It’s a winter Monday in February 1554. The lieutenant of the Tower of London, Sir John Brydges, leads Lady Jane Grey from her cell in the Tower, her prison since the summer of the previous year. She’s dressed in black and holds a prayer book. And in a few moments, she will meet her cruel fate.
Lady Jane Grey is one of the more obscure figures in English history. There’s even some doubt about the place and date of her birth, but we know she came into the world in either 1536 or 1537. Her father was the First Duke of Suffolk, Henry Grey, and her mother was named Frances.
Through her mother Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, Jane had blood links to royalty. Jane was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII and grand-niece of Henry VIII. She was also the cousin of another English king, Edward VI. And these links to the royal lineage were to be at the center of Jane’s life when she was older.
To understand what was to happen to Lady Jane Grey in her teenage years, we need to wind back a little in history. A good starting point is 1532, when Henry VIII ended his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and wed one of her ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Catherine had failed to provide Henry with a male heir, and Anne had subsequently taken his fancy.
But this divorce and remarriage had massive consequences for Henry and for England. England was at the time a Catholic country and no one, not even the king, could divorce without the permission of the Pope in Rome. And Pope Clement VII refused to give this permission.
So Henry solved the problem of the lack of papal approval by cutting himself off from Rome in 1533, making the Church of England Protestant rather than Catholic. The English Reformation was now underway. And the conflict between those who believed England should return to Catholicism and those who were committed Protestants would underpin English political life for decades to come.
Plagued by ill health and grossly obese, Henry VIII died in 1547 aged 55. In the end, he’d married six times, and his third marriage to Jane Seymour had produced a son who at the age of nine now became Edward VI. A regency council subsequently ruled England on the young king’s behalf.
The regency council continued Henry’s decision to eschew Catholicism in favor of Protestantism, and Edward himself was a committed Protestant. Indeed, religious reforms led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, during Edward’s reign moved England further away from Catholicism.
Edward never reached adulthood, however, dying at the age of just 15 in 1553. And his premature death triggered a succession crisis. As Edward had been Henry VIII’s only legitimate son, next in line for the throne was his half-sister Mary. She was the daughter of Henry and his first wife Catherine of Aragon.
But there was a problem with Mary: she was a devout Catholic, virulently opposed to Protestantism. Edward as well as his advisers had been appalled by the idea that Mary would ascend to the English throne. As a result, with the support of the regency council, Edward had stipulated that Mary should not succeed him.
So who was to be England’s new ruler? The answer was Lady Jane Grey. We left her earlier not long after her birth. During her childhood, she’d had the benefit of a classical education, studying Latin and Greek as well as Hebrew and Italian. And crucially from the point of view of Edward and his supporters, she was a staunch Protestant. In their eyes, that alone trumped Mary’s claim to the throne.
Four days after Edward’s death in July 1553, Jane learned that she was now the Queen of England and Ireland. She accepted her new position, although apparently with no great enthusiasm. It had already been a momentous year for the teenager, as in May she had married Lord Guildford Dudley.
Jane’s new father-in-law was the Duke of Northumberland, who had been the leading figure in Edward VI’s regency council. That Northumberland was strongly in favor of Jane becoming Queen was hardly a surprise. Not only would it prevent Catholic Mary from succeeding, but it would also mean his own son could become royalty.
After being made queen, Jane now retreated to the Tower of London. This was the tradition – the new monarch waited in the security of the Tower until the coronation ceremony could take place. Mary, on the other hand, traveled to East Anglia in eastern England, suspicious and fearful of Northumberland.
Mary’s suspicions were well-founded. Northumberland now set out from London, determined to capture Mary and neutralize her claim to the throne. But a few days later on July 9, 1553, members of the Privy Council, a key body of state, declared for Mary rather than Jane.
Events now moved quickly. Jane and her husband Dudley were placed under arrest in the Tower of London on the same day as the Privy Council’s declaration of support for Mary. The unfortunate teenage girl had only been queen since July 10, making her reign just nine days long.
Jane’s principal supporter, Northumberland, was arrested and beheaded before a crowd of 10,000 in the following month. And Jane and Dudley were now in a position of great danger. They were both accused of high treason, as was Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury whom we met earlier.
All of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death. But Mary appears to have hesitated: the sentence on Jane and Dudley was not immediately carried out. But then in 1554 came Wyatt’s Rebellion, an uprising sparked by the planned marriage of the now Mary I to the Catholic King of Spain.
Jane’s father and two of her uncles joined the rebellion, which was comprehensively crushed by Mary and her supporters. Mary decided it was now time to act against Jane and Dudley. Dudley was executed first on February 12, 1554, publicly beheaded on London’s Tower Hill. Jane is said to have seen his headless body crumpled in a cart as it was returned to the Tower.
A little later that same day, it was Jane’s turn. She was now a girl of 16 or 17. Because of her royal ancestry, she was accorded the privilege of a private beheading before a small gathering. Catholic Mary I was to rule until her death in 1558. That was time enough for her to earn the nickname of “Bloody Mary” because of the vicious and deadly persecution of Protestants that she oversaw during her reign.