Although her reign was brief and the end of her life tragic, Lady Jane Grey remains one of the most beloved and honored figures of the Reformation. When executed at the Tower of London, young Jane was only seventeen. Yet, her passionate faith and remarkable courage remain an inspiring testimony to all the sons and daughters of the Reformation.
Born in 1537, during the reign of Henry VIII, Lady Jane’s early life was one of quiet study. Henry VIII’s marriage to Jane Seymour had produced the son he had hoped for, and so the Tudor dynasty would continue through the person of young Edward, Jane Grey’s childhood friend. When Henry died, Edward was crowned Edward VI at the tender age of nine.
Edward, a hale and athletic boy, loved hunting and jousting as a youth, but his life changed suddenly when he was taken ill with a debilitating sickness that would soon claim his life. His two half sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, stood next in line to succeed him on the throne. The situation was complicated not only because both Mary’s mother had been divorced by, and Elizabeth’s mother had been executed by, Henry, but Mary was a Roman Catholic.
Jane’s own devotion to Edward and the Reformation adorns her letters;
“Alas! Poor Edward, how calamitous has been thy minority! And yet how much reason we have to dread still greater evils, from the ambition and vices around thee … he is an ornament to the Throne, and if it please the Almighty to spare his life, promises to be a blessing to England, and to complete the work his Royal Father began, and restore the holy Christian religion to its primitive purity. O how much reason have all to pray for his restored health, who love their country and the reformation?”1William Lane, Lady Jane Grey: An Historical Tale in 2 volumes. (London: The Minerva Press, 1791). Documents referred to in this article all follow those quoted by James D. Taylor, Jr., in his Documents of Lady Jane Grey, Nine Days Queen of England, 1553. Taylor purposed to collect all extant documents relating to the reign of Queen Jane and is to be thanked for his labors. We also follow Taylor’s rendition of High Renaissance English into modern form. His book is available from Amazon.com and recommended to those who wish to read more.
Despite his young age, Edward VI was devoted to the Protestant cause, embracing the Reformed faith in a markedly different fashion than his father. While Henry’s adoption of Protestantism had more to do with politics and alliances, Edward’s was a faith of the heart, and his fear of England returning to Rome would lead him to consent to the scheme that would eventually bypass Mary and place Lady Jane on the throne.
The leading figure in the conspiracy, for such it must be called, was John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland. An exceedingly ambitious man, Northumberland was a military hero and skillful politician who saw in the Protestant cause a means to acquire power and wealth. When news of Edward’s potentially fatal illness reached him, Northumberland launched an audacious scheme aimed at putting his own son on the throne.
Arguing that Parliament had declared both Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate, Northumberland privately attempted to enlist Jane’s father in a plot to maneuver the throne to Jane. After Mary and Elizabeth, the next in line would have been Jane’s mother Francis, who, it was proposed, would decline the throne in favor of her eldest daughter, Jane. Critical to the scheme was to arrange the marriage of Jane to the Duke’s son, Lord Guildford Dudley. Upon being advised of the plan, Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, wrote to Northumberland,
“I mentioned it to the Duchess, who has far less objection to it than I have, but who would resign her claim to her daughter. Yet from Jane, I think, we should find some difficulty. She has a passion for retirement, and no ambition to prompt her wish for a crown.”2Ibid
Indeed, from Jane’s own letters to her cousin, Lady Anne Grey, we find a young lady utterly dismissive of the trappings of royalty:
“That series of history, which we have read together, how frequently has it inspired us with disgust of Courts and Royalty? We know not the world by our own experience, but history affords us the experience of ages; and alas, where have we found Princes better or happier than the meanest and most obscure peasant? How weighty their cares? how embittered their pleasures? how insecure their greatness! What would I give, my cousin, had I been born in a more humble station. The bare possibility of being a Queen, is a source of uneasiness to me, though it is very improbable I shall ever be one.”3Ibid, 21
Jane, at this point, is completely unaware of the machinations of Northumberland, or the eventual complicity of her own father. On the issue of young Guildford, however, her thoughts are quite set. She will have nothing to do with Northumberland or his sons. She confides to her cousin that, while she will resist an alliance with the family of Northumberland, she has become quite taken with a young man who has been visiting with them, one Sir William Morley.
She admits feelings of guilt that she becomes envious when he praises Anne in her presence, and concludes that her affections for him are quite genuine. But alas, she has reason to “dread the consequences to my own tranquility and future happiness, for this man has no distinguished honors and, though of a respectable family, yet not of a noble one; consequently it will not, in my parent’s esteem, be a proper alliance for me….”4Ibid, 22
Shortly, Jane would learn that Sir William Morley was, in fact, Northumberland’s son, Guildford Dudley. The plan to introduce him under an alias was hatched by Northumberland and Jane’s own parents, and it accomplished the purpose, for Jane and Guildford soon were betrothed. Still, Northumberland’s plan required that Edward change the succession to the throne his father, Henry, had decreed.
The Duke met with the ailing king, telling him that God would judge him for turning the throne over to a Roman Catholic when it was in his power to prevent it. Edward replied that by virtue of her alliance with Romanism, the shrewish and vindictive Mary might be bypassed, but surely Elizabeth was next in line. Northumberland replied that, although Elizabeth declared for the Reformed faith, the legal grounds for excluding Mary was that Parliament had ruled Henry’s marriage to her mother, Katherine of Aragon, to be invalid. Parliament had also disallowed Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother, so to bypass one was to bypass the other.
When Northumberland explained that the next in line, the Duchess of Suffolk, had disclaimed her right in favor of her daughter, Jane, Edward finally consented. He had known Jane his entire life, and was well acquainted with her passionate and evangelical faith. Edward trusted that Jane would preserve the Reformation in England, not for power’s sake, but for the Gospel’s sake. Calling his ministers together around his bedside, the ailing king ordered the documents drawn to change the succession.
His ministers declared the act illegal, but the king was insistent and promised to pardon all those who had misgivings. Once set upon its course, Edward was determined that the succession would pass to Lady Jane. What he could not have fully comprehended, however, was how deep the treachery of Northumberland ran, nor how transparent his schemes would become to the people of England.JohnDudleyb
Northumberland had been busy consolidating his power. He had dismissed Edward’s doctors and replaced them with his own doctor, and a woman “healer” who has been suspected of actually poisoning the young king. A letter from John Burcher to Henry Bullinger says as much;
“That monster of a man, the Duke of Northumberland, has been committing a horrible and portentous crime. A writer worthy of credit informs me, that our excellent King has been most shamefully taken off by poison. His nails and hair fell off before his death, so that, handsome as he was, he entirely lost all his good looks. The perpetrators of the murder were ashamed of allowing the body of the deceased King to lie in state, and be seen by the public, as is usual; wherefore they buried him privately in a paddock adjoining the palace, and substituted in his place, to be seen by the people, a youth not unlike him whom they had murdered.”5Rev. Hastings Robinson, Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation, written during the Reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Mary (New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1846).
Into this maelstrom of deceit and intrigue Jane would now be drawn. When advised, before Edward’s death, that the crown was to be hers, Jane writes to her sister Catherine. After sharing her deep pain at seeing Edward so emaciated and dying, the sixteen year-old Jane adds; “In vain have I thrown myself at Royal Edward’s feet, incessantly entreating him to drop the design, and destroy the patent; but all my fears, all my endeavors are vain; it is all signed, and they have it in their possession.”6Lane, 95.
She notes that her husband implores her to accept the crown, arguing that all their families will be at risk if Mary takes the throne.
“…they use every argument with me, that art or eloquence can invent, to engage my consent to preserve the Protestant cause, and the liberties of the kingdom.”
“In vain have I urged the injustice of depriving the Princess Elizabeth of her right, an amiable Lady, and a Protestant … all my tears are fruitless and I have no resource left but to supplicate Heaven to spare Edward’s life!”7Ibid, 25
When Edward dies, Northumberland purposes to keep it secret until he can stage-manage the ascendancy and take Mary into custody. But his plans are thwarted when Mary is alerted and escapes, to raise an army and assert her right. Northumberland arranges for all the King’s ministers, parliamentary leaders, and officials to swear allegiance to Jane, yet it is in submission to the demands of her father, that Jane reluctantly accepts the crown.
Within days, Mary has rallied, not only Catholic forces, but many Protestants, as well, who are enraged at the rumors of Northumberland’s treachery. Defections from Northumberland’s army increase and he eventually hails Mary as Queen, in a desperate maneuver to save his own life. When Mary and her army arrive at the Tower of London, where Queen Jane is staying, Jane orders the doors opened and receives Mary as lawful heir to the throne. Jane’s nine-day reign is over.
Northumberland is arrested and convicted of treason. On the gallows, he renounces Protestantism and embraces the Church of Rome. Some speculate that Jane’s innocence was so manifest that Mary would likely have been forced to spare her and her husband, had not her father become involved in yet another plot to overthrow the Crown. We cannot know if Mary’s vengeful spirit would have ever pardoned Jane. We only know what, in fact, did happen.
Jane is tried for treason. At the trial, we read that;
“Jane appeared before her judges in all her wonted loveliness; her fortitude and composure never forsook her; nor did the throng and bustle of the court, the awful appearance of the seat of judgment, or the passing of the solemn sentence of the law, seem to disturb her mind; of their native bloom her cheeks were never robbed, nor did her voice seem once to falter; on the beauteous traitress every eye was fixed; and the grief that reigned throughout the whole assembly bespoke a general interest in her fate…”8John Bayley, Esq., F.S.A. The History and Antiquities of the Tower of London. 2 vols. (London: T.Cadell, 1821–25).
Lady Jane pleaded guilty and took all responsibility upon herself, refusing to blame others. Mary sends priests and dignitaries to convince her to convert to Rome. Not only does Jane refuse, but she confounds her interrogators, rebuking them with a heart in which were hidden the words of God’s Holy Scriptures. Master de Feckenham, Abbot of Westminster, makes a final appeal, the interview recounted by Jane, a portion of which follows;
Feckenham: You ground your Faith upon such Authors as say and unsay, both with a breath, and not upon the Church, whom you ought to give credit.
Jane: No, I ground my faith upon God’s word, and not upon the Church, for if the Church be a good Church, the faith of the Church must be tried by God’s word, and not God’s word by the Church, neither yet my faith: Shall I believe the church because of antiquity; or shall I give credit to that church which taketh away from me a full half part of the Lord’s Supper, and will let no layman receive it in both kinds, but the Priests only? …
Feckenham: That was done by the wisdom of the Church, and to a merit good intent to avoid an heresy, which then sprung in it.
Jane: O, but the Church must not alter God’s will and ordinances for the color or gloss of a good intent; it was the error of King Saul, and he not only reaped a curse, but perished thereby, as it is evident in the Holy Scriptures.9Sir Harris Nicolas, The Chronology of History. 2d ed. (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1838).
When the appointed day arrives, Jane declines a request from her beloved Guildford, who had stayed by her side throughout, also refusing to recant his Protestant faith. She sends him the message that they must not be distracted from their preparations and that in a very short while, they shall meet again. Guildford is taken to the executioner first. His decapitated body on a cart passes beneath Jane’s window. Jane is next led to the block in the courtyard of the Tower, the same site as Anne Boleyn’s execution.
Arriving at the place, Jane concludes her devotions, and removes her gloves, which she hands to her maiden. She refuses assistance from the executioner in removing her outer gown, as her maidens give her “a fair handkerchief to bind about her eyes.” Feeling her way to the block, asking, “Where is it? Where is it?,” she is guided by a bystander. Kneeling, she “most patiently, Christianly, and constantly, yielded to God her soul, exclaiming, ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’”
In a 1721 edition of John Strype’s Historical Memorials, Ecclesiastical and Civil, under the Reign of Queen Mary I, quoted by Taylor, we read that,
“Thus this Black Monday began, with the execution of this most Noble and Virtuous Lady and her husband. On the same day, for a terrifying Sight, were many new Pairs of Gallows set up in London, As at every Gate, one, two pairs in Cheapside, one in Fleetstreet, one in Smithfield, one in Holborn, one at Leadenhall, one at St. Magnus, one at Billingsgate, one at Pepper Alley Gate, one at St. George’s, one at Charing Cross….”
The reign of Bloody Mary had begun.
|↑1||William Lane, Lady Jane Grey: An Historical Tale in 2 volumes. (London: The Minerva Press, 1791). Documents referred to in this article all follow those quoted by James D. Taylor, Jr., in his Documents of Lady Jane Grey, Nine Days Queen of England, 1553. Taylor purposed to collect all extant documents relating to the reign of Queen Jane and is to be thanked for his labors. We also follow Taylor’s rendition of High Renaissance English into modern form. His book is available from Amazon.com and recommended to those who wish to read more.|
|↑5||Rev. Hastings Robinson, Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation, written during the Reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Mary (New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1846).|
|↑8||John Bayley, Esq., F.S.A. The History and Antiquities of the Tower of London. 2 vols. (London: T.Cadell, 1821–25).|
|↑9||Sir Harris Nicolas, The Chronology of History. 2d ed. (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1838).|