Known as the Nine Day Queen, Lady Jane Grey, Britain’s shortest reigning monarch, ruled for just over a week in the summer of 1553. Diana Wright tells her story
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, a well-known picture in London’s National Gallery, shows a blindfolded girl dressed in white fumbling for the block. The Lieutenant of the Tower of London guides her while the executioner waits, two ladies in attendance fall away weeping. Painted by the French Romantic artist Paul Delaroche nearly 280 years after the actual beheading of Lady Jane in 1554, the dramatic work encapsulates the conventional image of the Nine Day Queen as an innocent 16-year-old sacrificed on the altar of adult ambitions; her reign, one of the shortest in history, is now an almost forgotten interlude between the rule of King Edward VI and Queen Mary I. But was Jane the mere pawn of others, or is there more to her story?
Born in October 1537, she was the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset (later Duke of Suffolk) and Frances (née Brandon), the niece of King Henry VIII. Jane’s childhood home at Bradgate Park in Leicestershire may now be reduced to ruins, but you can still imagine its Tudor country house heyday, and displays in the visitor centre provide insights into the Greys’ lives.
Raised with her two younger sisters in the new Protestant religion brought to England by Henry VIII’s reformation, Jane was well-educated and showed precocious intelligence. For those at court calculating marital potential, she also had extra kudos thanks to the king’s will: Henry had declared that in the event of the death of his children (Edward, Mary, Elizabeth) without heirs, the Crown should pass to descendants of his sister, Mary – Jane, via her mother, was Mary’s granddaughter.
Preparing Jane for the throne
Of course, any likelihood of small, red-haired Jane ascending the throne was so remote as to seem preposterous. Yet her royal connections and Protestant upbringing would be seized upon. Around the time that nine-year-old Prince Edward succeeded King Henry in 1547, Jane’s parents decided (in keeping with contemporary aristocratic practice) to place her out with another noble family to further polish her education and manners. She found herself in the wardship of the new king’s uncle, the ever-ambitious Sir Thomas Seymour, who had slyly suggested to her socially astute parents that he might engineer a match between Jane and Edward.
Seymour’s machinations came to nought, but for Jane, still just ten years old, this was to be a happy time. Sir Thomas had married Henry VIII’s widow, Catherine Parr, and the young Grey girl was exposed to an exciting world of fashion, music and ideas that included the Queen Dowager’s radical views on evangelical Lutheranism.
All too soon, however, the adventure was cut short, as Catherine died following the birth of her daughter at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, in 1548. Visiting Sudeley today you will find two topiaried ivy figures in the White Garden, a reminder of how Catherine and Jane once walked together from the royal apartments to daily prayers in St Mary’s Church. After officiating as chief mourner at Catherine’s burial at Sudeley, Jane was dispatched back to Bradgate Park. “Pious and accomplished”, and increasingly demonstrating a mind of her own, she earnestly pursued correspondence with Continental religious reformers.
Meanwhile at court, King Edward’s failing health in 1552 was causing panic over the succession. The powerful Duke of Northumberland, President of the King’s Council, pounced to prevent the accession of Edward’s Catholic half-sister Mary and the likelihood she would reverse recent Protestant reforms, and also to promote his own dynastic line.
Marriage to Lord Guilford Dudley
With breathtaking speed, Northumberland persuaded Jane’s parents that their 15-year-old daughter should marry his teenage son, Lord Guilford (sometimes spelled Guildford) Dudley. Then King Edward was encouraged to alter the succession. Hotly Protestant, and considering his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth to be bastards, King Edward flouted his father’s will and statute law by naming Jane – the very epitome of Protestant devotion – his heir, shortly before his death at Greenwich Palace on 6 July 1553. The move shocked even Protestant supporters.
Jane’s reactions are telling. She didn’t particularly like tall, fair-haired Guilford, but she had obediently married him. She was reluctant to take the throne, but under family pressure she accepted and was formally recognised as queen on 10 July 1553 at the Tower of London. However, any ideas that she would meekly behave like Northumberland’s puppet were dealt a swift blow when she refused to make Guilford a co-ruler, announcing she would raise him to “a duke, but not a King”.
As troubling news filtered through that Mary had declared herself the rightful queen and forces were gathering at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, Jane became defiant. But with popular support behind Mary, Jane’s advocates quickly melted away. She was deposed after just nine days and imprisoned in the Tower precincts at No 5 Tower Green next to the Queen’s House; Guilford was consigned to the Beauchamp Tower.
Jane immediately wrote to Mary seeking clemency, and Mary responded with leniency. Had Jane been a mere pawn without strong convictions, she might then have kept quiet and, in time, returned to Bradgate Park. But she could not let religious differences rest, and even in prison she was driven to speaking out against Catholicism and “the most wicked Mass”.
Early in 1554 a failed rebellion against Mary sealed Jane’s fate. Henry Grey, her own father, had been involved and was later beheaded after being captured while hiding in a hollow oak tree at another family home, Astley Castle in Warwickshire (today let out by the Landmark Trust as holiday accommodation). With Protestant unrest constantly simmering, it was too dangerous to allow Jane and Guilford to live.
On 12 February 1554, having witnessed the terrible sight of Guilford’s corpse being brought back from the scaffold, and convinced that, “I shall for losing a mortal life find an immortal felicity”, Jane walked with dignity, prayer book in hand, to Tower Green. At the very last her composure deserted her as, blindfolded, she fumbled for the block. “What shall I do? Where is it?” she cried out. A hand guided her and the axe fell.
Jane is buried in the Tower of London’s Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula. One of history’s helpless victims? She was certainly manipulated in order to satisfy others’ scheming, yet her character gives a tantalising suggestion that, had she stayed in power, she might well have embraced the role and, following her Protestant convictions, tried to forge her own path.