Jane Dormer

Back in the autumn, I had the happy experience of wandering around the Palazzo Ducale at Mantua, drooling over the Mantegnas, though rather less appreciative of the efforts of Giulio Romano. More rooms are open than the last time we visited, and in some of these are portraits (mostly) of known and unknown dignitaries of the sixteenth century, many of them copies of works by the like of Palma Vecchio, Sebastiano del Piombo and other famous Venetians.

There is also this portrait (below), possibly a loose copy of one by Antonis Mor now in the Prado, which is believed to be of Jane Dormer, duchess of Feria in Spain, who began life as a daughter of minor English nobility, and whose fate was entwined with that of Mary I of England and Philip II of Spain.

Portrait of Jane Dormer, duchess of Feria, by Giovanni (Jeannin) Bahuet (1552–97), painted in the 1590s, in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua
Portrait, believed to be of Jane Dormer, duchess of Feria, by Anthonis Mor, c. 1558 (Credit: Prado Museum, Madrid)

Jane was born on 6 January 1538, at Eythrope in Buckinghamshire, the daughter of Sir William Dormer and his wife Mary Sidney. There are conflicting accounts of her youth: after her mother’s death in 1542, she was brought up for a time by her mother’s parents, and her grandfather, the young Prince Edward’s chamberlain and tutor, encouraged her to play with the future Edward VI; but at some point she went to her paternal grandmother, Lady Jane Dormer, née Newdigate, and adopted the latter’s firm Catholicism (the Sidneys were Protestants). Lady Jane’s brother Sebastian, after a career at court, had joined the Charterhouse, and was one of the monks hanged, drawn and quartered because they refused to accept Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy.

The London Charterhouse today

An extraordinary biography of the duchess was written by one Henry Clifford (probably born c. 1570), who was a member of her household, and presented, at some time after 1643, to the then Lord Dormer (also earl of Carnarvon and baron of Wing). It was published in 1887 after the manuscript had been transcribed, and the first nine chapters edited, by Canon E.E. Estcourt (1816–84), who followed Newman into the Roman Catholic church in 1845. After his death the editing was completed by the Rev. Joseph Stevenson (1806–95), a historian and Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism in 1863, entered the priesthood in 1872 (after the death of his wife) and in 1877 became a Jesuit. 

The title page of the book

With this background, it comes as no surprise that the work is partial, to put it mildly, and will come as a bit of a revelation to anyone brought up in the ‘Bloody Mary bad/Elizabeth good’ school of English history. Anglicans, for example, are ‘outlandish apostates’, and Sir William Dormer single-handedly changed the course of history by persuading the noblemen of Buckinghamshire to side with the Lady Mary against the attempted rebellion by supporters of Lady Jane Grey.

A summary of the reign of Elizabeth I, from the Life

Her saintly (by this view) grandmother’s support of persecuted Catholics during the reign of Edward VI was known to the Lady Mary, and Jane Dormer entered her household as a lady-in-waiting, becoming a favourite and a confidante, and attending the new queen at her coronation in September 1553. According to Clifford: ‘In those days the house of this princess [Mary] was the only harbour for honourable young gentlewomen, given any way to piety and devotion. It was the true school of virtuous demeanour, befitting the education that ought to be in noble damsels. And the greatest lords in the kingdom were suitors to her to receive their daughters in her service.’ Among those lords named are the earl of Devonshire and the duke of Norfolk, both released from the Tower of London, along with Bishops Bonner (of flogging fame), Tunstall and Gardiner, at Mary’s accession.

Possibly Mary I at her coronation (source unknown)

In 1554, the duke of Feria, Gómez Suárez de Figueroa (c. 1520–71) accompanied King Philip II of Spain to England for his marriage with Queen Mary, which took place in Winchester cathedral on 25 July 1554. He stayed on with Philip until he left England in August 1555, was sent as Philip’s representative to Mary’s privy council at least twice, and returned with the king on his second and final visit in 1557; later that year he was appointed as Philip’s official representative in England.

Hans Eworth, Mary I of England and Philip II of Spain, rulers of England (Credit: Woburn Abbey)

In 1558, Feria (in the language of the ODNB), sued for Jane’s hand. Philip supported the marriage, but Feria’s own family was opposed, as was Jane’s, according to the Life. However, they were married on 29 December, six weeks after Mary’s death and the accession of Elizabeth. (It had been one of Jane’s last duties to her mistress to take Mary’s jewels to her half-sister and successor.) Also according to the Life (which brings up in passing the rumour of the teenage Elizabeth bearing a child to Sir Thomas Seymour – ‘a child born and miserably destroyed’), Elizabeth swore not only to Feria but to others that she was a true Catholic and would maintain religious laws as they had been under Mary. (These, by the way, are justified: ‘They cried [Mary] down because so many were burnt in her time; but she caused no new laws to be made against heretics but only recalled such as were used and of force in God’s Church since the Christian religion was established in England.’)

The execution of Bishops Latimer and Ridley (1555), from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Perceiving that life in England for Catholics was likely to become difficult in Elizabeth’s reign, the duke left for the Low Countries in May 1559, and his wife joined him in July. They took with them out of England (by permission of the queen), many priests, and the inhabitants of three convents: the monks of the Charterhouse of Sheen (which was re-established in Mechelen); the Bridgetine nuns of Sion, and a small number of Dominican nuns from Dartford.  

Their son Lorenzo was born at Mechelen on 28 September, and in spring 1560 they made a progress through France (where inter alii they met Mary, queen of France and queen of Scots, at the French court in Amboise) to Spain, where they were greeted warmly by Philip and his new queen, Elisabeth of Valois, whom he had married a few months after Mary’s death. Jane’s grandmother went into exile with her, and found a home in Louvain (Leuven), where ‘Like another Dorcas she made many coats and garments for widows and poor people’, and was ‘a foot to the lame, and eye to the blind, a staff to the weak, a true mother of orphans’. She also providing clothing for the ‘poor soldiers’ of the duke of Alva (the well-known ‘Butcher of Flanders’, who as governor set up the Council of Blood, executed 18,000 people in six years, and sacked Mechelen, Zutphen, Naarden and Haarlem), who were quartered in Louvain.

Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, duke of Alva and governor of the Spanish Netherlands (1507–82), by Anthonis Mor (Credit: the Liria Palace, Madrid)

In 1571, Jane’s sister, Anne, Lady Hungerford, was on her way to join her grandmother (no longer able to tolerate her Anglican husband, whose ‘base covetousness and sensual living’ are alluded to), but arrived shortly after the old lady’s death. She stayed for the rest of her life in Louvain, carrying on the family tradition of support for the poor and needy so long as they were Catholic, and trying to interfere in politics (see below). Both women were buried in front of the high altar of the Charterhouse there.

The Louvain Charterhouse in 1596

The duke and duchess of Feria, meanwhile, spent time between his estates in Extremadura, where Jane apparently struggled with the hot climate, and the court, where her husband was regarded as an important authority on Elizabeth I and England. They were keen promoters of the Jesuit order (which the duke had attempted to introduce into England during Mary’s reign), and formed a centre for exiled English, Scottish and Irish Catholics, who they helped in practical terms, and whose plans for the overthrow of Elizabeth and the restoration of Catholicism they took to the court.

On the duke’s death in 1571, he left Jane as the sole guardian of the eleven-year-old Lorenzo (another son, Pedro, had died at a few months old) and of the family estates. Philip II continued to value her advice, which was always on the side of the pope and very aggressive towards England, but a petition sent from the Low Countries by English exiles to send Jane there (possibly even as governor) was refused by Philip, as in the 1570s he was attempting an accord with England. When a force of Irish and Italian troops under James FitzMaurice landed at Smerwick in Ireland in 1579, it seems to have been partly under the mistaken believe that Jane had influenced her uncle, Sir Henry Sidney, commander of the army in Ireland, to defect to the invaders: in fact, after a short siege, they were massacred.

More generally, Jane’s support of papal (rather than Spanish) policy, and her enthusiasm for the various plots surrounding Mary, Queen of Scots, seem to have lessened her influence upon Philip – she appears to have played no part in the plans for the Armada, and her role as a rallying point for exiled Catholics was to an extent usurped by William Allen, the Oxford academic, founder of the English College at Douai for Catholic exiles, and cardinal. Her cause was not helped by the opposition of her son, who blocked the proposal of Lady Hungerford in 1593 that Jane should be sent to the Low Countries to rally the exiles and lead a campaign against Elizabeth: he believed that this would be both expensive to him personally and also futile, and the king clearly agreed, as nothing came of the plan except estrangement between mother and son.

Cardinal William Allen, engraved by Esmé de Boulonois in Isaac Bullart’s Académie des Sciences et des Arts, the language of which is at least as startlingly anti-heretical as the Life of Jane Dormer (Credit: the Royal Collection Trust)

Jane did not give up: later efforts included writing to James VI of Scotland in 1600, urging him to convert to Catholicism to ensure that his succession to the throne of England, where the majority were Catholics(!) would be easier thereby. After Elizabeth’s death, the papacy came up with the idea of having her return to England as a lady-in-waiting to James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark, but again Lorenzo vetoed the idea, as, now under Philip III, Spain was eager for a rapprochement with England which Jane would hardly have encouraged.

Jane outlived her son by five years, though in failing health. She died on 23 January 1612: the account of her deathbed takes thirteen pages in the Life, and the funeral also thirteen. (There was a slight hiccup when the abbess of the nunnery of Santa Clara at Zafra (the town at the centre of the Feria estates) where she was to be buried alongside her husband and son, demanded to see the body, in case a substitution of some sort had taken place; by Clifford’s account, when the coffin was opened, the duchess appeared to be in the odour of sanctity, and a priest wiped a trace of blood from her nose with a handkerchief to keep as a relic.)

The church of Santa Clara at Zafra, now a museum

A remarkable life, then – as far as is known, Jane was the only noblewoman through the period of Mary’s reign to marry a Spaniard – led according to very strict principles. Also a succession of tragedies: the deaths of her baby son, of her husband and grandmother, her estrangement from her son, and perhaps most of all the failure of all her political efforts in support of the Catholic church, a mission which will seem to many of us today as completely extraordinary.


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2 Responses to Jane Dormer

  1. Leo JV says:

    Another welcomed, rich in detail, life story that you send us, and I thank you for it. And the paintings!


  2. Thank you very much!


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