(A guest article by author and historian Alison Weir.)
A little over 450 years ago, a young girl of sixteen, Lady Jane Grey, was proclaimed Queen of England. She is famous because her reign was to last for only nine days, and she met a tragic end. Of all the traitors executed in the Tower of London, her story is the saddest, for she was the helpless victim of ruthless and greedy men.
Jane was born probably in 1536, and perhaps named for Jane Seymour, who became Henry VIII’s third wife that year. Jane`s mother, Frances Brandon, was Henry’s niece. Four years earlier, Frances had married Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset, who was later created Duke of Suffolk. Jane was their eldest surviving child, but her sex was a bitter blow to her ambitious parents, who wanted a son and heir. Yet they realised she could be useful to them, for the royal blood of the Tudors ran in her veins. Their hopes of her were high.
In 1537, Jane Seymour died after giving Henry VIII the son he had long craved. The new prince was called Edward. For some years, Jane`s parents plotted to marry her to him, and thus make her Queen of England in the future. They saw themselves becoming a power in the land.
The Dorsets ensured that Jane was well educated. As soon as she was four, they appointed a tutor who would drill her in her lessons and make her a fit mate for a king. Jane was a clever child, formidably bright and able. Much was asked of her, but she did brilliantly in her studies, and grew to love her tutor, John Aylmer.
She was a tiny girl with fair, freckled skin and sandy red hair, plain rather than pretty, but that did not matter too much because she was royal. All her life, her parents would look upon her as a pawn to be moved at their will. Worse still, they ill-treated her in body and in spirit. They beat her and rebuked her for the slightest fault. They made her go hunting, which she hated. They dressed her in rich silks, but told her she would not go far on looks alone.
Two people brought some comfort to the young child. One was her kind nurse, Mrs Ellen. The other was her tutor, John Aylmer, who revered her and taught her to love learning for its own sake.
The best years of Jane`s life were perhaps those she spent at court in the loving care of Henry VIII`s sixth queen, Queen Katherine Parr, who helped this clever and able child in her studies. Like John Aylmer, Katherine was also a staunch closet Protestant. Both of them may have helped to convert Jane to the new faith, to which she would stay staunchly true all her life.
After Henry VIII died in 1547, his son Edward VI, then nine, became King, and Jane went to live at Chelsea Palace with the widowed Katherine Parr. Soon afterwards, Katherine married the charming and cunning Thomas, Lord Seymour, brother of Queen Jane. Seymour now joined forces with Jane`s parents in plotting to marry her to the King. He paid the Dorsets a lot of money to make her his ward, and told them they would soon see their daughter Queen of England.
But Seymour had no actual power, and no realistic means of bringing about the marriage. In fact, Edward VI wanted to marry Mary, Queen of Scots or a French princess ‘well stuffed’ with money. He was not interested in making Jane his wife.
Because the King was a child, England was then being governed by a protector, Seymour`s brother, the Duke of Somerset. Somerset found out about the plot to marry Jane to Edward, and was furious with Seymour. Despite this, Jane was allowed to remain in Katherine Parr`s household. She must have been deeply grieved when Katherine died in childbed in 1548. Wearing a black mourning gown, ten-year-old Jane acted as chief mourner when the Queen was buried in the chapel at Sudeley Castle.
After that, she had to return home. Her parents wanted her brought up to be good, meek, sober and ready to obey them in all things, and she must have known what that meant. Her misery was clear to the famous scholar Roger Ascham, when he spoke with her at her family home, Bradgate Park in Leicestershire, when she was fourteen.
She told him, `When I am with my father or mother, whether I speak, keep silent, sit, stand, eat, drink, be merry or sad, I must do it as perfectly as God made the world.` If she did not, she would be pinched, hit or worse. `I think myself in hell,` she wept. The only times she was happy, she revealed, were those spent with her tutor. But in Tudor times, parents had the right to be strict with their children, so no one tried to intercede for Jane, and being a feisty and dogmatic girl, she may have been a troublesome teenager to deal with.
