Henry Grey was the great grandson of Elizabeth Woodville by her first husband Sir John Grey of Goby – and incidentally it’s pronounced ‘Grooby’. He died at the second Battle of St Albans in February 1461 leaving Elizabeth a widow with two sons. The rest, as they say, is history.
Henry Grey’s father was the second marquis and on of Elizabeth of York’s closest relatives. He found that his credentials were suspect under the new Tudor regime not least because of his suspected conspiracy in the Lambert Simnel affair. What saved his bacon was his skill at jousting and his friendship with Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk. When he died in 1530 it is perhaps not surprising that young Henry found his wardship in the hands of Brandon. And with that knowledge it is unsurprising that he ended up married to Charles’ daughter Frances. His links to the crown mad whim a suitable match for a girl of royal blood – Frances’ mother was, after all, Princess Mary or the French Queen as she was known during her lifetime.
Henry did what nobles did – he jousted. He gambled. He wandered around looking magnificent whilst being short of cash. He took part in ceremonies such as Henry VIII’s funeral.
To all intents and purposes he does not appear desperately interesting, until that is he became embroiled involved with Sir Thomas Seymour at the beginning of Edward VI’s reign. Seymour convinced Henry and Frances that he could arrange a marriage between their oldest surviving child, Lady Jane Grey, and the new king, young Edward VI. With this in mind and perhaps on account of Henry’s rather sizeable gambling debts, Henry sold the wardship of his daughter to the king’s uncle and was drawn further and further into Seymour’s web. Whilst Jane was at Chelsea in Katherine Parr’s household all initially seemed to be well. Young Jane was in receipt of a first rate education and a step closer to the crown. All that can be said with the clarity of hindsight is that Grey was either extremely ambitious and took gambling to the extreme or that he was incredibly naive to believe that any of Seymour’s schemes would work. Not only that of course but it soon became clear that Seymour was behaving inappropriately by romping with Princess Elizabeth. For reasons best known to themselves, even after they’d heard the rumours Jane’s parent allowed her to remain in Seymour’s care. She did refer to him as a beloved father and there is no evidence of any untoward behaviour on Seymour’s part.
Grey was a man of the time. He had Protestant sympathies. He was father to three of the potential claimants to the throne and husband of the fourth. He was a man worth cultivating. Perhaps for this reason he was appointed to the privy council in 1549 after the fall of the duke of Somerset. He certainly started to extend his collection of lands at this time, he rounded up some of the property of the duke of Somerset when he was convicted of treason, and added to his offices. In 1551 he became a warden of the marches but didn’t really seem to know what to do. It was something of a relief to all concerned, apart possibly from the Scots, when he handed in his notice. Even if he was fairly nondescript as a politician or a military commander his role as head of the family of female Tudors made him important in the Tudor political world so it is fairly unsurprising that Dudley made him duke of Suffolk following the death of his father-in-law and two young half-brothers-in-law. There was also a handy little grant of £2000 a year.
Suffolk, as I shall now call him in line with his title, must have felt as though everything was falling into place when Northumberland persuaded Edward, who was seriously ill by the beginning of 1553, that it would be a good idea if his own son were to marry Lady Jane Grey and that she should be nominated heir to the throne given her protestant credentials. There was the small matter of persuading Jane that it was a good idea but it was effectively a done deal with the marriage being celebrated in May 1553 along with the nuptials of Jane’s younger sister Lady Katherine Grey to William Herbert, heir of the earl of Pembroke on the same day. At the same time as the Grey girls acquired husbands the duke of Northumberland’s daughter, also called Katherine and not yet twelve years old, married Henry Hastings, son of the earl of Hastings – another man with Plantagenet blood threading through his veins. Northumberland was binding his party together through promises of power and through the traditional medium of marriage. Edward VI died on 6 July 1553.
On the 9th July 1553 Suffolk together with the privy council declared Jane queen. A few days later Suffolk declared Mary queen outside the Tower before tearing down the canopy of state from over his daughter’s head. He then left her to face the music.
Somehow or the other Suffolk managed to avoid being incarcerated in the Tower and having the key to his cell thrown into the Thames. He was imprisoned, along with Frances, on the 27th May 1553. After a few days he was released without charge, unlike seventeen year old Jane. She was a hostage and Mary’s pro-catholic council, featuring amongst its number men who’d made her queen, were looking for an excuse to end her life. Under those circumstances you’d have thought that Suffolk would manage to keep his head down and his nose clean.
Of course, he didn’t. Whilst Frances and their two younger daughters returned to court where they were welcomed by Queen Mary, Suffolk having paid a fine made disgruntled noises about the prospect of a return to Catholicism. It was for this reason that he became involved with Sir Thomas Wyatt who wished to prevent Queen Mary from marrying Philip of Spain. Suffolk thought that as a leading gentleman of the Midlands that he could raise support for a rebellion. He also thought that the Earl of Hastings would support him. Hastings was very busy at that particular time back tracking as fast as he could. Unfortunately Suffolk was just about as good a rebel as he was a politician and had failed to spot that the band of nobles who’d sealed their deal with the marriages of their children were now backtracking rather rapidly – poor Katherine Grey was virtually kick rout of the Pembroke house despite the young couple having taken rather a shine to one another. The plot was betrayed by Edward Courtenay, earl of Devonshire, who also happened to have quite a lot of Plantagenet blood and who Wyatt thought would make a better royal spouse.
It wasn’t long before the Privy Council asked Suffolk to pop around for a cosy little chat. Had he heard anything about a rebellion? Would he take command of men in order to put the insurgents down? Suffolk panicked and scarpered home to Bradgate where the locals showed a determined line in being loyal to the Crown. Leicester and Coventry turned him away.
Suffolk realising the game was up thought that it would be sensible to leave rather rapidly…he wasn’t terribly good at being a fugitive either. He decided that he would flee to Denmark but wasn’t quite sure about the direction he needed to take. Unsurprisingly he was softly captured and returned to the Tower where he was executed on 23rd February 1554. His actions were the excuse that Mary’s government needed to execute his daughter. Grey, attainted of treason, went to his death grieving for his daughter who was executed along with her husband on the 12th.
It’s hard to feel any sympathy for Henry Grey. He played at the top table of Tudor politics without having any real aptitude for the game. His eldest daughter paid with her life.
Robert C. Braddock, ‘Grey, Henry, duke of Suffolk (1517–1554)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/11535, accessed 27 Feb 2017]