Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk (16 July 1517 – 20 November 1559) was the second child and eldest daughter of King Henry VIII's sister Maryand Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. She was the mother of Lady Jane Grey.
Portrait of a woman sometimes identified as the Duchess of Suffolk, c. 1560
Early life and first marriage
Lady Frances Brandon was born in Hatfield, Hertfordshire and spent her childhood in the care of her mother. She was close to her aunt Catherine of Aragon, first wife of her uncle King Henry VIII, and a childhood friend of her first cousin, the future Queen Mary I. Lady Frances received permission from the King to marry Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset, in 1533. The marriage took place in Southwark.
Her first two pregnancies resulted in the births of a son and daughter who both died young. These were followed by three surviving daughters:
Lady Jane Grey
Lady Catherine Grey
Lady Mary Grey
Frances is considered to have been a strong and energetic woman. Her residence at Bradgate was a minor palace in Tudor style. After the death of her two brothers, the title Duke of Suffolk reverted to the crown, and was granted to her husband as a new creation. She had high expectations for her daughters and made certain they were educated to the same standards as their cousins, the future queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. Her daughters were associated with both Mary and Elizabeth on relatively equal terms.
Scheming for her daughters
The Duchess was active at the court of Henry VIII and was on friendly terms with his sixth wife, Catherine Parr. It was through her friendship with the Queen that the Duke secured a wardship for their daughter. There, Jane came into contact with Henry VIII's son and future successor, Edward. Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547, and Edward VI succeeded to the throne. Lady Jane followed Catherine Parr to her new residence and was soon established as a member of the inner circle of the young king. Edward was only nine years old at the time of his accession. He would die in 1553 unmarried and childless. Frances found herself during the reign of King Edward VI, third-in-line for the English throne, following his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth. Henry VIII's elder sister Margaret Tudor's descendants had been removed from the succession. This took place legally under the terms of the Will of King Henry VIII which laid out the succession to the throne.
Queen Catherine married again, to Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley and Lord High Admiral. Lady Jane followed her to her new household. The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk soon started scheming with Lord Seymour on the prospect of arranging a marriage between their eldest daughter and the King. The two adolescents were reportedly already close. The Suffolks would as a result gain further influence at court. The Lord Protector Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, was seeking a wife for Edward VI among the daughters of the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor.
Catherine Parr died on 5 September 1548. The Duchess did not trust Lady Jane alone with Lord Seymour and recalled her home. Seymour, on the other hand, pressed the Suffolks with demands that he held Jane's wardship and she should be returned to his household. The Duke and Duchess surrendered to the inevitable and Jane returned to Seymour's household and moved into Catherine Parr's apartments. Seymour still planned to convince Edward VI to marry Jane, but the King had become distrustful of his two uncles. An increasingly desperate Seymour invaded the King's bedchamber in an attempt to abduct him, and shot Edward's beloved dog when the animal tried to protect its master. Not long after Seymour was tried for treason and executed on 10 March 1549. The Suffolks convinced the Privy Council of their innocence in Seymour's scheme. Jane was again recalled home. The Duke and Duchess lost hope of marrying her to the King, who was sickly and thought likely not to live. For a time it is claimed they contemplated marrying her to Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford, son of the Lord Protector and Anne Stanhope. However, the Lord Protector fell from power and was replaced by John Dudley.
The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk soon declared their allegiance to the new Lord Protector, who successfully arranged for Jane to be married to his youngest son Lord Guildford Dudley. It has been claimed since the early 18th century that Lady Jane was brutally beaten and whipped into submission by the Duchess. However, there is no historic evidence for it. Lord Guildford was, as a fourth son, not the greatest match for an eldest daughter of royal descent, and William Cecil, another close friend of the Suffolks, claimed the match was brokered by Catherine Parr's brother and his second wife. According to Cecil, they promoted the match to Northumberland who responded rather enthusiastically. The Suffolks did not favour the match much, since it would have meant passing the crown out of their family to Northumberland's. However, since Northumberland claimed to have the King's support in the matter, they finally gave in. The only historic proof of some family quarrel concerning the marriage is written down by Commendone as "the first-born daughter of the Duke of Suffolk, Jane by name, who although strongly deprecating the marriage, was compelled to submit by the insistence of her mother and the threats of her father".
The marriage of the Lady Jane to Lord Guildford Dudley occurred on 15 May 1553. Northumberland had a greater scheme in mind. King Edward VI was dying and was considering the matter of his own succession. Edward was a firm believer in the practices of Anglicanism. His half-sister Mary was a devout Roman Catholic. Her accession might have ended the Protestant Reformation in England had she not died childless, which no one could foresee. Northumberland arranged for the will of the dying Edward to exclude both Mary and Elizabeth under the pretext of both being bastards, as Henry VIII had his marriages to their respective mothers annulled, though at the time both remained in the line of succession. Their removal would have made the Duchess the heiress presumptive, but Edward passed her over. She and especially her husband were at first outraged, but eventually, after a private audience with the King, she had to renounce her own rights to the throne in favour of Jane.
