Lady Jane Grey (July 1536 – February 12, 1554), a granddaughter of Henry VII and a grandniece of Henry VIII of England, reigned as uncrowned Queen Regnant of the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Ireland for nine days in July 1553, and for that reason is called “The Nine Days Queen”. Jane’s accession, pursuant to the will of Edward VI, breached the laws of England as under the Third Succession Act, Mary Tudor was the legitimate and rightful heir to the Crown. Mary had been declared illegitimate by her father, Henry VIII. The same ruling had been applied to her younger half-sister, Elizabeth, later Elizabeth I. This declaration of illegitimacy was made to keep Mary, a Catholic, from receiving the crown, which Henry VIII had for a time wished to keep in Protestant hands. Their positions in the line of succession had, however, been restored by the Third Act of Succession. Nevertheless, many high-ranking nobles proved themselves pliable to accepting Jane as Queen of England. Acting largely out of financial self-interest, they supported her even if only as part of a power struggle to stop Henry’s first-born child, Princess Mary, a Roman Catholic, from ascending to the throne. Jane’s reign soon ended when the authorities abandoned their support for her as Queen, realizing that Mary had won the day. Mary subsequently had Jane executed for treason, following another attempt to seize the crown for Jane by her supporters.
Lady Jane had a reputation as one of the most learned women of her day. She was also renowned for her beauty. On the one hand, she appears to have been the victim of historical circumstance, rather than a maker of history. The men who placed her on the throne probably ensured her execution. She was also caught up in Catholic-Protestant rivalry, in which no few lives were lost. Had she taken refuge outside of England instead of accepting the throne, she might have lived much longer. On the other hand, at 15, she had little choice but to comply with the wishes of those who advised her. Her execution attracted considerable sympathy, especially among Protestants. She has the distinction of being the first regnant Queen of England, despite the brevity of her reign (the shortest in English history).
Early life and education
Jane was born at Bradgate Park near Leicester on an unknown date in late 1536 or early 1537, the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset and his wife, Lady Frances Brandon. Lady Frances was the daughter of Princess Mary, younger sister of Henry VIII. Jane had two younger sisters, Lady Catherine Grey and Lady Mary Grey; through their mother, the three sisters were great-granddaughters of Henry VII and members of the House of Tudor. Her father was a descendant of Edward IV’s commoner Queen, Elizabeth Woodville by her first husband. Jane received a comprehensive education and studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew as well as contemporary languages. Through the teachings of her tutors, she became a committed Protestant.
Jane had a difficult childhood. Frances Brandon was an abusive, cruel, and domineering woman who felt that Jane was weak and gentle and held her under a strict disciplinary regime (Waller, p. 44). Her daughter’s meekness and quiet, unassuming manner irritated Frances, who sought to “harden” the child with regular beatings. Devoid of a mother’s love and craving affection and understanding, Jane turned to books as solace and quickly mastered skills in the arts and languages. However, she felt that nothing she could do would please her parents. Speaking to a visitor, Cambridge scholar Roger Ascham, tutor to the Lady Elizabeth, she said:
For when I am in the presence of either 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 … that I think myself in hell.
In 1546, at less than 10 years old, Jane was sent to live as the ward of the 35-year old Catherine Parr, who had married King Henry VIII in 1543. Queen Catherine was a warm and loving woman who took the young Jane under her wing. Having never experienced any demonstration of love from her own mother, Jane basked in the warm affection she received from her Aunt Catherine and blossomed into a fine young woman. She also became acquainted with her royal cousins, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. Her spirits rose and she learned to assert herself. After King Henry VIII died, Catherine married Sir Thomas Seymour. Unfortunately, Catherine died shortly after the birth of her only child, Mary, leaving the young Jane once again bereft of a maternal figure. Jane acted as chief mourner at Catherine’s funeral.
Thomas Seymour proposed marrying Jane to his nephew, Edward VI. However, his brother, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, held the power in the young King’s household. A match with Princess Elisabeth of France (Henry II of France’s daughter) was already being arranged and, with two conflicting goals, the Seymour brothers engaged in a power struggle. The marriage between the King and Jane never took place primarily due to the ill-health of Edward VI. The Seymour brothers were eventually both tried for treason and executed after a coup by the ambitious John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland.
Jane was next contracted in marriage to Lord Hertford, the eldest son of the late Duke of Somerset. However, ongoing negotiations between Frances Brandon and John Dudley led to a proposed marriage to Lord Guilford Dudley, son of the newly powerful Duke. The reluctant Jane was alarmed at the prospect of marrying into the Dudley family, whom she had come to fear and hate. When argument failed to sway her, her mother beat her until Jane gave her consent (Wallen, p. 45). The couple was married, in a double wedding with Jane’s sister Catherine and Lord Herbert, son of Lord Pembroke, on May 25, 1553.
Jane and the royal succession
According to male primogeniture, the Suffolks—Brandons and later Greys—comprised the junior branch of the heirs of Henry VII. The Third Succession Act restored both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession, although the law continued to regard both of them as illegitimate. Furthermore, this Act authorized Henry VIII to alter the succession by his will. His last will reinforced the succession of his three surviving children, then declared that, should none of his three children leave heirs, the throne would pass to heirs of his younger sister, Mary. Henry’s will excluded the descendants of his elder sister Margaret Tudor, owing in part to Henry’s desire to keep the English throne out of the hands of the Scots monarchs, and in part to a previous Act of Parliament of 1431, barring foreign-born persons, including royalty, from inheriting property in England.
Support for Jane
Many nobles had become wealthy when Henry VIII closed the Roman Catholic monasteries and divided the spoils among those who supported him. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, figured prominently among the new, Protestant nobility, and in the last years of Edward’s reign had acted as Edward’s principal adviser and chief minister. When it became clear that Edward VI would not survive long, Northumberland led the faction that resisted the accession of Mary Tudor. This fear stemmed from the knowledge that Mary would certainly revoke the religious changes made during Edward’s reign, and that she might demand from the nobility former Church and monastic properties in order to restore them to the Roman Catholic Church. Many also expressed concern that Mary favored for herself a Spanish marriage which might bring in Spanish nobles to rule England in place of Northumberland and his colleagues. Northumberland arranged for his son, Lord Guilford Dudley, to marry the Protestant (and anti-Roman Catholic) Jane, hoping through him to gain control over his new daughter-in-law and the reins of England.
When informed by her parents of her betrothal, Jane refused to obey: She regarded Guilford as ugly and stupid. Historians do not know what made this seemingly quiet and obedient girl turn against precedent to refuse her parents’ marriage arrangements. Jane’s refusal notwithstanding, her parents forced her into submission.
The religious background
The question of the succession had arisen as a result of the religious unrest that had occurred during the reign (1509–1547) of Henry VIII. When Henry’s Protestant son and successor, Edward VI, lay dying in 1553, at the age of 15, his Roman Catholic half-sister Mary held the position of Heir Presumptive to the throne. However, Edward VI named the (Protestant) heirs of his father’s sister, Mary Tudor (not his own half-sister Mary), as his successors in a will composed on his deathbed, perhaps under the persuasion of Northumberland. He knew that this effectively left the throne to his cousin, Jane Grey, who (like him) staunchly supported Protestantism and had a very high level of education.
At the time of Edward’s death, without Edward’s will (which perhaps had dubious legal standing, since it ran contrary to the Third Succession Act and since Edward had not reached the age of majority), the crown would have passed, under the terms of the Third Succession Act and of Henry VIII’s will, to Mary and her male (not female) heirs. Should Mary die without male issue, the crown would then pass to Elizabeth and her male heirs. Should Elizabeth die without male issue, the crown would pass not to Frances Brandon but rather to any male children the latter might have produced by that time. In the absence of male children born to Frances, the crown would pass to any male children Jane might have. Jane, thus, did not feature in the line of succession prior to the last draft of Edward’s will of June 1553. Only in the last draft did Edward finally include Jane Grey as his heir presumptive, knowing the line of succession included no Protestant-born male children. This may have contravened customary testatory law because Edward, then just 15 years old, had not reached the legal testatory age of 21. More importantly, many contemporary legal theorists believed the monarch could not contravene an Act of Parliament, even in matters of the succession; Jane’s claim to the throne therefore remained obviously weak. Other historians believed that the King could basically rule through divine right. Henry VII had, after all, seized the throne from the rightful King, Richard III, on the battlefield.
