On this day in history: February 12, 1554. Execution of Lady Jane Grey, pretender to the throne of England.
Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537-February 12, 1554), known also as Lady Jane Dudley (after her marriage) and as “the Nine Days’ Queen”, was an English noblewoman and de facto Queen of England and Ireland from 10 July until 19 July 1553.
The great-granddaughter of Henry VII through his younger daughter, Mary Tudor, Jane was a first cousin, once removed, of Edward VI, King of England and Ireland from 1547. In May 1553, she was married to Lord Guildford Dudley, a younger son of Edward’s chief minister, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland.
The Third Succession Act of 1544 restored Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to the line of succession, although they were still regarded as illegitimate. Furthermore, this Act authorised Henry VIII to alter the succession by his will. Henry’s will reinforced the succession of his three children, and then declared that, should none of them leave descendants, the throne would pass to heirs of his younger sister, Mary, which included Jane. For unknown reasons, Henry excluded Jane’s mother, Frances Grey, from the succession, and also bypassed the claims of the descendants of his elder sister, Margaret, who had married James IV of Scotland, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus and Henry Stewart, 1st Lord Methven.
When the 15-year-old Edward VI lay dying in the early summer of 1553, his Catholic half-sister Mary was still his heir presumptive. However, Edward, in a draft will (“My devise for the Succession”) composed earlier in 1553, had first restricted the succession to (non-existent) male descendants of Frances Brandon and her daughters, before he named his Protestant cousin “Lady Jane and her heirs male” as his successors, probably in June 1553; the intent was to ensure his Protestant legacy, thereby bypassing Mary who was a Roman Catholic. Edward’s decision to name Jane Grey herself was possibly instigated by John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland.
Edward VI personally supervised the copying of his will which was finally issued as letters patent on 21 June and signed by 102 notables, among them the whole Privy Council, peers, bishops, judges, and London aldermen. Edward also announced to have his “declaration” passed in parliament in September, and the necessary writs were prepared. However, this act the will of the king, never received Parliamentary approval for the young king died before his Will altering the succession could be voted on.
The King died on July 6, 1553, but his death was not announced until four days later. On July 9, Jane was informed that she was now queen, and according to her own later claims, accepted the crown only with reluctance. On July 10, she was officially proclaimed Queen of England, France and Ireland after she had taken up secure residence in the Tower of London, where English monarchs customarily resided from the time of accession until coronation. Jane refused to name her husband Dudley as king, because that would require an Act of Parliament. She would agree only to make him Duke of Clarence.
Northumberland faced a number of key tasks to consolidate his power after Edward’s death. Most importantly, he had to isolate and, ideally, capture Lady Mary to prevent her from gathering support. As soon as Mary was sure of King Edward’s demise, she left her residence at Hunsdon and set out to East Anglia, where she began to rally her supporters. Northumberland set out from London with troops on July 14, to capture Mary. After his departure, recognizing the overwhelming support of the population for Mary, the Privy Council switched their allegiance and proclaimed Lady Mary, Queen of England, London on July 19. Jane had only been de facto queen since the moment of Edward’s death on July 6, 1553 according to several prominent historians, so in fact, she had not been a Nine-Day Queen.
On July 16, 1553, Jane was imprisoned in the Tower’s Gentleman Gaoler’s apartments, her husband in the Beauchamp Tower. The Duke of Northumberland was executed on August 22, 1553. In September, Parliament declared Mary the rightful successor and denounced and revoked Jane’s proclamation as that of a usurper.
Trial and execution
Referred to by the court as Jane Dudley, wife of Guildford, Jane was charged with high treason, as were her husband, two of his brothers, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Their trial, by a special commission, took place on November 13, 1553, at Guildhall in the City of London. The commission was chaired by Sir Thomas White, Lord Mayor of London, and Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. Other members included Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby and John Bourchier, 2nd Earl of Bath. As was to be expected, all defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death. Jane’s guilt, of having treacherously assumed the title and the power of the monarch, was evidenced by a number of documents she had signed as “Jane the Quene”. Her sentence was to “be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases” (burning was the traditional English punishment for treason committed by women). The imperial ambassador reported to Karl V, Holy Roman Emperor, that her life was to be spared.