The throne was meant to pass to the Duchess's daughters and their heirs male. King Edward VI died on 6 July 1553. Lady Jane was declared queen on 10 July. The Duchess joined her for the proclamation and during her stay in the Tower. She had been fetched when Northumberland realised Jane's confusion and overwhelming feelings, and she managed to calm her daughter down. Since she had seen the King himself and spoken to him about the succession, she could convince Jane that she was the rightful queen and heir. Their success was short-lived. Jane was deposed by armed support in favour of Mary I on 19 July 1553.
Northumberland paid for his failed machinations with his life on 22 August/23 August 1553. The Duke of Suffolk was arrested, but released days later thanks to the Duchess' intervention. The moment she heard of her husband's arrest, she rode over to Mary in the middle of the night to plead for her family. Despite all odds, not only did the Duchess manage to be received by the Queen, but also could secure him a pardon by placing all the blame on Northumberland. While in his household, Lady Jane had fallen sick of food poisoning and had suspected Northumberland's family.The Duchess now used her daughter's suspicions and her husband's sickness to accuse Northumberland of having tried to kill her family. Therefore, Mary was willing to pardon the Duke of Suffolk. She intended to pardon Jane once her coronation was complete, sparing the 16-year-old's life.
However, Wyatt the younger declared a revolt against Mary on 25 January 1554. The Duke of Suffolk joined the rebellion, but was captured by Francis Hastings, 2nd Earl of Huntingdon. The revolt had failed by February. The plot ringleaders had wished to supplant Mary with her half-sister Elizabeth, although Elizabeth played no part in the matter. Jane was now becoming too dangerous for Mary and was beheaded on 12 February 1554 with her husband. Jane's father was convicted of high treason and was executed eleven days later on 23 February 1554. With two young daughters barely in their teens and her husband a convicted traitor, the Duchess faced ruin. As a wife, she held no possessions in her own right. All her husband's possessions would return to the Crown, as usual for traitors' property. She managed to plead with the Queen to show mercy, which meant at least she and her daughters had the chance of rehabilitation. The Queen's forgiveness meant some of the Suffolk's property would remain with his family, or at least could be granted back at some later time.
Second marriage and death
Frances and her two surviving daughters settled in court, serving the queen. Mary I made a point of placing them by her side, favoured but kept under the observation of the queen. They were still regarded with some suspicion and in April 1555 the Spanish ambassador, Simon Renard wrote of a possible match between Frances and Edward Courtenay, a Plantagenet descendant.
Once again, their children would have had a claim to the throne, but Courtenay was reluctant, and Frances escaped the marriage by another, much safer match. She married her Master of the Horse, Adrian Stokes. It was a safe marriage for her, since any children from it would be considered too low-born to compete for the throne. Her childhood friend and stepmother Catherine Willoughby had married her gentleman usher, so Frances moved on familiar ground. She and Stokes married in 1555. Three children were born to the couple:
- Elizabeth Stokes (20 November 1554), stillborn.
- Elizabeth Stokes (16 July 1555 – 7 February 1556), died in infancy.
- A son (December, 1556), stillborn.
As centuries passed, views on Frances Grey changed dramatically. At the beginning of the 18th century, the myth of Frances as evil woman and cruel mother emerged due to changing public attitudes towards Lady Jane Grey. Many began to adopt the belief that the Nine Days Queen was an almost angelic being, an example of innocence and passivity, a chaste child-martyr. To outline her perfection, she needed an antagonist, and it was Frances who fell victim to this need. A portrait of the harsh-looking Lady Dacre and her son was re-labeled and claimed to be Frances with her second husband Adrian Stokes. Thanks to the physical attributes of Lady Dacre, Frances was soon regarded as a female version of her uncle, King Henry VIII: ambitious, cruel and lustful.
Another reason for Frances' growing unpopularity was the quotation from Jane to Roger Ascham:
Lady Dacre and her son Gregory, often mislabeled as Frances Brandon and Adrian Stokes
As biographer Leanda de Lisle writes:
Since the eighteenth century she has been used as the shadow that casts into brilliant light the eroticised figure of female helplessness that Jane came to represent. While Jane is the abused child-woman of these myths, Frances has been turned into an archetype of female wickedness: powerful, domineering and cruel. The mere fact that Frances was with the rest of the household in the park, while Jane read her book, became the basis for the legend that she was a bloodthirsty huntress. The scene in Trevor Nunn's 1985 film, Lady Jane, in which Frances kills a deer in white snow, establishes early on in the film that she is the evil character, a wicked Queen to Jane's Snow White.