Written by Shannon Blake
The story of Lady Jane Grey, England’s infamous queen of nine days, has been told countless times, yet history remains unclear as to who she was. Was Jane a puppet on a string, manipulated by an ambitious and ruthless father-in-law, or was she a conniving Lady Macbeth figure who wanted the throne to satisfy her own ambition? And did she pose such a great threat to Mary I’s reign that she needed to be executed for treason?
Firstly, one must examine how it was that a woman named Grey came to be a Tudor queen, and to answer that question there are two key documents. Henry VIII’s final will, the Third Succession Act of 1544 and the Devise [sic] for the Succession written by his son, Edward VI represented two conflicting ideas about who should inherit the throne.
Henry VIII was survived by three children- Mary, Elizabeth and Edward, all of whom had different mothers. At different stages of their childhoods, both Mary and Elizabeth were decreed illegitimate heirs and removed from the line of succession. Though Henry was later convinced by his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, to restore both women into the succession, albeit behind their younger brother. Henry’s final will, the Third Succession Act of 1544, declared that the order of inheritance would be Edward, then Mary, then Elizabeth. However, this could be changed if Edward had any children of his own to place in the line of succession before his sisters.
Edward VI was nine years old when his father died and he inherited the crown and only fifteen when he too died on the 6th July 1553. Though he was king, he was technically still a minor which makes his Devise for the Succession complicated. There was legal ambiguity as to whether or not Edward had the ability to write a will, for when the document was presented to judges before his death, they initially refused to support it. This document had been written mere weeks earlier when the young king, realising he was dying, decided to remove his half-sisters from the succession, for as he saw it, ‘the said Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth be unto us but of the half-blood’. The text went on to state that ‘for lakke [sic] of issu [sic] of my body’ he would be succeeded by ‘the L Franceses [sic] heires masles [sic] if she have any such issu [sic] befor [sic] my death, to the L Janes heires masles [sic]’.
In simpler terms, as Edward had sired no heir of his own, he wished to be succeeded by Lady Francis’s male heirs, and if she had none, then the succession would pass to the male heirs of Francis’s oldest daughter, Jane.
Jane was an educated lady, considered wise beyond her years and a devout Protestant. She was also a woman of high standing; her grandmother was Mary Tudor (sister of Henry VIII) though she was tied to the Tudor house in a number of other ways . For a short period of time she was adopted by Edward’s uncle and step-mother (Katherine Parr) and she was actually named after Jane Seymour, Edward’s mother. At one stage she was even a potential bride to Edward VI.
Whilst she was in the running by mere birthright, it is believed John Dudley cajoled Edward towards Jane. Dudley was an advisor and favourite of Edward who was very much playing his own game. After being listed as the heiress to the crown, Jane was married to John Dudley’s son Guildford Dudley. Though Jane opposed the match, adamant that she did not want to marry Dudley, but her parents forced her to wed. It is possible she knew then that the marriage would only serve the greed of the Dudley family, though it is also possible she opposed the union merely on her dislike of the spoilt Guildford Dudley.
At the time of Edward’s death Jane was recovering from an illness, which she suspected to be poisoning. Reportedly, she was so shocked by the news of her ascension that she fell to the ground shaking. She was said to have been upset by the news of Edward’s passing, and greatly distressed by people suddenly bowing to her and treating her in a manner not befitting her position. She fell to the floor in tears and repeatedly told those present that day in Syon House that she was ‘unwilling to accept such a burden’. Jane claimed that the crown was ‘not [her] right and pleases [her] not’ insisting that it was rightfully Mary’s crown.
However reluctant Jane may have been, she was thrust into a heightened position. Letters penned in her hand were signed ‘Jane the Quene [sic]’. Jane refused to allow Dudley to be named king at her side and it is believed that she told him ‘the crown is not a plaything for boys and girls’.
She was officially proclaimed queen on the 10th July, four days after Edward’s death, though there was little celebration. Even then, Jane’s supporters were aware that trouble was brewing. Needless to say, Mary was not simply going to let a pretender take her throne.
Mary was not the most popular monarch of British history. It would not be unjust to call her controversial for the time. In a newly-reformed Protestant England, a Catholic queen was perhaps not the best choice. However, the fact that Mary was a Tudor and a direct descendant of a former-king (Henry VIII) made it clear in the minds of the public that she was the one to follow despite differing religious philosophies. She assembled her forces and advanced on London.
Jane’s reign ended on the 19th July (though Mary would not be crowned until 1st October). Jane, who claimed to have been an unwilling participant in any treason, asked to be able to return to her life as it had been only weeks earlier. At first Mary was relatively merciful in wishing to keep Jane alive. In fact, she agreed that Jane likely had not planned any act of treason, but maintained that she should be arrested and kept from becoming a public figure head. Both Jane and Guildford were arrested and taken to the Tower of London. They were kept in comfort, though they were separated and never saw each other again. Despite this, there is some evidence of Guildford’s time in the tower; in his cell you can still see today where he painstakingly carved the name JANE into the stone wall.
1554 saw the start of the Wyatt Rebellion, a groundswell reaction to the upcoming marriage of Mary and Philip of Spain. The idea of a Spanish king upon the English throne was regarded as an unacceptable act of foreign encroachment, not to mention both Mary and Philip were Catholics attempting to rule a (then) Protestant nation. The attempt of the rebellion was to remove Mary and instate, not Jane but Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth. Unfortunately for Jane and Guildford, Jane’s father (Duke of Suffolk) joined the rebellion. His involvement was a foolish decision which sealed Jane’s fate.
Elizabeth claimed to have no knowledge of the rebellion and though Mary did not believe her, she could find no proof of Elizabeth’s involvement. Mary did arrest her sister in 1555, but eventually Elizabeth was released. Jane and Guildford however, were not so fortunate. Suffolk’s involvement in Wyatt’s Rebellion was more than enough for Mary to order their execution.
The execution was scheduled for 9th February 1554, but was postponed for three days in an attempt to convince Jane to use her final days to convert to Mary’s faith of Catholicism. On the 12th February, seventeen-year-old* Jane was taken to be executed. She pleaded with the axeman to dispatch her quickly, even asking if he might possibly do the deed before her head was properly placed on the block. He apologetically refused and Jane was blindfolded. With a blindfold covering her eyes, Jane had some difficulty in finding the block and had to be guided. Her head now in place, Jane attempted to recover her composure. She had time to cry ‘Lord Jesus, into thy hands I commend my spirit’ before the singular blow ended her life.
*The exact date of Jane’s birth is unknown, multiple sources indicate she was born in late 1536.
James, S. (2009). Catherine Parr: Henry VIII’s Last Love. The History Press.
Marsh, K., & Madden, A. (2018). Lady Jane Grey. All About History: Book of the Tudors, (46).
Ridgeway, C. (2020, June 21). Jun 21 – Lady Jane Grey is Edward’s Heir. The Anne Boleyn Files. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNlNkqcFnA8
Tallis, N. (2016). Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey L. Michael O’Mara Books.
Weir, A. (2010). Traitors of the Tower. Vintage Books.
Image credit: National Gallery, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons