIII's elder daughter and the young king's ‘rightful’ heir. Also enter Mephistopheles, John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, Edward's chief minister, dragging with him the teenage Jane Grey whom he has forced to marry his son Guildford. Determined to oust Mary in favour of this daughter-in-law and his son her husband, the duke is willing to endanger everything the Tudor kings have achieved in rescuing England from the lawlessness and political collapse of the Wars of the Roses. Around the duke is a gaggle of noble sycophants cowed into supporting him, but from the wings comes the chorus, common folk, loyal-hearted Englishmen, who surge on to the stage, win Mary the crown and bring the curtain down on the duke's machinations. Right triumphs. England's future is saved, and Jane and Guildford, innocent victims, go to the Tower and death.

The script for this drama virtually wrote itself. When Mary won, those who had backed Jane – who, as we shall see, included virtually the whole of the English political establishment – had to find a fall guy. It was in everyone's interest to depict the crisis as the evil action of one overbearing individual. When the earl of Arundel arrived to arrest Northumberland, the duke reminded Arundel that he had only acted to implement properly authorized decisions for which the earl and the rest of the council were equally responsible. The reply was the most cynical brush-off in Tudor history: ‘My lord, you should have sought for mercy sooner.’ Nor did Dudley's reputation benefit from any rehabilitation. With the English elite vying with each other to express loyalty to the Tudor line, there was every reason not to ask how the duke had seen things. It was not in the interest of his family to say anything either. ‘The axe was home’ and the overriding concern of the Dudleys was to escape the family ruin which went with condemnation for treason. Within months, Jane's surviving brothers-in-law were out of the Tower, jousting before Mary and her husband Philip, on the road to restoration. Nothing changed even when Elizabeth's accession effectively brought back the Dudley ascendancy of 1553 – minus the duke. With those brothers-in-law, Robert and Ambrose, secure in the new queen's favour and on the way to earldoms, with their sister Mary the most intimate of Elizabeth's companions and with William Cecil, the duke's erstwhile henchman, her most trusted adviser, it was a case of ‘least said soonest mended’. Not that all consciences were clear. Cecil spent twenty years devising excuses for his behaviour in 1553!

The effect of this collective omertà has been to discourage interest in the actual crisis of July 1553. The case has become progressively colder. Overwhelmingly, concern has been diverted to Jane's personal tragedy. Furthermore, the evident importance of both the progress of religious reformation under Edward and of the attempt under Mary to reverse that progress has made the fortnight that intervened between the one and the other appear insignificant. Commenting on the episode the great Restoration judge, Matthew Hale, spoke for the majority. It was ‘only a small usurpation … which lasted but a few days and soon went out.’ In consequence the crisis of 1553 today offers the components of a detective story, both a ‘whodunnit’ of the early genre – concerned with ways and means – and the emphasis on character and psychology of more recent writing. Certainly the episode was not simple. Many things and many people came into conflict – the provinces with the centre, the general populace with the political elite, the new Protestant religion with the old religion of Rome, the will of the dying Edward with the political calculation of men around him, legitimist loyalty to Mary against Northumberland's loyalty to Edward VI, the brilliantly effective duke against men whose hatred of him conjured effectiveness out of nothing. The episode poses question after question. That it was also a struggle between two women, Mary and Jane, seems almost incidental. Mary Tudor herself played a key role in her victory; Jane Grey was the least influential figure in the crisis. On Sunday 9 July 1553 Jane was informed that she was queen of England, on Thursday 19 July Jane was told that she was not, and she had as little say in the one as the other. The victorious Mary recognized as much. She left Jane and her husband in the Tower, in isolation and obscurity. Only by a subsequent turn of events Jane knew nothing about was she awaiting the headsman on that Sunday in February 1554.





