Like so many of these stories, we’re going to start out with a family tree. Henry VIII had two sisters: his older sister Margaret, who married the King of Scots, and his younger Mary, who married the King of France and then Henry VIII’s best friend Charles Brandon. Because Henry hated Scotland, he disinherited all of Margaret’s heirs in favour of Mary’s heirs. This was all theoretical, though, as when Henry died, his teen son Edward became King and if anything happened to him, Henry’s own daughters Mary and Elizabeth would come next in the line of succession. BUT when Edward got really sick, all the assholes advising him panicked because his sister Mary was a CATHOLIC which was a sort of person they hated almost as much as THE SCOTS, and so they were like “what if Mary and Elizabeth aren’t the heirs… what if the heirs are the descendants of Henry’s sister, also confusingly named Mary?” And that’s where the Grey sisters come in.
Best known of these three were the oldest sister, Lady Jane Grey. She had the misfortune of being the eldest, which meant that she was forced — basically against her will — to become the new Queen of England after Edward’s death. She famously only wore the crown for nine days before Henry’s daughter Mary came to town with an army and took over as Queen Mary I. Jane was then put in jail and, months later, executed for her role in this whole horrible situation. But her younger sisters, Katherine and Mary, were still alive and, for family tree reasons, were still heirs to the throne.
Queen Mary I was 37 years old when she took over, with plenty of time to have heirs of her own. Until she did, though, Lady Katherine Grey was her heir apparent (because Elizabeth was still technically illegitimate). Katherine was young and spirited and had zero interest in one day becoming the Queen, and so along with everyone else, waited hopefully for Queen Mary I to have some children. But, of course, the Queen died without having any children. Before she died, though, she reinstated her half-sister Elizabeth as her heir, meaning that the two Grey sisters were able to avoid a repeat of what had happened to Jane. The newly crowned Queen Elizabeth I was 25 years old and unmarried, and again, everyone was mostly relieved because obviously she’d have a bunch of kids soon and all these crises of inheritance could be avoided. But until Elizabeth had a child, her official heirs were… Katherine, and then Mary Grey.
Katherine wound up getting herself removed from the line of succession when she secretly married a man named Edward Seymour and got herself knocked up twice. Elizabeth saw both Katherine and her two sons as threats to her rule, and so she declared the boys illegitimate and sent Katherine to jail as a fornicator (which was a crime back then). Her reputation ruined, Katherine spent the rest of her short life under arrest, eventually dying at the age of just 28. There was only one Grey sister left, Mary. And as Elizabeth continued on, unmarried and without children, the question of Elizabeth’s heir became more confusing to everyone. Lady Mary Grey was still in contention, but there were other women who others were supporting, most notable Mary, Queen of Scots, the Catholic descendant of Henry VIII’s estranged sister Margaret. Like Jane and Katherine before her, Mary Grey did not ever claim to want to be Queen, nor did she seem to ever take any steps toward claiming it. Yet, like both her sisters, Mary’s proximity to power affected the course of her life.
Based on descriptions of Mary Grey by her contemporaries, it seems mostly agreed upon that she was likely a dwarf. Her short stature is often commented upon, and given that due to nutrition most people of this time period were under five feet, Mary would have had to be quite a bit shorter than that for her size to be so significant to others. She also likely had scoliosis, giving her a crooked or hunched back. Similar to the ancient Roman Emperor Claudius (of I, Claudius fame), those around her likely underestimated her intelligence due to their preconceptions of what her physical features meant. This was an era in which religion and superstition were closely entwined, and it was a common belief that if you were a sinner, it would be visible somehow in your body. Mary Grey’s parents, however, offered her all the same advantages of her older sisters. All three girls were raised to the highest standards of their time, with lessons both in the humanities as well as instruction on how to run a household. The Grey sisters were raised according to the tenets of the still-pretty-new Protestant faith.
All three Grey sisters were both intelligent and opinionated as well as stubborn. Without much of Mary’s personal correspondence to guide us, it’s tempting to think that she may have used others’ preconceptions of her intelligence against them. Seeing what had become of her sisters, it certainly may have been wise to pretend not to understand the scheming constantly going on around her. But let’s go right back to that initial defining moment in her life: Mary Grey was just eight years old when, over the course of a few months, her sister Jane became Queen, was imprisoned, and then executed along with their father. As punishment for this gambit, the surviving Grey family was stripped of their property and wealth, and Mary Grey’s betrothal was ended. Almost certainly, Katherine, Mary, and their mother turned to their fervent Protestant faith to get them through these hardships and uncertain times.
