On the night of February 11th, 1554, 17-year-old Lady Jane Grey sat alone in the Tower of London, penning one last letter to her sister Katherine. In the morning she was to be executed for high treason against Queen Mary I of England. Only seven months prior, Jane herself had sat on the throne as the Queen of England. And yet here she was imprisoned and facing death.
Writing to Katherine, she implored her to be a good Christian and follow the faith that Jane was so devoted to. Addressing her rapidly approaching death, she told her sister:
“Rejoice as I do, my dearest sister, that I shall be delivered of this corruption, and put on incorruption: for I am assured that I shall, for losing of a mortal life, win one that is immortal, joyful, and ever-lasting”.
How did Lady Jane end up in this situation? To answer, we’ll need to go quite a few years back.
King Henry VIII’s Succession Troubles
After years of miscarriages, still births and infant deaths, King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine produced one child, a daughter named Mary. Henry believed Catherine was unable to produce a male heir and sought to annul their marriage on this basis.
Catherine fought back, claiming that both their marriage and daughter Mary were legitimate, but their marriage was annulled. Soon, Catherine was all but imprisoned in a small, secluded room of the castle where she would died of illness from stress and loneliness. Henry remarried a series of women until a male heir, Edward VI, was born.
After Edward’s birth, Mary slowly gained Henry’s good graces and restored their relationship. Eventually, Henry would include Mary in his plans for succession of the throne.
King Edward VI’s Reign
Edward VI was crowned King of England and Ireland in 1547 at only 9 years old. He was a devout Protestant and worked to expand the rights of Protestants over Catholics during his reign, by passing laws around which prayer books could be used and appropriating church property.
Soon, tensions grew between him and his half sister Mary who was piously Catholic. Mary openly defied many of Edward’s anti-Catholic laws, much to his annoyance. Edward demanded that she follow the laws, but she threatened to involve her cousin Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Not wanting to risk a war, Edward allowed Mary to continue practicing her religion in private.
Concerns Over Succession
In 1553, at the age of 15, Edward became ill with what is believed to be tuberculosis, and his health declined. Besides concerns over his health, Edward had concerns over the future of his Protestant kingdom.
Henry VIII left behind an act of succession that in the event of Edward’s death, if there were no heirs, the throne would go to his daughter Mary. Edward could not allow this to happen. Mary, being the devout Catholic that she was, would surely undo his work for Protestantism, and would further the spread Catholicism.
Instead, Edward wrote “My Devise for Succession”. Based on the claims that Mary was an illegitimate child due to Henry and Catharine’s marriage being annulled, Edward decreed that the throne would go to his cousin Lady Jane Grey and her male heirs. Jane was a Protestant as well, and Edward saw her as a much better choice to protect his work.
Letters were written authorizing Edward’s succession plan and signed by prominent members of government. On June 19th Parliament was called to approve this revision, which Edward hoped would add legitimacy for his fight against Mary. To prevent rebellion by Mary’s supporters, troops were preemptively called to protect strongholds.
On July 6th, King Edward died at the age of 15. His death was kept secret for four days to prepare to name Lady Jane Grey as queen. On July 10th, Jane took the throne.
The New Queen
Lady Jane Grey was born in 1537 to an elite family. Her father was Henry Grey, 3rd Marquess of Dorset, and her mother, Lady Frances, was the daughter of Henry VIII’s youngest sister. Jane was well educated, and learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French and Italian. Raised as a Protestant, she was very devout in her religion.
Jane was married to Lord Guildford Dudley, son of Duke of Northumberland John Dudley, the King Edward’s Protector. Duke Dudley was a staunch supporter of Edward’s revised succession plan. With Jane named Queen, his son could become King, much to the benefit of him and his family.
Lady Jane was reportedly very surprised and distressed upon hearing the news that she was named Queen. She traveled to London and on July 10th took the throne. She was reluctant to be Queen and even refused to wear the crown. Her husband Guildford wanted to be named King, but she refused to do so without an Act of Parliament.
Unfortunately for Jane, many people believed that Mary was the rightful heir and were outspoken in their support of her. It quickly became apparent that many would not accept Jane.
Upon hearing the news that Lady Jane was named Queen, Mary wrote to the Privy Council demanding to be crowned as the rightful queen. They refused her demands and declared their support for Jane. Undeterred, Mary began raising an army and riding to London to claim the throne.
As the Council realized how many people supported Mary, they permitted Duke John Dudley to raise an army to capture Mary. He left London with his army and headed for Cambridge.
Before he could return to London, the Council, swayed by the outpouring of support for Mary, decided to publicly back her instead. On July 19th, 1553, Mary was crowned queen and Jane’s claim to the throne was overturned. Jane reigned for nine days total: July 10th – 19th, the shortest reign in British history.
Once named queen, Mary ordered the arrest of Duke John Dudley, who was soon captured and tried for treason. His sentence was the usual punishment for those guilty of treason: hanging, drawing and quartering, where the victim would be hung until dead or nearly dead, disemboweled, and their body chopped into four pieces. Fortunately for Dudley, Mary was merciful and decided to lessen his sentence to death by beheading. On August 22nd, Dudley was executed.
Lady Jane’s Imprisonment
Jane and her husband Guildford were imprisoned in the Tower of London under charges of treason. Mary originally did not want to execute Jane, but due to several Protestant uprisings, Jane’s existence would remain a threat to her reign. Mary offered to spare Jane and Guildford if they converted to Catholicism, but they refused.
On February 12th 1554, at about 10 am, Guildford was marched out of the Tower to Tower Hill where a crowd had gathered to witness his beheading. Soon after, his body was thrown in a cart and his head wrapped in a cloth. He was returned to the chapel in the Tower, via a route that brought him past Jane’s view. Reportedly upon seeing his body, Jane cried “Oh Guildford, Guildford!”.
The Execution of the “Nine Day Queen”
Due to her high status, Jane was granted a private execution, and a scaffold was built on the green against the White Tower. Within a few hours of Guildford’s death, Jane walked to her execution. She reportedly dressed in black, carried a prayer book and was quite calm as she climbed the scaffold. She addressed the people gathered and said:
“Good people, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same. The fact, indeed, against the queen’s highness was unlawful, and the consenting thereunto by me: but touching the procurement and desire thereof by me or on my behalf, I do wash my hands thereof in innocency, before God, and the face of you, good Christian people, this day”
Lady Jane Grey moments before her execution
She knelt and read Psalm 51 from her book before standing and handing her gloves and handkerchief to her mistress and her book to the Lieutenant. Reportedly, the executioner kneeled before her and asked for forgiveness which she gave and responded, “I pray you dispatch me quickly”. She kneeled at the block and tied a blindfold around her eyes. Reaching out to feel for the block she could not find it and cried out ‘What shall I do? Where is it?’. A by stander assisted her with finding the block and she laid her head down upon it.
Her last words were ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!’.
- Grey, Jane, and Nicolas, Nicholas Harris. The Literary Remains of Lady Jane Grey: With a Memoir of Her Life. United Kingdom, Harding, Triphook, and Lepard, 1825.
- Hanson, Marilee. “The executions of Lady Jane Grey & Lord Guildford Dudley, 1554” https://englishhistory.net/tudor/executions-of-lady-jane-grey-lord-guildford-dudley/, February 8, 2015
- Lady Jane Grey. Historic Royal Palaces. (n.d.). Retrieved August 28, 2022, from https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/lady-jane-grey/#gs.a0u4p2
- Potter, Philip J. (10 January 2014). Monarchs of the Renaissance: The Lives and Reigns of 42 European Kings and Queens. pp. 83–89.