On 13 November 1553, the 17-year-old Lady Jane Grey became the youngest royal woman to be condemned for treason in British history. Her trial – staged at Guildhall in the heart of the city of London – was a very public humiliation. For Jane, its outcome was a personal catastrophe.
How had it come to this? A mere four months earlier, some of the most powerful men in England had conveyed Jane, the great-niece of Henry VIII, to the Tower of London, where they proclaimed her queen. But now here she was, facing her accusers, her nine-day reign well and truly over, her very life hanging by a thread.
The seeds of Jane’s spectacular fall from grace were sown, earlier in 1553, by one of Edward VI’s last acts as king of England. Edward was a committed Protestant and when he succeeded his father, Henry VIII, as king in 1547, he immediately took it upon himself to impose religious reforms upon his people.
But championing Protestantism in his lifetime wasn’t enough for Edward. He wanted the work to continue after his death, and that meant preventing his fiercely Catholic elder half-sister, Mary, from succeeding to the throne. His solution was to author a famous document, ‘My Devise for the Succession’, in which he excluded both Mary, and his other half-sister, Elizabeth, on the grounds of their illegitimacy (as his father had done before him). Lady Jane Grey, a fellow Protestant who had sat third in the line of succession, suddenly found herself anointed Edward’s heir.
What made Edward’s ‘Devise’ all the more significant – and explosive – was the fact that it had in part been orchestrated by the young king’s chief advisor, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Northumberland was an ambitious man, desperate to retain his grip on power, something that would inevitably be diminished should Mary succeed to the throne – for the simple fact that she loathed him, for both religious and political reasons.
Bonds of allegiance
Edward’s ‘Devise’ gave Northumberland a priceless opportunity to shore up his position – and in May 1553 he did just that, persuading Jane’s naïve father, the Duke of Suffolk, to allow Jane to be married to Northumberland’s fourth son, Guildford. The alliance was an attempt to cement the bonds of allegiance for what lay ahead – chiefly Jane’s succession to the throne, for which Northumberland’s support was essential.
When, on 6 July 1553, Edward VI died – possibly from tuberculosis – Northumber- land’s scheme appeared to be falling into place perfectly. But, even as Jane processed to the Tower of London to be formally proclaimed queen four days after the king’s death, Northumberland’s plan was beginning to unravel. The people of London, who were overwhelmingly sympathetic to Mary’s claim to the throne, greeted Jane’s accession with shock and hostility – so much so that the imperial ambassador reported that “no one present showed any sign of rejoicing”.
Worse still, Northumberland had fatally misjudged Mary’s popularity throughout the country. As each day passed, the clamour for Henry VIII’s eldest daughter to be given the crown grew louder. Soon it had gathered an unstoppable momentum. On 19 July, just nine days after she had been proclaimed queen, Jane was overthrown in Mary’s favour.
With her short reign at an end, Jane and her husband remained in the Tower – prisoners in the same building that had so briefly been their palace. As the country erupted into joy at the succession of Mary I, few spared a thought for Jane’s predicament. In fact, many would have considered her fate a foregone conclusion: after all, she had, albeit unwillingly, accepted the crown in defiance of Mary, an act of high treason. Surely she would be executed.
But Mary was eager to begin her reign by demonstrating clemency, and by the middle of August she had intimated to those at court that she “could not be induced to consent that she [Jane] should die”. Not only was Jane her cousin, Mary was also acutely conscious of Jane’s youth and the fact that she had been manipulated. It seemed that Jane’s life was safe. There was to be no such mercy for the Duke of Northumberland, and on 22 August his head was cut off.
The next few months passed by uneventfully for Jane in the Tower, but she had not been forgotten. As the autumn drew in, under immense pressure from her supporters to punish those who had been involved in the coup, Mary agreed that Jane and her husband should stand trial. Some form of justice had to be seen to be done, and in Mary’s eyes the trial was a formality, one that would help to pacify those who urged her to act against her cousin. As queen, it was Mary’s prerogative to administer mercy where she deemed fit.