The rebellion of Thomas Wyatt the Younger in January 1554 against Queen Mary’s marriage plans with Felipe of Spain sealed Jane’s fate. Her father, Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and his two brothers joined the rebellion, and so the government decided to go through with the verdict against Jane and Guildford. Their execution was first scheduled for February 9, 1554, but was then postponed for three days so that Jane should get a chance to be converted to the Catholic faith. Mary sent her chaplain John Feckenham to Jane, who was initially not pleased about this. Though she would not give in to his efforts “to save her soul”, she became friends with him and allowed him to accompany her to the scaffold.
On the morning of 12 February 1554, the authorities took Guildford from his rooms at the Tower of London to the public execution place at Tower Hill, where he was beheaded. A horse and cart brought his remains back to the Tower, past the rooms where Jane was staying. Seeing her husband’s corpse return, Jane is reported to have exclaimed: “Oh, Guildford, Guildford.” She was then taken out to Tower Green, inside the Tower, to be beheaded.
According to the account of her execution given in the anonymous Chronicle of Queen Jane and of Two Years of Queen Mary, written in 1850, which formed the basis for Raphael Holinshed’s depiction, Jane gave a speech upon ascending the scaffold:
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: but touching the procurement and desire thereof by me or on my behalf, I do wash my hands thereof in innocency, before God, and the face of you, good Christian people, this day.
While admitting to action considered unlawful, she declared that “I do wash my hands thereof in innocence”. Jane then recited Psalm 51 (Have mercy upon me, O God) in English, and handed her gloves and handkerchief to her maid. The executioner asked her forgiveness, which she granted him, pleading: “I pray you dispatch me quickly.” Referring to her head, she asked, “Will you take it off before I lay me down?”, and the axeman answered: “No, madam.” She then blindfolded herself. Jane then failed to find the block with her hands, and cried, “What shall I do? Where is it?” Probably Sir Thomas Brydges, the Deputy Lieutenant of the Tower, helped her find her way. With her head on the block, Jane spoke the last words of Jesus as recounted by Luke: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!”
There is no contemporaneous evidence that this occurred, however, and there was no reference to this description of her execution prior to 1850. Eyewitness accounts indicate that the scaffold for Jane’s execution was built against the wall of the central White Tower, at its northwest corner (the corner closest to the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula). Jane was accompanied to the scaffold by two gentlewomen, identified by the Tower chronicler as Mistress Elizabeth Tylney and “Mistress Eleyn,” and by John de Feckenham.
Jane and Guildford are buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula on the north side of Tower Green. No memorial stone was erected at their grave. Jane’s father, Duke of Suffolk, was executed 11 days after Jane, on February 23, 1554. Her mother, the Duchess of Suffolk, married her Master of the Horse and chamberlain, Adrian Stokes, in March 1555 (not, as often said, three weeks after the execution of the Duke of Suffolk). She was fully pardoned by Mary and allowed to live at Court with her two surviving daughters. She died in 1559.
Was Jane Queen of England, thus making her the first Queen Regnant of England? Sadly, though she was an innocent pawn of those around her she was, by definition, a usurper. Edward VI’s failure to have his letters altering the succession passed by an Act of Parliament still mean that not only was the Third Act of Succession still the law of the land, so was the 1547 Act of Treason. The Treason Act made it high treason to change the line of succession to the throne that had been established by Third Act of Succession. Of course as king, Edward VI could have had both the Third Act of Succession and the Treason Act replaced with new laws, but since he died prior to accomplishing that requirement that his sister Mary was the legal Queen per the terms of the Third Succession.