Edward VI died on July 6, 1553. Northumberland had Lady Jane Grey proclaimed Queen of England on July 10, 1553, just four days later—once she had taken up a secure residence in the Tower of London (English monarchs customarily resided in the Tower from the time of accession until their coronation). Jane refused to name her husband Dudley as king by letters patent and deferred to Parliament. She offered to make him Duke of Clarence instead.
Northumberland faced a number of key tasks in order to consolidate his power. Most importantly, he had to isolate and, ideally, capture Lady Mary in order to prevent her from gathering support around her. Mary, however, advised of his intentions, took flight, sequestering herself in Framlingham Castle in Suffolk.
Within only nine days, Mary had managed to find sufficient support to ride into London in a triumphant procession on July 19. Parliament had no choice but to declare Mary the rightful Queen and denounced and revoked Jane’s proclamation as having been coerced. Mary had Jane and her husband imprisoned in the Gentleman Gaoler’s apartments at the Tower of London for high treason, although their lives were initially spared—the Duke of Northumberland was executed on August 21, 1553.
Jane and Lord Guildford Dudley were both charged with high treason, together with two of Dudley’s brothers. Their trial, by a special commission, took place on November 13, 1553, at the Guildhall in the City of London. The commission was chaired by Sir Thomas White, Lord Mayor of London, and included Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby and John Bourchier, 2nd Earl of Bath. Both defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death. Jane’s sentence was that she “be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases.” However, the imperial ambassador reported to Charles V that her life was to be spared.
The Protestant rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyatt, in late January 1554, sealed Jane’s fate, although she had nothing to do with it directly. Wyatt’s rebellion started as a popular revolt, precipitated by the imminent marriage of Mary to the Roman Catholic Prince Philip (later King of Spain, 1556–1598). Jane’s father (the Duke of Suffolk) and other nobles joined the rebellion, calling for Jane’s restoration as Queen. Philip and his councilors pressed Mary to execute Jane to put an end to any future focus for unrest. Five days after Wyatt’s arrest, the execution of Jane and Guilford took place.
On the morning of February 12, 1554, the authorities took Lord Guilford Dudley from his rooms at the Tower of London to the public execution place at Tower Hill and there had him beheaded. A horse and cart brought his remains back to the Tower of London, past the rooms where Jane remained as a prisoner. Jane was then taken out to Tower Green, inside the Tower of London, and in private beheaded. With few exceptions, such executions applied to royalty alone; Jane’s execution occurred on the orders of Queen Mary, as a gesture of respect for her cousin.
According to the account of her execution given in the anonymous Chronicle of Queen Jane and of Two Years of Queen Mary, which formed the basis for Raphael Holinshed’s depiction, Guilford faced the block first, and from her lodgings at Partidge’s house, Jane viewed his body being removed from the Tower Green. Upon ascending the scaffold, she gave a speech to the assembled crowd:
Good people, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same. The fact, indeed, against the Queen’s highness was unlawful, and the consenting thereunto by me: But touching the procurement and desire thereof by me or on my behalf, I do wash my hands thereof in innocency, before God, and the face of you, good Christian people, this day.
She then recited the psalm Miserere mei Deus (“Have mercy upon me, O God”) in English, and handed her gloves and handkerchief to her maid. John Feckenham, a Roman Catholic chaplain sent by Mary, who had failed to convert Jane, stayed with her during the execution. The executioner asked her forgiveness, and she gave it. She pleaded the axeman, “I pray you dispatch me quickly.” Referring to her blindfold, she asked, “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” and the axeman answered, “No, madam.” She then blindfolded herself. Jane had resolved to go to her death with dignity, but once blindfolded, failing to find the block with her hands, began to panic and cried, “What shall I do? Where is it?” An unknown hand, possibly de Feckenham’s, then helped her find her way and retain her dignity at the end. With her head on the block, Jane spoke the last words of Christ as recounted by Luke: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!” She was then beheaded.
