Lady Jane Grey: the English queen who didn’t want the throne

Who was Lady Jane Grey? The 'Nine Day Queen' experienced the swiftest rise and fall of any English monarch – but by her own admission, she didn’t have any desire to wear a crown. Historian Alison Weir explains how Henry VIII’s grandniece became an unwilling pawn of those around her, and lost her head because of it

Painting: 'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey', 1834

Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen of England at only 16 years old. Famously, her reign was to last for just nine days. According to her tutor, John Aylmer, who stated in 1551 that she had just turned 14, Jane was born in 1537, when Henry VIII was on the throne.

Advertisement

Her mother was Frances Brandon, the King’s niece, being the eldest daughter of his late sister, Mary Tudor. Frances had married Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset. Jane was the eldest of their three daughters, and was probably named after Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. Although her sex was probably a bitter disappointment to her ambitious parents, they knew she could make a great marriage, for the royal blood of the Tudors ran in her veins.

To that end, they had Jane well educated. She was bright, able, and an outstanding scholar; and she adored Aylmer, who taught her to love learning for its own sake.

After Henry VIII died in 1547, his nine-year-old son by Jane Seymour ascended the throne as Edward VI, and England turned officially Protestant under the protectorship of the new King’s oldest uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.

Henry VIII’s widow, Katherine Parr, had retired to the royal palace at Chelsea, and it soon emerged that – with indecent haste – she had married the charming and cunning Thomas, Lord Seymour of Sudeley, Somerset’s ambitious younger brother.

The early plot to make Jane Grey queen

Seeing a way to gain the power that had so far eluded him, he offered to broker a marriage between Jane and Edward. At ten, Jane was a tiny, graceful girl with fair, freckled skin, red hair and sparkling brown eyes. Her learning made her a fit mate for a Renaissance king. Seymour bought her wardship for a large sum, and told the Dorsets they would soon see their daughter become queen of England.

The happiest years of Jane’s life may have been those she spent in the household of Katherine Parr, who encouraged this formidably intelligent girl in her studies. Henry VIII’s younger daughter, the future Elizabeth I (Jane’s senior by four years) was also in the Queen Dowager’s care, and the two girls had shared intellectual interests. Both readily embraced the Protestant religion. Like Aylmer, Parr was a staunch Protestant. They may have inspired Jane to convert to the new religion, to which she stayed devoutly true all her life.

Having no place on the regency council, Thomas Seymour lacked the power to bring about the marriage between the King and Jane. Edward wanted to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, or a French princess “well stuffed with jewels”. Somerset found out about the plot to marry Jane to Edward, and was furious. Yet Jane was allowed to remain in Parr’s household. She must have been deeply upset when Parr died in 1548, after giving birth at Sudeley Castle. Wearing a black mourning gown, Jane acted as chief mourner when the Queen was buried in the castle chapel.

The future Elizabeth I was also in Parr’s care, and both she and Jane readily embraced the Protestant religion

Then she had to return home. Her parents continued to bring her up to be good, meek, sober and obedient, to strive for perfection, and their expectations and harshness clearly overwhelmed her. Jane’s misery was clear to the renowned scholar Roger Ascham when he visited her family home, Bradgate House, when she was just 14.

Jane preferred reading to hunting; when scholar Roger Ascham visited, he found her studying Plato. (Photo by Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images)
Jane preferred reading to hunting; when scholar Roger Ascham visited, he found her studying Plato. (Photo by Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images)

Edward’s heir was his older half-sister, the staunchly Catholic Mary Tudor, and he was angry at her persistence in celebrating Mass, which had been banned. Jane shared the King’s views. In 1551, she visited Mary’s house and there, in the empty chapel, saw a lady-inwaiting curtsey to the Blessed Host on the altar.

“Why do you do that?” she asked. “I bow to Him that made us all,” the lady said. “How can He that made us all be there, when the baker made Him?” Jane retorted. Mary was shocked to hear this.

Lady Jane’s life at home

It has been disputed by some historians that her parents were harsh to her, but there is no reason to doubt Jane’s own testimony to the renowned scholar, Roger Ascham – printed after his death in 1570, but written between 1563 and 1568.

She told him: “One of the greatest benefits that ever God gave me, is that he sent me so sharp and severe parents, and so gentle a schoolmaster. For when I am in presence either of father or mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand, or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing or doing anything else, I must do it in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world, or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes, with pinches, nips and bobs, and other ways, which I will not name, for the honour I bear them, so without measure misordered, that I think myself in hell, till time come, that I must go to Mr Aylmer, who teacheth me so gently, so pleasantly, with such fair allurements to learning, that I think all the time nothing, while I am with him. And when I am called from him, I fall on weeping, because, whatsoever I do else, but learning, is full of grief, trouble, fear and whole misliking unto me.”