Yet, just six months later, Katherine and Mary Grey were invited back to royal court, and their family’s money and property were restored. Their mother, Frances, took as her new husband a commoner named Adrian Stokes, with whom she left royal court with the ten-year-old Mary. Over the next decade, Mary Grey’s life remained mostly unchanged, even as things at royal court were bonkers. Queen Mary I died when Mary Grey was 12, and Elizabeth I took over. The next year, Mary Grey’s mother Frances passed away. Katherine and Mary Grey jointly inherited their mother’s properties, and as Elizabeth I remained childless, the sisters continued on as the first and second in line to the throne. Both girls took on positions as ladies in waiting to their cousin Queen Elizabeth I. And everything was great for like, twelve months!
Because that’s when Katherine’s elopement, pregnancy, and imprisonment occurred. As long as she was alive and Elizabeth didn’t have any children, Katherine was — even in jail — heir to the throne. Lady Mary Grey, clever as she was, could be somewhat comfortable that she herself wouldn’t become Queen anytime soon because obviously Elizabeth would start having children soon. And Mary had bigger things on her mind, quite literally, as she had fallen in love with a soldier named Thomas Keyes, who was like 6’8″ or something like that. Keyes’s role at royal court was as head of palace security, meaning he was often at the front gates and would have seen Mary Grey coming and going. This is all so much of a romcom meet-cute I can’t stand it, like you know these two were so sweet together. And sure, he was like twice Mary’s age and had adult children from a previous relationship, but these things don’t matter when you’re in love. And these two were, for sure, because why else would they specifically go behind the Queen’s back to get married? That was a bonkers, dangerous thing to do, but this short woman and this tall man couldn’t help themselves. They were smitten.
Mary Grey was still technically second in line to the throne, and so everybody knew she wasn’t allowed to choose her own husband: Elizabeth had made it very clear that everyone had to get permission first before getting married. Even so, Keyes brought gifts to Mary Grey, courting her in the sweetest most adorable of ways, and Mary Grey couldn’t help herself. She fell for him. The timing was basically the worst possible: Katherine Grey was still wasting away in jail for her own secret sexy wedding, so the changes of Elizabeth approving another Grey sister marriage — to a commoner!! — was less than zero. But Mary had spent some time with her mother and stepfather, so she knew that a noblewoman could be happy with a commoner. And didn’t Mary Grey deserve to be happy??
Finally, after they deduced that the right time would never come to ask permission, they went the “beg forgiveness” route and got secret married in August 1565, when Mary Grey was about 20 years old. And Mary had it all planned out: they waited until Elizabeth was out of town, and then invited some cousins and friends over for a low key soiree. The only witness they brought to the ceremony itself was a servant girl named Frances Goldwell because, Mary figured, when the Queen found out she’d punish the witness, and Mary didn’t want any of her higher-ranking friends to get in trouble. Frances Goldwell was no fool either, and she sort of lurked around a wall, just slightly peeking in, so as to only vaguely witness the whole thing in hopes that she wouldn’t get punished, either. But Mary Grey and Thomas Keyes had a love that could not be stopped.
But, as ever, Queen Elizabeth found out about the ceremony pretty much right away — likely helped by the fact that Mary Grey and Thomas had invited like dozens of people for a post-ceremony dinner banquet like, way to keep it on the down low, you two. Like ten days afterwards, Elizabeth ordered the newlyweds to be interrogated and throw into separate jails (she’d learned from Katherine Grey that it’s best not to let two people horny for each other be locked up in the same jail, particularly when you’re desperate for them not to have any children.)
Mary Grey’s prison flat-out sucked. She was stuck in a twelve-foot room in a country house called Chequers, which is — fun fact — still used today as a residence for the Prime Minister. The room she was kept in is now known as The Prison Room, and you can still see some drawings and writing she left on the walls while she was in there, going out of her mind with boredom and terror. Mary Grey was forbidden from having any guests, had all her money confiscated, and was only allowed outside for fresh air every once in a while. She spent her time writing letters to Sir William Cecil, one of Elizabeth’s most trusted advisors, begging him to plead her case and convince the Queen to set her free. But Keyes was in an even worse situation, trapped in solitary confinement in a notorious prison called Fleet. He was really tall, remember, and the room he was put in was way too small for him so even just sitting or standing was excruciating for him.
After two years, Mary was sent to live with her step-grandmother Katherine Willoughby, who reported that Mary was so depressed she refused to eat. One year later, Thomas Keyes was released and given a security job at a castle near his home in Kent. Because he was a stalwart and truehearted person, he wrote polite letters to the Queen asking permission to get to live with Mary again, but Elizabeth was like no way. And even though Mary and Keyes’s love was the truest to ever live, they’d both had shitty enough experiences in jail that neither was willing to risk a daring escape to try and reunite at this point. And one year later, Mary was transferred again, this time to live with a famously cranky guy named Sir Thomas Gresham. He and his wife hated having her there, and wrote a series of letters to Elizabeth being like, “Please make her go away” but Elizabeth was like, “Deal with it,” and Mary Grey just sat in her room, reading books, because at least she still had books. Books: they will never desert you in your time of need.
In 1571, six years after the wedding, Thomas Keyes died from imprisonment-related health problems. The news was delivered to Mary Grey in person, and she was inconsolable. She was so upset, in fact, that Gresham began writing more frequently to Elizabeth like “This grieving woman is SO ANNOYING please make her go away,” but Elizabeth continued to ignore him, as well she should, but also: poor, poor, poor Mary Grey. What a shitty situation. At one point, she herself wrote to Cecil like, “Hey, since Thomas Keyes is dead, there’s no reason for Elizabeth to be mad at me so like… how about giving me a pardon?” Which of course didn’t happen.
Until! In 1572, Elizabeth was apparently worn down by the amount of letters she’d gotten about this stuff, and finally granted Mary Grey her freedom. Mary went to live with her stepfather, Adrian Stokes, and his new wife. Both were delighted to have her with them, like finally, someone is being nice to this woman. Mary Grey saved up her pennies, because she was also great with financial management, and after just one year was able to pay for her own house and the servants to work in it. And? She got to just live the gorgeous life she’d always deserved.
Mary Grey hung out with her friends and family, riding her carriage around, just being a glamorous and independent single lady. She became close with Keyes’s surviving children, and was named godmother to one of their daughters. She wrote letters, took tea with everybody, and used her charm and cleverness to try and gain some favour back such that she might be invited back to royal court. In 1574, she sent a New Year’s gift to her cousin Queen Elizabeth I and… Elizabeth accepted it! This was a big deal! It meant Elizabeth was maybe over all the drama. Sure enough, in 1575, Elizabeth gave Mary Grey some of the income from her family property that the crown had been taking this whole time which meant: Mary Grey now had enough money not just to survive, but to thrive! You know she went right out and bought some gorgeous new bespoke dresses and jewels because she’s worth it. And furthermore, you know Mary Grey kept her lips sealed vis-a-vis being an heir to the throne, succession, etc., because she was smart like that and liked being alive and not in jail.
In 1577, Mary Grey got her goal when Elizabeth I appointed her Maid of Honor to the Queen — the same gig Mary’d had back in the day for Queen Mary I. Elizabeth was like, “Thing is, you have to use your maiden name and can’t ever mention anything about ever being married because you weren’t ever married, were you?” And Mary was like, “Married? Me? I can’t remember anything like that happening,” and things were great.
In 1578, plague broke out because it was the 16th century and nobody washed their hands and that’s the sort of thing that happened back then. Mary unfortunately fell ill, and passed away on April 20th, aged 33. As she still had the Queen’s favour, her funeral was marked with a procession and her coffin (described as being “tiny”) was delivered to Westminster Abbey, which is where so many of her royal ancestors had been bureid before. Elizabeth had Mary Grey’s remains lain to rest in the same tomb as Frances Grey.
Mary Grey’s life was upended when she was just eight years old, and she spent much of the rest of her life striving to improve things for herself. She clearly truly loved Thomas Keyes, risking everything just to be with him. Even while imprisoned, she had periods of depression and misery but never gave up. There’s something so admirable in her spirit of tenacity and resiliency, the sort of thing that you either naturally have or you don’t. Her life was short but lovely, and I wish she could have lived so much longer, but it does seem like she truly made the most of what life threw at her and never stopped striving for something better. RIP, Lady Mary Grey.
The most recent Philippa Gregory book, The Last Tudor, is about the Grey sisters and Mary plays a major role. The nonfiction book The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle also offers a great in-depth exploration of the lives of all three sisters.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter