Mary I is considered to be the first queen of England to rule in her own right. Her brother, Edward VI, died at a young age with no heirs which meant, according to Henry VIII’s most recent Act of Succession (1544), his daughters (Mary and then Elizabeth) would be the next to inherit. Yet, Henry VIII never expected that his son’s death would cause a religious crisis. Edward VI and his Council (Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and then John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, among others) had been expanding the Reformation in England. Edward VI was a strong Protestant and his administration created even more radical reforms than the previous king. This included removing images from churches, allowing priests to marry, and mandating the use of The Book of Common Prayer in all churches. The services would be in English and not Latin. Mary I was a devout Catholic and, if she came to power, she would remove all of these changes to return England to Catholicism. This is how the plot to install Lady Jane Grey as Queen of England came about. This is a story of a young girl who was used as a pawn by powerful men which, inevitably, fell to drastic consequences.
Jane Grey (born 1536-1537) was the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, 3rd Marquess of Dorset and Lady Frances Brandon. Frances Brandon was the daughter of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary Tudor. Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor’s marriage was considered scandalous at the time as it was done in secret and for love. Eventually, Henry VIII forgave his friend and granted them the title of Duke and Duchess of Suffolk. Through her maternal line, Jane Grey was fifth in line to inherit the throne of England.
Jane Grey was noted to be extremely intelligent and developed a love of learning at a young age. Education became a passion and a comfort to Jane. This continued until the day she died. She began by learning to read, write, and mastered the gift of memorization. She studied the classics and was educated in the Greek and Latin languages. She also became fluent in Italian and French, among other languages. One of her many tutors, John Aylmer, described Jane as “whom God has thought fit to adorn with so many excellent gifts.” She much preferred the company of books to any of the other activities around the estate and court. Roger Ascham, a renowned scholar, visited Bradgate Park (her family home) while Jane’s parents were out on a hunt and enjoying the summer day. He entered the hall where he spotted Jane reading Plato’s Phaedon Platonis in Greek. When asked why she was not out with her parents she replied, “all their sport in the park is but a shadow to that pleasure that I find in Plato.” She would continue to Ascham, “whatsoever I do else but learning is full of grief, trouble, fear, and whole misliking unto me. And thus my book hath been so much my pleasure, and bringeth daily to me more pleasure and more that in respect of it all other pleasures in very deed be but trifles and trouble unto me.”
Jane became extremely well versed in the Bible and religion. She was a passionate Protestant and very devote to her faith. She would study the works of many theologians (including Heinrich Bullinger) and often wrote to them to continue discussions. She was eager to learn Hebrew as well. Her stalwart devotion to her faith was a reason why she was key to many ambitious figures. She was sent to live at the home of Sir Thomas Seymour (uncle to Edward VI and brother to the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour) and the former queen Katherine Parr. It was her parents and Sir Thomas Seymour’s ambition to have her married to Edward VI. At the home of Katherine Parr, Jane was exposed to more debates and intelligent discussions regarding Protestantism and religion. Katherine Parr was also a devotee of the new faith.
Eventually, the ambitious Seymour brothers began to fall from power. Thomas Seymour, the younger brother, became involved in a shocking scandal as he attempted to woo and marry the Princess Elizabeth (I have written about this more a past post about a young Elizabeth, historynavigator.org/2018/01/18/390/ ). He was later caught breaking into the King’s apartments and in an attempt to kidnap the young King. He would eventually be put to death. The elder brother and Lord Protector, Edward Duke of Somerset, had quickly taken charge of the council and the new king upon Henry VIII’s death. Yet, as time went on his policies failed which caused the crown to become bankrupt. He was also viewed as over-bearing and uncompromising by his fellow councilors. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, in a successful coup overthrew the Duke of Somerset. Northumberland got Somerset convicted on false charges then convinced the King to sign his uncle’s death warrant. Northumberland, with his enemy out of the way, took control of the government. Northumberland successful manipulated the boy king. Edward believed that he would be in full control now, but, in reality, Northumberland had control.
Edward VI soon became very sick and was visibly wasting away before the Council’s eyes. It was soon clear to the Duke of Northumberland that all he had fought for was about to crumble away. He knew that if Mary became queen, his time in power would be over. He also knew that Mary would revert all progress they had made towards furthering the Protestant religion in England. It had always been her ambition to bring England back under the Pope. Northumberland began to hatch a new scheme. He was going to manipulate Edward VI, on his sick bed, to re-write the will of his father. They would proclaim Lady Jane Grey as the new heir to the throne. This was actually illegal as Edward VI had not yet reached his age of majority. He was still a minor.
Northumberland quickly arranged the marriage between Jane Grey and one of his younger sons, Lord Guilford Dudley (a young, vain, and spoiled boy) in order for his son to become King. Naturally, Jane was not part of any of these discussions between Northumberland and her parents. She was just a pawn in their power games. She did express her contempt for the marriage and her disgust of Lord Guilford, but knew she had no choice as she was a young woman in this society.
