‘Forgotten Queen’ Lady Jane Grey’s true legacy is shrouded in mystery

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Lady Jane Grey was named King Edward VI’s successor just before his death in July 1553. He wrote his “devise for the Succession”, naming the 16-year-old as heir in a bid to keep his older sister, Mary, later Queen Mary I, away from the throne. However, while Jane was officially proclaimed as Queen, her reign was short-lived, and she soon fell victim to bureaucracy and rebellions. After a nine-day reign, Jane was arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. On February 12, 1554, she was executed on Tower Green. By some accounts, Jane was an “innocent” bystander in a coup that cost her her life, but some historians have claimed the young Queen played a more active role in her eventual demise.

Promising childhood

Lady Jane was born into a high-status family, the daughter of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk and Frances Brandon, who was the daughter of Mary Tudor, King Henry VIII’s youngest sister. They were regularly at the royal court. 

Her parents ensured she was well educated, according to historian and author Alison Weir, who explained Jane “was bright, able and an outstanding scholar”.  

Jane was introduced to a top-flight Protestant education and became passionately devout through the influence of Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII. In the spring of 1547, she had been moved to the household of Thomas Seymour, the brother of Jane Seymour, the third wife of King Henry, and the new husband of Katherine. 

Writing for History Extra in 2019, Ms Weir said: “The happiest years of Jane’s life may have been those she spent in the household of Katherine Parr, who encouraged this formidably intelligent girl in her studies…[she] readily embraced the Protestant religion, to which Jane stayed devoutly true all her life.” 

Edward VI had become King earlier that year following the death of his father. According to some historians, the ambitious Thomas saw an opportunity in Jane and knew having her under his influence could be extremely profitable. Although Jane and Edward were still children, Thomas had plans to marry Jane to the King once they reached maturity. 

However, a moment of madness saw Thomas arrested and consequently executed. His ambition got the better of him when he attempted to break into Edward VI’s private apartments on the night of January 16, 1549.

His brother, Edward Seymour, was young Edward’s Lord Protector, and much to the annoyance of Thomas, had been exploiting his powerful position. 

Having been driven to desperate action to get close to the King, Thomas was sent to the Tower of London and executed on March 20, 1549. As a result, Lady Jane was sent home and her prospects of marrying the King were dashed.  

Becoming heir

Meanwhile, Edward Seymour’s rule on behalf of the child King was disastrous. By 1549, England was almost bankrupt and members of the Privy Council had attempted to remove him from power. 

Led by John Dudley, who became Earl of Northumberland, Edward Seymour was overthrown, arrested, charged, and eventually executed at the Tower in 1552. 

John Dudley proved to be more successful at running the country and the King, now a teenager, was growing in confidence and becoming more assertive. He started to hasten the pace of the religious reform and think about a Protestant successor. 

Edward’s search for an heir became more vital when he fell ill with a fever and cough in January 1553. From then on, his health remained fragile, leading the 15-year-old to fear the worse. 

Concerned about the fate of the Crown, the young King wrote his ‘Devise for the Succession’. Above all, Edward wanted to ensure his successor was a male Protestant. As a result, he disinherited his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth in favour of the male heirs of his cousin, Lady Frances Grey or of her children, Jane, Catherine and Mary.

However, by June, it became clear that the King was fatally unwell and since none of his cousins had yet produced a male heir, he changed his ‘devise’ in favour of Lady Jane. 

Nicola Tallis, historian and author of Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey, wrote: “What made Edward’s ‘Devise’ all the more significant — and explosive — was the fact that it had in part been orchestrated by the young king’s chief advisor, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. 

“Northumberland was an ambitious man, desperate to retain his grip on power, something that would inevitably be diminished should Mary succeed to the throne – for the simple fact that she loathed him, for both religious and political reasons.”

John Dudley saw great potential in Edward’s latest ‘devise’ as earlier that year, he had married off Jane to his son, Lord Guildford Dudley. In the case of Edward’s death, Jane and Guildford would become King and Queen. Lady Jane got married alongside her sister Catherine Grey and sister-in-law Catherine Dudley in a triple ceremony at Durham House. 

While little is known about Jane and Guildford’s married life, Jane described herself as a “wife who loves her husband”.

Forgotten Queen

In July 1553, Edward VI’s brief reign came to an end. On July 9, Jane was summoned to Syon House, her father-in-law’s London home, to be informed she was now to be crowned Queen, as per Edward’s instructions. 

The news was said to come as a huge surprise to Lady Jane, who became very distressed, both confusing and embarrassing the Privy Councillors who had knelt before her to swear allegiance. Some accounts claim the young woman fainted after being informed of the life-changing news.

It was not until her parents and husband arrived that Lady Jane was calmed. She later described the event: “Declaring to them my insufficiency, I greatly bewailed myself for the death of so noble a prince, and at the same time, turned myself to God, humbly praying and beseeching him, that if what was given to me was rightly and lawfully mine, his divine Majesty would grant me such grace and spirit that I might govern it to his glory and service and to the advantage of this realm.” 

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The next day, Jane, her husband, parents, mother-in-law, and other court ladies entered the Tower of London, where new monarchs traditionally stayed from the time of their accession to the coronation. 

However, when it came to wearing the crown, the young girl showed hesitancy in her new role. She refused and recalled being told she “could take it without fear and that another also should be made, to crown my husband. Which thing I, for my part, heard truly with a troubled mind, and with ill will, even with infinite grief and displeasure of heart”. 

England’s shortest reign

As Jane’s reign was just beginning, the plan was unravelling. Dr Tallis explained: “The people of London, who were overwhelmingly sympathetic to Mary’s claim to the throne, greeted Jane’s accession with shock and hostility — so much so that the imperial ambassador reported that ‘no one present showed any sign of rejoicing’.”

Mary, the only daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, wrote to the Privy Council demanding to be made Queen. The Council members, the Archbishop of Canterbury and several other powerful men, all underestimated the strength of support for the Catholic princess, advising her to be “quiet and obedient” in a joint reply. 

However, realising they had “fatally misjudged Mary’s popularity”, they raised a small army to capture Mary at Framlingham Castle. But Mary, the daughter of the tyrannical Henry VIII, wasted no time in raising a larger army, leading John Dudley to retreat. 

Before he had managed to return to London, the Council had swung in support of Mary and she was proclaimed as Queen on July 19, 1553. 

Imprisoned in her palace

Jane, who was still at the Tower of London, was subsequently abandoned by her confidantes. Her father rushed to proclaim Mary on Tower Hill, and her mother and ladies-in-waiting were quick to follow. 

John Dudley was deposed that month, while Jane and Guildford remained at the Tower, which had rapidly transformed from the short-serving Queen’s palace to her prison. 

Of her father-in-law, Jane supposedly said: “He hath brought me and our stock in most miserable calamity and misery by his exceeding ambition.”

Dr Tallis wrote: “Mary was eager to begin her reign by demonstrating clemency, and by the middle of August she had intimated to those at court that she ‘could not be induced to consent that she [Jane] should die’. 

“Not only was Jane her cousin, Mary was also acutely conscious of Jane’s youth and the fact that she had been manipulated. It seemed that Jane’s life was safe.” 

Costly coup

Jane and Guildford were tried for high treason in November 1553 and were charged and sentenced to death. But Mary I was merciful and granted them a reprieve, permitting the couple to remain as high-status prisoners. 

However, that all changed in 1554. Mary, a staunch Catholic, had plans to marry the hated Philip II of Spain, making her deeply unpopular. A series of uprisings, including the Protestant Wyatt’s Rebellion, ensued. 

Although the conspirators didn’t intend to put Jane back on the throne, her father was involved in the plot and ultimately put Jane and her husband in a difficult situation. Dr Tallis wrote: “Jane had known nothing of the rebellion but now, as she languished in the Tower, she may have been painfully conscious that her life depended on its outcome. Its failure sealed her fate.”

By simply existing, Jane was becoming more of a threat to Mary, who could not afford to let her cousin live. The Queen offered to spare her life if she converted to Catholicism, but Jane, a passionately devout Protestant, refused. Mary reluctantly accepted the Privy Council’s advice and ordered Jane and Guildford’s executions.  

On February 12, Guildford was taken to Tower Hill and beheaded. Jane watched from her window as his headless body was carried back to the chapel. She is said to have exclaimed: “Oh, Guildford, Guildford!”

Dressed in black, she delivered dignified final word, among them: “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…I do wash my hands thereof in innocency before the face of God and the face of you good Christian people this day.”

She asked the executioner to “despatch her quickly” and tied a blindfold around her eyes. But as she groped blindly for the block, panic overcame her and she cried: “What shall I do? Where is it?”

After someone stepped in to help, Jane laid her head on the block. As she spoke her last words: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit”, the axe fell. She was just 17 years old. 

Disputed legacy 

Jane Grey’s death marked the end of “the shortest reign of any English monarch, before or since”. But she is not greatly remembered as a Queen: no new laws, policies or proclamations were passed during her nine-day rule.  

Following Mary I’s unsuccessful reign, Lady Jane became known as a Protestant martyr. But in the 19th century, she was depicted as an innocent victim.

Dr Tallis wrote: “Jane’s death made her a martyr, not just to Protestants in England but across the continent too. Elsewhere in the realm, though, her end went almost unnoticed. It was not until later centuries that Jane began to be remembered as one of history’s most tragic victims. And in this image there is some truth: Jane was both a victim of circumstance and of her royal blood.”

However, Leanda de Lisle has argued Lady Jane has “been mythologised, even fetishised, as the innocent victim of adult ambition”.  

Writing for BBC History Magazine in 2010, she said the “legend” was largely “inspired by fraud”. Ms de Lisle contended that Jane was executed for her “father’s actions,” but also for her “religious stance” and “reign as a usurper”. 

She wrote: “Aware that the Protestant cause would be damaged by its link to treason, Jane reminded people from the scaffold that while in law she was a traitor, she had merely accepted the throne she was offered and was innocent of having sought it. 

“From this kernel of truth, the later image of Jane was spun. Protestant propagandists developed her claims to innocence, ascribing the events of 1553 to the personal ambitions of Jane’s father and father-in-law, rather than religion.” 

She continued: “…the repetition of old myths is damaging. Because Jane’s reign was treated for so long as the product of the ambitions of a few men, or of Edward VI’s naïve hopes, it is regarded as a brief hiatus, of no consequence. But it is key to understanding the development of our constitutional history.”

Further mystery surrounds Jane’s appearance. The fullest contemporary description of Lady Jane was supposedly written by Baptisa Spinola, a Genoese merchant, who witnessed her procession to the Tower of London to be proclaimed Queen in 1553. However, Ms de Lisle declared this famous description of Jane as fake, created by Richard Davey, author of the 1909 biography The Nine Days Queen, Lady Jane Grey & her Times. 

Ms de Lisle “began a long search for the ‘Spinola’ letter, but never found it in Genoa or in any history predating 1909. And it became clear the letter is a fake that mixes details from contemporary sources with fiction.”

With no contemporary images or descriptions, the public has had to be content with Jane as imagined by artists. 

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