“The traitor-heroine of the Reformation,” as historian A. F. Pollard called her, was merely 16 (or possibly seventeen) years old at the time of her execution. Apparently, Frances Brandon made no attempt, pleading or otherwise, to save her daughter’s life; Jane’s father already awaited execution for his part in the Wyatt rebellion. Jane and Guilford are buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula on the north side of Tower Green. Queen Mary lived for only four years after she ordered the death of her cousin. She died in 1558.
Henry, Duke of Suffolk, was executed a week after Jane, on February 19, 1554. Merely three weeks after her husband’s death and not even a month since her daughter’s, Frances Brandon shocked the English court by marrying her chamberlain, Adrian Stokes. Some historians believe she deliberately chose to do this to distance herself from her previous status. She was fully pardoned by Mary and allowed to live at Court with her two surviving daughters. She is not known to have mentioned Jane ever again and was as indifferent to her child in death as she had been in life.
Representations in culture
Lady Jane Grey has left an abiding impression in English literature and romance. The dearth of material from which to construct a source-based biography of her has not prevented authors of all ages filling the gaps with the fruits of their imagination.
In Elizabethan ballads, Jane’s story is a tale of innocence betrayed. In one ballad, Jane, in denouncing her executioner Mary declares “For Popery I hate as death/and Christ my savior love.” Jane is now not only an innocent, but a martyr to the Protestant cause, and appears as such in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Roger Ascham praised her as noble and scholarly. The greatest Elizabethan tribute to her came in Thomas Chaloner’s Elegy, published in 1579. Here she is peerless in her learning and beauty, comparable only with Socrates for her courage and quiet resignation in the face of death. He even suggests that she was pregnant at the time of her execution, an assertion that appears nowhere else, presumably to make Mary, the great villain of the piece, appear all the more heartless.
From martyrology and poetry, Jane finally made it on to the stage in the early Jacobean period in Lady Jane by John Webster and Thomas Dekker, where she takes on the role of a tragic lover. This theme was taken up later in the century by John Banks, a Restoration playwright in his Innocent Usurper: Or, the Death of Lady Jane Grey. Here Jane is only persuaded to accept the crown after her husband, Lord Guilford Dudley, threatens to commit suicide if she does not. First performed after the Glorious Revolution, there is also a strong anti-Roman Catholic dimension to Bank’s play, which presumably appealed to the audiences of the day.
More plays and poems followed in the eighteenth century, when a small Janeite industry began to take shape. In the early Hanoverian period she takes on the role of political heroine as well as martyr, scholar and tragic lover, putting down her Plato and taking up the crown only to save English Protestantism. Her popularity as a subject for tragic romance increased even further in the nineteenth century, an age of mass printing, where her story appears in a variety of media, including popular magazines and children’s books.
Jane’s growing reputation was not just a popular phenomenon. Gilbert Burnet, Whig historian and self-publicist, described Jane, with considerable exaggeration, as “the wonder of the age” in his History of the Reformation, a phrase subsequently taken up by Oliver Goldsmith his History of England, published in 1771. Even the sober David Hume was seduced by the tragedy of Jane and Dudley. It was not until the early nineteenth century that John Lingard, a Catholic historian, ventured a word or two of counter-adulation, saying that she “liked dresses overmuch,” and reminding her promoters that she was only sixteen.
She was recast time and again to suit the inclinations of her audience. After the French Revolution, the new evangelist movement alighted on her as a symbol, marked not for her romance but for her piety. In 1828, The Lady’s Monitor declared that she inherited “every great, every good, every admirable quality, whether of mind, disposition, or person.” The radical thinker and philosopher William Godwin called her “the most perfect young creature of the female sex to be found in history” in his own hagiography of Jane published under the pseudonym, Theopilius Marcliffe.
In the twentieth century, the story of Jane was made into a film in Tudor Rose, directed by Robert Stevenson, which appeared in the United States as Nine Days a Queen. Once again Mary is the cold-blooded fanatic, while Jane and Dudley are the tragic lovers. More recently the story of the nine-day-queen featured in the film, Lady Jane, starring Helena Bonham Carter and directed by Trevor Nunn, a romance set against the political intrigues of the day.