Northumberland even went as far as to slowly poison the sick king in order to keep him alive longer to make all the arrangements for the succession. It was not hard to persuade him as Edward VI did have a vested interest in keeping the realm Protestant. He was also very devote to his faith and his greatest achievements in his short reign were expanding that religion. Jane Grey was the choice to keep this project going.
Northumberland provided Mary with false updates as to the King’s health in order to lure her into a trap. This just increased Mary’s current distrust of the Duke. “The Duke’s and his party’s designs to deprive the Lady Mary of the succession to the crown are only too plain. They are evidently resolved to resort to arms against her, with the excuse of religion, among others,” commented the Imperial Ambassador. It seems that the Duke’s plans were not as covert as he thought.
Edward VI died on the 6th of July in 1553 at the age of 15. Jane was immediately ordered to meet the Duke of Northumberland and the council at Syon House near London. She was informed that the King was dead and he had named her as heir upon his deathbed. Jane is described as being stunned and troubled. She fell to the ground weeping at the news. It has also been reported that she fainted on the spot. Obviously, she had not been expecting this command and was feeling incredibly stressed. She believed that this whole situation was very wrong. She is said to have cried, “the crown is not my right and pleases me not. The Lady Mary is the rightful heir.” This was not what her father and the Duke wanted to hear. Northumberland is recorded as responding, “Your Grace doth wrong to yourself and to your house!” She was essentially, again, forced to the will of others. She accepted the crown with great reluctance. She was only 17 years old and alone.
By July 10th, Lady Jane was conveyed to the Tower of London to await her coronation. She was official received as Queen upon her arrival. She was in the company of her husband, her parents, and attendants. Jane tried not to show emotion to give the appearance of a strong queen, despite what she may be feeling inside. She was welcomed inside with all the pomp and ceremony that a Queen of England would deserve. Yet, to the surprise of many of Jane’s supporters, the majority public opinion was not with them. The public wanted Mary, both Catholics and Protestants as she was seen as the true queen based on Henry VIII’s will.
Jane was immediately brought to meet her Council in the Presence Chamber upon her arrival at the Tower. They fell to their knees before their now, rather uncomfortable, Queen. She sat on the throne under the canopy of state. The Crown Jewels were presented to Jane along with the scepter and crown. Jane was encouraged to try on the crown to verify it fit well. Her composure broke and she refused the crown to be placed on her head. It is reported she began to have a panic attack, but, eventually, those of the council finally persuaded her to wear the crown. A proclamation announcing Queen Jane was prepared for distribution across the country, but it would likely be ignored. It must have been difficult for this very young girl to be forced to take this unwanted position. In addition, she was faced with the knowledge that most of the country was hostile to her.
Meanwhile, news was received that Mary was prepared to fight for her rightful place upon the throne. She sent her own letter to the council which demanded obedience. In reply, Northumberland sent out a message confirming that Edward VI had chosen Jane as his heir and that Mary and Elizabeth were both illegitimate. All 23 members of the council signed the letter which pledged their loyalty to Queen Jane.
By all accounts, Jane did take her new role seriously. If she was going to have to do this then she wanted to make the best decisions for the realm. She confronted her husband, Guildford Dudley, and made it very clear to him that she would never have him crowned as king. She would only allow him the title of consort if Parliament petitioned her to. Guildford did not share her royal blood and had been forced on her due to the ambition of two fathers. It is easy to see why she would not trust him. Guildford was also very selfish and irritable, not good qualities for a king. Guildford immediately ran to his mother, the Duchess of Northumberland, and, together, they attempted to force Jane’s hand. Jane proved to be stubborn and assertive. She would not budge on this issue and they were forced to obey her order. She held firm, but still felt a great deal of stress and anxiety. This was a position she never wanted and a marriage she never wanted. She was angry, anxious, and overwhelmed. It was amazing that she could still hold firm to who she was at her core. She knew in these coming days she would have to assert herself and her authority.
Attempts were made by Northumberland and his sons to rally an army to try and capture Mary, but they were failing. Jane had written many letters and multiple proclamations had been made across the country to support her as Queen, but they were falling on deaf ears. Mary kept attracting more support which increased her strength against Northumberland. More Lords were declaring for Mary which caused the Council to panic. Jane and her father were unable to keep control. This plot was quickly disintegrating. Men were deserting Northumberland’s army and Mary’s continued to grow. The Council abandoned Jane and she was left with only her parents and husband at her side. Jane could only wait and see which way the tide would turn.
On July 19th, the Mayor of London had commanded that Mary be proclaimed Queen throughout the city. The bells were rung and the crowds were immense in support for Mary Tudor. People were shouting in the streets and made fires and partied until the evening in support of their true queen. It was finally over for Jane.
In the deserted rooms of the Tower, her father told her quite plainly that she “must put off your royal robes and be content with a private life.” Jane responded that she was “much more willing put them of than I put them on…Out of obedience to you and my mother I have grievously sinned. Now I willingly relinquish the crown. May I not go home?“ Unfortunately, her father ended up abandoning Jane in the Tower as well as he went to proclaim his loyalty to Mary. He left his daughter to whatever fate that the new queen would decide was just. Jane essentially became a prisoner in the same place that had been her palace just hours before. Jane was alone once again as every who had once “supported” her were now trying to save their own skins. Her nine day reign was forgotten.