Under Edward VI, England had turned Protestant, and there were no more zealous converts than the Grey family. The last years of the reign saw a growing gulf between Jane and the King`s sister, Mary Tudor, over matters of faith. Mary was an ardent Catholic, Jane a stout Protestant. In 1551, Jane visited Mary`s house, New Hall in Essex, and there, in the chapel, saw a lady bow to the Host on the altar.
`Why do you do that?` she asked.
`I bow to Him that made us all,` the lady said.
`How can He that made us all be there, when the baker made Him?` Jane cried indignantly. Mary was shocked when she heard this. Yet she still tried to be friendly to Jane, thinking her misguided by others. She sent her a rich gown and some jewels. Jane would not wear them, as they were too ostentatious. She herself preferred to wear sober black and white clothing, as became a godly Protestant maiden.
By 1553, the young King was dying. Somerset had been executed – the victim of a coup – and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, was ruling England in Edward`s name. Edward and Dudley were now making hasty plans to stop Mary from ever succeeding to the throne. They agreed that the claims of Mary and her half-sister, Elizabeth, should be passed over, and that the crown should be left to Edward`s cousin, Lady Jane Grey.
There were compelling reasons for this. Edward, ‘the new Joshua’, did not want to see his religious settlement overturned. Dudley wanted to remain in power. He could only do that if England had a monarch who would bow to his rule, and Jane was the only member of the royal House who was suited for that role. But Jane proved not to be the meek, biddable little yes-girl that Dudley thought her to be. Clever and outspoken, she was not afraid to stand up to him.
Dudley had already persuaded Jane`s parents, now Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, to agree to a marriage between Jane and his son, Lord Guildford Dudley. Guildford was tall, fair and good looking, but also spoilt and surly. Jane did not want to marry at all: she wanted to be left alone with her books. She hated the Dudleys, and told her parents she would not have Guildford for a husband, but after being beaten for her defiance, she had no choice but to submit. The marriage went ahead, but – contrary to what popular films would have us believe – it was not a happy one. Jane was indifferent to her husband. Nor would she name him king when the time came.
After Edward VI died in July 1553, Jane was brought to Syon House near London and there forced to accept the crown of England. When she saw all the court waiting for her, she began to shake with fright. Dudley led her to the throne and told her, to her horror, that Edward VI had named her his heir. As every person in the room knelt before her, Jane fainted. No one hastened forward to help her.
When she recovered her senses, she resolved to make a stand. She got to her feet and declared, `The crown is not my right. It pleases me not. Mary is the rightful heir.` It did her no good. Dudley, her parents and Guildford coerced her to do their will, and in the end, she had to give way. But she was not at peace with herself. She wrote later, `It did not become me to accept.`
Soon afterwards, according to custom, Jane was taken to the Tower of London to await her crowning. But her reign was to prove the shortest in English history. The country rallied to Mary, the rightful Queen by law. No one wanted Jane; the people of England barely knew who she was. As Mary I was proclaimed to great celebrations and acclaim, Dudley was committed to the Tower. He would soon lose his head on Tower Hill.
Jane was at supper on the day Mary was proclaimed. She was aware of how quiet it was, and that the councillors and servants had deserted her. Then suddenly her father bounded in and tore down the royal canopy of estate above her chair.
`You are no longer queen,` he told her. She said she was not sorry to hear it.
`May I go home?` she asked. Her father did not answer, but left her there and fled from the Tower, leaving her to her fate. Soon, the guards came for her.
She was moved from the palace to the house of Master Partridge, the Gentleman Gaoler. She was housed in some comfort and allowed her books. She took her meals with the jailer and his family, sitting at the head of the table. It was not a bad life, and she did not complain.
Jane had not wanted the throne, but in taking it she had been guilty of treason, and Mary was right to fear that she would remain a focus for Protestant plots. So she kept Jane in the Tower, well looked after, but still a prisoner. She did not wish her harm, and meant quietly to set her free one day, as soon as she herself had a Catholic heir to rule England after her.