IN England, 1553 had opened with hope. The crises which had darkened recent years seemed to be receding. The 1552 harvest had been good; prices, though high, had of late been weakening; debasement of the coinage had been stopped and the currency was stable; the pound had recovered its international value; royal debt was under control; law and order was back and the epidemic of ‘the sweat’ had eased. Fundamental problems remained, notably the inadequate revenue, but even here modest steps towards reform were in hand. Abroad, England had successfully avoided entanglements and the two ‘big beasts’ of Europe – France and the Habsburg empire – were once more at each other's throats. Best of all, the country had a young and vigorous king on the verge of manhood – some three months past his fifteenth birthday. At that particular time Edward was at Greenwich enjoying the Christmas season. The festivities were lavish, with the Lord of Misrule descending on the court with a large cast of assistants and an elaborate programme for appearances at Greenwich and in London. On New Year's eve the lavish programme included a juggler, a mock joust on a dozen hobby horses and a Robin Hood sequence; on Twelfth Night there was a play, ‘The Triumph of Cupid’. No expense was spared; overall it cost nearly £400. Whether Edward took part is not clear, but evidently he enjoyed himself because a further play was ordered for February. One unexpected absentee from court was John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, the minister who had presided over much of the nation's recovery thus far. He was confined to his Chelsea home by, as he put it, ‘extreme sickness’ and a hope for some ‘health and quietness’. The country's other duke, Henry duke of Suffolk, probably spent the twelve days of Christmas with his family, including his eldest daughter Jane Grey. This could have been at their Leicester home at Bradgate but possibly, as in 1550–1, with their Willoughby cousins at Tilty in Essex, perhaps with theatricals again provided by the earl of Oxford's players and others. Barely twenty-five miles from Tilty was Hunsdon, the principal home of Henry VIII's daughter, the Princess Mary, though whether any of the Greys visited her that year is not known. What Mary must certainly have had on her mind was the ceremonial visit to court she was due to make in a few weeks. Nothing, nationally or personally, gave warning that, before the year was out, Edward and Northumberland would be dead, Jane a prisoner in the Tower and Mary the acknowledged queen of England.

The first indication that all might not be well came on 6 February when Mary arrived to visit her brother and found he was confined to bed with a feverish cold. She had to wait until the 10th to see him. The condition was dismissed as a chill – Edward was a healthy youth – but it was enough to cause the postponement of the play which had been called for ‘by occasion that his grace was sick’. Throughout the month the king's condition continued to give concern, even putting in doubt his fitness to attend the meeting of parliament due on 1 March. Precisely what the trouble was is unclear. Medical opinion at the time eventually diagnosed tuberculosis, the disease which was believed to have killed his illegitimate half-brother, the duke of Richmond, seventeen years earlier. Modern diagnosis – in so far as the symptoms can be identified – is more cautious and has suggested that the presentation of the illness could indicate that the cold led to a suppurating pulmonary infection which developed into septicaemia and renal failure, a condition incurable before modern antibiotics. In the event Edward improved sufficiently to make it only necessary to transfer the opening formalities of the parliament to Whitehall Palace, and by 31 March he was well enough even to preside over the tiring, two-hour-long dissolution ceremony. In the second week in April he was allowed out, first to walk in St James's Park and then to travel to Greenwich. Very probably it was during this illness that Edward began to speculate about the succession. It would be some years before he would marry and there was no certainty of a child arriving at the earliest opportunity. His father had to wait for a son until he was 46. Who should succeed if he died before becoming a father? The result was that Edward worked out what he called ‘my deuise [device] for the succession’. This survives as a rough draft in the king's own handwriting, and specifies how the crown should pass if he died without children of his own and how royal power should be exercised in a minority, depending on the age of the prospective heir. Although Jane Grey's marriage to the duke of Northumberland's son Guildford Dudley must have been arranged early in 1553, she figures in the ‘deuise’ as only one of the prospective mothers of a possible successor.

Edward's health improved somewhat and in early May the ministers were excitedly exchanging news of his recovery. Whether this was one of the remissions characteristic of tuberculosis we cannot know, but it did not last. The French ambassadors saw the young king in mid-May and noted how weak he was and how persistent his cough. A secret case conference was held on 28 May, and the doctors gave Northumberland their professional assessment that Edward would not survive beyond the autumn. The duke of Northumberland must certainly have feared that Edward's condition was terminal. As the boy's chief minister he was, in the words of the earliest English account of the events of 1553–4, ‘the man best aware of and acquainted’ with the king's condition. But fearing and knowing are different. Now a change of monarch was inevitable and imminent. According to Henry VIII's will and a parliamentary statute of 1544, if Edward died childless, the crown was to go to his half-sisters, first Mary and then Elizabeth, but as hope in the king's recovery ebbed away, all this was revised. On 12 June, the senior judges and crown lawyers had an audience with the king at which Edward gave them instructions to put in legal form the provisions in his ‘deuise’, but with a crucial amendment which made Jane Grey his immediate heir. After some debate and revision, a patent naming Jane as the next queen was completed and signed on 21 June. Edward's death fifteen days later was kept a secret – or, rather, a badly kept secret – while the details of the succession were attended to.

