Who was Lady Jane Grey? The tragic story of the ‘Nine Days Queen’

Who was Lady Jane Grey? The Tudor queen reigned for just nine days, having been put on the English throne by her scheming father-in-law before being deposed by her power-hungry cousin and condemned to death by execution. Explore the story of how Henry VIII’s grandniece became an unwilling pawn of those around her, and lost her head because of it...

Paul Delaroche's heavily idealised depiction of Lady Jane Grey's final moments, painted in 1833, shows Jane being guided to the block by Sir John Brydges, lieutenant of the Tower. The painting is given even greater poignancy by the fact that two of Jane's ladies are shown weeping and that even Jane's executioner is moved to avert his eyes. (VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

The ‘Nine Days 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. Discover everything you need to know about Lady Jane Grey…

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The story of Lady Jane Grey

– Written by Nicola Tallis

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.

Holbein's portrait of Edward VI
Hans Holbein’s portrait of Edward VI. (Photo by: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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 – Northumberland’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.


Listen on the podcast: Helen Castor describes the short, but dramatic, life and reign of England’s ‘Nine Days Queen’


Queen’s prerogative

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.

A 17th century Dutch portrait of Queen Mary I of England (1516-1558), eldest daughter of Henry VIII. She was nicknamed
A 17th century Dutch portrait of Queen Mary I of England (1516-1558), eldest daughter of Henry VIII. She was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” for her persecution of English Protestants. The painting hangs in the Dutch Room of the Gardner Museum in Boston. | Located in: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. (Photo by Kevin Fleming/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

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.

Marital woes

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.

Picture depicting Sir Thomas Wyatt attacking the By-ward Tower
Sir Thomas Wyatt attacking the By-ward Tower, 1554. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

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.

Lifeless corpse

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.

Lady Jane Grey's execution, as imagined by painter Paul Delaroche in 1833. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Lady Jane Grey’s execution, as imagined by painter Paul Delaroche in 1833. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

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.

This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine


Lady Jane Grey: the key questions answered

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 answers key questions about her life, death and reign…

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.

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 (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.

What was Lady Jane Grey’s childhood like?

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.

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.

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 she 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.

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

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