Notwithstanding the Queen`s wish to show mercy, Jane and Guildford were put on trial at Guildhall and sentenced to death. It was just a formality, they were told: Mary would spare them the axe. `It is believed Jane will not die,` wrote a courtier.
But Mary had now restored the Catholic faith in England. Within months, she would revive the heresy laws that would sanction the burning of those who did not accept it. Having fallen in love with his portrait, she was bent on marrying Prince Philip of Spain, an ardent Catholic, but her subjects did not want a foreign prince to rule over them. Early in 1554, a Kentish gentleman, Sir Thomas Wyatt led a major revolt against the proposed marriage. Mary came close to losing her crown, but she made a brave stand, and the revolt was suppressed. It had been a near thing, and the Council was in a panic.
Jane`s father had been one of the rebel leaders, and had rashly proclaimed his daughter queen once more, an act of high treason. Jane knew nothing about it, nor had she had anything to do with the rising, but that made no difference to those who saw her very existence as a dangerous threat to the Queen.
Mary`s councillors were now insisting that she put to death all who were a focus for any further Protestant plots or revolts. It was made clear to her that Philip of Spain would not come to England and marry her unless Jane was `removed`. The unwilling Queen was in a corner. Effectively, she had no choice in the matter, and a date was set for Jane`s sentence to be carried out. On being told she was to die, Jane simply said, `I am ready and glad to end my woeful days.`
But Mary was deeply troubled about sending this young cousin of seventeen to her death. She sent the Abbot of Westminster to convert Jane to the Catholic faith. Jane was told that if she recanted her Protestant beliefs, she might live. But Jane would not deny her God. `It is not my desire to prolong my days,` she told the Abbot. A kindly man, he was moved by her sincerity and fidelity to her faith, and asked if he could be with her at the end. To this she agreed.
On 11 February 1554, Jane was ready to die. `My soul will find mercy with God,` she had written. Early that morning, a panel of matrons came to examine her to ensure that she was not with child. If she had been, the Queen would have spared her the axe, but she was not.
She put on the same black dress she had worn at her trial and stood at the window. She had not agreed to Guildford’s request to meet and say farewell, but she had promised she would watch him go to his death. She saw him weeping as he walked under guard to Tower Hill. Not long after, she watched the cart coming back; in it were his bloody head and body, wrapped in white cloths. She cried out, `Oh! How bitter is death!`
Now she saw the headsman on his return to the Tower. It was time.
On the arm of her gaoler, Jane walked to the scaffold. She was calm and brave, but Mrs Ellen and her ladies, following behind, were in floods of tears. Waiting on the scaffold was the Abbot, keeping his promise to be with Jane to the end. She climbed the steps and spoke to the crowd.
`Good people, I am come to die, by law,` she began, then said she had been guilty in taking the throne, but guiltless in never having wanted it. `I die a true Christian woman,` she ended.
She asked the Abbot to join her in prayers, but he was too choked to reply. After reciting prayers, she kissed him goodbye as they held hands. The headsman tried to help her untie her gown, but she would not let him, and did it herself. He knelt, asking her to forgive him for what he must do, which she willingly did.
It was now that she saw the block. He told her to stand in front of it.
`I pray you do it quickly,` she begged, and fell to her knees. `Will you take it off before I lay me down?`
`No, Madam,` he said.
Jane bound her eyes and felt for the block. It was not there.
`What shall I do?` she cried in mounting panic. `Where is it?`
No one moved as she groped in the air. Then someone came and guided her hands. She laid her head down.
`Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit!` she cried. The axe came down. One witness wrote that he had never seen so much blood.
The headsman lifted the head.
`Behold the head of a traitor!` he called out.
Jane`s remains, half naked, were left on the scaffold for some hours before she was buried in the chapel of St Peter, near her husband Guildford. Her father was beheaded not long after, on Tower Hill. Her mother married again almost at once, and lived to see Elizabeth I come to the throne in 1558. Her two sisters lived almost equally tragic lives – but that is another story.
(Copyright Alison Weir.)