10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey

Tim Flight - July 21, 2018

History is full of examples of people who get caught up in the politics and struggles for power in their day. Lambert Simnel, for example, was the son of a baker whose resemblance to the sons of Edward VI led to him being installed as the figurehead for a rebellion against Henry VII. Yet whilst Simnel was cajoled into involving himself in early Tudor politics, aristocrats, by birth, were unavoidably caught up in the struggles of their day, by merit of the bloodline and descent from older kings. Consequently, aristocratic support was vital to the success of a monarch’s decisions.

Equally, when rebellion and disenfranchisement broke out, the king or queen would look to the country’s aristocracy for support, as would the rebels themselves. Unfortunately, this meant that otherwise-retiring individuals, who by choice probably would keep out of the court’s business, were required to involve themselves publically in any pressing matter of national importance. In times of peace, these expectations were rarely an inconvenience, beyond requiring prominent families to make visible appearances on state occasions. Tudor England, alas, was anything but a peaceful place in the 1550s, as it recovered from Henry VIII’s controversial reign which had sundered the country.

Henry’s religious policies had caused a bitter division between die-hard Catholics and those willing to follow the new Church of England. His numerous wives and their offspring, with their differing religious beliefs and political affiliations, had also added a decidedly unstable flavor to the English Crown. Into this maelstrom of conflict was thrust Lady Jane Grey (c.1537-54), a teenage noblewoman who was made Queen of England, apparently against her will, by a bevy of powerful noblemen, and tragically executed after only a few days in power. But how did this come about, and who was she? Find out here…

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, the Younger, c.1497-1543. Wikimedia Commons

Background: The English Reformation

When Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church in Wittenberg in 1517, he was protesting against the excesses of the Catholic Church, an institution that had become enormously wealthy because of its corruption. What he could never have imagined was that his ethical protest would be used by a fat, largely-infertile, man to divorce his wife and marry his mistress. And yet, although it was legitimized by intellectual movements on the continent, the English Reformation ultimately came about because of Henry VIII’s burning desire to have a son, to achieve which he decided he needed a new wife.

This all began in 1526, when Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was over 40, her body battered by a series of miscarriages. At the same time, he became enraptured by a young, flirtatious, and well-educated woman at his court, Anne Boleyn. Henry, who once boasted that ‘I never spared any man in my anger nor woman in my lust’, was determined to ‘know’ Anne in the biblical sense, but she would not welcome his advances whilst his wife was still alive. Fortunately, rather than killing poor Catherine, Henry made it his mission to divorce her, and marry Anne.

Catholicism in the 16th century, however, did not allow divorce. Catherine had been married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, and so first he tried to have the marriage annulled on these grounds. Unfortunately, the Pope, who sympathized with the pious Catherine, refused. Henry thus consulted Thomas Cranmer, a radical Cambridge scholar, who encouraged him to change tactics altogether. Seizing upon Luther’s work on the continent, Henry attacked the Catholic Church for ‘clerical abuses’, and proclaimed himself, rather than the Pope, head of the English Church, which was now fully divorced from Rome, gave himself a divorce, and married Anne.

In 1534 Henry passed the ‘Act of Supremacy’, which formally set up the Church of England, and started the Reformation, which saw England change from a Catholic to a Protestant country. Henry set about closing down the Catholic religious houses and stealing their wealth to replenish the royal coffers, known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and had the English Book of Common Prayer published for the new church. The monasteries were demolished in some cases, as one of the theological charges against the Catholic Church was idolatry (the worshipping of sacred images, explicitly forbidden in the Ten Commandments).

