“Live still to die, that by death you may purchase eternal life…. As the preacher sayeth, there is a time to be born and a time to die; and the day of death is better than the day of our birth.”
– Lady Jane Grey, 1554
Before Lady Jane Grey was crowned in 1553, the closest any woman had ever come to ruling England on her own was when Empress Matilda attempted to seize the crown in the 12th century. Matilda never got any closer than attempting, before she was run out of the country and her male cousin was put on the throne. Between her and Henry VIII, there had always been at least one male heir on hand to inherit from the previous King — the rules of succession carefully outlined how the crown would pass to the next male relative, and how to compute who that would be if the family tree was female-heavy. And it really wasn’t an issue until Henry VIII’s male heir, Edward, seemed to be about to die without an heir… and literally the only possible successors were all women and girls.
This week, we’ll be looking at Jane Grey, the unlucky teenager who wound up inheriting the crown over her rivals Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. It was entirely unprecedented that, no matter which branch of the family tree was examined, the only possible candidates to take the throne after Edward were female. Bear in mind, of course, this was at around the same time that the notorious misogynist (and Reign supervillain) John Knox was popular for preaching things like, “It is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire over man.” It was also a time of ferocious battles between Catholics and Prostestants — the latter having been the official Church of England ever since Henry VIII exchanged religion for divorce. But all English subjects understood that their monarch was chosen by divine right — whoever God saw fit to rule, would rule. And if it had to be a woman, then every aristocratic family had to decide which woman to back.
Nobody could have known, or even guessed, that three out of these four (Jane, Mary, Mary, and Elizabeth) would take their turn on the English throne; nor that Jane, the first English Queen to ever rule on her own, would wear the crown for only nine days. Her story bears some similarities to those of her rival Queens — disinterested, largely absent parents; being used as a pawn by men far more powerful than she — but her personality and experience were utterly her own. We are also fortunate to know a lot about her from first-hand sources like Jane’s diaries and letters, helping to shape the image of a strong-willed, obstinate, pious, scholarly weirdo who actively never wanted the power thrust upon her.
I don’t want to get into the family tree gymnastics that wound up with Jane eking ahead of Mary and Elizabeth in the family tree, so the gist of it is: Henry VIII had two sisters who both had children. One sister married a Scotsman and her family tree led to Mary, Queen of Scots. That whole side of the family were cut out of Henry’s will mostly because he hated Scotland, and also they were Catholic. That’s where Mary, Queen of Scots’s claim to the throne comes in. Henry’s other sister married his BFF, and because Henry loved them so much, he gave them the title Duke and Duchess of Suffolk. And his official list of who would inherit his throne included the Suffolk offspring, only in the instance that none of Henry’s other children had male heirs of their own. The inclusion of the Suffolks was more of a gesture than anything else; it seemed so unlikely to be impossible that none of Henry’s children would have kids of their own.
And yet! Surprise! Edward, Henry’s heir, was crowned King when he was nine years old, in 1547. (Fun fact; Edward is the “Prince” from Mark Twain’s story “The Prince and the Pauper,” and Jane Grey appears in most movies based on that story.) Edward was a very devout Protestant, continuing his father’s legacy to maintain this as the official religion of England. His older half-sister Lady Mary remained a Catholic, while his other half-sister Lady Elizabeth was also Protestant. Edward was often ill, which made his advisors uneasy because if he died without naming an heir, as per Henry’s wishes, Edward would be succeeded by his Catholic sister. Lady Mary was, by this time, in her late thirties and still unmarried, and childless. Even if she were to marry, it was possible she, too, may die without an heir. She was, basically, not an ideal candidate to succeed Edward.
I should probably mention John Dudley now, which I hate to do, because he was The Worst. He was a highly ambitious and scheming aristocrat who wormed his way into Edward’s trust. It was partly Dudley’s influence that led to Edward deciding to release his own line of succession document, one that would discount both Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth on the basis of both of their technical illegitimacy (Mary, as the daughter from Henry’s annulled marriage to Katharine of Aragon and Elizabeth, as the daughter of Henry’s quasi-illegal marriage to Anne Boleyn). Edward may have wanted to keep Elizabeth as a potential successor, but there wasn’t a way to discount Mary without Elizabeth being removed as well. As Mary, Queen of Scots was also not a possibility (largely due to her Catholicism; partly due to her Scottishness), this meant that Edward’s direct successor would be from the Suffolk family, of which Jane was the oldest child.
So this is like a lot of backstory, but without it, none of what happens to Jane next makes any sense. If you remember anything from the above several paragraphs, make it: John Dudley is the worst, he strong-armed Edward into disinheriting Lady Mary, and was suspiciously keen on having Jane Grey named heir.
So, what was Jane like as a person? What we know about her childhood is typical for an aristocratic girl at this time, and also profoundly sad. She was the oldest of three sisters, all of whom were raised on their family’s country estate while their parents hung out in London, being sort of trashy new-money. Jane first enters the historical record in any major way when, at age ten, she was sent to be a lady in waiting to Henry VIII’s widow and sixth wife, Katherine Parr. It was likely in the household of Katherine, a devout Protestant and keen scholar, that Jane leaned into her inclinations toward religious study. Katherine’s step-daughter, Elizabeth Tudor, also lived in the house. And also living in the house is the second Terrible Man in this story, Katherine’s new husband, Thomas Seymour.
How much of a dirtbag was Thomas Seymour? Well, on the one hand, he seemed preoccupied with assaulting and/or romancing teenage Elizabeth, perhaps with an eye on marrying her so he’d be closer to power if she wound up becoming Queen. And on the other hand, he paid two thousand pounds to Jane Grey’s parents to buy her as his ward, with an eye on having some control over her, in case she became Queen later on. Bear in mind, his literal wife was Katherine Parr, who gave birth to her first child with Thomas in 1548. Within a week of the child’s birth, Katherine had died, leaving Jane both heartbroken and out of a job and a home.
She returned home to be with her parents, and it is at this point that her personality as an insufferably self-righteous religious zealot began to be documented. Not only did she frequently criticize her parents’ lifestyle, but she also voiced her displeasure to houseguests, and even requested that the local chaplain use his sermons to call them out for being shitty. Her extreme piety made some notable religious scholars of the day write about her admiringly, apart from one letter that criticized her interest in music and her appearance.
At this point, technically the Suffolk line’s heir was still not Jane — it was her mother, Frances. However, for similar reasons of advanced age and the unlikeliness of birthing a son anytime soon, she wasn’t seen by Edward or his advisors as a desirable heir. And it was becoming more important for Edward to document his wishes, as his illness was getting worse and worse and he — and Dudley, and the others — really didn’t want Lady Mary to take the throne.
Meanwhile, Dudley was still working his gross powers of persuasion over Edward, clearing a path for Jane to inherit the throne. With this in mind, he decided to do a very Thomas Seymour-ish thing and get his family closer to the crown by marring his son Guildford to Jane. Jane’s parents, always happy for money and power, had no problem with this match. Jane? Not so much. It wasn’t an issue with Guildfrod, who was about her age, handsome, and probably a lot less terrible than other husbands she may have wound up with. But Jane’s issue was, rightly, with Guildford’s horrible father, John Dudley. She was smart enough to both fear and mistrust him, and didn’t want anything to do with him, or his family. But of course, she was sixteen and it was the 16th century so after what was likely some physical abuse, Jane agreed to marry Guildford and the teens were wed on May 25, 1553. This is where the specific dates start becoming important, so bear that in mind.
Edward was invited, but was too ill to attend. It was this bout of illness that would eventually be the death of him. He had been, not that Jane knew about this, finalizing his own wishes for who would take the throne after him. He officially removed both of his half-sisters from the line of succession, leaving the Suffolks as his sole heir. Frances, Jane’s mother, was not an ideal Queen as she was already past childbearing age and everything really hinged on someone having a male child to continue the dynasty. And so she was excluded as well, leaving ‘the Lady Jane and her heirs male’ as Edward’s named successor. Shortly after this paperwork was all finalized, the King died of tuberculosis on July 6, 1553.
Dudley had arranged this all perfectly for himself — his new daughter-in-law would now be crowned Queen, making his son the new King, making him the most powerful man in the realm. One slight hiccup was the continuing popularity — and alive-ness — of Lady Mary. He couldn’t make the British subjects stop supporting her, but he hoped that maybe hiding her away would help them to forget about her. As such, he sent out a messenger for Mary, asking her to come to be by her dying half-brother’s bedside. On her way there, Mary received word that IT’S A TRAP!!! And so she doubled back. Dudley tried to track her down, but was unable to. His whole plan to basically steal control of the country was a sort of shock and awe thing, so he forged ahead, hoping that he’d throw so much change at the country all at once that they wouldn’t have time to miss Mary.
On July 9th, he had Mary and Elizabeth both publicly declared bastards, and highlighted how dangerous Mary in particular was due to her Catholicism and ties to foreign Catholic countries.
Jane, still unaware of how her life was about to change, was still coping with her new marriage to Guildford Dudley. Unlike the sweet romance portrayed in the excellent 1986 film Lady Jane, where Guildford is played by Cary Elwes in his Princess Bride days, the real Jane despised her husband and his family so much that she almost immediately ran back home to be with her parents. Considering how much she disliked her parents, this speaks volumes to how terrible the Dudleys must have seemed to her. At one point, she fell ill and accused them of trying to poison her — which is both such a soap opera twist, but also speaks to her naïveté as to what was really going on. Without her continued survival, none of the Dudley family’s plans could go ahead, so they would have no motive at all to poison her.
After Edward’s passing, Jane rode with her sister-in-law to one of the Dudley family estates. Upon arrival, she was greeted by her family, all of the Dudleys, and a number of important aristocrats. She was then told the news of Edward’s death, and that she was now the Queen. Her documented reaction was not one of happiness or even resignation: as they all knelt before her, Jane was heard to say that she was insufficient for the task, then said a quick prayer, promising to fulfil God’s will and take the throne. Her lack of enthusiasm was noted with confusion and dismay by those in attendance, and did not bode well for her new reign.
On July 10, 1553, Queen Jane was brought to Westminster, then to the Tower of London on a barge, as was the custom for all new sovereigns. An eyewitness account of her arrival described her as:
“[Very] short and thin, but prettily shaped and graceful. She has small features and a well-made nose, the mouth flexible and the lips red. The eyebrows are arched and darker than her hair, which is nearly red. Her eyes are sparkling and reddish brown in color. Her complexion was good, unmarked by the pox, but freckled; she had sharp white teeth and a lovely smile… Her husband Guildford… [was] a very tall strong boy with light hair… clothed in white and silver velvet, [who] paid her much attention.”
OK, here’s a really important bit: that same day, Jane was moved into the royal apartments in the Tower of London, where she was brought a sampling of royal jewels to try on, including the crown. John Dudley was there, urging her to try on the crown, but she refused several times. She finally put the crown on, but never actually requested it. Keep that in mind. Anyway, in the course of conversation, Dudley “casually” mentioned that Guildford would get a crown, too, after Jane made him King (men weren’t automatically named Kings when their wives became Queens, the Queen had to decide to do this). Jane was having none of this, and insisted that she may name Guildford a Duke, but that was it. Guildford freaked out, bringing in his mother, who screamed at Jane; the Queen would not change her mind. When word came to Jane that Guildford and his mother were trying to flee the Tower, she had guards stand by the exits to keep them inside.
Two days later, on July 12, Dudley announced he was going to muster an army, with Jane’s father in charge. Jane burst into tears, not wanting her father to go to war, and so the Council decided to send Dudley to lead the forces instead. This had absolutely not been his plan, but he couldn’t back out now. His troops headed across the country, finding themselves in town after town which had decided on their own not to accept Jane as Queen, but rather to declare Lady Mary the true ruler. Dudley had thought of everything in his quest for power — except for the feelings of the actual citizens of the country. Even those opposed to Catholics could somehow sense that unfairness of Jane being crowned instead of Mary.
The wind had clearly shifted back in London as well. While Dudley was off with his troops, members of the Privy Council attempted to flee the palace. Again, Jane had guards keep them inside; she also locked the main gates of the Tower to prevent escape. They finally squirrelled their way out one way or another, running to the Spanish ambassador and claiming to have always supported Mary, and having been forced against their will by Dudley to back Jane.
Jane was eating supper with her father when she learned that she had been deposed as Queen — from her father. This gross man then said Mary was Queen, and left the Tower to return to his home in London. Jane, alone, was removed from the royal apartments and brought to another facility while everyone tried to figure out what to do with her. Mary, accepted by basically everyone as the true Queen, was en route to the Tower to take over. Dudley and his entire family were arrested and taken to the Tower; Jane’s parents were too, briefly, but Dudley’s wife and the Greys were released pretty quickly. When Mary arrived on August 3, to cheering crowds, she ordered Jane to be imprisoned in the Tower.
Jane herself appealed to her in a letter, outlining how she never wanted any of this — that she accepted it was a mistake to accept the crown (remember, earlier, when I said that bit was important??), and claimed she had been misled by others into thinking this was the right thing to do. Mary believed that Jane was guiltless and had been manipulated by John Dudley, and was reluctant to put her to death — she had no such doubts about Dudley, who was put to death in August 1553.
Jane’s imprisonment was unusual, as she was permitted to have a small salaried staff, an allowance, and the freedom to read and go for walks in the Queen’s garden. She was said to spend much of her time either reading or writing, and is through her writing during this period that we know as much as we do about her life. Eventually, Mary came to accept that Jane’s continued survival would always be a threat to her power; the very existence of a Protestant option would mean that those opposed to Mary’s reign could have a figurehead to rally behind. And so, still reluctant, Mary ordered Jane, Guilford, and the other Dudley brothers to stand trial for the charge of high treason.
The trial was quick, with each of the defendants pleading guilty to this charge and being swiftly sentenced to death. However, it was widely believed — and basically was true, at the time — that Jane’s sentence would never actually be carried out. Her family, all of whom had converted back to Catholicism, had regained their position of privilege. Her mother and sisters were given positions as ladies in waiting to the Queen, where her mother was specifically noted as one of Mary’s favourites.
But then, of course, things went sour again. Mary, still unmarried, was intent to marry the King of Spain — an extremely unpopular move with both her advisors and her subjects. Uprisings in the countryside began to rally against her, and Jane’s role as a figurehead started to become a real threat to Mary’s reign. Making things worse, Jane’s ever-useless father joined in with this rebellion, actively working to try and depose Mary. And yet, Mary was still reluctant to actually execute her cousin. She sent a prominent Catholic scholar to speak with Jane in hopes of convincing her to convert to Catholicism, and such, save her life. Jane had been basically preparing her whole life for this conversation, and very capably rebutted every debate point over several hours. She made such an effect on her visitor that their visit concluded not with her conversion, but with him offering to escort her up the scaffold for her execution. The date was set for her beheading to occur on February 12, 1554.
Jane was very organized in preparing for her death — choosing her dress, writing a speech, and deciding which members of her staff would dispose of her body. From her vantage point in the Tower, she witnessed Guildford’s execution, and watched the construction of the scaffolding for her own. She appeared for her own execution poised and dignified, dressed all in black, carrying her beloved prayer book. While there had been a larger crowd at her husband’s execution, her own was witnessed by only a small crowd, out of respect for her royal blood.
Jane gave prepared remarks at the top of the scaffold, again admitting to committing treason by putting the crown on her head, then reciting a psalm. Things clearly were going as she had planned, until the executioner stepped towards her to take her cloak — it was a custom at the time for the executioner to get to keep the outer garments of his victims. Jane either didn’t know or forgot about this, and jumped back, asking him to leave her alone. She then got back on script when he did the customary kneeling before her to beg forgiveness. She granted it, of course, and was also heard to ask him to dispatch her quickly.
And then, again, things went sideways. Jane asked the executioner for instructions about when and how to put on her blindfold; after she had put it on, she couldn’t find the wooden block where she was to lay her head. She cried out for help, asking, “What shall I do? Where is it?” This was unexpected, and nobody on the platform moved to help her. Finally, someone came up from the crowd and helped guide her into the proper position. Her final words were, “Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
More of Jane’s careful planning didn’t pan out, as the church her body had been meant to be brought to had recently reverted back to Catholicism and so her body may no longer be welcome. Her body remained on the ground, exposed for almost four hours, as this matter was sorted out. Her servants kept an eye on the body during this time. Finally, her body was permitted in the now-Catholic church, where she was laid to rest between two other beheaded Queens — Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Jane’s father was executed eleven days later.
When the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor succeeded her Catholic sister Mary as Queen, Jane Grey was celebrated as a martyr to the Protestant faith.
There are not as many works about Jane as there are about the other notable women from this period of English history, perhaps because her own story was so short and so much of it was beyond her control. That said, I adore the 1986 Helena Carter/Cary Elwes film, just titled Lady Jane. I wrote a short review of it a bit ago and fair warning, this movie will make you ship Jane/Guildford. There is a bonkers (in a good way!) new YA novel called My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows in which Jane and Edward live in an alternate history where many people are able to shape-shift into various animals. The YA novel Namesake by Sue MacLeod adds a time travel element to Jane’s story, while the nonfiction work Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey by Jane Tallis is a thorough examination of Jane’s short life and reign.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter