The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey
Lady Jane Grey, engraving published 1620, possibly based on an earlier painting

There is a great deal of myth, legend and many unknowns surrounding the life of Lady Jane Grey.  She is seen as a protestant martyr due to the Chronicles of Holinshed and the Acts and Monuments by John Foxe.  Then there are the indiscriminate works of Agnes Strickland and Richard Davey.  The most dependable source would be the purported “Chronicle of Queen Jane” by an anonymous eyewitness.  But in the last few years there have been some excellent biographies of Jane that delve deep into her story and give us better understanding and insight into her life and death.

Jane Grey had an illustrious ancestry.  She was the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, marquess of Dorset, later 1st Duke of Suffolk and his wife Frances Brandon.  Henry Grey was a great-grandson of Queen Elizabeth Woodville by her first marriage to John Grey.  Frances Brandon was the eldest daughter of King Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary Tudor, the dowager Queen of France.  Jane had two younger sisters, Katherine and Mary and all three were the great-granddaughters of the first Tudor king Henry VII and his queen-consort Elizabeth of York.  They were also first cousins once removed of King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.  This royal family connection placed them perilously close to the throne and made them a constant threat and source of possible rebellion to the Tudor monarchs who succeeded Henry VIII.

The traditional historical interpretation is that Jane was born at Bradgate Park in Leicestershire in October of 1537 but the latest research suggests she was born somewhat earlier, possibly in London in late 1536 or in the spring of 1537.  It was customary during the Tudor era to give a strongly classical and humanist education to the sons and daughters of the nobility.  Jane and her sisters were no exception to this practice.

Jane would display outstanding academic ability.  She mostly studied languages so she could read and study the original classical texts.  She was proficient in Latin and Greek and functional in Hebrew.  She probably also knew French and Spanish and possibly Aramaic.  She learned Tuscan, a dialect similar to modern Italian.  Other subjects she studied included rhetoric, theology, moral and natural philosophy, logic and history.  She read many of the ancient Roman and Greek classical authors including Cicero, Livy, Plato and Aristotle.  Her father was a staunch protestant and brought his daughters up in the new religion.

Baptista Spinola, a contemporary Genoese merchant saw Jane in person and described her.  He said she was “very short and thin but prettily shaped and graceful.  She has small features and a well-made nose, the mouth flexible and the lips red.  The eyebrows are arched and darker than her hair, which is nearly red.  Her eyes are sparkling and reddish brown in colour.  I stood so near her grace that I noticed her colour was good but freckled.  When she smiled she showed her teeth which are white and sharp.  In all a gracious and animated figure”.  Bishop Godwin described her as “handsome, incredibly learned, very quick-witted and wise both beyond her sex and above her age.”

When Jane was about ten years old, she was sent to live in the household of Queen Katherine Parr at court.  Jane continued her academic pursuits and came into contact with Katherine’s circle of friends who were advocates of evangelical Protestantism.  These women included Elizabeth Brooke Parr, Anne Stanhope Seymour, Duchess of Somerset and Katherine Willoughby Brandon and they all participated directly and as patronesses in efforts to translate pro-reform religious texts into English and gave financial support to male reformers.  Jane witnessed these activities and may have participated herself in the translations.

During the reign of Henry VIII, he had proclaimed in Parliament that his daughters Mary and Elizabeth were bastards.  Even so, he had passed further succession laws in Parliament establishing Mary and Elizabeth as heirs to his legitimate son Edward.  Henry’s will further clarified his wishes.  It was presumed that Jane stood fourth in line to the succession according to these laws.

After Henry’s death, the dowager queen Katherine Parr married Thomas Seymour, Baron Sudeley.  His brother Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset became Lord Protector for the young Edward VI.  Thomas realized Jane Grey could be used as a powerful weapon in attacking his brother who left him out in the cold when it came to power in the new regime.  Thomas negotiated with Jane’s father and gained custody of her in return for a promise to marry her to King Edward.

Jane went to live with Katherine Parr where she was treated kindly and her piety was recognized and admired.  In the summer of 1548, Jane accompanied Katherine to Sudeley Castle where, in September, Katherine died after giving birth to a baby girl.  Jane acted as chief mourner at Katherine’s funeral.  On September 19, Jane was returned to her parents.  They had become disenchanted with Thomas Seymour’s promise to marry her to the king and were ready to make another match.  A marriage with Edward Seymour’s son, the earl of Hertford, had already been discussed.  But Thomas was not ready to give up and visited the Greys to convince them to return Jane to his household.  He once again promised to marry her to the king and paid them £2000 for her wardship.