Within 8 years, the Dissolution had raised Henry £1 million. As you can imagine, at a time when religion was all-important, this sudden change from Catholicism to the new Protestant faith did not sit well with some people, who saw the Reformation as blasphemous. This caused a great schism between those who adapted, and those who did not. Refusal to acknowledge the Church of England meant not acknowledging Henry’s power, and thus made opponents traitors and blasphemers. Thus Henry treated obstinate Catholics cruelly, leading to much dissent and resentment, which showed no signs of ending after his death in 1547.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
The ruins of Bradgate Park, Leicestershire, possibly Lady Jane’s birthplace. The Outdoor Guide

Lady Jane Grey’s Early Life

Lady Jane Grey was born in around 1537, at the height of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Traditionally, she is believed to have been born at Bradgate Park, Leicestershire (above), but recent research has alternatively suggested that her birthplace was in London. Lady Jane’s was a noble and well-connected family. Her mother, Lady Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, was the daughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary Tudor. Interestingly, Mary’s marriage to Frances’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, had actually come about because of an annulment of his first marriage on the grounds of consanguinity by Pope Clement VII.

Lady Jane’s father, Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk, was the great-grandson of Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, by her first marriage. Henry Grey was a fixture at Henry VIII’s court after becoming the Marquess of Dorset in 1530. In fact, so close was he to Henry that he not only attended the coronation of Anne Boleyn in 1533 but was the king’s sword-bearer. He was also sword-bearer at the arrival of Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, in 1540, and was made a Knight of the Garter – the highest accolade for a nobleman at the time – in 1547.

It goes without saying that the Grey family were firmly Church of England. Henry Grey was so zealous a Protestant that the Swiss reformer and theologian, Heinrich Bullinger, an influential figure in the European Reformation, corresponded often with the family and even dedicated a book to Henry in 1551. Grey’s enthusiasm for Henry’s new church was vitally important, as he secured Leicestershire as a reliably Protestant county and pressed for more church reforms. We know less about Lady Frances’s religious beliefs but, given her marriage and closeness to the royal family, we can assume that she was also decidedly anti-Catholic.

Thus Jane grew up in a firmly Protestant household. Lady Frances was adamant that her three daughters be educated to a high standard, and in 1541 employed Bishop John Aylmer to tutor Jane in Greek, when she was no more than 5 years old. She also learned Italian with the priest Michelangelo Florio, and generally received the finest Renaissance Humanist education available, studying philosophy and theology. Surrounded by such committed Protestants, Jane became a pious follower of the faith, and even corresponded with Bullinger. Her upbringing was very strict, and contemporaries described her as a bookish and quiet young woman.

Through her mother’s influence at court, Jane secured a place at the household of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. There she got to know Henry’s son, Edward, son of his third wife, Jane Seymour, and heir to the English throne. When Catherine was widowed and married Thomas Seymour, Jane followed the former queen to her new home, and was a chief mourner at her funeral in 1548. Although Seymour was keen to keep Jane at his household, she decided to return to Bradgate, which turned out to be a lucky escape as he was arrested two months later.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
King Edward VI, London, c.1546. Wikimedia Commons

Edward VI

Henry’s six marriages produced two daughters – Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn – and two sons: Henry, son of Catherine, who passed away at only a month old, and Edward, son of Jane Seymour. When Henry died, grossly overweight and in physical agony, he could at least reflect that he had managed to produce a male heir. This effectively secured Henry’s dynasty, as daughters would only rule in name alongside their husbands and produce offspring without the Tudor name. Edward, however, was only 9, and so Henry appointed 16 advisors to help him reign.

Edward VI (1537-53), as well as sharing Lady Jane Grey’s approximate year of birth, was also splendidly educated in the reformed faith and Renaissance Humanism. He was a precocious youth, showing a talent for theology and philosophy and noted for taking copious notes in his classes. By the time he was crowned King of England, Edward could translate the Latin works of Cicero into Greek. Unfortunately, though, as a nine-year-old boy his impressive academic work could do nothing to prevent the council of regents Henry chose disintegrating as the Duke of Somerset ousted the lot and made himself Lord Protector.

Somerset took the country to war with France and Scotland, at great expense, with young Edward again helpless to do anything. Simultaneously, he responded positively to increasing calls for a more thorough Reformation, as Catholic features of England’s ecclesiastical buildings were torn down. Beautiful medieval wall paintings were whitewashed (giving old churches their current look), and one has only to gaze at the exterior of a church or cathedral of sufficient age to see the still-empty niches which once displayed carvings of saints. This didn’t go down well at all with the small pockets of Catholicism around the country.

