My Lady Jane: a new anti-history of the Tudor period that doesn’t want to be taken seriously


Author: John Reeks, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, University of Bristol

Original article:

The long Tudor century (1485-1603) lasted 42,947 days and Lady Jane Grey reigned for nine of them.

Jane’s cousin, the sickly boy-king Edward VI, named her heir to keep Protestantism alive. However, she ultimately proved nothing more than a minor inconvenience to his Roman Catholic sister Mary, who benefited from widespread popular acceptance of her own dynastic legitimacy.

To most historians, therefore, Jane is a footnote at best. And while she has received some recent attention from scholars, the shortness of Jane’s reign means that their focus tends to be more on how she has been presented by others.

My Lady Jane, Amazon Prime’s new historical fantasy, is based on the novel of the same name by Cynthia Hand, Jodi Meadows and Brodi Ashton. The real and fictional Janes are both exceptionally bright, though instead of religion and ancient languages we see talents in herbalism and medicine – both unsettled by the prospect of becoming queen. That is, however, where the similarities end.

The setting for My Lady Jane isn’t so much a “reimagined” Tudor world as an entirely fictitious alternate reality. This allows the creators to do something completely unimaginable for historians: make Jane the centre of the story.

The real Jane was just 16 when she was thrust onto the throne in July 1553. As Edward’s condition deteriorated in the spring, she was pressured into marrying Guildford Dudley. Guildford was the son of the Duke of Northumberland, the Lord President of Edward’s Privy Council, and therefore de facto ruler while the king was still a boy.

Northumberland spied an opportunity to exploit Jane’s weak dynastic claim (her maternal grandmother was Henry VIII’s youngest sister) and bypass the rightful succession – Mary. My Lady Jane’s Guildford is introduced as a rakish cad whom Jane instantly despises, but he quickly becomes a brooding and mysterious love interest. And then he becomes a horse…

Yes, a horse.

In this world, some people can metamorphose into animals. These so-called “Ethians” are persecuted by non-transforming humans, known as “Verity”, who hunt them down and pass “separation laws” to preserve the purity of society.

Fantastical though all this is, the fact that Tudor grand-matriarch Margaret Beaufort is revealed to be a tortoise in what is perhaps the most historically plausible claim in the whole series. At least it reflects her undoubted durability (she actually died in 1509) and explains why she looks so sprightly for 110 years old.

It should be clear by now that nitpicking over facts would be a fool’s game here. My Lady Jane is drenched in anachronism, from its thoroughly modern language and values to its reckless treatment of chronology. Its creators revel in historical inaccuracy.

A painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche.
Bequeathed by the Second Lord Cheylesmore, 1902

In stark contrast to Dame Hilary Mantel’s “subjective interpretation” of the past through historical fiction, or the detailed historical research which underpinned C.J. Samson’s Shardlake. For the creators of My Lady Jane, the truth is only something that can be twisted for fun.

Breaking with history

A particular target is the longstanding view of Jane as an innocent victim: “history remembers [Jane] as the ultimate damsel in distress – fuck that”, the plummy narrator says at the start of the first episode. What’s interesting, though, is that while the “damsel” stereotype of Jane Grey is so comprehensively inverted, My Lady Jane draws freely on other venerable stereotypes – the repugnant and obsessive Catholic Mary, the virtuous and fair Protestant Elizabeth – for convenience. Indeed, the bullying and unstable Mary that we see here is little different to the “Bloody Queen” characterisations of protestant propagandists like John Foxe.

But what My Lady Jane’s Mary doesn’t possess, and in the most significant departure from historical reality perhaps (even when accounting for the Verity-Ethian plot), is any religious motivation. Religion exists in this world, but only as window dressing and a mood setter. It plays no role whatsoever in shaping any character’s worldview. Still less does it explain any of their actions.

Yet, the Tudor period saw sweeping changes to the English religious landscape as centuries of Catholic traditions, beliefs and institutions were swept away by Protestantism, which really took off during Edward’s reign. No historian would attempt to understand the Tudor world without putting religion at the heart of their analysis. Division was so rife because the stakes – nothing less than eternal salvation – were so high.

The main characters, motivated by material gain, the pursuit of power for its own sake, or sexual gratification, are therefore highly implausible not just as historical representations, which in fairness they were never intended to be, but as real people of the time.

Kate O’Flynn’s revoltingly malevolent Mary wants the crown because it’s her turn. Dominic Cooper’s Lord Seymour has a special kink for power. Rob Brydon’s Lord Dudley knows that “whoever gets the crown controls the world”. Motivations are always rendered in two dimensions, but historical fiction or fantasy that wants to be taken seriously tries to fill in the gaps that academic history can’t reach. My Lady Jane does not need or want to be taken seriously.

Historians of the Tudors certainly know they need to account for court intrigue, but this is all we see in Lady Jane Grey. Its makers would probably be flattered by the argument that what we see here is not historical fiction or even historical fantasy. It’s anti-history.

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