Tuesday, February 13, 2007
The Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey
Lady Jane Grey, in a 17th century painting
Dawn broke on a London sky heavy with clouds on the morning of February 12, 1554. The city lay cloaked beneath a miasma of light drizzle, which wetted the cobblestones and kept the streets quiet and forlorn. An eastern wind blew frigid off the English Channel, rattling the bare branches of the copper beeches.*
Inside her rooms in the Tower of London, Jane Grey must have felt as cold and dreary as the weather outside her window.
The Tower of London in a 16th century sketch
Sometime in the late morning, a horse-drawn cart trundled by on the paving stones below, carrying the mortal remains of her husband, whose head had been parted from his body only moments earlier at the public execution site at Tower Hill. Earlier in the morning, she had watched him walk by her window, sobbing.
Determined not to lose her dignity, she held back her emotions as the executioners came to her room to escort her to Tower Green. On the orders of Queen Mary, she was to have a private execution – a singular honor for someone doomed to die. Her face was pale, but she was otherwise composed as she was led to the place where she would lose her head.
Tower Green - The execution spot is in the lower right hand corner
As she walked across the grass of Tower Green, staring at the scaffold which stood in the center – the same scaffold that had taken the heads of two wives of her great Uncle, Henry VIII – she must have wondered at the disturbing turn of events that had led to her arrival at such a notorious spot.
Called by a modern British historian “one of the finest female minds of the century,” Lady Jane Grey was born near Leicester at Bradgate Park in central England.
Deer in Bradgate Park
Her mother, Frances Brandon, was the granddaughter of Henry VII through his youngest daughter, making Jane a direct descendent of the founder of the Tudor dynasty.
Frances Brandon has been characterized as a strong and domineering mother who showed little affection to her children. Because of this lack of maternal love, Jane poured herself into scholarship**, mastering many languages, including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and becoming a devoted Protestant.
In March of 1547, at the age of 9, Jane was sent to live with her great Aunt, Catherine Parr, who was the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII. Henry had just died a few months earlier, and Catherine was now a dowager queen. Queen Catherine showed Jane the maternal love that she had never received from her own mother, but it was not to last long, as Catherine died in childbirth less than two years later (she had remarried in April of 1547, only 3 months after Henry’s death).
An attempt was made to marry Jane to Edward VI, who had succeeded his father to the throne of England. Edward and Jane were the same age and were second cousins. Edward, however, was sickly and not in good health, and because of this and other personal reasons, he rejected the proposal to marry his cousin. Jane was then offered to Guildford Dudley, the son of Edward’s chief advisor, John Dudley (since Edward was only a child when he ascended to the throne, his rule was mediated by a regency council, of which John Dudley was the head). Though Jane was opposed to this marriage, she consented under pressure and Jane and Guildford were married on the Ides of May, 1553.
Edward VI, like his cousin Jane, was a Protestant. John Dudley – Jane’s new father-in-law and Edward’s Lord Protector – was also a Protestant and had grown wealthy after Henry VIII had disbanded the Catholic monasteries and distributed their income and properties to his supporters. When it became apparent, during 1553, that the sickly teenage king would not live to adulthood, Dudley led a not-so-private campaign to ensure that Edward’s older sister Mary – who was a staunch Catholic – did not ascend to the throne. Dudley, like the other Protestant nobles, knew that Mary would deconstruct the Protestant reforms made by her father and brother before her, and they feared the land they had gained when the monasteries were disbanded would be lost if Mary reestablished state-sponsored Catholicism.
Led by Dudley, this anti-Mary faction convinced the ailing Edward to name his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir. Jane had a rightful claim to the throne as a direct descendent of Henry VII, and since the 1544 Act of Succession had given Henry VIII the right to alter succession at his will***, Edward agreed to name Lady Jane as his heir, effectively bypassing his elder sisters Mary and Elizabeth by declaring that they were illegitimate****.
Despite being named in the will of the king, Lady Jane’s claim to the throne was tenuous at best. The Act of Succession had specifically named Mary as the heir to Edward should Edward produce no heirs – Jane had figured in the Act of Succession only in that her male heirs would take the throne if no other heirs were available. Furthermore, since Edward was only 15, and therefore not of the age of majority, his decree that Jane should be his heir was not viewed as legally watertight or binding.
Be that as it may, when Edward died on July 6, 1553, Jane became queen, and was proclaimed as such on July 10, 1553. She had been told of the machinations to make her Edward’s heir only one day earlier. Her response had been one of shock and feelings of insufficiency. Be that as it may, she became the first queen regent in English history*****. As was the custom of monarchs during the time between their accession and their coronation, Jane moved into secure rooms in the Tower of London, thereby laying claim to the Tower.
On her first day as queen, she discovered the grisly truth of how she was being used to enact a secret plan for power, formulated by her father-in-law, John Dudley. The Lord Treasurer brought a number of jewels, including a crown, for Jane to try on. She refused to put the crown on, still not fully believing that she was indeed the Queen of England. The Lord Treasurer, not understanding her hesitancy, encouraged her to take it, remarking offhandedly that another would be made for her husband when he was crowned king.
Jane was enraged, realizing for the first time that Dudley’s interests lay not on religious principles, but instead on the hopes that he could install his son (Jane’s husband, Guildford) as the king and successor of Edward. Jane immediately stated her intent to make her husband a duke, promising that he would never be a king. Guildford, angry and upset that she was not caving to his father’s grand plan, attempted to change her mind, but Jane refused to entertain the idea that she would defer her regency to him. He attempted to leave, but Jane ordered that he remain at the Tower with her.
Later that same evening, Jane’s accession was announced throughout London, and to the surprise and disappointment of Dudley and the other conspirators, the announcement was met with much hostility by the general public. The English people, it seemed, supported Mary – Henry VIII’s eldest daughter and the original heir presumptive before Edward’s deathbed will. The people felt (perhaps rightly so) that Jane’s claim to the throne was illegal, and many (primarily Catholics) felt resentful of the attempts by the monarchy to suppress the free practice of Catholicism in England. While Jane had the support of the nobles and the deceased king, Mary had the support of the populace.
Dudley, realizing that Mary was the only thing standing between him and the realization of his goals (he could worry later about conniving to get his son installed as king), attempted to capture and imprison Mary. In the last few days before Edward’s death, he summoned Mary to the king’s deathbed. Mary was warned, however, that it was a trap, and turned back, retreating to East Anglia. Dudley sent some of his lackeys after her, but they were unable to apprehend her.
As a result, Dudley began making preparations for battle, thinking that mustering a fighting force to forcibly remove Mary from the picture would be the only answer to his problem. He left Jane in the Tower, watched over by the regency council, which had sworn allegiance to her, and went lead his regiment to where he believed Mary was hiding.
But his plan was crumbling around him. Several prominent towns declared Mary the queen, and other towns followed suit. A regiment of ships Dudley had dispatched to cut off a possible escape route betrayed Dudley and pledged allegiance to Mary instead.
When news of this desertion reached London, the councilors sworn to protect Jane began to vacillate. Fearing they would desert her, Jane ordered the doors of the Tower locked from the outside. Additionally, Jane began sending out royal proclamations, signed “Jane the Quene,” urging the people to support her against Mary’s building rebellion.
It ultimately proved futile. The councilors, leaving the Tower under the pretext of visiting the French ambassador, pledged their support to Mary, claiming they had always been loyal to her and that Dudley had forced them to support Jane.
Thus, with popular and statutory support behind her, Mary was proclaimed queen on July 19, 1553, and Jane’s claim of accession was deemed invalid. Jane, who had been ruling for nine days from her rooms in the Tower of London, now became a prisoner in the very place that had been her regnal base.
Jane, who had been at the center of so many plans and aspirations, now found herself without an ally. With no one else to plead her case, Jane wrote to Mary herself, attempting to explain her position and apologizing for accepting the crown. “I might have taken upon me that of which I was not worthy, yet no one can ever say either that I sought it...or that I was pleased with it.”
For her part, Mary believed Jane. She saw that Jane had merely been an unwitting pawn in a grand game of conspiracy, and despite encouragement from several advisors, she resisted the idea of executing Jane for her role in the succession crisis.
Jane was kept in the Tower, but was treated well and began to feel that she was no longer in any imminent danger. Dudley and several of his cronies were executed in mid-August, and Jane felt that, since she had not been convicted and executed along with them, she must be safe from the executioner’s block. Mary, caught up in the machinations of her planned marriage to Philip of Spain, paid little attention to Jane during this time. She seems to have been content to simply keep Jane benignly under lock and key.
During this time, Jane spent much of her time reading and studying the tenets of her faith. She was as devout and pious in her Protestantism as Mary was in her Catholicism, and though she was regarded as a kind, intelligent, and caring person, she was, when it came to issues of faith, self-righteous and intolerant. She was greatly distressed, and lashed out in letters full of scathing and venomous reproach, when many Protestants began to turn back to Catholicism, including one of her childhood tutors******.
Eventually, Mary caved to the pressure to see justice done against Jane and her husband. So in November of 1553, Jane and Guildford were put on trial for their role in Dudley’s attempted usurpation. The pair pled guilty to high treason and were both sentenced to death. Most people, however, believed the sentences were a mere formality, particularly Jane’s. Mary’s principle advisor – the same one who had encouraged her to executed Jane – wrote in his weekly dispatches, following the sentencing: “As for Jane, I am told her life is safe.” In addition, Jane’s mother was a favorite of Mary, and Jane’s younger sisters were ladies-in-waiting to Mary. Most believed that Jane would soon be pardoned and allowed to return to her family.
In the end, Mary’s desire to marry Philip of Spain ultimately cost Jane her life.
When Mary’s engagement to the heir of the Holy Roman Empire was announced, it was met with great hostility from the same populace who had supported Mary’s claim to the throne. They feared England would become a pawn of the Holy Roman Empire, and they feared that foreigners (namely Spaniards) would inherit the throne when Mary died (she was in her late 30’s, and childless, when she took the throne).
As a result of the hostile feelings about Mary’s impending marriage, revolts broke out in January of 1554. Led by Thomas Wyatt, along with the support of several other prominent nobles, including Jane’s father – who had been pardoned and given leniency by Mary only months earlier – a rebellion was planned which would depose Mary and install her sister Elizabeth on the throne, while also marrying Elizabeth to one of their supporters, Edward Courtenay. Courtenay, however, caved under pressure from Mary’s advisors and betrayed the plot. The rebellion fell apart and the perpetrators were arrested.
Wyatt’s Rebellion shook Mary’s confidence. She felt she had been lenient and kind, and she was rewarded with rebellion. She was particularly shaken by the betrayal of Henry Grey, Jane’s father, whose wife and youngest daughters were frequent members of her retinue. She began to fear for her safety and her position, and she realized the only way to stem further rebellion was to deal harshly with those who threatened her throne.
Jane’s fate was sealed.
Though she took no part whatsoever in Wyatt’s Rebellion (she was, of course, still being held in the Tower of London), she had held the title of queen for nine days, and, as such, could be a future threat within Protestant rebellions against Mary’s rule.
Jane, along with her husband and the other conspirators, were sentenced to die immediately. Jane’s execution was scheduled for February 9th, 1554. Mary, however, felt a last minute pang of guilt, and so she dispatched Father John de Feckenham, dean of St. Paul’s, to minister to Jane and attempt to win Jane to the Catholic faith. Though she took an immediate liking to Father de Feckenham, she refused to renounce her strict Protestant faith.
As a result, her execution went forward on the following Monday, February 12th. Father de Feckenham offered to accompany her to the scaffold, and she agreed. Though he had failed in his attempts to convert her, he had made a strong impression on her, and she wished to have him by her side when she died.
A 19th century artist's rendering of Jane's execution
Standing by the scaffold at Tower Green, under a leaden winter sky, Jane Grey addressed the small crowd, admitting to treason but insisting upon her moral innocence. She then recited the 51st Psalm.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.”
When she was finished, she thanked Father de Feckenham for his kindness, and asked the executioner to give her a quick death. Then she turned to the execution block and, with her own hand, placed a blindfold around her eyes. She acted too quickly, however, and stumbled, unable to find the execution block.
“What shall I do? Where is it?” she is reputed to have said.
Father de Feckenham stepped forward, gently guiding her to the spot. She stretched her body out, lay her head with dignity upon the block, and awaited the falling of the axe.
The Chapel of St. Peter in Chains, which faces Tower Green, and where Jane is buried alongside her husband
No contemporary paintings of Lady Jane Grey are known to exist. However, a painting that has been hanging for years inside a home in England is now believed to be a contemporary portrait of Lady Jane. Read about it here.
Many thanks to EnglishHistory.net and Wikipedia for much of the information in this article.
* Sadly, no weather reports of February 12, 1554 exist (to my knowledge), so this meteorological description is based on traditional February London weather patterns.
** In a letter to her tutor, Roger Ascham, in 1550, Jane wrote: “...whatsoever I do else but learning is full of grief, trouble, fear and wholly misliking to me.”
*** The 1544 Act of Succession specifically named Edward as Henry’s heir. If Edward didn’t produce any heirs, then the throne was to pass to Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary and her male descendents. If Mary was dead by then, or did not have any male heirs, then the throne was to pass to Henry’s second daughter, Elizabeth and her male descendents. In the event of Elizabeth’s death without a male heir, succession would fall to the male heirs of Frances Brandon (Lady Jane’s mother). If Frances Brandon had no male heirs, then succession would pass to Lady Jane’s male heirs. There were clauses in the law, however, which more or less gave Henry the right to change any of it at his whim. By naming Jane as his heir, Edward attempted to apply these clauses to his own kingly rights.
**** Mary and Elizabeth had both been declared illegitimate, and stripped of their succession rights, by acts of Parliament in the 1530’s, but the aforementioned 1544 Act of Succession re-established them as rightful heirs of the throne; however, their official illegitimacy was never rescinded, and Edward used this to support the naming of Jane as his heir.
***** Henry II, who ruled during the first half of the 1100’s, died without a male heir and had named his eldest daughter, Matilda as his heir presumptive. However, Henry’s nephew, Stephen, usurped the throne upon Henry’s death, plunging England into civil war. Stephen ultimately prevailed over Matilda, signing a treaty in which he named Matilda’s son as his heir. There was, however, a period of about nine months, during the civil war, when Stephen was captured and Matilda claimed the throne and moved into the palace. After Stephen was released, he took the throne back from Matilda. Since Matilda was never officially proclaimed queen by the nobles, and since she was never crowned, she is not considered an official monarch of England.
****** The tutor in question was a certain Dr. Harding, to whom Jane wrote: “Oh wretched and unhappy man, what art thou but dust and ashes? And wilt thou resist thy Maker that fashioned thee and framed thee? Wilt thou refuse the true God, and worship the invention of man, the golden calf, the whore of Babylon, the Romish religion, the abominable idol, the most wicked mass?” Additionally, John Dudley, prior to his execution, had also renounced his Protestant faith, perhaps in an effort to charm Mary into sparing his life. It didn’t work. Dudley took the sacraments and was welcomed into the Catholic faith, and then lost his head the next morning.