Many of us only know Lady Jane Grey through romanticized 19th-century accounts or the embellished 1986 movie with Helena Bonham Carter. Most remember her as a sweet, innocent girl sacrificed on the altar of ambition of others. King Edward VI is often seen in the same light. In reality, these young people’s writings clearly show that, in spite of their age, they had a strong understanding of their faith and its political and historical repercussions.
Jane is also often seen as a helpless victim of her parents’ ruthless child-rearing. These allegations are built almost exclusively on the account of her encounter with Roger Ascham, a well known scholar, at her parents’ house. When Ascham asked Jane why she was reading Plato while her family was out hunting, she replied that her parents didn’t appreciate her studies, but preferred baser pastimes. She also complained that they were too strict on her, expecting her to do everything as perfectly “as God made the world.”
We don’t know if the Greys were really stricter than other parents at that time. From another letter by Ascham, we know that they were proud of their daughter’s academic achievements. As a mother, I sincerely hope that my reputation will not be based on what my teenage daughter may say about me at a time when she feels particularly crossed.
On the other hand, John Aylmer, Jane’s tutor, was concerned about her behavior at an age when young people, in his words, “are inclined to follow their own ways.” For a while, in fact, Jane seemed so concerned about fine clothes that he wrote a letter to Henry Bullinger, a Swiss reformer, hoping he might convince her to dress more modestly.
Overall, the picture we have of Jane at that time is of a normal teenager, with common questions and struggles. Only a few years later, however, she was catapulted into the nation’s limelight as a controversial and reluctant queen, faced with the daunting task to further the work and religious aspirations of King Edward VI among national resistance to her rule.
After an initial period of turmoil and confusion, Jane embraced her role as queen with strength, dignity, and a strong sense of responsibility. Although she worked with the Council, she repeatedly made independent decisions, showing she was not a puppet in someone’s hands.
Her faith, however, came in full bloom after her arrest and imprisonment, when all commotion ended and Jane found herself mostly alone with God. Her writings from this time show a great familiarity with the Bible. In one single paragraph, for example, she quoted quite organically eleven passages of Scriptures. She didn’t pull her punches and demonstrated exceptional clarity in theological matters. Even her scaffold speech was carefully prepared to debunk Roman Catholic traditions (such as praying for the dead) and emphasized her biblical assurance of salvation.
This story can be particularly encouraging to parents. We don’t know much about Jane’s parents, but we know they were Protestants who made sure she was taught to understand and defend biblical doctrines. When Aylmer wrote his concerned letter to Bullinger about Jane’s teenage tendencies, he probably never imagined the force of her words and example would echo throughout the centuries.
We are all affected by spiritual myopia, especially when it comes to our children. Too often, we want immediate results, until we are forced to give up our exhausting efforts to make their lives turn out right and simply adhere to the simple duties God has commanded us, leaving the rest to His Spirit.
If the trailer to Lady Jane Grey (Christian Biographies for Young Readers) is not visible in your browser, click here to view.
Simonetta Carr, a mother of eight, is the author of the ongoing series of Christian Biographies for Young Readers published by RHB and of the young adult historical fiction Weight of a Flame, published by P&R. You may read more about her and her books on her blog: simonettacarr.com.