Also known as the ‘Nine Days’ Queen’, Lady Jane Grey remains a surprisingly overlooked figure in English History. Most people today with a degree of interest in the past will perhaps recognise her from Paul Delaroche’s infamous and romantic portrait of her execution, despite its exceptional inaccuracy, yet are not aware of Jane’s story or the reason why she had to die at the age of sixteen in February, 1554.
Unfortunately, her childhood was not so less pleasant than the tragic end she met in the Tower of London. Lady Jane was certainly of royal blood, even if her claim was weaker than that of Henry VIII’s bastardized daughters; the Lady Mary (later to become ‘Bloody Mary’) and the Lady Elizabeth (Elizabeth I). In 1515, Henry VIII’s sister Mary hastily married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk after Louis XII of France, her previous husband, died (without Henry’s approval, however, resulting in their temporary loss from the King’s favour). During their marriage Frances Brandon was born, and in turn Frances married Henry Grey in 1533 and became the mother of three daughters: Jane, Catherine and Mary. Jane Grey was the eldest, and therefore the most susceptible to her mother and father’s vicious agenda for wealth and status, eventually becoming a tool in the great game of politics.
It is important to lay out the Succession Act upon Henry VIII’s death in 1547 to understand what went wrong when Edward VI died 1553/4. Only from Henry VIII’s third marriage to Jane Seymour did he finally produce his longed-for heir; a son to succeed him and thus continue the Tudor dynasty, something that Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had failed to do. Edward, contrary to popular opinion, was a healthy child and did not suffer from long-term illness as frequently thought. Three more marriages would follow after Jane Seymour’s sudden death from childbed fever in order to further secure the succession. Surviving past childhood was never a guarantee and this fact was a part of Tudor life. Henry would attempt, but without any success, to have more sons by Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, but his fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves was never consummated – the King claimed she ‘looked like a horse’. So, in 1547 when Henry knew he was dying, he altered the Succession Act to reinstate his two bastardized daughters. First would be Edward – then, if Edward died without any heirs, the Crown would pass to Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter. And if Mary died without any heirs, the youngest daughter Elizabeth would become Queen.
The Grey Family were known Protestants and saw the accession of Edward VI, a Protestant also governed by a Protestant Council, as an opportunity to gain greater influence and power in England. Jane’s upbringing was strict and harsh. She preferred to spend her time studying and reading than surround herself in extravagancies. An account of her childhood is written by her own hand: “For when I am in the presence either of father or mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways (which I will not name for the honour I bear them) … that I think myself in hell.” When Jane did not comply with her parent’s orders, she was often beaten brutally with a cane. Despite her harsh treatment, Jane was sincerely religious. She enjoyed doctrinal debates and challenging Catholic ideas, and always remained a devout Protestant.
Frances and Henry Grey plotted their first move by attempting to push Lady Jane into Edward VI’s sphere – a marriage between their daughter and the King of England would ensure their political security, also allowing them to use Jane as a puppet to influence the rule of England. Throughout all the scheming, Lady Jane had no knowledge of her parent’s aims and certainly had no agenda to take the Crown for herself. It was clear to everybody, even to Mary I who would take the Crown back from Jane, that she had never wanted to become Queen. However, the Grey’s initial plot failed, as a King marrying one of his own subjects was never seen as glorious as a foreign marriage and thus an alliance, so Lord Protector Somerset did not consider the marriage proposal.
In 1549 Lord Protector Somerset was overthrown for his unpopular policies and replaced with Northumberland, though still Protestant, to act as regent until Edward VI came of age. Although he brought about more success than Somerset, Northumberland was a greedy, ambitious man who was prepared to risk eventually his life in order to gain power. When it became clear that Edward VI was dying from tuberculosis in 1553, concern aroused for England’s future. Edward had no heirs, and next in line was Mary – a staunch Catholic who would without a doubt reverse all of the Protestant work that had been done, and, more significantly, be rid of Northumberland and his Protestant council. Their choice of religion could also lead to their future execution as heretics. This could not happen. A conspiracy then emerged between Frances, Henry Grey and Northumberland to block Mary from the succession and find a pro-Protestant to put on the throne. There was no more fitting candidate than the Lady Jane Grey. Northumberland convinced a dying Edward to save the hard work they had achieved by leaving a Will with his command that Jane would become Queen on his death. It is debatable how much influence Edward in this conspiracy, but it appears he did not want his Catholic sister to succeed him, either. To ensure Northumberland remained powerful, he proposed a marriage between his son, Guildford Dudley, to the future Queen. This went ahead swiftly, with some reluctance from Jane, although she had no idea about the greater plans in store for her. The relationship between Jane and Guildford was not so intimate at the start of their marriage but their union turned out to be a meaningful and heartfelt one, particularly during their later captivity.
Edward VI died on 6 July 1553. His death was supposed to be kept secret for as long as possible, in order to confirm the preparations for Jane’s coronation at the Tower. However, news of Edward’s death leaked, and so Mary had been busy rallying her own troops from estates such as Norfolk, ready to fight for the Crown, not making shy of the fact she was Henry VIII’s daughter, but did not mention religion. Jane was hastily crowned on 10 July but Mary was proclaimed Queen on 19 July. Despite Northumberland’s resistance, Mary arrived in London on 3 August with a wave of support for her Tudor blood, and arrested all of the conspirators and released the old Catholic prisoners in the Tower. Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guildford Dudley were also imprisoned, although Mary knew too well of their innocence in the coup. Mary assured Jane that she and her husband would be issued a pardon once pleading guilty at their trials. There was no other option but to trust the new Queen, but she stuck to her word – a pardon was issued but they would stay in the Tower until the political situation had calmed. Upon their arrival, Jane and Guildford had very limited freedom within the Tower, but by 1554 they were frequently allowed to visit each other and wander outside the walls into the town with supervision, and as a result the pair grew closer. It is not too far to say that Jane was perhaps the happiest whilst imprisoned: a promise of freedom, a loving husband, an environment with no scheming parents, and the love and forgiveness of the Queen.
During Jane’s imprisonment, Mary I, who had never married and always desired love in her life, was arranging to marry Philip II of Spain. Although far younger than her, the Queen appears to have fallen in love simply from his portraits and letters. He was also a Catholic and Mary was desperate to bear children in order to secure the succession. Jane’s circumstances were likely to have remained optimistic if it weren’t for Wyatt’s Rebellion in 1554. On the surface it appeared to be a rebellion in opposition to the Spanish marriage, yet rumours of a conspiracy emerged that those involved aimed to put a pro-Protestant on the throne – and by no fault of Jane herself, it was her that emerged as the candidate, alongside the Lady Elizabeth. Philip II was not prepared to marry into a country that was politically unstable. Mary had to choose between her innocent cousin the Tower, or the chance of a Catholic future: a loving marriage and heirs to continue her regime. As a result, her advisers pushed her to execute Jane and her husband to end the threat of a Protestant rule.
Mary did not want to kill Jane. First, she put her under an examination to determine whether or not she was pregnant. If she was, she would be spared execution. But there was no sign that Jane was with child. The sixteen year old’s threat would be completely eradicated if she were Catholic, removing her position as a focal point for the Protestant cause. Mary sent her priest to the Tower multiple times in order to hold doctrinal debates with Jane and attempt to convert her to Catholicism. It didn’t work. Jane was very devout to her faith and strongly opposed the main areas of Catholicism, such as the idea of transubstantiation. Mary realized that Jane would always be a threat with her claim to the throne, and would move both heaven and earth before losing Philip as her potential husband. Finally, Mary was won over by her advisors and excitement for marriage, and sent a messenger to tell Jane and Guildford that their pardons had been revoked and they were to die; Guildford on Tower Hill and Jane on Tower Green. After the stresses of Jane’s life, it is noted that she was quite glad to depart earth. Guildford was not so calm at the prospect. On the wall of the Beauchamp Tower where he was imprisoned, the carving ‘Iane’ can still be seen today. He also sent a message to Mary, asking if he could see his wife one last time before their executions. Moved, the Queen accepted, but when Jane heard of this she declined to see Guildford, saying that it would take away whatever strength they had left in order to die with dignity, something Jane was determined to ensure.
There were only two occasions of distress during Jane’s last day alive. Guildford was taken from the Beauchamp Tower to die first, and as Jane watched from her window, he turned and smiled. They both had a final wave to one another, and so Guildford was led to Tower Hill. With a stammering speech, he knelt and was beheaded. His bloody body was taken back to the Tower in a cart, and Jane most certainly caught a glimpse of her dead husband, having cried: “Oh Guildford, Guildford!” They then came for Jane, and led her to the scaffold on Tower Green, not inside a dungeon as Paul Delaroche’s portrait suggests. She was extremely brave for a girl of sixteen, but when she was blindfolded and knelt before the block, a horrifying scene emerged. Jane had knelt too far away from it and when she reached out with her hands, she faltered. Blind, and unable to feel the block, she panicked, reaching out with her arms left, right and center: “Where is it?” She said. “What shall I do?” At Tudor executions, the ritual was never interrupted and it was an extremely formal occasion. Nobody had ever witnessed such a thing and as a result both those accompanying Jane on the scaffold and those in the audience froze up. Complete silence fell as nobody knew what to do. Eventually, it is claimed that someone from the audience jumped up and led her hand to the block, whereas other sources claim the Lieutenant on the scaffold helped. Finally, it was over. Lady Jane Grey was dead, and buried in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula alongside her husband.
Mary would go on to earn the title of “Bloody Mary” as a result of her extreme religious policy, burning approximately 300 Protestant men and women in just three years, until her death in 1558. Elizabeth I succeeded her and unified England under a Protestant regime. Her reign is still known today as “The Golden Age”.
Ives, E., Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery (2011)
Weir, A., Innocent Traitor (2007)