Rebellion broke out against Somerset in 1549 amongst those furious at the debasement of the coinage he had caused and Catholics and their sympathisers enraged by the iconoclasm he instituted. The latter hatched a plan to dethrone Edward and replace him with his elder Catholic sister, Mary. The City of London was surrounded, and Somerset replaced by the ardently-Protestant Duke of Northumberland. Somerset was arrested and later executed in 1552. With Somerset out of the picture, Edward invited Mary back to court, but she arrived with a provocatively-Catholic procession, as if to remind him of the threat she posed.

There were hopes that Edward would choose his cousin-once-removed, Lady Jane, as his queen. They were almost the same age, scholarly, pious, and both hard-line Protestants, after all. Before anything could happen, however, Edward contracted consumption in 1553, of which he slowly died aged just fifteen. Never married, he left no heir, and England was confronted by the same problem it would have faced if the king had never been born. With debate over the Reformation still simmering, as the attempt to install Mary demonstrated, the country had bigger fish to fry than merely maintaining the royal family’s name.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
Portrait of Lady Jane Grey by William Marshall, after Magdalena de Passe, after Willem de Passe, after Hans Holbein the Younger, London, 1648. National Portrait Gallery

Political Machinations

In 1543, Henry VIII passed the Third Succession Act. Perhaps growing clement in his old age, Henry passed the Act to restore Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession, behind their brother, Edward. This replaced the First and Second Acts, which declared the girls to be illegitimate owing to Henry’s displeasure with the marriages that produced them. In 1547, he secured the possible inheritance of his daughters by passing the Treason Act, which defined any attempt to interrupt the line of succession detailed in the Third Succession Act as treason. Even beyond the grave, Henry continued to cause trouble.

The real danger in 1553 was the succession of Mary Tudor to the throne. What Henry surely cannot have realised was that Mary was a zealous Catholic with an axe to grind. After all, her mother, Catherine of Aragon, had been unceremoniously divorced and banished due to Henry’s desire for a new wife. Catherine had remained stoically quiet about the whole thing, and continued to practice Catholicism even after the Reformation. Mary, who was open about her religious beliefs, held an understandable grudge against those who had replaced Catholicism with a blasphemous new religion, disgraced her mother, and disinherited her.

Many Protestant nobles thus feared for their lives, quite apart from the reversion to Catholicism that Mary would doubtless insist upon. Fortunately, Edward’s death was not sudden, and so they had time to work out a strategy to keep Mary off the throne. Edward also opposed Mary’s claim to the throne, albeit primarily because he saw both of his half-sisters as illegitimate. Thus from his sickbed he drafted, and signed, a document superseding his father’s 1543 Act, which excluded Mary and Elizabeth from succeeding him. This was prepared and finessed with the help of his advisers, and named his heir.

His heir, as you have no doubt surmised, was Lady Jane Grey. It has been suggested that she was chosen under pressure from his Lord Protector, the Duke of Northumberland, since Edward initially named only male descendents of Frances and Jane Grey his successors. Wisely expecting opposition to this move, given his experience of the Catholic plot against him, Edward had over 100 councillors, peers, archbishops, bishops, and sheriffs sign the devise, and made his closest advisers swear to uphold the terms of the will. The document finalised on 21st June, and on the 6th July the king passed away.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
Funeral effigy of Henry VII taken from his death mask by Pietro Torrigiani, London, 1509-11. Wikimedia Commons

Claim to the Throne

Lady Jane Grey was not simply chosen because of her fervent Protestantism, but because she had a legitimate claim to the throne, albeit a distant one compared to Mary and Elizabeth. As previously mentioned, Jane’s mother, Lady Frances, was the granddaughter of Henry VII (1457-1509), father of Henry VIII and founder of the whole Tudor Dynasty. This also meant that Henry VIII was her Lady Frances’s uncle. More tenuously, her father’s relation to the wife of Edward IV also gave her some further royal connections if not claims, given that Edward IV was of the defeated House of York.