It sounds like a cry for help made to a sympathetic listener. Ascham knew Jane’s family and others in her circle, but he did not qualify what she said about her parents. Indeed, he wrote that he was reporting her words as “one example [of] whether love or fear doth work more in a child for virtue and learning”. Clearly, he had believed what she said.

Edward VI’s succession crisis

By 1553, the 15-year-old King was dying of tuberculosis. Somerset was dead, and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, was ruling England in Edward’s name. Edward, aided by Northumberland, was making anxious plans to stop the Catholic Mary from ever inheriting the throne.

Northumberland wanted to remain in power, as mentor to a monarch who would bow to his rule. Jane seemed suited to that role. Yet she proved not to be the meek little maid he thought her to be, but a feisty, stubborn teenager, who was not afraid to stand up to him.

Northumberland persuaded the Dorsets to agree to a marriage between Jane and his son, Lord Guildford Dudley. Jane “resisted the marriage for some time”, yet had no choice but to agree to it. The wedding went ahead, with great pomp and celebrations, and it seems that Jane did afterwards conceive some affection for Guildford, since she later described herself as “a wife who loves her husband”. Yet she would not agree to his being named king when the time came.

Lady Jane Grey with her husband on their wedding day
Jane and Guildford were wed in May 1553 at a triple wedding – each saw a sister married at the same time. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It was Edward himself who, on his deathbed, drew up a new ‘device’ for the succession, setting aside the claims of his bastardised half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and leaving the crown to his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey. Yet Henry VIII’s Act of Succession of 1544, leaving the throne to Edward, Mary and Elizabeth in turn, and then to the heirs of Frances Brandon (whose own claim was passed over), remained in force; Edward’s device lacked the legal force to overturn it.

After Edward died in July 1553, Jane was brought to Syon House near London and there offered the crown of England. When she saw the assembled court waiting for her, she began to shake with fright. Northumberland led her to the throne and informed her, to her evident horror, that Edward had named her his heir. As everyone knelt to her, Jane fainted.

The Nine Day Queen

When she came to, she rose to her feet and said, “The crown is not my right. It pleases me not. Mary is the rightful heir.” Her protest was ignored. Northumberland, her parents and Guildford pressed her to do their will, and in the end, she gave way. But she was not at peace with herself. She wrote later: “It did not become me to accept.”

Jane was then brought to the Tower of London where, by custom, she would sojourn before her coronation. But her reign would prove the shortest in English history. The country rallied to Mary, the rightful heiress. No one wanted the unknown Jane. As Queen Mary was proclaimed to an outburst of popular acclaim, the Privy Council abandoned Jane and hastened to swear allegiance to Mary.

Jane was at supper in the Tower when her father burst in and tore down the cloth of estate bearing the royal arms from above her chair. “You are no longer queen,” he told her. “May I go home?” she asked. He would not answer, but fled from the Tower, leaving her to her fate. Soon, the guards came for her. She was imprisoned in the house of the gentleman gaoler. They let her have books, and she was kept in some comfort, taking her meals with the gaoler and his family.

Despite her unwillingness to be queen, Jane had committed treason in accepting the crown, to which she had no legal right, and Mary correctly feared she would remain a focus for Protestant plots. She therefore kept Jane in the Tower, comfortably housed, but a prisoner nonetheless.

Jane had nothing to do with the rising, but that made no difference to those who saw her as a threat

In November 1553, although Mary desired to show them mercy, Jane and Guildford were tried for high treason at London’s Guildhall and sentenced to death. They were assured that this was but a formality because, as soon as she had a son of her own, a Catholic heir to England, the Queen intended to have them quietly released.

“It is believed Jane will not die,” wrote a courtier. But circumstances and the rash actions of her father conspired against Jane and the Queen’s merciful intentions.

Mary restored the Catholic faith in England. In time, she would burn those who rejected it. In the meantime, she was planning to marry Philip of Spain, but the people did not want a foreign prince to rule over them. Early in 1554, Sir Thomas Wyatt led a major revolt against the marriage. Mary came close to losing her crown, but she made a brave stand, and the revolt was suppressed. It had been a near thing, and the Council was in a panic.

Jane’s father had been one of the rebel leaders and made clear his resolve to restore his daughter to the throne. Jane had nothing to do with the rising, or her father’s actions, but that made no difference to those who saw her as a dangerous threat to the Queen’s security.

Mary’s advisers insisted that she execute anyone who might remain a focus for rebellion in the future. It was made clear to her that Philip of Spain would not marry her unless Jane was “removed”. The Queen had no choice in the matter, and a date was set for Jane’s sentence to be carried out. Jane was prepared. On being told she was to die, she said, “I am ready and glad to end my woeful days.”

Mary was deeply troubled about sending her young cousin to her death. She sent a priest,  John Feckenham, to persuade Jane to convert to the Catholic faith, and tell her that, if she agreed, she might live. But Jane would not deny her religion. “It is not my desire to prolong my days,” she told Feckenham. He was moved by her faith, and asked if he could be with her at the end.

Lady Jane Grey’s execution

Jane’s execution was set for 11 February 1554. She was ready to die. “My soul will find mercy with God,” she wrote. Wearing the black gown she had worn at her trial, she stood at a window, having promised to watch Guildford leave the Tower for the scaffold. She saw him weeping as he walked under guard to Tower Hill – and in a short space after, she watched a cart coming back, carrying his bloody head and body, wrapped in white cloths. She cried out, “Oh, the bitterness of death!”

Now she saw the headsman returning to the Tower. It was time. On the arm of her gaoler, Jane walked calmly to the scaffold. Her nurse, Mrs Ellen, and other ladies came after, weeping; then followed Feckenham, keeping his promise.

From the scaffold, Jane addressed the crowd: “Good people, I am come to die, by law,” she began. ‘The fact against the Queen’s Highness was unlawful, and the consenting thereunto by me: but, touching the procurement and desire thereof by me, I do wash my hands thereof in innocency before God, and the face of you, good Christian people, this day. I die a true Christian woman.”

Good people, I am come to die, by law
Lady Jane Grey

She asked Feckenham to join her in prayers, but he was too choked to reply, so she kissed him goodbye as they held hands. The headsman tried to help her unlace her gown, but she insisted on doing it herself. He knelt, asking her forgiveness for what he must do, which she readily gave. “I pray you do it quickly,” she begged, kneeling before the block. “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” she asked, meaning her head. “No, Madam,” he replied. Jane bound her eyes.

According to the contemporary Chronicle of Queen Jane and Two Years of Queen Mary, she groped for the block. It was not there. “What shall I do?” she cried, in mounting panic. “Where is it?” Then someone guided her to it. “Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit!” she cried. The axe descended. One witness wrote that he had never seen so much blood. The headsman lifted the head. “Behold the head of a traitor!” he cried.

Jane was buried in the chancel of the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, near Guildford. It has been called “the saddest spot on Earth”.

The search for Lady Jane Grey’s portrait

There is no authenticated portrait or image of Lady Jane Grey. She was queen for just nine days, and there would not have been much demand for her likeness.

Many Tudor portraits and engravings have at some time been identified as her, but in every case new research has led to the identification being rejected, while several, such as a fine portrait at Seaton Delaval Hall and one in the Earl of Jersey’s collection which was destroyed by fire, are now known, on the evidence of jewellery – notably a coronet jewel and an ouche pendant – to portray Katherine Parr.

Even the famous engraving by Willem and Magdalena van de Passe, inscribed as IANA GRAYA, in Henry Holland’s Herwologia (1620), is Katherine. The jewel and the ouche pendant appear in an authenticated portrait of Parr in the National Portrait Gallery and in her three inventories; neither are recorded in the possession of Jane Grey.

A portrait inscribed in a later hand ‘Lady Iane’ [4], which was discovered in Streatham in 2006, and is now in the National Portrait Gallery, dates from the 1590s.

The inscription is almost certainly incorrect, as the sitter wears a distinctive pearl carcanet that appears in portraits of Parr, notably one inscribed Catherina Regina Uxor Henrici VIII. Thus the Streatham portrait probably also depicts Katherine Parr.

A miniature by Levina Teerlinc of a girl, inscribed Anno XVIII (‘in her 18th year’) has been identified as Lady Jane Grey on the evidence of floral emblems said to be those of the Dudley family in the corsage (among them supposedly a gillyflower for Lord Guildford Dudley), and the identification of the brooch with two listed in Jane’s inventory.

Yet Jane was born in 1537; she would not have attained her 18th year until after her death.

Alison Weir is a historian and bestselling author. Her latest book is Anna of Kleve: Queen of Secrets (Headline, 2019), the fourth installment in her Six Tudor Queens series

Advertisement

This content first appeared in the February 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed