Queen Jane’s Lace?

My analysis of a scrap of lace reputedly made by the hands of Jane Grey Dudley while she was a prisoner in the Tower of London.

Periodically, I receive emails from visitors to this site who have family treasures that they would like to have authenticated, such as the young lady with the bracelet that supposedly once belonged to Jane Grey. Most recently, I was contacted by a gentleman in the US whose family owns the small lacework cutting seen in the above photograph. The label describes it as a sampler, or example of a young person’s needlework skills, and states that it was “worked”, or made, by Jane Grey while she was in the Tower. The item was supposedly “procured” from the Exeter family. The label indicates that a “Fan” once accompanied the lace, but that fan is apparently now lost. The owner supplied me with two good-quality photographs and asked whether there was any way to confirm that Jane Grey either made or owned the piece.


The textile appears to be fine linen, very evenly woven. The resolution of the photographs makes it difficult to determine whether the lace panels were made separately and inserted into a cut linen panel, or whether they were instead created as integral elements during the weaving process. Some areas of separation, as though the result of breakage of the binding stitches at the margins of the third panel from the right, might indicate assembly, though the absence of a rough edge to the linen panel may indicate integral weaving. There are a total of ten panels of openwork, or lace, all of varying widths. Each panel contains at least two design motifs, and none of the motifs is exactly repeated, consistent with the sampler format in which the maker wishes to exhibit the full range of stitches and techniques that she has mastered.

The piece was apparently cut from the edge of a larger item, since the upper margin is ragged and not hemmed or otherwise edged. There is considerable age-related staining throughout the piece.


The textile was reportedly acquired by the grandmother of the gentleman who contacted me. This would imply a date of acquisition perhaps no earlier than the middle of the twentieth century. Other than the label’s reference to a family called “Exeter”, no other provenance is currently available.

Detail showing inconsistency of openwork stitching, contrasting evenness of marginal stitching, separation at junction


A great deal hinges upon whether this piece was hand stitched or machine stitched, since machine stitching is a modern invention and was not available to Jane Grey. The individual openwork elements appear to have been made by hand, as was all lace produced prior to the end of the eighteenth century. This is evidenced here by the small inconsistencies of stitchwork within the specific design elements as well as by the varying width of the individual panels. Yet the making of lace by hand continued to be popular after the introduction of machine-made lace at the turn of the nineteenth century and was prized specifically for having been handmade. Thus even if the individual openwork lace elements of this piece were made by hand, it may still date to sometime after the Industrial Revolution. Instead, for further clues we must look to the stitchwork around the edges of the piece and at the margins of each openwork panel. In both areas, the stitches appear to be exceptionally even and uniform, with no variations discernible even at magnification. Such regularity could indicate machine stitching, resulting from the machine operating as intended to create consistent distances between stitches and stitches of uniform size. Nonetheless, the best seamstresses and needleworkers of the pre-Industrial era were known for the remarkable uniformity and fineness of their stitching. That the construction of the lace displays obvious irregularities while the marginal stitching does not could well indicate machine assembly of an otherwise handmade product. It could also indicate two separate sets of hands, one to make the lace by hand and a second to assemble the pieces either by hand or machine. Only an “eyes-on” examination can determine for certain whether the piece was made by hand, by machine, or a combination of the two.

There is one additional bit of evidence to be considered regarding the dating of the piece: the accompanying note. In this instance, the content of the note is perhaps less critical than is the paper on which it is written. That paper is obviously hand-laid rag paper, apparent from the tiny horizontal light and dark “stripes” that characterize such paper. By the middle of the nineteenth century, wood pulp had replaced rag, and woven paper had replaced hand-laid. The fact that the note is written on laid rag paper argues for the note having been written prior to the middle of the nineteenth century. Likewise, the text is in a handwriting style common to the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Since the lace must obviously pre-date the note, and the note appears to date to sometime before about 1840-1850, it seems more likely that the piece may pre-date that period and thus may indeed be entirely handmade. But again, an “eyes-on” examination by a textile expert is required.

I have recommended to the owner of the piece that he do some additional research on the “Exeter” family referred to in the note. If Exeter turns out to be the earlier owner’s surname, it may well prove a dead end, since it is a common surname in both the UK and the US. If the item originated with an American family surnamed Exeter, any potential connection to Jane Grey becomes even more tenuous, and the transfer of the piece across the Atlantic at some unknown past date increases the likelihood of misidentification by a series of past owners.

There is, however, one important (in this context) English family known by the name “Exeter”, but as a title of nobility rather than as a surname, and that family had a direct connection to Jane Grey. William Cecil, famous as chief minister to Elizabeth I during the first half of her reign, was secretary to the Privy Council during the reign of Queen Jane. Cecil was well acquainted with Jane, and initially supported her accession. Cecil’s wife Mildred is known to have corresponded with Jane and to have exchanged gifts with her. Cecil’s eldest son Thomas was created Earl of Exeter in 1605, and a later descendant was elevated to Marquess of Exeter in 1801. The Cecils continue to hold the Exeter marquessate.[1] If the item can be traced to the Cecil Earls or Marquesses of Exeter, the greater the circumstantial connection would be to Jane Grey.

