Who was Lady Jane Grey? (1536–1554)

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.

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, Jane's parents ensured she was well educated. She was bright, able, and an outstanding scholar; and she adored her tutor, John Aylmer, who taught her to love learning for its own sake.

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Lady Jane Grey: a timeline of her life

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 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.

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."

Holbein's portrait of Edward VI
Hans Holbein's portrait of Edward VI. (Image by Getty Images)

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.

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, to which Jane stayed devoutly true all her life.

How did Lady Jane Grey become queen?

In 1553, the 15-year-old king Edward VI was dying of tuberculosis. Edward Seymour, the Duke of 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.

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.

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After Edward died in July 1553, Jane was brought to Syon House near London and 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.

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.

How did Lady Jane Grey die?

Jane’s execution took place on 12 February 1554. By her own account, she was prepared to die. “My soul will find mercy with God,” she wrote.

On the day of her execution, she was first taken to a scaffold at the Tower of London, where she addressed the crowd: “Good people, I am come to die, by law. ‘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.”

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.

At this point, according to the contemporary Chronicle of Queen Jane and Two Years of Queen Mary, Jane groped for the block and found that it was not there. “What shall I do?” she is said to have cried in mounting panic. “Where is it?” Then someone guided her to it.

The axe then descended – and one witness wrote that he had never seen so much blood. The headsman lifted Jane's head to show the crowd. “Behold the head of a traitor!” he said.

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”.

What did Lady Jane Grey look like?

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.


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


Alison Weir will be speaking at the 2019 History Weekends.
Alison WeirHistorian and author

Alison Weir is a bestselling British author and historian. Her two latest series are Six Tudor Queens, comprising six novels on the wives of Henry VIII, and England's Medieval Queens, a quartet of historical works of non-fiction.