On the morning of 13 November, Jane and Guildford were conducted on foot from the Tower to Guildhall. As they passed through the streets, “with the axe before them” according to standard procedure, people gathered to watch, but Jane was absorbed in the prayer book that was open in her hands.
Upon arrival at Guildhall, the prisoners were escorted to the Great Hall, where their trial was staged in a room full of spectators. A whole host of Mary’s supporters had been appointed to oversee the proceedings, headed by the Duke of Norfolk. The queen had commanded those who sat in judgment to “apply yourself diligently” to the task, and to ensure that justice prevailed.
The charges against Jane were read out, and the evidence was laid before the court: Jane had “falsely and treacherously” accepted the crown of England and acknowledged herself as “Jane the Queen”, thereby depriving Mary of “her royal status, title, order and power of her kingdom of England”. In so doing, she had committed high treason.
All eyes were upon Jane as those in the court waited to hear how she would plead to the charges. Her answer came soon enough: “Guilty.” This one word placed Jane “at the mercy of the queen” and, as such, the court’s verdict was a foregone conclusion: Jane and her husband were found guilty of treason and condemned to die. For Jane, the sentence was that “on the order of the queen herself”, she should be “burned, or the head cut off, as it will then please the queen”.
Following their condemnation, Jane and Guildford were returned to the Tower, there to await Queen Mary’s decision as to their fate. Despite the enormity of the sentence that had been passed, however, Mary remained true to her initial desire to show mercy, and it was commonly believed that “Jane will not die”. Life as a Tower prisoner began to resume its normal course for Jane, as it became evident that the sentence passed against her would not be carried out.
As Christmas approached, Mary relaxed the conditions of Jane’s confinement and permitted her to exercise in the Tower grounds. There seemed every reason to hope that not only would the queen spare Jane, but that she may eventually set her at her liberty. However, the machinations of ambitious men were to put Jane in terrible danger once more.
By early 1554, Mary had signalled her desire to marry Philip, future king of Spain. Many of her subjects vehemently opposed the union – primarily because they feared that Philip would try to embroil England in Spanish wars, and because the Spanish king was a Catholic. Mary, however, was unmoved, and plans for the wedding continued unabated.
But Mary, it seems, had underestimated the level of opposition to the union. Unbeknown to the queen – and, tragically, also to Jane – there were those among her subjects who were preparing to take a stand against the marriage. In the heart of the Kent countryside, a gentleman named Sir Thomas Wyatt and several of his friends were planning a rebellion that aimed not only to protest against the Spanish marriage, but also to overthrow Mary and replace her with her half-sister, Elizabeth. Worse still, the rebels had recruited a supporter closely connected to Jane: her own father.
We can’t be sure why Jane’s father chose to throw his weight behind the Wyatt Rebellion, but one thing is certain: in doing so, the Duke of Suffolk had placed Jane’s life at mortal risk.
The rebellion was fatally compromised almost before it began. The rebels had been careless planners, and in January 1554 their plot was discovered. Soon the Duke of Suffolk was fleeing towards the Midlands in order to evade capture and rally support for the uprising. He failed dismally and, on 2 February, was captured in Warwickshire, and dispatched to the Tower as a prisoner. Thomas Wyatt would soon join him. Londoners’ steadfast support for Queen Mary had shattered his attempts to take control of the capital and, on 7 February, he too was captured.
Jane had known nothing of the rebellion but now, as she languished in the Tower, she may have been painfully conscious that her life depended on its outcome. Its failure sealed her fate. Though Mary was, even after all that had happened, “considering to have her reprieved”, through the insistence of her advisors she was left with no choice but to order Jane’s execution. The decision may have been made as late as 7 February, and it was probably that evening that Jane was told to prepare herself for death. She had already been condemned, and thus the formalities had already been settled. Jane prepared for her end with courage, and began writing her final farewells to her family.
Mary may have decided that Jane could not live, but she was still concerned for her cousin’s spiritual welfare. So, on 8 February, the queen tasked her chaplain, Dr John Feckenham, with converting Jane to Catholicism. Feckenham certainly gave it his all, even managing to delay Jane’s execution by three days to complete his assignment.
