A ‘New’ Letter from the Reign of Queen Jane?

An analysis of a letter that appeared at auction in the US in 2008 purported to be an authentic letter signed by Queen Jane during her nine day reign of July 1553.

In mid April 2008, Sonja Marie Isaacs at the [now defiunct] Lady Jane Grey Internet Museum contacted me with the news that a document purported to be ‘handwritten notes about Lady Jane dated 1553’ was to be auctioned by Time and Again Galleries of Linden, New Jersey. Sonja Marie knows that I always have an eye out for new material related to Jane Grey Dudley and she wanted to know my opinion on this item. Upon consulting the gallery’s online auction catalogue, I was initially very excited indeed. The ‘handwritten notes’ depicted in two digital photographs appeared to be a letter under Jane’s own signature and dated 10 July 1553, the first day of her reign. I therefore began more closely investigating the letter, catalogued as Lot Number 534 for the auction of 27 April 2008, in hopes of bidding on it myself.

Handwritten Notes about Lady Jane, dated 1553
Lot Number 534, Sale Date 27 April 2008
Time and Again Galleries, Linden, New Jersey

I contacted the gallery directly, both by email and telephone. Daryl (surname unknown) was kind enough to speak with me at some length about the document and to forward detailed photographs of it. My examination of the first batch of photographs suggested that the document might be authentic. I was very excited at the prospect of a previously unknown legal document from the reign of Queen Jane having suddenly and unexpectedly resurfaced. Such documents are quite rare, largely because the reign was so brief and because many of those produced were soon deliberately destroyed owing to their association with a treasonous usurpation of the crown.

The letter was in a transparent protective plastic document sleeve which was in turn contained in a leather folio binder, all indicating that someone in the past considered the item to have some considerable value. The letter was accompanied by a typed transcription of the difficult-to-read handwriting. Daryl indicated that the transcription was signed by Dr Philippa Hoskin, an archivist at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York (UK). Dr Hoskin did not comment on the content or authenticity of the document, however.

No provenance for the document was available prior to the auction. The identity of the consigning seller was not available from the auction house.

The letter has several clues that led me to think it might have been authentic, at least at first glance. First, the handwriting exactly matched that of the other known and fully authenticated documents from Jane’s reign. Having conducted several years of hands-on study of those documents myself, I recognized the handwriting as probably that of Sir William Petre, one of the secretaries to the Privy Council in July 1553.

Second, the content of the letter is similar to that of other known letters from the same date. The letter announces to it recipients — local officials at the county level — the accession of Jane as rightful queen of England and calls upon the recipients to remain loyal to Jane and to resist any counterclaims put forward by Lady Mary, ‘bastard’ daughter of Henry VIII. Dozens of copies of this letter were sent out on 10 July 1553, though only a bare three or four have survived the centuries.

The name at the top, ‘Jane the Quene’, was in fact a signature (royal documents were often signed at the beginning rather than at the end). Further, the signature exactly matched known examples of Jane’s authentic signature as queen. Such examples include several of the Loseley Manuscripts now on deposit in the Surrey History Centre (Woking, UK). Surviving specimens of the signature of Queen Jane are very few in number, however, totaling fewer than a half dozen scattered among several archives on two continents. To my knowledge, no ‘Jane the Quene’ autograph exists in any private collection. All of those now known are in museums or governmental repositories. Lot 534 would therefore represent the sole example of her autograph available to private collectors, presumably giving it significant financial value, in addition to its purely historical value.

Lastly, the paper on which the document is written appears – at least in the limited digital photographs – to match paper produced in the mid sixteenth century. Paper in that period was what we would today know as ‘rag linen’ paper, made from textile fiber instead of wood pulp fiber. It was produced in large sheets, called folios, that were then folded and cut or torn into halves, quarters (quartos), eighths (octavos), etc. The apparent size and ragged edges of the paper of Lot 534 appears to match rag paper that has been torn into quarto size. But because I do not have hands-on access to the document, I have not been able to inspect it for the characteristic watermarking seen in authentic paper of the mid-Tudor period. That watermarking would be critical to ascertaining the letter’s authenticity.

I was puzzled by the muddled paragraph at the bottom righthand corner of the reverse of the letter . This is known as an ‘endorsement,’ what we would today call a mailing address. The endorsement of Lot 534 is much over-written, leaving it largely illegible. A later hand has apparently deciphered the text of the endorsement, however, and appended it just below in now-faded pencil.

I requested a digital photograph of the endorsement in an effort to determine to whom the letter may have originally been sent. By using PhotoShop and adjusting the contrast ratio, I was able to render the faded lettering more readable.

This technique enabled me to determine that the endorsement reads, ‘To our right trusty and right welbeloved Cosin & Counsellor the Lord Marquess of Northampton, Lieutenant of our Counti[es] of Surrey, Northampton, Bedford, [and] Berkshyre.’

At that late point, just three days before the auction, my suspicions became aroused. My earlier research had already revealed a letter written under the autograph signature of ‘Jane the Quene’ and addressed to William Parr, Marquess of Northampton. Further, this previously known letter bears the same date as Lot 534: 10 July 1553. That first letter survives and is in the collection of the British Library (London) as Lansdowne Manuscript 1236, folio 24. I found it troubling that two letters with identical content would have been written on the same day and addressed to the same person. It was possible, however, that a simple duplication of effort had occurred on that first hectic day of the new reign and that two identical letters had indeed been sent out on the same day, both to the same individual.

During the research for my PhD dissertation, I had examined the letter to Parr known as Lansdowne 1236 and had obtained a digitially produced photocopy of it. It was thus possible for me to compare in considerable detail Lansdowne 1236, f. 24 to Lot 534. The result of that comparison was both startling and disappointing.

In comparing the two documents, I found them to be identical. The wording is the same, verbatim. The spacing between the same individual words is also identical between the two documents, and each line of text ends on the same word in both examples. The shift from the front to the back of the page also occurs on the same word of text. But more tellingly, the formation of individual words, the shaping of the letters comprising those words, and the carry-over of letters down from an upper line and into the text of the line below is virtually identical. For example, in the images above, it is easy to see that in both documents the ‘s’ of ‘advertising’ at the beginning of the second line exactly bisects the ‘h’ and ‘t’ of ‘almighty’ in the line below (line 3). Similarly, the ‘f’ in ‘of’ (line 10, second word) descends into the left margin of the ‘r’ at the end of ‘p[ro]genitor’ in line 11. Such carry-overs of letters occur in exactly the same places and in exactly the same ways in both documents in fully one hundred percent of examples. I believe that even the untrained eye can see that the script of the two letters is virtually indistinguishable one from the other.

Such absolute matching would be impossible if the two letters had been written separately, even if written by the same hand at very nearly the same time. It is instead as though one were created by tracing the other. Indeed, if images of the two documents are overlaid, the match between the two is so thorough that it would be statistically impossible for the two to have been created freehand. Tracing must be suspected. Yet tracing was not used to produce copies of letters in the sixteenth century, especially not in the harried environment of a newly established royal court busily fending off the impending military challenges of another claimant. Instead, the secretary or clerk simply penned another copy, similar but not one hundred percent identical. Many examples of pairs of documents and their contemporary copy survive, and comparison today of such copies reveals the unavoidable and characteristic differences not detectable with Lot 534 and Lansdowne 1236.

I have therefore been forced, with some disappointment, to conclude that Lot 534 is almost certainly not an authentic document produced at the Tower of London on 10 July 1553 and autographed by Queen Jane. I say ‘almost certainly’ because the only way to be sure is to submit the document to hands-on examination and certain types of testing used to authenticate old documents. But in the absence of such testing, for now, I have to suspect that Lot 534 is instead a very high-quality reproduction of the kind that were popular among antiquarians in the UK and America in the second half of the nineteenth century, or (and less likely) a modern forgery. Assuming the document is not authentic, its value lies in its novelty and is limited to what a novelty souvenir collector might pay for it. Were it to be fully and scientifically authenticated, however, its financial value would be quite large as a rare specimen of Queen Jane’s autograph, though its historical value would be limited owing to the pre-existence of a fully authenticated duplicate.


The issue of the authenticity of this letter has been resolved on 1 May 2008, thanks to eBay. An eBay seller in Crewkerne, Somerset, UK, listed an ‘embossed vellum folio, [entitled] ‘Some Stirring Relics of English History … evoking memorable episodes of the past .. collected together in honour of the Coronation of His Majesty King George VI whose accession to the Throne opens a new Chapter in Britain’s eventful History’ and containing 9 high quality facsimiles of important historical documents.‘ The eBay listing (#260235503882) noted that ‘each example is printed on aged paper and partially stuck to the [backing] page and has a printed transcript to each facing page. The ‘letters’ are from Lady Jane Grey, Sir Philip Sidney, Guy Fawkes, [Oliver] Cromwell, Charles I, John Churchill (Duke of Marlborough), [Admiral Lord] Nelson, [the Duke of] Wellington and Napoleon. The eBay seller set the opening bid at GBP 19.99 (US$ 39.67), yet despite this low price the item failed to sell.

The Jane Grey Dudley letter contained in the folio offered on eBay was identical in every respect to the Jane Grey Dudley letter sold by Time and Again Galleries.

The single page to be auctioned for $250 by Time and Again Galleries was thus an extract from a similar but disassembled nine-page volume produced in 1936 by The Hamilton Press, 15 Miller Street, London NW1, as a souvenir of the coronation of the present queen’s father. It was not an authentic page of ‘handwritten notes’ from 1553, but was instead a modern printed reproduction, albeit a high quality one. Caveat emptor, just as the old adage says.