30 May 2024

Queens of Britain Series: Lady Jane Grey

Welcome to the Queens of Britain series. In 2024, the blog will spotlight the reigning queens from the island of Great Britain. Check back each month to learn about the women who led their nations.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
by Paul Delaroche at the National Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Lady Jane Grey was only 16 years old when the people entrusted to look after her future set her on a path that would lead to her death.

In 1537, Lady Jane was born as the third child of her 20-year-old parents Henry Grey Marquess of Dorset and the former Frances Brandon, who was the oldest child of Princess Mary Tudor. Lady Jane's great-uncle King Henry VIII had resolved all of his problems a few years earlier by divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon, who had given him only a daughter, and then beheaded his second wife Anne Boleyn on trumped-up adultery charges. (See my post We Three Queens.)She also had given him only a daughter. In the year of Jane's birth, however, Henry was happily married to the docile Jane Seymour, for whom his new grandniece was named, and his new Queen would deliver him his longed-for son by end of the year. Then, she would promptly die from childbed fever setting a desperate Henry back out in the marriage market where he would eventually add three more wives to his famous collection.

Despite Henry VIII's feverish desire for a male heir, the Tudor Dynasty was replete with females. In addition to Henry's two daughters by Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, respectively, his sisters produced three daughters and only one surviving son. Jane's mother produced two more daughters after her and no surviving sons. The women of the family were educated as well as the men. Jane learned seven languages, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin so she could read ancient texts in their original languages. She was taught theology, philosophy, rhetoric, logic, and history. Having been born after Great Uncle Henry broke with the Roman Church, she was raised as a Protestant and was personally devout. 

After Henry's death, his nine-year-old son succeeded as King Edward VI. Soon after, nine-year-old Jane was sent to live with King Henry's widow, Queen Catherine Parr and her new husband Thomas Seymour, who was a maternal uncle to the new king. The 12-year-old Princess Elizabeth also joined the Seymour household. Under the guidance of the devoutly Protestant Catherine, Elizabeth's and Jane's humanist and religious education was continued with even fervor. Within a couple of years, Catherine tragically died after childbirth and Thomas was soon executed for treason when he tried to oust his own brother from his role as Protector to their nephew the King. Jane returned to the guardianship of her father, who was created Duke of Suffolk at around the same time. Jane found herself more frequently at court, where it was hoped she would find a noble husband.

Meanwhile, the young King Edward had never had very robust health. His reign would last only six years. The Protestant lords who surrounded the young king became concerned about what would happen if he died. All of the descendants of the Tudors were female and/or Scottish. Worse, the most senior, Edward's half-sister Mary was a devout Catholic who would certainly return the nation to Rome. His other half-sister Elizabeth was an unknown quantity as she had kept her personal religious convictions as quiet as possible. Besides, both Mary and Elizabeth has been declared illegitimate by their father, despite being added back into the line of succession before Henry died. 

During young Edward's last spring, his chief minister the Duke of Northumberland hatched a plan to maintain his own authority into the next reign. The plan included two parts: convince the Protestant Edward to set aside his sisters as potential heirs and declare his cousin Jane and her male heirs as the future monarchs. Then, Northumberland and Henry Grey set about getting Lady Jane some male heirs by marrying the 16-year-old to his 18-year-old son Guilford Dudley. 

Jane and Guilford were married in May 1553 in a joint ceremony that also included the marriages of her sister Katherine to the future Earl of Pembroke and Guilford's sister Katherine to the future Earl of Huntingdon. 

On July 6, 1553, the newly wedded teenager was proclaimed Queen when Edward died from tuberculosis. Despite the machinations of her father and father-in-law who had assumed she would be easy to control, Jane immediately showed her mettle by refusing to have her husband proclaimed King next to her. 

News necessarily traveled more slowly in those days, but it was not long before Mary Tudor learned of her brother's death and of her cousin's perfidy. As she made her way to London to assert her claim, the people rose with her. For all that had happened across her life to marginalize her and despite any fears of what a truly Catholic monarch could mean, Mary was still the daughter of old King Henry and a true princess in their eyes. 

