The Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey

A romanticist view: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, 1833
A romanticist view: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, 1833

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.

Lady Jane Grey, The Streatham Portrait
Lady Jane Grey, The Streatham Portrait

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, by William Scrots, c. 1550
Edward VI, by William Scrots, c. 1550

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.

Portrait of Mary I by Antonis Mor, 1554
Portrait of Mary I by Antonis Mor, 1554

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)

4 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey

  1. It could be argued that had Jane’s Father, (the Duke of Suffolk) and others not rebelled to put Jane back on the throne six months after they had been pardoned by Mary, that Jane would have been pardoned at some later date or that she would have been placed on house arrest as Elizabeth was, after her release from the Tower. Jane was not innocent of the decision to put herself on the throne; she did protest but only because she thought her mother had a better claim, not against Mary’s claim. She ordered the rising of an army and gave statutes and proclamations in the name of herself as Jane Regina. She also would have ordered the death of Mary had she won the rebellions that followed. Jane’s letter to Thomas Harding, her first teacher, and her debate with Father Feckenham confirms that she saw Mary as her enemy and Mary’s supporters as to be condemned without mercy. She was not an innocent victim.
    However, Mary did see her as innocent and as a pawn and was reluctant to execute her cousin. Having faced the Wyatt uprising and that of Jane’s father and father in law; she realized that Jane would never be someone she could leave peacefully at home; she would be used again and again to usurp the throne. Jane was mentioned in the will of Henry VIII after the three Tudor siblings, Lady Frances and Lady Eleanor Brandon and their children. She and her sisters came after Lady Frances as the grand nieces of Henry VIII and grandchildren of the Princess Mary Tudor, his sister. But the public wanted a Tudor and Mary was very popular. Her marriage to Philip may have not had all the public support but the people still supported her and not the claims of the Greys, or more properly, John Dudley. Mary had no choice but to try and execute her cousin, but that does not mean that she would have preferred not to have done so. Mary condemned her with reluctance and her husband as her co-conspirator for he had wanted to be King even though Jane had refused to make him so. Jane did not love Guildford, or for that matter, she didn’t really like him, but she believed that he did not deserve to die since his only crime was being married to her.
    The one thing that gains sympathy with audiences concerning Jane again is her youth; she was seventeen, just a young woman, today she would be considered a child; but not at that time. Jane and her husband Guildford could be executed because they were legally adult and so responsible. This was a time when many crimes were met by the death penalty, some of them petty. This was a time when the definition of an adult was blurred and when young people of fourteen and fifteen could be executed for crimes, theft, murder, fraud, treason, heresy, and an entire list of many lesser crimes. In the 18th century over 200 crimes held the death penalty and still people we would consider children were victims of these terrible laws. Whatever we think of Jane, she was still a young woman and her death is a tragic loss, partly for herself, partly of a scholar. But these were times that took no account of such things.
    Although authors of fiction and some earlier biographers and historians have tried to show Jane as a victim, she was in reality nothing of the sort as the sources show. Her hesitation has been mistakenly taken to mean she protested that the crown belonged to Mary, when in fact she was protesting against her mother being overlooked. The sources show Jane as super smart, a fanatic, strong in her convictions. Jane was neither coerced or bullied by her family, but acted on her own convictions and decisions. She proclaimed that the supporters of Mary Tudor should be destroyed in the proclamation to raise troops, she was capable of ruthlessness if needed. Mary Tudor did forgive the rebels, it was only when Jane’s father, having been pardoned, raised troops again that she was faced with the reality that Jane would always be the focus of rebellion and usurpation. The political reality faced by monarchs could be cruel, forcing them to make harsh, ruthless decisions. Most historians agree that Mary reluctantly put Jane on trial, several months after a failed attempt to place her on the throne. We cannot judge by modern standards, we can only analyze the political reality of the times. Neither should we see Jane as a child, the law recognized her as fully adult and responsible for her own actions. It’s a tragedy that she was executed in the flower of young adulthood, Jane showed promise as a scholar and a woman. But neither should we judge anyone too harshly for the decision to execute her. It was her choice to remain a convinced Protestant. Jane never could or would change her faith. She was as devoted to her beliefs as Mary Tudor was to hers. She was guilty of seizing the crown, she was dangerous to the government, Mary made a reluctant, but necessary decision, to her it was a matter of survival.
    Rachel Wisdom, author of “God and Posterity Will Show Me Favor”: A Search for the Historical Lady Jane Dudley in Light of Her Later Portrayals, gives the best explanation of the My Device for the Succession, put together by Edward in the last weeks of his life. It had John Dudley, Jane’s father in law, behind it, but clearly Edward thought it out well, altering it until the urgency of his health failing, the final form sets aside Lady Frances, her mother and before Jane in the natural order of succession, in favor of Jane, and her heirs. Jane and her sister Katherine had been married the previous year, and Edward quickly got it that they were the best option for a continuous Protestant, legitimate succession. Lady Frances would be passed over on the basis of age and the future production capacity of her daughter.
    Frances was summoned to the palace and obliged to accept Jane over her, Jane was given the news, but her own words, documentary sources and letters confirm her shock was short-lived and protest in favor of her mother, not Mary. Dr J. Stephan Edwards confirmed that Jane had no regard but to accept the crown willingly and to use her powers fully. Modern historians agree that the brow beatings, the forced acceptance and marriage are nothing but a romantic myth. Modern ideas have been substantiated by authors who have populated this myth into the classic heroic story we know today from film and children’s books.
    Frances carried her daughter’s train when she came to the Tower in procession and made her acceptance speech. She was at her side when Jane gave the order to raise troops to attack Mary.
    Jane used her power to order that her husband, Guildford should not be king, acting independently, and to forbid the return of the Mass. We have several letters and written declarations from even her time in prison, showing her continuous role as an evangelical and leader. Yes, her death was a tragic passing that had its origins in the desperate paranoid fears of a teenage King who first could not countenance the fact that a woman would rule, but had no other choice, then could not name a sister to rule, nor a Catholic, as Mary Tudor was, nor any bastard sister, as he declared that both Mary and Elizabeth were. Realizing that he would not live another year, with the health that had so far been robust, declining suddenly from Autumn 1552, and failing by Spring 1553, Edward knew that he had to ignore the law, the will of his own father and Parliament and do what he believed would secure his reforms and a Protestant succession. He died in that belief that July, but his vision lasted a mere thirteen days. Edward reckoned without the population who supported Mary, the strength and determination of his sister, and the fact that the majority of people were still Catholic. Mary Tudor was Henry’s daughter and she easily rallied support that saw her legitimately on the throne. She was gracious in victory, she forgave and released most of the plotters, including Jane’s parents. Jane gave Mary a problem, but it is certain that had she not continued to be the focus of plots to replace Mary with her that she may well have been pardoned. Mary Tudor, in the end had no choice but to try and execute Jane, who was not a child, or an innocent victim but something of a leader, made out of the desperate fight to win out against fear born from inherent Tudor paranoia.
    Now, I would like to say something about the relationship between the Lady Jane Grey, and Father Feckenham.
    As I said above, her debate with Father Feckenham confirms that she saw Mary as her enemy and Mary’s supporters as to be condemned without mercy.
    But it bothered her that as she got to know Father Feckenham, she could not bring herself to see him in that light.
    All of those people whom she counted on, and believe to be as strong in their faith as she was, deserted and abandoned her. The one person who she perceived to have true and abiding faith, and convictions as strong as hers, she saw as deeply misguided.
    Feckenham, it appears, seems to have begun to wonder if perhaps, she was right.
    As he said in his report to the Queen later on:
    “I acknowledge myself fitter to bee her Disciple, then Teacher.”
    It was Feckenham’s choice, and not Queen Mary’s to be with Jane on that fateful day:
    February 12th, 1554.

    Just some thing to think about.


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