Queen Mary listened to her Councilors pleas for forgiveness and request for her pardon (which she did offer to most). She even acknowledged that Jane had been forced by other ambitious people to take the throne and would likely be pardoned as well. The scapegoat would be the Duke of Northumberland. Mary was determined to capture and mete out punishment. She sent out the order for his arrest. After a long chase, he captured and imprisoned with four of his sons.
On August 22nd, the Duke of Northumberland was executed on the Tower Green. Jane likely saw him as he made his way to the block through the window of her cell. She disapproved greatly that her father-in-law converted to Catholicism in a last ditch effort to save himself. She already had viewed him as a wicked man, but this was a different matter. Jane was so devoted to her faith that she would rather die than abandon it. While she was imprisoned, she spent a lot of her time studying the bible.
Jane wrote a letter appealing to Queen Mary. She acknowledges her guilt, but reveals her remorse.
Although my fault be such that but for the goodness and clemency of the Queen, I can have no hope of finding pardon…. having given ear to those who at the time appeared not only to myself, but also to the great part of this realm to be wise and now have manifested themselves to the contrary, not only to my and their great detriment, but with common disgrace and blame of all, they having with shameful boldness made to blamable and dishonourable an attempt to give to others that which was not theirs…[and my own] lack of prudence…for which I deserve heavy punishment…it being known that the error imputed to me has not been altogether caused by myself. [The Privy Council]….who with unwontd caresses and pleasantness, did me such reverence as was not at all suitable to my state. He [Dudley] then said that his Majesty had well weighed an Act of Parliament…that whoever should acknowledge the most serene Mary…or the lady Elizabeth and receive them as the true heirs of the crown of England should be had all for traitors…wherefore, in no manner did he wish that they should be heirs of him and of that crown, he being able in every way to disinherit them. And therefore, before his death, he gave order to the Council, that for the honour they owed to him…they should obey his last will…As to the rest, for my part, I know not what the Council had determined to do, but I know for certain that twice during this time, poison was given to me, first in the house of the Duchess of Northumberland and afterwards here in the Tower…. All these I have wished for the witness of my innocence and the disburdening of my conscience.’
Mary understood how little agency women had in their world and, it seems, truly wanted to pardon Jane Grey. Once Mary was secured with a Catholic heir, the goal would be to release Jane from prison. Unfortunately, Jane’s father once again made a decision that was not in his daughters best interest. He participated in the Wyatt Rebellion. With news that Mary would be marrying foreigner and Catholic Prince Philip of Spain, there was displeasure across the country. This unsuccessful rebellion was led by Sir Thomas Wyatt and other nobles who opposed Mary’s strict policy of Catholicism. This was quickly dealt with, but now Mary had no choice but remove Jane and Guilford as they were now severe threats to her. Her future husband, Philip, would not come to England until the threat was removed. Jane could be used as a future figurehead for these discontented groups. Both were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.
Jane spent her last days in prayer and writing farewell letters to her family and friends. To her sister Katherine:
“Live still to die, deny the world, deny the Devil and despise the flesh. Take up your Cross. As touching my death, rejoice, as I do, and adsist that I shall be delivered from corruption and put on incorruption. Farewell, dear sister; put you only trust in God, Who only must uphold you. Your loving sister, Jane Dudley“
The Queen, likely feeling guilty, did offer Jane and her husband the chance to convert to Catholicism, but both refused. On February 12th, Guildford and Jane were executed.
“If justice is done with my body, my soul will find mercy with God. Death will give pain to my body for its sins, but the soul will be justified before God. If my faults deserve punishment, my youth at lease, and my imprudence were worthy of excuse. God and posterity will show me more favour.” This is from Jane’s farewell statement composed the night before her death. She requested that the executioner “dispatch me quickly”. She tied the blindfold over her eyes and reached for the block. When she could not feel it, she began to panic crying out “Where is it? What shall I do?“. She was assisted and the deed was done.
Jane Grey’s story is a sad, tragedy. A young and extremely intelligent girl was taken from life much too early due to the ambitions of men. Men who abandoned her once the tide was no longer in her favor. She was only 17 years old. She reigned for nine days, which is often forgotten in the history of the monarchy. There are not any surviving portraits of her. Would she have made a good queen? Possibly, she seemed to be strong-willed and highly educated. It is impossible to say what could have been. She became a Protestant martyr to many people who then had to endure Mary I’s reign. Almost 300 Protestants were said to have been executed (by fire) during her reign, which earned her the nickname of “Bloody Mary”.
The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Crown of Blood : The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey by Nicola Tallis
Hanson, Marilee. “Letter of Lady Jane Grey to Queen Mary I, 1554” https://englishhistory.net/tudor/letter/letter-lady-jane-grey-queen-mary-1554/, February 27, 2015