Although her claim through lineage was not immutably strong, Jane did have the approval of the King himself, who was a popular figure and a boy expected to become a prudent ruler when he came of age. His treatment of Mary after the rebellion and plot to crown her at his expense suggested that, as well as having a fervent belief in the need for further reformation of the church, he was also prepared to show leniency. Power and alliances are also vital to any succession, and Jane had those, too, thanks to the oath Edward had the nobles swear.

Furthermore, the English Crown had previously been seized on flimsier pretexts. William I took the crown from Harold Godwineson in 1066 as he claimed that he had been verbally promised it by the childless Edward the Confessor. The very founder of the Tudor Dynasty, most recently, had also claimed the throne on a similar basis to Jane, despite what Tudor propaganda said. Henry VII’s claim was based on his grandmother, Catherine of Valois, being the widow of King Henry V and mother of King Henry VI, whose staggering incompetence as a ruler led to the Wars of the Roses.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
Preparatory sketches of Lady Jane Grey and Lord Guildford Dudley from the studio of Richard Burchett, London, 19th century. Art UK


The plan to wed Jane to her cousin-once-removed, King Edward VI, was curtailed when the man put in charge of making the proposal, Thomas Seymour, was arrested and executed after attempting to kidnap the king and killing his dog! This wasn’t as nefarious as it sounds, as Seymour, who was the king’s maternal uncle, was trying to save Edward from his brother, the widely-loathed and incompetent Duke of Somerset, but his presence outside the monarch’s apartment at night with a loaded pistol saw him charged with treason and executed in 1549. He shot the dog because of its vigorous barking.

Jane’s father, Sir Henry Grey, was a close friend of Seymour, and initially suspected of complicity in the bungled kidnap. He was fortunate to emerge legally untainted by the scandal, which would have ruined the Grey family, and his failed attempt to marry Jane to the son of Somerset, who was still Lord Protector despite his brother’s best intentions, suggests some guilt on his part. However, as an eligible and powerful young woman with royal blood, and moreover one with a spotless record of conformity to the new Church of England, Lady Jane Grey had no shortage of suitors.

In spring 1553, as Edward suffered from what turned out to be a fatal illness, Jane was married to Lord Guildford Dudley. Dudley was the son of the most powerful man in the country, Duke of Northumberland, who had replaced Somerset as Edward’s Lord Protector in 1550. He was a suitable match for Jane, with similarly impressive connections, Protestant faith, and a Humanist education. His friend, the chronicler Richard Grafton, described Dudley as ‘a comely, virtuous, and goodly gentleman’. Jane and Dudley’s union was part of a magnificent triple wedding at Durham House, London, alongside Dudley’s sister and Jane’s sister.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
The Crown Offered to Lady Jane Gray, engraving after Charles Robert Leslie, London, c.1827. Gospel Reformation


Edward VI died on 6th July 1553, and on 9th July the 16-year-old Jane was informed that she was now Queen of England. News of the king’s demise was kept a secret until 10th July, however, perhaps given the inevitable controversy over his named successor. How she took the news, and whether it came as a surprise, is a mystery. At her trial (see below), Jane protested that she only accepted the crown with the greatest reluctance, but given the seriousness of the charges against her, it is unclear whether she was merely attempting to save her life.

As the daughter-in-law of the Duke of Northumberland, who was closely involved in Edward’s choice of successor, it seems unlikely that she would not have been prepared for the news. After all, when she married Dudley, Edward was in the midst of deciding to whom he should bequeath his throne, which gives the union a decidedly political flavour. Whatever her reaction to the news, on 10th July she was presented as queen to the public, and made her way in procession to the security of the impregnable Tower of London, as was customary for English monarchs awaiting coronation.

The only account of her procession comes from a letter by a Genoese merchant, which is seen as a Victorian forgery by some modern historians. Certainly, it is suspiciously close to the portrait of Jane used for the main image above, but for the sake of completion, here is the gist: ‘[Jane is] 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 colour’.

