Becoming Elizabeth Explained: Lady Jane Grey’s claim to the throne

In the first episode of “Becoming Elizabeth”, the young Lady Jane Grey moves into the household of Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour because she is in the line of succession. When Elizabeth states that the line of succession is her brother Edward and his heirs, her sister Mary, and then herself, Jane clarifies that she means the ‘legitimate’ line of succession. She states that Mary and Elizabeth could still be found illegitimate, and that some people call Elizabeth a “bastard”.

So, what was Lady Jane’s claim to the throne?

Jane was the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset, and his wife, Lady Frances Grey. Frances Grey was the daughter of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, and Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk. In his will of 1547, Henry VIII laid out the line of succession as Edward VI and his heirs, Mary and her heirs, Elizabeth and her heirs. He then stated that, after that, the crown would pass to the heirs of his niece, Lady Frances Grey.

Was Lady Jane’s claim more legitimate than Elizabeth’s?

Jane Grey was the great-granddaughter of a King (Henry VII). Her claim was via the female line (Mary Tudor/Brandon – Frances Brandon/Grey) but there was no question over the legitimacy of the births of Jane, Frances of Mary. In contrast, Elizabeth was the second child of King (Henry VIII) but the 1536 Act of Succession had declared both Elizabeth and Mary to be illegitimate and excluded them from the line of succession. If Henry VIII had died at that moment in 1536, he would have had no legitimate heirs and the usual rules of succession would have seen the crown pass to either James V of Scotland or his half-sister Lady Margaret Douglas (the children of Margaret Tudor, the older of Henry VIII’s two sisters).

In 1544, a new Act of Succession was passed which restored Mary and Elizabeth to the succession after Edward and his heirs but, crucially, continued to maintain that they were the illegitimate children of Henry VIII. Henry was also given the power to nominate the heirs to follow after Elizabeth either by Letters Patent or by his will.

Legally, therefore, Elizabeth had a sound claim to the throne that trumped Lady Jane’s claim. However, if the validity of Henry VIII’s will and the 1544 Act could be challenged, or superseded by a new Act, then Lady Jane would have the stronger claim to the throne. Jane was therefore a valuable political tool to control.

But what about Margaret Tudor’s children?

In their exchange in “Becoming Elizabeth”, neither girl references the 5 year old Mary Queen of Scots. However, if the usual rules of succession were followed then she would be Edward VI’s heir. There were problems incumbant on having an heir who was ruler of an (often hostile) foreign country. Henry VIII had sought to address this through the Treaty of Greenwich. Under the terms of the treaty, Edward would marry Mary, and the Scottish princess would be educated in England from the age of 10. However, the Scottish parliament rejected the treaty and Henry VIII turned to military means to try and force through the marriage. As we saw elsewhere in this episode of “Becoming Elizabeth”, the conflict continued in the early years of Edward VI’s reign – Edward Seymour headed north to lead the army that defeated the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie. The Scots then turned to France for help (this ultimately resulted in Mary’s marriage to the future Francis II of France).

What did happen with the line of succession?


Edward VI was a committed Protestant but, if he died without heirs, the throne would pass to his eldest sister, Mary, who was an equally committed Catholic. To prevent her from inheriting, he attempted to superseded the existing line of succession with a “devise for the succession”. In its first draft, this named the unborn male children of Frances Grey as Edward’s heirs, followed by the unborn male heirs of her daughters – Jane, Katherine and Mary. As this was dependent on the birth of hypothetical male heirs, it was replaced with a second draft which would see the crown pass to the male heirs of Frances Grey (if any where born), then to Jane Grey and her male heirs. Edward then worked through Jane’s sisters and their male heirs, and onto the male heirs of daughters born to Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey.

As a document, the devise was highly problematic. It was backed by letters patent rather than an Act of Parliament which has caused long running debate about its validity. Furthermore, as well as excluding the illegitimate heirs (Mary and Elizabeth), it excluded the legitimate descendants of Margaret Tudor (Mary Queen of Scots) and Lady Frances Grey, who ought to have inherited before her daughter, Jane. Although Lady Jane initially found support for her claim – particularly from her father-in-law, John Dudley duke of Northumberland – and was declared Queen, ultimately the majority of the royal councillors declared their support for Mary Tudor, the heir under the 1544 Act of Succession and Henry VIII’s will.

Check out the rest of my Becoming Elizabeth explained posts:

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