Jane lived with Thomas for about two months when he was arrested on a charge of high treason.  One of the charges against him was that he conspired to marry Jane to King Edward.  Jane returned to Bradgate where she continued studying with her tutor John Aylmer.  In 1550, Roger Asham came to visit her and found her reading Plato.  He inquired why she wasn’t outdoors hunting with the rest of her family.  She replied she found more pleasure in Plato.

Asham writes that Jane complained about the severity with which her parents treated her and how she preferred the company of Aylmer who was gentler.  This passage of Asham’s has been highlighted to emphasize how the Grey’s misunderstood and abused their gifted daughter.  But it could also illustrate the attitude of a pompous, pedantic and opinionated teenager who scorned her parent’s old-fashioned and conventional leanings.  Asham may have had his own agenda as he advocated for tutors not to use corporeal punishment.  This interview was not published until after Jane and her parents had died.

With encouragement from Aylmer and Asham, Jane began to correspond with several celebrated Swiss and German protestants including Martin Bucer and Heinrich Bullinger.  In October of 1551, Jane’s father was given the title of Duke of Suffolk and Jane spent more time at court.  She was present with her parents at the state banquet welcoming the Scottish regent Marie de Guise to court.  After the execution of Thomas Seymour and the downfall of Edward Seymour, Jane’s parents aligned themselves with the new head man of the council, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland.

Dudley convinced the Greys to marry Jane to his own son Guildford.  Jane resisted the idea, arguing she was already contracted to marry Edward Seymour’s son, the earl of Hertford.  But her parents prevailed over her arguments and she was forced to submit.  Jane and Guildford were married on May 21, 1553 at Durham House, the Dudley’s London residence.  Jane went back to live with her parents.

King Edward’s health began to decline and the Greys conspired with Dudley to exclude Mary and Elizabeth from the succession.  Under the influence of Dudley and his tutor, King Edward was given an assignment to rewrite his will as part of his lessons. The thought of the Catholic Mary becoming queen and reversing the advances of Protestantism in England was anathema to Edward.  Part of the exercise was to compose a ‘devise’ which in theory excluded Mary as the rightful heir to the throne of England and bestowed it on his female cousins of the Grey family.  Eventually this schoolroom exercise was transformed into letters patent, signed by the king and his council. Although the king could legally issue letters patent, there were arguments at the time that changing the succession would require Parliamentary approval which never materialized.

Jane’s mother-in-law informed her the king was dying and she must hold herself in readiness because he had named her is heir.  Jane did not take this seriously at first but she was obliged to return to Durham House.  A few days later she became ill and was convinced she was being poisoned.  She requested leave to go to the royal manor at Chelsea to convalesce.  She was there when King Edward died on July 6, 1553.  Three days later, one of her sisters-in-law arrived to accompany her to Syon House.

Despite the objections of some of the council, Dudley and others proclaimed Jane queen on July 10.  When she arrived at Syon, Jane was told she had been named Edward’s heir.  Jane was very troubled by the news and fell to the ground weeping.  She said she was not worthy.  But she prayed that if what she had been given was rightfully and lawfully hers, God would grant her sufficient grace to govern the realm to his glory and service.

Jane was lodged in the Tower to await her coronation.  She was proclaimed queen on July 10 at the Cross in Cheapside.  A letter announcing her accession was disseminated to the lords lieutenant of the counties and Bishop Ridley preached a sermon in support of her at Paul’s Cross.  In the sermon he denounced Mary and Elizabeth as bastards and argued that Mary, a papist, would bring foreigners into England.  But the people did not rejoice in the proclamation of Jane as Queen.  There were no bonfires and the bells did not ring.

Guildford remained at Jane’s side in the Tower.  He and his family were demanding that Jane name him king but she staunchly refused.  This led to a great deal of family controversy and Jane began to realize how she had been used by the Dudley family.  In her own words, she stated she had been deceived by the Duke of Northumberland and the council and was ill treated by her husband and his mother.

Nobody expected Mary to challenge Jane’s accession but the council soon discovered they had gravely underestimated her. From her base in East Anglia at Kenninghall, Mary surrounded herself with many loyal servants. She sent out letters and pleas, asking men to join her in securing her legal right to the throne. Eventually she had the support of about fifteen thousand men.  By July 12, news reached London Mary was preparing to fight.

The council became increasingly nervous and decided to send some troops to confront and capture Mary.  The original plan was to send Jane’s father at the head of the men but Jane objected and the council resolved to send Dudley instead.  But even before Dudley made it to East Anglia, there was no popular support for his cause and his army began to desert him.  He capitulated and Mary entered London in triumph. Jane, her husband, her father and Dudley were considered under arrest and all joined Jane in the Tower.  On July 19, Mary Tudor was proclaimed throughout the country and was now truly Queen.