Although she is known as the ‘Nine Days’ Queen’, Jane actually reigned for 13, as she became de facto queen upon Edward’s death. We have very few contemporary accounts of her short reign, in which she achieved little. According to Jane’s trial testimony, Dudley wanted to be made king, but she would only agree to make him Duke of Clarence. Dudley’s furious response was reported to the Duchess of Northumberland, who commanded him to leave the Tower, which Jane overruled. Dudley nonetheless acted like a monarch, presiding over daily council meetings and insisting that he be addressed as a king.

It is hard to tell how England would have fared with Dudley and Jane ruling over it. Although the marriage was already showing signs of fractiousness, despite being only a matter of months old, Jane’s refusal to make him king and overruling of her mother-in-law suggest a self-confidence and firmness of character that would potentially have made her a good queen. Nonetheless, the questions over her legitimacy to rule would be unlikely to disappear even if Mary was disposed of, for many on both sides of the Protestant/ Catholic division firmly believed in the Divine Right of Kings.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
The Tower of London, where Jane lived as de facto queen and was imprisoned and executed, viewed from the Thames. Wikimedia Commons


Upon publicly naming Jane as the new queen, the Duke of Northumberland had to deal with Mary as a matter of urgency. On 10th July, the day Jane made her procession to the Tower of London, a letter from Mary arrived in London, stating that she was now queen and demanding that the Privy Council support her. Worryingly, this letter came from the Catholic hotspot of East Anglia, where the rebellion against Somerset and plan to overthrow Edward had fermented in 1549. Already, Jane had an important decision to make: she opted to assemble troops to fight Mary’s supporters.

Northumberland led an army to Cambridge, but after waiting for a week without fighting, news reached him that the Privy Council in London had declared loyalty to Mary. Northumberland, Jane’s greatest ally and the man who had secured her succession, lost his nerve and proclaimed Mary as queen. Members of the Privy Council left the Tower of London and proclaimed their support for Jane’s rival including, disgracefully, her own father. If Jane is to be believed, she was now abandoned in a position which she did not even want to take and to which she did not believe herself entitled.

The reason for the sea-change in support for Jane amongst the Privy Council is unclear. Support for Mary seems to have been localized in East Anglia, and so it is unlikely that they were bowing to the will of the people. It is perhaps telling that this change happened whilst Northumberland, Jane’s greatest supporter, was away from London, and members who disputed Jane’s legitimacy to rule may simply have taken advantage. Regardless, on 19th July, Jane was arrested, though Mary did not arrive in London until 3rd August. Conveniently, Jane was already in the most secure prison in the land.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey by Hendrick Jacobus Scholten, Amsterdam, 19th century. Art UK


Mary wasted no time in exerting her power. Despite their radical change of allegiance, she had Sir Henry Grey and Northumberland arrested for their part in Lady Jane’s brief reign, eventually releasing Grey and executing Northumberland on 22nd August 1553. Mary simultaneously released several prominent Catholics from prison, confirming the fears of the Protestants who had opposed her accession to the throne. She now turned her attention to the imprisoned teenage couple. Unusually, given her later bloodthirstiness, Mary was sympathetic to Jane, whom she saw as an unwilling pawn in Northumberland’s power-play, but still charged her with high treason.

The trial of Jane, Dudley and two of his brothers, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, began on 13th November 1553 at the Guildhall, London. Jane and Dudley were led in procession from the Tower of London on foot. A Tudor chronicle describes Jane’s appearance at her trial: ‘the lady Jane was in a blacke gowne of cloth, tourned downe; the cappe lined with fese velvet, and edget about with the same, in a French hoode, all black, with a black byllyment, a black velvet boke hanging before hir, and another boke in hir hande open, holding hir’.