In London, the same Privy Council that had proclaimed Jane Queen just nine days earlier, withered in the face of Mary's advance on London. Jane was deposed. She was arrested along with her husband, her father, and her father-in-law. All were convicted of treason and Northumberland was quickly executed. The newly proclaimed Queen Mary, however, spared the others. Mary had grown up with and remained lifelong friends with Frances Brandon Grey, Jane's mother. Jane's own sweet letter of apology also helped cement Mary's feeling that Jane had been a pawn in the hands of the conniving Northumberland. Sentiment perhaps kept young Jane alive although the three remained separately imprisoned at the Tower of London. 

As the long unmarried Mary rushed to find a Catholic royal husband, however, the tide would change quickly. Once she had settled upon her cousin King Philip II of Spain two things began to work against Jane. First, Philip did not relish the idea of a claimant to the throne being kept alive as a potential rallying point for uprisings. Second, there was an uprising. A man named Thomas Wyatt launched (or helped to launch) a rebellion against Mary's proposed marriage to a foreign king. With Jane's father as one of the conspirator's Mary could hardly oppose Philip's assertions that her throne and her own life would always be at risk as long as Jane lived. And, so it was, just six months after she had been proclaimed Queen of England and then deposed, Jane Grey was beheaded at the Tower of London not long after her husband had met the same fate. Their brief, ill-fated marriage found them buried together forever at the Chapel of Peter ad Vincula nine months after the wedding. Her father met the headsman 11 days later, while her mother Frances remained at Queen Mary's side. (For more about the Queens killed by the Tudor monarchs, see my post, Killing Queens: A Bloody Tudor Heritage.) 

Over the centuries, Jane's life has been greatly romanticized as the tragic heroine who was thrust into a role she did not choose but for which she paid the ultimate price. Given that she is also remembered for keen intelligence and her pious devotion to Protestantism, Lady Jane probably does not get enough credit for the path she ultimately followed. She would have been as keenly ready for the role as the two female cousins who followed her. The religious and political turmoil of the next decade might have been different, but still turbulent. The only likely conclusion we can draw is that, as a young married woman, she probably would have generated heirs which neither of her successors did. The Stewarts would have stayed in Scotland and union of the English and Scottish thrones would have been delayed or perhaps would never have happened at all. Jane's brief reign is one of the interesting "what if" questions in history.

To this day, her reign remains the shortest in English history.

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni 
Empress Matilda 
Margaret Maid of Norway 
Lady Jane Grey
Queen Mary I - coming in June 2024
Queen Elizabeth I - coming in July 2024
Mary Queen of Scots - coming in August 2024
Queen Mary II - coming in September 2024
Queen Anne - coming in October 2024
Queen Victoria - coming in November 2024
Queen Elizabeth II - coming in December 2024

Lady Jane Reference Guide
Lady Jane Grey Revisited

Archive for Lady Jane Grey on Venetian Red
A Genius on the Throne: Lady Jane Grey Remembered on The Gale Review
Jane Grey: The Doomed Queen on Travel Through Time
Lady Jane: Famous Trials at Guildhall on Guildhall Library Blog
Lady Jane Grey on Historic UK
Lady Jane Grey on the Official British Monarchy site
Lady Jane Grey on Royalty Now
Lady Jane Grey, England's Forgotten Queen on Medieval Manuscripts blog
Lady Jane Grey and a Letter to Shock Victorians on a Place for Truth
Lady Jane Grey: The Nine Day Queen on Historic Royal Palaces
Lady Jane Grey: Nine Days Queen on On the Tudor Trail
Lady Jane Grey--Nine Facts about the Nine Day Queen on Odyssey Opera
Lady Jane Grey: Queen of England for Nine Days on Womenary
Lady Jane Grey's Correspondence on The National Archives
Lady Jane Grey's Letters from the Tower on Medieval Manuscripts blog
A Lesson from the Life of Lady Jane Grey on Learning Ladyhood
Meet...Lady Jane Grey on The Box Museum Gallery Archive
Nine Days a Queen and the "Execution of Lady Jane Grey" on Voegelin View
A Tudor Tragedy: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey on The Tudor Chest
Twelve Tips for Writing About Lady Jane Grey on Sharon Kay Penman

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