At first Mary was willing to be lenient and told the imperial ambassador her conscience would not allow her to execute Jane.  However, she would remain cautious before setting her free.  Dudley, once a committed protestant, officially converted to Catholicism and was executed on July 22.  Jane was given comfortable lodgings within the Tower in the home of a certain Partridge, gentleman gaoler.  The author of the “Chronicle of Queen Jane” had dinner with her and says Jane spoke of being grateful for Queen Mary’s leniency.  When he mentioned Dudley, Jane fiercely attacked him for using her and for leaving the protestant religion.

Jane, Guildford and two other Dudley brothers stood trial on November 19th.  The trial was short and formal and all were found guilty.  Queen Mary was merciful and the lives of Jane and Guildford were spared from execution for the moment.  Jane’s mother Frances pleaded with Queen Mary to pardon her husband and Mary obliged.

In the meantime, Mary had declared she would marry her cousin King Philip II of Spain, a decision which caused great consternation and fear amongst her people.  In late January and early February, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Jane’s father and many other noblemen conspired to rebel against Mary’s marriage and put her sister Elizabeth on the throne.  Wyatt and his men were even looming outside the royal residence in London but eventually surrendered.  This rebellion and the participation of Jane’s father sealed her fate.  Even though Jane had no foreknowledge of the uprising, Mary realized Jane would always remain a figurehead for protestant discontent.

Jane’s execution was set for February 9.  In a last-ditch effort to save her cousin’s soul, Mary sent John Feckenham, the new dean of St. Paul’s to Jane to persuade her to convert to Catholicism.  Jane did not convert but she and the dean had a stimulating theological debate.  An account of their debate was written and published by John Foxe and naturally gives Jane the victory.  Jane and Feckenham parted amicably.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey in the Tower of London in the year 1554, painted by Paul Delaroche in 1833, now in the National Portrait Gallery in London

The new execution date was February 12, 1554.  Guildford was to be executed on Tower Hill.  Mary offered to allow Jane to say goodbye to Guildford but she refused.  She watched at her window as Guildford was taken away and did witness his headless corpse as it returned in a cart.  Jane was to be executed within the precincts of the Tower as befitted her royal heritage.  She left her lodgings on the arm of the lieutenant of the Tower.  Her two women were weeping but Jane was composed with no tears.

She climbed the steps of the scaffold and turned to address the small group who were to witness her death.  She admitted she was wrong to accept the crown but also said she was not innocent of wanting to procure it.  She asked those present to witness she died a good Christian woman and requested their prayers while she was alive.

She knelt and devoutly recited the fifty-first psalm, the Miserere.  The headsman came toward her and she saw the block for the first time.  Her women removed her gown and tied a handkerchief over her eyes.  Because she couldn’t see, she flailed her arms asking “Where is it?  What shall I do?”  Someone came forward to guide her to the block.  She laid her head down on it and stretched out her body, finally saying “Lord, into thy hands I commend my Spirit.”  She was buried in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula within the Tower precincts.

Further reading: “Crown of Blood:  The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey” by Nicola Tallis, “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen:  Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey, A Tudor Tragedy” by Leanda de Lisle, “Lady Jane Grey:  A Tudor Mystery” by Eric Ives, “Chronicle of Queen Jane” by anonymous, “Edward VI” by Jennifer Loach, entry on Lady Jane Grey in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Alison Plowden

18 thoughts on “The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey

  1. […] Northumberland’s original plan was to marry Guildford to Lady Margaret Clifford, who, through her mother, was a grandniece of King Henry VIII. These plans for the Clifford marriage caused suspicion, but King Edward VI spoke in support of the match with Margaret’s father, Henry Clifford, 1st earl of Cumberland. By early 1553, Northumberland had substituted his younger brother Andrew for his son regarding these plans. Strong evidence exists the Marchioness of Northampton first proposed the idea of a marriage between Guildford Dudley and Jane Grey. […]


  2. Indeed she was a pawn. I wonder, however, how she would have fared had she lived longer under Mary’s rule. She would likely have been forbidden to remarry, and be used by yet another avaricious power-monger. Nor could Mary even entertain the idea unless Jane wholeheartedly accepted Catholicism. Jane might have ended up with Rogers, Ridley, & Latimer, at the stake. Politically, she was too dangerous to be allowed exile.

    A brilliant woman in a transitioning age. England lost much by her heading.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Like so many women before her, Jane was a pawn. I wonder if she could have actually refused the queenship. But I suppose she was brought up hearing all about her royal roots so it would not have been too hard to persuade her. A very sad story.

    Liked by 3 people

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