Specifically, Jane was accused of high treason by taking the Tower of London and proclaiming herself queen, evidenced by her signing several documents ‘Jane the Quene’. Despite her testimony, all were found guilty as charged, and Jane was sentenced to ‘be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases’. However, no date was set for Jane’s execution, and it was believed by the Papal ambassador that she was to be spared. This may have been a political move by Mary, using the life of the young Protestant as collateral against any uprisings by her anti-Catholic opponents.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, Paris, 1833. Wikimedia Commons


Well, whatever Mary originally planned for Jane, she executed her on 12th February 1554. Her hand was forced by Thomas Wyatt the Younger’s rebellion in January that year. Learning that Mary planned to marry the fiercely-Catholic Prince Philip of Spain, Wyatt organized a rebellion against the alliance. Having first-hand experience of the Spanish Inquisition meant that Wyatt had a deep-seated hatred of the Spanish, and feared that the Inquisition would arrive in England as a result. The rebellion failed, and unfortunately Sir Henry Grey himself had been involved in its organization, which all but sealed poor Jane’s fate.

We perhaps know more about Jane’s execution than any other part of her short and tragic life. Public sympathy for the exploited teenager was high, and we have a contemporary account of her last moments. This sympathy may mean, of course, that the description of her death is inaccurate, but let us examine it nevertheless. Led to a scaffold erected outside the White Tower, past the cadaver of her freshly-executed husband, according to a Tudor chronicle, Jane was clad ‘in the same gown wherin she was arrayned, hir countenance nothing abashed, neither her eyes enything moysted with teares’.

Upon the scaffold, Jane is said to have given the following heroic speech: ‘good people, I am come hether to die, and by a lawe I am condemned to the same. The facte, in dede, against the quene’s highnesse was unlawfull, and the consenting thereunto by me: but touching the procurement and desyre therof by me or on my halfe, I doo wash my handes thereof in innocencie, before God, and the face of you, good Christian people, this day… I pray you all, good Christian people, to beare me witnesse that I dye a true Christian woman’.

Before beheading her, the executioner is said to have asked Lady Jane for forgiveness, after which she made the pitiful request, ‘I pray you dispatch me quickly’. Tying a handkerchief around her eyes, she braced herself for death. ‘One of the standers-by guyding her thereunto, she layde her heade down upon the block, and stretched forth her body and said: “Lorde, into thy hands I commende my spirite!” And so she ended.’ Jane and Dudley were buried together in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula on Tower Green in an unmarked grave. Her father was executed 11 days later.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
Mary I by Hans Eworth, London, 1554. Wikimedia Commons

Bloody Mary

The life of Lady Jane’s successor stands as testament to the stupidity of hereditary positions of power. As we saw above, Mary’s immediate steps upon taking the throne, after arresting her enemies, were to reinstall Catholicism as the official religion of England. In itself, this represented but a reversion to the common form of devotion practiced two decades before. However, the stringent means she used to turn England back into a Catholic nation reeked of fanaticism, leading as they did to the inhumane executions of 300 people, and justifiably earned her the soubriquet, ‘Bloody Mary’. Let us briefly examine her.

Like her father, Mary was obsessed with the matter of progeny. She was 37 when she came to the throne, unmarried, and childless. She instantly set about the task of finding a husband in order to produce an heir to prevent her Protestant sister, Elizabeth, taking the throne (Henry’s Third Succession Act had been reinstated). Her choice, Philip of Spain, was unpopular with all but her: English law dictated that a husband would own all of his wife’s possessions upon marrying her. England did not want a Spanish king, and so his tenure was legally limited only to Mary’s lifetime.

Although this nullified the threat of England becoming a Spanish colony, Philip’s fervent Catholicism brought out the worst in his broody wife. He personally persuaded Parliament to repeal Henry VIII’s laws in order to return England to the jurisdiction of the Vatican. The royal couple also reinstated the heresy acts, in order to whittle out anyone whose religious beliefs and practices deviated from strict Catholic dogma. Known as the Marian Persecutions, this period of history saw men, women, and children burned at the stake. Most famously, this included bishops Latimer and Ridley and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.