One last factor must be considered, and that is the history of lace in England. Lacemaking has ancient origins, but lace was neither readily available nor fashionable in England prior to the reign of Elizabeth I. There is a tradition that Katherine of Aragon brought lacemaking with her to England from Spain at the turn of the sixteenth century, but there is no documentary evidence to support this tradition. Instead, lace remains conspicuously absent from virtually all English portraiture pre-dating roughly 1565, toward the end of the first decade of the reign of Elizabeth I. Prior to about 1565, we see instead extensive blackwork embroidery on a solid white field at collar and cuff . Even ruffs pre-dating about 1570 were made of finely-woven, semi-transparent lawn rather than lace. Large pieces of openwork lace of the kind seen in this sample did not become popular in England until closer to the end of the sixteenth century. It simply was not available in England in the 1550s, and so neither was the skill to make it.


Though the family tradition that this fragment of a lacework sampler was “worked” by Jane Grey while she was a prisoner in the Tower between July 1553 and her death on 12 Febraury 1554 is an intriguing one, there is no evidence available at present that would serve to confirm the tradition. In fact, confirmation of the kind necessary to render the article anything more than a simple curiosity of minimal historical (or financial) value is almost certainly not available. Confirmation requires some documentary evidence, such as a signed and dated letter, written by the hand of either Jane or the first subsequent owner of the piece, stating in some detail the precise connection between the lace, Jane, and the first subsequent owner (e.g.: “Given to me on 13 February 1553/4 by my Lady Jane’s mother as a token in remembrance her daughter”). Absent such documentation, it is not possible to confirm any real connection between the fragment and Jane Grey.

Further, the simple fact that lace of this kind was neither readily available nor made in England in the 1550s forces us to conclude that the sampler fragment, though perhaps handmade and certainly pre-dating 1850, is simply a fancifully mislabeled artifact.


J. Stephan Edwards, PhD
24 October 2013


Addendum (30 October 2013):

It must be noted that this is not the only example of a textile reputed to have been made by Jane Grey’s own hands. Another is on permanent display at Petworth House (Sussex). That piece is a linen panel measuring about 10 by 12 inches, heavily embroidered in wool and metallic threads in a floral motif. The precise origins of the piece are not documented, but Petworth House itself was owned by the Percy Earls of Northumberland from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Upon the marriage of Lady Elizabeth Percy, heiress of the 11th Earl of Northumberland, to Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset in 1682, both the textile and Petworth became part of the extensive Somerset estates, and Seymour subsequently rebuilt Petworth House. Ironically, the Seymours already owned the Syon House Portrait of Lady Jane. Then in 1750, Petworth passed to Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont, nephew of the 7th Duke of Somerset. Petworth remains with the Wyndhams, Barons Egremont and Leconfield, though its contents are held by the National Trust.

The authenticity of the Petworth textile has never been documented, though connection after 1682 to the Seymours, descendants of Jane’s sister Katherine Grey Seymour, lends the piece an air of seeming authenticity. Since Petworth was rebuilt by the Seymours in about 1688, it is conceivable that the piece originated with the Seymours and was placed by them at Petworth after the rebuild. If, however, the piece was already at Petworth during the prior Percy tenancy, its authenticity may be suspect. The Percy Earls of Northumberland of the sixteenth century had little obvious reason to own an artifact made by Jane Grey. The 6th Earl’s younger brothers, Thomas and Ingelram, were leaders in the pro-Catholic rebellion of 1536 known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The 7th Earl, eldest son of the 6th Earl’s brother Thomas, was a Catholic martyr and was later beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. The 8th Earl was suspected of involvement in the Throckmorton Plot intended to set Queen Mary Stuart at liberty and died under suspicious circumstances while in the Tower. And though the 9th Earl was nominally a Protestant, he was long suspected of being a crypto-Catholic. He too was imprisoned in the Tower, following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Given this rich history of entanglement by the Percys in pro-Catholic controversies and causes, and the fact that many of the other members of the Percy family were avowed Catholics, it seems highly unlikely that a family with such strong religious leanings would treasure an artifact from such a staunch Protestant as Jane Grey. If the item is authentic, it must have originated with the Seymours.


  1. The current and 8th Marquess of Exeter, Michael Cecil, is Canadian. He is co-director of the Ashland Institute in Ashland, Oregon, a center of the Emissaries of Divine Light, a cult-like spiritualist group founded in 1932 by Lloyd Arthur Meeker and headed from 1954 to 1988 by the 7th Marquess, Martin Cecil.