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Lady Jane: one of history's overlooked heroines

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(Read caption) British historian Nicola Tallis brings the tragic 16th-century royal teen to vivid life in her perceptive and thoughtful new book 'Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey.'

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Fate wasn't kind to England's tragic Lady Jane Grey, and history hasn't been much better.

The "Nine-Day Queen," the teenager's nickname, misstates the length of her reign before she was beheaded by an executor's ax. Unlike her high-profile Tudor relations, she's only been the subject of a few movies, books and songs (no, "Lady Jane" by the Rolling Stones isn't about her). And in one last indignity, researchers recently determined that the sole portrait thought to be of her actually portrays one of Henry VIII's six wives.

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But Lady Jane is worth remembering, a strong young woman gifted with the intelligence and grit that blessed her relations like Queen Elizabeth I. A fierce defender of her Protestant faith, she was self-possessed enough in her final moments to declare "I am come hither to die," proclaim her innocence, and repeat the final words of Jesus as recounted by Luke: "Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!"

British historian Nicola Tallis brings this tragic teen to vivid life in her perceptive and thoughtful new book Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey.

"History hasn’t given her enough credit for her achievements," Tallis says in a Monitor interview. "She certainly had many of the ingredients that are necessary in a successful monarch, and in her final days she demonstrated great courage."

Q: On its face, this is a very tragic story. But you look deeper. What's inspiring in this tale?

Jane herself! She's such a character, and it’s so unusual to see evidence of that in a female of this period, let alone one who was so young. Her devotion to her faith and the fact that she was prepared to die for it are admirable, as is the passion with which she expressed herself.

Q: How has history been unfair to Lady Jane?

History hasn’t given her enough credit for her achievements. So often she’s simply passed off as a tragic victim, and nothing more is said.

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This was a girl who was so intelligent that learned men in England and further afield were praising her abilities. She managed to impress some of the most notable theologians on the Continent too. In an age when women don’t get much of a mention, that’s extraordinary.

Q: On the other hand, what has history gotten right about her?

There is no doubt that Jane was a victim in many ways. She was manipulated into accepting the crown for the benefit of others. It was an elevation that she never sought, and she was forced to deal with the consequences when events spiraled out of control.

She was executed through no fault of her own, and thus it is fair to say that she was one of the Tudor age's most tragic heroines.

Q: Do you think Lady Jane is someone to admire? Would she have been a different kind of queen from the often-brutal mold of Queen Mary I, aka "Bloody Mary," and Queen Elizabeth I?

In many ways, absolutely. Her intelligence and her religious devotion are admirable, and given the opportunity she could have really asserted her authority and been a formidable queen. She certainly had many of the ingredients that are necessary in a successful monarch, and in her final days she demonstrated great courage.

However, I do also think that it is possible that she may have followed a similar path to that taken by Mary. Her religious fervor was verging on fanaticism, and she was intolerant of those with views that differed from her own. This leads me to wonder if she may have begun persecuting Catholics in the same way as Mary persecuted Protestants. It’s certainly a possibility.

Q: Tudor women tend to be strong. They don't always manage to be masters of their fates, but they aren't passive. What do you make of that in a time when women had severely limited power? What allowed and encouraged women to be this fierce?

Prior to the 16th century, the education of women had been somewhat limited, and there are examples of women who were barely literate in this era, notably Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour.

However, women’s education was starting to become more fashionable as the world was becoming increasingly cultured. It was therefore desirable for women to be well-educated in order to improve their prospects, and many women took full advantage of this opportunity. The development in the printing press also meant that books and literature were more readily available so women had access to ideas in a way that they had never previously done. Just look at Anne Boleyn, who introduces Henry VIII to some of her radical religious books.

It’s no wonder that this is a period full of women with strong personalities. Knowledge is power. 

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is a board member and immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.