Although she succeeded in returning England to Catholicism in her lifetime, Mary’s horrific cruelty and intolerance actually worked to inspire hatred of Rome once she died. She died childless and heartbroken at her husband’s frequent lengthy absences, having mercifully reigned only 5 terrible years. Her half-sister, Elizabeth, then came to the throne to everyone’s relief, and instantly set about reverting England to the Protestantism Henry had introduced. The three men mentioned above were burned in the city of Oxford, and were celebrated as the Oxford Martyrs after Mary’s death. In particular, Cranmer’s valiant conduct at his execution was lauded.

Cranmer had recanted his Protestant faith, and wrote a document confirming his return to Catholicism. Mary decided she may as well burn him anyway, but what he did next shocked everyone. Walking to the fire lit for his execution in 1556, he proclaimed the Pope to be the Antichrist, went back on his previous recantation of the Protestant faith, and thrust his right hand into the fire, the very member used to write the aforementioned document. Burning it off, he cried, ‘this hand hath offended! O! This unworthy hand!’ Cranmer’s example was a rallying cry for Protestants around the country.

10 Tragic Details in the Death of the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Lady Jane Grey
A young Helena Bonham Carter portrays Lady Jane Grey in the 1986 film, Lady Jane. Blogspot


Back to Lady Jane. History has traditionally seen Lady Jane Grey as an unfortunate teenager whose relation to the royal family saw her thrust as a pawn into the maelstrom of Tudor politics. She lived at a time when the country was divided between Catholic and Protestant, and was exploited to try to secure the wellbeing and continuing prosperity of her family, for which she paid the ultimate price. Although her reign would have been constantly dogged by challenges to her legitimacy to rule, she surely couldn’t have done a worse job than the tyrannical Catholic zealot, Bloody Mary.

The mess that England was in back in 1553 was due in large part to Henry VIII. Although his religious reforms actually proved popular, despite their selfish motivation, his six marriages left three half-siblings with wildly-differing views on one another’s legitimacy. Edward could not name his Protestant half-sister Elizabeth as his successor, as doing so would recognise the legitimacy of Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry, which would raise questions about the legitimacy of his own birth, which came from Henry’s next marriage to Jane Seymour. The way Henry went about the Reformation also brewed dangerous enmity amongst Catholic subjects.

Although we don’t know how complicit Lady Jane was in being named Edward’s successor, it is unlikely that a 16-year-old girl in such a misogynistic period could have had much influence over affairs at court. The few sympathetic contemporary sources describing Jane mean that it is hard not to feel extremely sorry for her. After all, the death of anyone so young is a tragedy, let alone one who appears to have been callously used by her own family and then abandoned to the most bloodthirsty queen in English history. She was martyred not only by Catholicism but Tudor politics.

Lady Jane’s tragic life has inspired countless artists and writers over the years. She became especially popular in the Victorian period, from which Delaroche’s highly-stylised portrayal of her execution above is taken. In 1563, her story was included in The Book of Martyrs by the famous English martyrologist, John Foxe, which was a text detailing the terrible suffering Protestants had to endure from Catholics. As well as inspiring Elizabethan and Jacobean ballads, Jane’s life was also the subject of Nicola Vaccai’s 1836 opera, Giovanna Gray. The story of Jane’s life, however murky in places, certainly deserves to be remembered.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Ashdown, Dulcie M. Tudor Cousins: Rivals for the Throne. Stroud: Sutton, 2000.

Davey, Richard. The Nine Days’ Queen: Lady Jane Grey and Her Times. London: Methuen & Co, 1910.

Duffy, Eamon. Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Ives, Eric. Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Jenkins, Simon. A Short History of England. London: Profile, 2011.

de Lisle, Leanda. “Lady Jane Grey: why do we want to believe the myth?” BBC History Magazine, March 2010.

Loades, David M. Mary Tudor: History of a Dynasty. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Newcombe, D. G. Henry VIII and the English Reformation. London: Routledge, 1995.

O’Day, Rosemary. The Routledge Companion to the Tudor Age. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.

Weir, Alison. Children of England: The Heirs of King Henry VIII. London: Vintage, 1997.