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A Tudor tragedy - The life and death of Lady Jane Grey

On the 12th February 1554, a girl of just seventeen was led from her rooms in the tower of London to the place of execution within its walls. Her beheading marked the end of a tumultuous six months which had seen her proclaimed queen, deposed just days later, imprisoned, tried and subsequently sentenced to death. She was Lady Jane Grey, and in my opinion there is no figure from history who has a more tragic story.

Lady Jane was born around the summer of 1536 to Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk and his wife Frances Brandon. Through her mother she was a fringe member of the Tudor royal family. Frances was the elder daughter of King Henry VIII's younger sister Princess Mary, making Jane and her two sisters Lady Katherine and Lady Mary the great-granddaughters of King Henry VII and first cousins once removed of Henry VIII's three children - Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Despite this close proximity to the throne, there was never any expectation that Jane or her sisters would ever rule. As far as everyone was concerned, the crown would pass from Henry VIII to his son Prince Edward, then Prince Edwards children and so on.

Despite this, as a high-born daughter Jane was a prized commodity on the marriage market. She was also The Duke and Duchesses eldest surviving child, meaning she received an excellent humanist education, something normally reserved solely for sons. She particularly excelled in languages, being fluent in Greek, Hebrew, Italian and Latin. She was also raised to follow the protestant faith which she adhered to fervently. Jane was said to be bookish, preferring study and prayer over hunting and outdoor pursuits. There is a belief that she felt her upbringing had been unduly harsh and strict. This has come off the back of her complaint to scholar Roger Ascham that "I am sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways that I think myself in hell". This quote has left something of a stain on Janes parents, particularly her mother Frances who has been viewed as cold and uncaring. Whether this assessment is fair is impossible to prove, but it's possible that Jane was merely acting in a stereotypical teenage fashion, with some offhand angst towards her parents which has been blown out of proportion. Frances can be seen below alongside King Edward VI.

In January of 1547, Henry VIII died and Prince Edward was proclaimed King Edward VI. As children Edward and Jane were said to be very close, often playing for hours in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. Once King, their ability to spend time together was significantly reduced. The following month Jane was sent to live in the household of Edward's uncle, Thomas Seymour, brother of his late mother, Queen Jane Seymour. Thomas had married Henry VIII's final queen and widow, Katherine Parr. Jane lived with Thomas and Katherine at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire until Katherine died in September of 1548. Jane would spend two further months living in Thomas' household before his arrest towards the end of 1548. Thomas' elder brother was Lord Protector Edward Seymour, the man who was "king in all but name" during the King Edwards minority rule. The King had ascended the throne at the age of just nine. As such it was decided that a council would rule in his stead until he was sufficiently mature to rule independently. Thomas soon became power hungry and was suspected of trying to incite rebellion by members of the regency council. Edward Seymour initially tried to save his brother from ruin, but when he was discovered outside the Kings apartments, gun in hand having shot and killed one of the King's spaniels, nothing could be done. Thomas Seymour was tried and condemned to death, being executed in March of 1549. Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour can be seen below.

Jane would spend the next four years back at her family estate of Bradgate House, Leicestershire. In May of 1553 she wed Lord Guildford Dudley, a son of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland. Her sister Lady Katherine had been wed to Lord Herbert, heir to the Earldom of Pembroke. Dudley was easily the most powerful man in England, and like the King prescribed doggedly to the reformed protestant religion. He was therefore forcibly against the third iteration of Henry VIII's succession act which was released in 1544. Henry's will made it quite clear that should King Edward die before having children that the crown would then pass to Princess Mary, the equally committed Catholic daughter of Catherine of Aragon. After Mary, Henry's will named Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn as third in line. It is here that the stipulations of Henry's will became rather unorthodox. After Elizabeth, the natural successor would have been the living descendants of Henry's elder and already deceased sister, Margaret, Queen of Scotland. Beyond her descendants it would have been Jane Grey's mother Frances, then Jane and her sisters. For reasons unknown to us however any of Margaret Tudor's kin were omitted, as was Frances Brandon. Henry decreed that after Elizabeth the next in line was Jane Grey.

