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Unsung Heroines of History

An unwitting bystander once said to me, ‘how can there be many stories to tell of women from history? They were always on the side-lines.’ Well, I’m out to prove that misconception wrong. Just because the stories weren’t always well recorded, or we do not talk about them as much, it doesn’t mean that women from the past have no stories to tell.


This blog will take a look at some of the most interesting tales of women in history. Far from intending to be an in-depth biography of each woman, this will be just a taster, a little glimmer of the story that each woman has to tell, and maybe to inspire you to read more about these women elsewhere. Enjoy the first unsung heroine in the series…


Lady Mary Grey

c. 1545 – 20th April 1578


It's said Lady Mary was a striking figure; born with dwarfism, she stood at about four feet tall, bearing small dark eyes and what appears to be dark red hair from her portraits. Born into a tumultuous Tudor period, Lady Mary's world was marred by the fact that she could have been a challenger to the throne of Elizabeth I. The younger sister of the poor fated Lady Jane Grey, Mary would have this shadow hanging over her forever, and it certainly seemed to define her existence.


Along with her sister, Mary was not permitted to marry without her cousin, Elizabeth I’s permission. Yet, both her sister and Mary were eager to defy their cousin. Perhaps they had asked for permission and been turned down before, or maybe thy knew without a doubt they would be refused anyway. After all, why would Elizabeth allow a contender for the throne to marry and produce an heir? It could have threatened her own position.


Either way we wish to look at the psychology behind the actions, whether it was Elizabeth’s choice or the privy council’s persuasion, the fact remained Mary was always looked at with suspicion. Her place in society was clearly a constant battle.


Turning back a few years, on the accession of Mary I in 1553, Mary was set to be married. Yet her betrothal to Arthur Grey was dissolved. Clearly, already there were machinations at work to stop another heir to the throne being produced. Left with little money from her late mother’s estate, Mary’s position at court was returned to her with Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558, when Elizabeth made her cousin maid of honour, amongst her ladies in waiting.


Mary’s real tale comes in Elizabeth’s reign, for it’s said Mary fell in love with Thomas Keyes, the Queen’s sergeant porter. They must have been quite a noteworthy couple, as Mary was small in height with her dwarfism and Thomas was rumoured to be over six feet. Determined to be together despite the fact they had no permission, they married in secret on 16th July 1565, with three of Mary’s cousins as witnesses. The marriage was seen as an unsuitable one, not only had the Queen not given her blessing, but Thomas was minor gentry, twice Mary’s age, a widower, and had children of his own. Yet, love must have prevailed.


It’s a sadness that love could not prevail for very long. Evidently Elizabeth and the council were enraged by the secret marriage, for Mary and Thomas never saw each other again. Thomas was sent to Fleet prison for the offence and Mary was kept under house arrest in multiple households. In 1569, Thomas was eventually released from prison, but his health was irreparably damaged because of it. He returned to his home in Kent, where he died only two years later.


After Thomas’ death, Mary pleaded with her cousin for permission to be a stepmother to his children, a kind request that was refused. It would take another year after Thomas’ death before Elizabeth at last released Mary from her house arrest and permitted her to live wherever she wished to. Yet her funds were much diminished by the years, and she moved about for the next few years with difficulty, before Elizabeth returned her to a maid of honour position in the royal household in 1577.


A few months later, in April 1578, the plague had come to London, and sadly, it took Mary’s life. After years of struggle and finally returning to a position of comfort, it was taken from her again. Her love for Thomas and his family must have been evident to the last, for she left money to her godchild, one of Thomas’ grandchildren, in her will. Perhaps the most bittersweet thing is that Elizabeth allowed her cousin to have a funeral in Westminster abbey. This should have been a fine thing, and garner much respect, yet the tomb was unmarked.


It seems Mary’s claim to the throne, though it was something she never acted on, was the thing that condemned her and put a series of obstacles in her way to happiness.


Mary is an unknown figure, one not talked much of when we have conversations about the Tudors. Perhaps it’s time she earned a story of her own. I’d certainly queue up at the cinema to see her tale told in film.


Lady Mary Grey, attributed to Hans Eworth, dated 1571 (Wikimedia Commons).

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