Mary, however, was quicker off the mark. Hunsdon was twenty-eight miles from London, so when warned that her brother was near death she was able to get away rapidly to the security of her substantial estates in East Anglia. There on Saturday 8 July she had herself proclaimed queen, and sent out letters calling on local Catholic gentlemen to rally to her side. Thus, when on Monday 10th the councillors in London were preparing to proclaim Queen Jane, a letter arrived from Mary calling on them to proclaim her. Despite this Jane was proclaimed queen that afternoon and escorted to the Tower with traditional ceremony. A few hours after Edward's death, Robert Dudley – Northumberland's fourth son – had been sent with a few hundred men in a vain attempt to detain Mary, but with the princess asserting her right to the crown, more urgency was now vital. The council sent Mary a firm reply, calling her to order, and plans were put in hand. By Friday 14 July Northumberland was able to set out with limited forces but intending to rendezvous with reinforcements at Cambridge before marching on Framlingham which Mary had made her base. He moved from Cambridge on the morning of the 18th but his promised reinforcements did not arrive. By then Mary's supporters in the Thames Valley had been able to muster sufficient force to make the councillors in London worry about their own skins. On 19 July the end came. At Bury St Edmunds Northumberland abandoned his advance against Mary, while in London the council jettisoned Jane Grey to the enormous relief and jubilation of the city. On 20 July the duke himself proclaimed Mary queen.

Through all this Jane Grey remained in the Tower with her husband, first a sovereign then a prisoner. On 25 July the duke was brought there under guard along with three of his sons, his brother Andrew and five prominent supporters; another nine followed shortly, including Jane's father, the duke of Suffolk, although he remained under arrest for only three nights. Trials began on 18 August, first Northumberland with his eldest son, the earl of Warwick, and also the Marquis of Northampton; the next day, Sir Andrew Dudley, the Gates brothers, Sir John and Sir Henry, and Sir Thomas Palmer. All seven were condemned, but only the duke, John Gates and Palmer were to die. However, on the day announced for the execution, the sentence was postponed for twenty-four hours to allow the duke and the others to take the sacrament according to the Catholic rite and one by one announce to a picked audience that they had come back to the true church. As the duke put it, ‘he had erred from the true Catholic faith fifteen years and had been a great setter forth of the ill doctrine now reigning which he sore lamented’.

The crown only got round to trying Jane Grey three months later, along with her husband Guildford, Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, and two more of Northumberland's sons, Ambrose and Henry. On 13 November each was found guilty and sentenced to death, but that was understood to be largely a formality. The expectation was that Cranmer would be dealt with by the church machinery and that the others could hope eventually to be pardoned. The trial of the other son involved, Robert Dudley, was delayed even longer; he was not condemned until 22 January 1554. By then, however, a new and quite distinct conspiracy was afoot, triggered by Mary's determination to marry Philip, king of Spain. Known now as Wyatt's Rebellion, it drew in the duke of Suffolk, and five days after Wyatt's surrender Jane and Guildford were beheaded. Her father went to the block on 23 February.

For each of those involved – Edward, Jane, Northumberland, Mary – the events of 1553 were wholly unexpected, and this raises historical problems. There is not only the need to explain how and why each behaved as she or he did in those immediate events, but also to square that behaviour with the previous history of that individual. Postulating a sudden rush of blood to the head or an action entirely out of character is not convincing. Historical tradition is another problem. The simple fact is that the Edward, Jane and Northumberland of history are the Edward, Jane and Northumberland of 1553 – one a supposedly abused child, one a virgin saint beloved of the Victorian schoolroom, and the third an English Machiavelli. By contrast, thanks to the alleged disasters of Mary's subsequent reign, 1553 has counted too little in her favour; nothing ever became a Tudor better than Mary's conduct that July. The events of the year also raise wider questions. As we have seen, Jane's accession was not just endorsed by Northumberland but by the overwhelming majority of the governing elite. Such men were political survivors. They must have been aware that in switching from Mary to Jane they were taking a deliberate gamble. When the duke was on the point of leaving to capture Mary, he reminded his fellow councillors that

I and these other noble personages and the whole army go forth … upon the only trust and faithfulness of your honours, whereof we think ourselves most assured … which trust and promise if ye shall violate, hoping thereby of life and promotion, yet shall not God count you innocent of our bloods, neither acquit you of the sacred and holy oath of allegiance made freely by you to this virtuous lady the queen's highness.

The reply was: ‘My lord, if you mistrust any of us in this matter your grace is far deceived; for which of us can wipe his hands clean thereof? And if we should shrink from you as one that were culpable, which of us can excuse himself as guiltless?’ Nobody can have been under any illusion about the risk. Thus, if, as Matthew Hale claimed, the attempt to put Jane on the throne was ‘only a small usurpation … which lasted but a few days and soon went out’, we are faced with irrationality – men behaving like lemmings after lives spent successfully negotiating the uncertain and murky thickets of Tudor politics – and politics under Henry VIII!

The events of 1553 also raise issues of detail. The first is the date of the decision to crown Jane rather than Mary. When the princess paid her visit to court in February she was, so the imperial ambassador reported, ‘more honourably received and entertained with greater magnificence … than ever before during the present king's reign’. Northumberland stood with the councillors at the outer gate of the palace and they ‘did duty and obeisance to her as if she had been queen of England’. They then escorted her to the presence chamber and through to the sick room where Edward entertained his sister with ‘small talk, making no mention of [the contentious issue of] religion’. Unless a very double game was being played, this looks very much as if no councillor had any doubt that Mary was ‘the second person in the kingdom’, i.e. the heir presumptive. If so, at the start of February, no move to replace her by Jane had been contemplated, let alone made. Evidently the decision was made in the four months between that visit and Edward's orders to the royal lawyers in June. Along with the question ‘when’ goes the question ‘who’. As we shall see, Edward overbore the objections of his lawyers by force of his personal authority, but that tells us nothing of the origination of the scheme. Tradition may give the answer ‘Northumberland’, but on what justification?

A further question is suggested by a letter from Charles V to his ambassador in London, dated 11 July. It refers to ‘the carefully prepared course of action that Northumberland is working out with, as you suspect, the help of France’. Yet nothing seems less like a ‘carefully prepared course of action’ than the actions of the duke or the privy council in June and July 1553. Neither took any steps to neutralize Mary in advance of the king's demise. Indeed, far from keeping her under surveillance, they furnished the princess with medical reports of the progress of her brother's illness. Nor was anything done to conceal the imminent change of monarch. Few people can have misinterpreted the publication on 19 June of an order of prayer for Edward's recovery, ‘meet to be used of all the king's true subjects’.

O almighty and most merciful Lord … look down with thy pitiful eyes upon thy servant Edward our king … and as thou didst most favourably deliver King Hezekiah from extreme sickness and prolongest his life for the safeguard of thy people the Israelites … so we most entirely appeal to thy great mercies graciously to restore the health and strength of thy servant our sovereign lord.

Not much was done either to keep confidential the intended change in the order of the succession. Sixteenth-century diplomats followed the principle of reporting everything, be it fact or be it rumour, and the imperial ambassador had for months expressed a pathological suspicion of Northumberland's intentions. However, by 15 June he had facts, and we can assume that if he knew, Mary knew.

In contrast to conciliar inaction, the prompt action of Mary both to put herself out of reach and to be ready to claim the throne argues for considerable pre-planning. All that held her back was the need not to act prematurely. To claim the crown before Edward was dead would have been treason. But the council had no such constraint. So why, given the ample warning, was London not ahead of the game? When Henry VIII died, his executors had custody of Edward within hours and the interval between his father's death and the young king's proclamation was some fifty-seven hours, even though Edward had first to be fetched from Hertford, twenty-five miles away. It took a day more to proclaim Jane, and she was no further than Chelsea. Mary built up her forces with speed. The need for troops caught the council in London flat-footed. Even with a danger which apparently was foreseen – Charles V sending a force from Flanders to support or rescue Mary – preventative action was tardy. On 4 July the necessary ships were reported to need a week to be ready to sail.

All this argues preparation on the part of Mary and a total lack of preparedness by those supporting Jane, even though hope for Edward had been abandoned days earlier. If Northumberland had been ready and so able to arrive at Bury St Edmunds a week earlier than he did, Mary's handful of supporters would have been swept aside and Jane would have won. And that deduction returns us to the whodunnit of character and motivation. Nothing in Mary's past would have argued for her display of vigour. Nothing in Northumberland's would suggest a ditherer. And the others?