Just a few weeks after Lady Jane's marriage to Lord Guildford, the King became gravely ill. At this point, he made changes to the predetermined will of his father, and drafted a new line of succession named "My devise for the Succession". The idea that his half-sister Mary would follow his reign was repellent to Edward twice over, for her religion and sex went against her in his eyes. Edward like his father before him, believed that ruling was the stuff of Kings, and not Queens. Edward also believed that anyone following his reign had to be legitimate in law, which also removed his other half-sister Elizabeth. He had already altered his will earlier in the year to read that should he die before having children, that the then non-existent male descendants that may come of Frances Brandon would be his heirs. Should Frances bear no sons then it would pass to "The L Janes heires mayles". For Edward however there simply was no time. The King knew that he was dying, and at the eleventh hour finally agreed that he would have to name a female heir to his crown. With the addition of just two small words - "The L Jane and her heires mayles" Jane Grey became the heir apparent to Edwards rule. Many believe that the machinations of John Dudley were the driving force behind Edward's change of will. By naming Jane his heir, that also by extension made Dudley's son Guildford the consort of the queen-in-waiting. Would she make him her King?

King Edward VI died from tuberculosis on the 6th July 1553 at the age of just 15. His death was not announced for four whole days, a highly unusual move. Most believe that this delay was orchestrated by John Dudley. It gave him breathing time to solidify Jane's rule and ensure a smooth coup d'etat. On the 9th July Jane was told that she had become queen. She accepted the crown most reluctantly, openly stating that it was not hers and "belonged to the Lady Mary". Despite her reservations however, she was confident enough to flex some of her royal powers. Dudley had expected a royal puppet who would name his son Guildford King, but Jane refused, stating that she would make a Duke. On the 10th July Jane made the customary trip to the Tower of London to await her coronation, she would never leave its walls again. A major task that Dudley faced to ensure Jane's rule went unchallenged was to totally isolate Princess Mary, and better still arrest her. Somehow, Mary had been tipped off that there was a plot to block her from the crown. She fled the court and made for her estates in East Anglia. When word reached her that Dudley had successfully displaced her rule and put Jane Grey on the throne, she immediately began rallying supporters to challenge him and Jane. On the 14th of July Dudley left London, heading to Norfolk to capture Mary. In his absence, Dudley's entire plan fell apart. Under overwhelming popular support from the people who saw Mary as their rightful queen, the privy council switched allegiances, naming Mary queen on July 19th. Jane's rule was over, lasting officially just nine days. John Dudley and Queen Mary I can be seen below.

From being queen-in-waiting, Jane was now a prisoner in the Tower of London. She was held in the gentleman gaolers apartments, with Guildford housed in the Beauchamp Tower. The subject of what would happen to Jane and Guildford wasn't decided straight away. The same cannot be said for John Dudley who was captured on the 20th July in Cambridge. He did not attempt to flee or resist, realising that to do so would be folly. Five days later he was escorted through London to the tower - he had become a social pariah and it is said that his guards struggled to keep the angry people of the capital from attacking him. He was tried on August 18th and sentenced to death to be carried out on August 21st. Perhaps hoping to be spared, he converted to the Catholic religion but this was to be an empty move. Mary proceeded with the sentence and he was beheaded on the 22nd on Tower Hill in front of a crowd of 10,000 spectators. It is said that when Jane was told of his religious conversion that she exploded with anger.

Now known as Jane Dudley, Jane was charged with high treason and just under two months after The Duke's execution on November 13th, it was the time for Jane to be tried. Her trial took place at the Guildhall in London alongside her husband Guildford, two of his brothers and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Unsurprisingly the verdict was a foregone conclusion - all were found guilty and sentenced to death. The crime for which Jane was convicted was "that she had treacherously assumed the title and power of the monarch" - the evidence for which was a number of documents in which she had signed off as "Jane the Quene". She would be burned or beheaded at the queens pleasure. Mary however was disposed to be merciful. She believed Jane to be the pawn of more powerful men around her, a wronged innocent of sorts. She would also extend this clemency to Guildford and his brothers. They were however kept in the Tower of London as prisoners for the time being.

Devastatingly for Jane, matters beyond her control would ultimately turn the tide firmly against her. In January of 1554, a Kentishman named Thomas Wyatt rebelled against the Queen in response to her planned marriage to Prince Philip of Spain. Jane's father Henry Grey and two of his brothers joined Wyatt's cause, the aim of which was to displace Mary and put Princess Elizabeth on the throne. Faced with the reality that whilst Jane lived that there would always be a chance of insurrection, Mary agreed to proceed with the executions, mercifully deciding on the quicker death of beheading for all concerned. Jane and Guildford's executions were initially planned for February 9th, but were postponed to allow Jane to convert to the Catholic faith. The belief here from Mary that if they did convert that they would no longer be a threat and their lives could be spared. The attempt was however in vain. As Mary was a committed Catholic, Jane was an equally committed protestant and was displeased at the attempts to convert her from what she believed to be the true faith. Despite this, the man who had been sent to convert Jane, John Feckenham, earned her respect and they developed a friendship which extended as far as her allowing him to assist her to the scaffold. The "Streatham Portrait" discussed further down and an 18th century depiction of Jane Grey's execution can be seen below.

Guildford as the lower ranking of the two was executed first and publicly. He was escorted from his rooms on the morning of February 12th to Tower Hill. It was said that many gentlemen whom he had known waited to shake his hands as he made his way towards the scaffold. The execution was mercifully quick, consisting of a single blow from the axe. Guildford was likely no older than 19 at the time of his death. In a sort of macabre display, Guildford's remains were hauled on to cart and carried past the rooms from where Jane was being held. Upon seeing her husbands corpse, she was reported to have said "Oh Guildford, Guildford". Shortly afterwards the constable of the tower came to fetch Jane and escort her to the place of execution. Unlike Guildford, as an extended member of the royal family Jane was to be executed privately inside the walls of the tower. She chose a simple black velvet gown, and was said to be a "tiny pale figure" on the scaffold. She made a speech which followed the expected pattern of the day, admitting her guilt against the queens highness. Despite her admission of guilt, she also stated that "I do wash my hands thereof in innocence" - perhaps a calculated way of saying that she felt herself to be ultimately innocent of the charges brought against her. She turned to the executioner and said "I pray you dispatch me quickly" and referring to her head asked "will you take it off before I lay me down" to which the executioner responded "No, madam". She then blindfolded herself and knelt at the block. It is said that Jane then panicked, as blindfolded she was unable to locate the block, crying out "What shall I do? Where is it". A spectator rushed forward and guided her towards the block. She laid her head in the crevice and recounted "Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit". Like her husband, Jane was spared a protracted death and was beheaded with a single blow of the axe. Both she and Guildford were buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula inside the walls of the Tower of London. Eleven days later, Jane's father Henry Grey would follow her to block. One can only imagine that in the end he must have been thinking, was it all really worth it? Jane's mother Frances was eventually pardoned by Queen Mary and permitted to live at court with her two surviving daughters.

I stated at the top of this blog that Jane Grey is a Tudor tragedy. I would take this one step further and say that she was the ultimate Tudor tragedy. To think that a girl of just 17 could be so brutally executed for something that was entirely beyond our control is incredibly hard to compute in the 21st century. It's easy to understand that Mary must have felt incredibly pressured, but equally it did her no favours. Many of her supporters felt that the executions of Jane and Guildford were unduly harsh. There is also the question of Jane's legitimacy which is very seldom discussed, in fact the only time I've heard it questioned in her favour was in the amazing three part documentary series about her by Helen Castor.

During this programme, J. Stephen Edwards, a Tudor historian, makes the case that Jane was actually the true and rightful heir to Edwards throne, because as the King of the day Edwards decision counted for more than Henry VIII's pre-existing will. Henry's will was in effect meaningless once Edward became King, and from there onwards it was his will that mattered, and not his deceased fathers. On the face of it this is undeniably true, and things may well have gone in Jane's favour had her father-in-law not left London, but that simply couldn't counteract the overwhelming level of support that Mary had with the common people. Jane may have been a wronged innocent, but she was also broadly speaking an unknown. To the people of England, Mary had been a permanent fixture in many of their hearts, and it was to her that their loyalties lay.

Perhaps owning to her incredibly short reign, Lady Jane Grey is the only monarch from the past 500 years for whom a contemporary portrait doesn't exist. A portrait was discovered in Streatham in 2005 which many believe to be Jane Grey. Even if it does indeed depict her, from dendrochronology tests it certainly wasn't contemporary. There are a number of drawings said to be of Jane though, and it's possible that one of them is a copy of a long lost original - the drawing seen above is perhaps the most authentic depiction of Jane, being a drawing of a long-lost original. Despite her very short reign, it should never be forgotten that Jane Grey achieved something no woman had done until that point - she was formally acknowledged as Queen in her own right. Her story is desperately sad and should have ended very differently. Beyond all doubt, this was a girl who deserved much better.

Written by Adam Pennington

January 15th 2021


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