Several contemporaries later referred to the chaplain’s encounter with Jane, most famously John Foxe, the martyrologist. Foxe tells that, having failed to break Jane’s resolve, and realising that he was getting nowhere, Feckenham took his leave, saying that he was sorry for her: “‘For I am sure,’ quoth he, ‘that we two shall never meet.’”
Foxe continues: “‘True it is,’ said she, ‘that we shall never meet, except God turn your heart; for I am assured, unless you repent and turn to God, you are in an evil case.’”
As Feckenham discovered, Jane’s resolve had hardened. By now she had resigned herself to the fact that death was inevitable, and she was determined to be remembered as a Protestant heroine. Even Feckenham was impressed with her steadfast spirit.
On the morning of 12 February, Jane mounted a scaffold that had been specially prepared within the precincts of the Tower. Shortly before, she had watched as her husband’s lifeless corpse was returned to the Tower on a cart, following his execution on nearby Tower Hill. Unperturbed by this gruesome spectacle, she faced death with courage. She made a short speech urging those who were present to pray for her and, having been blindfolded, she knelt on the straw.
Then her calm momentarily deserted her, as she found that the block was just out of her reach. “What shall I do? Where is it?” she cried out in panic. She regained her composure as her hands were guided to the block. Moments later the axe fell and severed her head with a single stroke.
Jane’s death made her a martyr, not just to Protestants in England but across the continent too. Elsewhere in the realm, though, her end went almost unnoticed. It was not until later centuries that Jane began to be remembered as one of history’s most tragic victims. And in this image there is some truth: Jane was both a victim of circumstance, and of her royal blood.
Mary I certainly did not wish for Jane’s execution and did everything in her power to prevent it. But, from the moment ‘the nine-day queen’ was deposed in July 1553, death cast a long shadow over her. Her father’s actions made it a cruel reality. For Jane, the royal blood that the two cousins shared had been a deadly inheritance, and one for which she was forced to pay the highest price.
Nicola Tallis is an author and historian specialising in Tudor England. She is the author of Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys.
Lady Jane Grey: A life cut short
1536 Lady Jane Grey was probably born in the latter half of 1536, perhaps at Dorset House in London. She was the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, later Duke of Suffolk, and Lady Frances Brandon.
28 January 1547 Henry VIII dies, leaving his nine-year-old son, Edward, as his heir. Jane is now officially third in line to the throne.
Spring and Summer 1553 Edward VI (left) draws up and makes several amendments to ‘My Devise for the Succession’, whereby he disinherits his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, naming Jane his heir.
25 May 1553 Lady Jane Grey is married to Guildford Dudley, the fourth son of the Duke of Northumberland, in a magnificent ceremony at Durham House.
6 July 1553 Edward VI dies at Greenwich Palace, and Jane becomes queen of England.
10 July 1553 Jane enters the Tower of London, from where she is publicly proclaimed queen. The same evening, a letter from Mary arrives at the Tower, declaring herself to be queen.
19 July 1553 Jane is officially deposed in Mary’s favour. As London erupts in celebration, Jane is escorted from the royal apartments to prison quarters, there to await news of her fate.
13 November 1553 Jane and Guildford stand trial at Guildhall. They both plead guilty, and are condemned to death. The couple return to the Tower.
January 1554 Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, joins the Wyatt Rebellion against Queen Mary.
7 February 1554 The Wyatt Rebellion ends in disaster. Sir Thomas Wyatt and his supporters are captured in London and sent to the Tower.
8 February 1554 Dr John Feckenham arrives at the Tower. He and Jane begin a series of religious debates instigated by Feckenham in an unsuccessful attempt to convert Jane to Catholicism. Jane prepares to meet her end.
12 February 1554 Jane and Guildford are executed. Guildford is subjected to a public beheading on Tower Hill, while Jane is granted a private execution within the confines of the Tower.
This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine