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Standing on Tower Hill in London, would you think of the girls? Hundreds of girls have likely been on this site, which dates back to Bronze Age settlements and, later, Roman villages. Yet its fame lies in violence – it is the site of public executions of high-profile traitors and criminals throughout Britain’s long reign. It’s victims include Sir Thomas More, George Boleyn, and his infamous sister Anne Boleyn. Yet in the lists of those executed, the majority are men.
Why? British tradition holds that executions of women were private affairs, carried out behind the closed doors of the Tower of London. This was the case for Anne Boleyn and her successor, Catherine Howard. It was also, potentially, the case for today’s girl – Lady Jane Grey.
Yet the accounts on whether she died privately or publicly – in the Tower or on the Hill – are contradictory.
Let’s set the stage. It is the Tudor period – just after the death of King Henry VIII. Women are believed to be the weaker sex – physically and morally. This belief was so deeply held that it shaped attitudes about women and power into modern times, portraying them as emotional, irrational, indecisive creatures.
Yet the Tudors believed some women could be exceptional – they were, by all accounts, more like men. Lady Jane Grey, a very mythologized teenage girl, might be one of them.
Her story is traditionally told as if she had no agency whatsoever. According to traditional Tudor history, Jane was a helpless innocent, whose tragic end was the result of others’ ambitions and careless regard for her life.
But according to more recent scholarship, especially the work of Dr. Helen Castor, Jane was so much more than her myth.
Born in 1536 or 1537, Jane was the great-grand-niece of King Henry VII. Her mother was Henry VII’s niece by his sister, Mary, and thus Jane was of royal blood. Her father was the son of ancient nobility, primarily baronies, that were related to Elizabeth of York (the wife of Henry VII). She enjoyed a privileged, noble girlhood at Bradgate Manor in the Midlands. She was described as smal for her age and slight, but with a fiery character and a quick, articulate intelligence. This intelligence was nurtured by her tutor, John Aylmer, a Cambridge-educated friend of Jane’s father.
As Jane grew, her knowledge increased exponentially – and social norms about women were changing. The Book of the Courtier by Baldassere Castiglione presented a popular argument that women were as intelligent as men and could learn to control their emotional natures through will and reason — two things of which Jane had plenty. A Grey family friend was instrumental in translating the book to English, so it is highly likely that Jane was exposed to those new thinking. As the book grew in popularity, so did the education of girls and women. As a result, Jane learned cooking, sewing, dance, music, Latin, Greek, reading and writing, Scripture, and other academic subjects that her parents saw fit. At the age of nine, being the oldest girl in the family, Jane accompanied her mother to court and shadowed her mother’s role as Lady in Waiting to the Queen.
All this to say, Jane was intelligent, witty, quick, empowered, and poised for power.
It was a good upbringing to have considering what was to come.
Jane happened to be cousin to the children of King Henry VIII – in fact, she was a direct cousin to the king’s only son, Edward. More importantly, Jane was named in Henry’s will, which stated that if his three children should die – if Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward all died – then the biological descendents of Henry’s sister, Mary Brandon, would inherit.
Despite this political stage, Jane enjoyed close companionship with her cousin Edward. They were known to spend many hours together, playing, dancing, and reading. Some even though she should be the future Queen and bride for Edward. As a result, Jane was placed under the wardship of Dowager Queen Catherine Parr (the widow of Henry VIII) and her husband, Lord Seymour. Jane likely understood the importance of her wardship and friendship with Edward. As a member of the nobility, she was raised to understand that the vast family network required her playing her part.
During her wardship, Jane was given a relatively good amount of freedom from supervision. She was often left in the care of servants or visited with Princess Elizabeth, who was also under wardship in the Parr’s home. She also spent time at Seymour Place and at court, attending the Dowager Queen’s household. It was here that Jane developed a fondness for style and fashion, as well as music. She continued in her lessons, often found reading alongside Edward in Greek history, Latin, and religion. Jane’s education is special – she is more educated than Princess Mary and Elizabeth, largely because she has no brothers. She is intended as the sole symbol of the Grey family mobility and resources. She learns Hebrew, Greek, Italian. She was also exposed to strong-willed, educated women, Mildred Cecil and Catherine Willoughby.
When Jane was 11, Queen Catherine died. Jane was sent home to Bradgate, with an entourage befitting royalty. In a letter to Lord Seymour after her return home, Jane wrote:
“My dutye to youre lordeshippe in most humble wyse rememberd withe no lisse thankes for the gentylle letters which I receavyed from you Thynkynge my selfe so muche bounde to your lordshippe for youre greate goodnes towardes me from tyme to tyme that I cannenot by anye meanes be able to recompence the least parte thereof: I purposed to wryght a few rude lines unto youre lordshippe rather as a token to shewe howe muche worthyer I thynke youre lordshippes goodnes then to gyve worthye thankes for the same thes my letters shall be to testyfe unto you that lyke as you have becom towardes me a louynge [loving] and kynd father so I shall be alwayes most redye to obey your momysons and good instructions as becomethe one uppon whom you have heaped so manye benyfytes. and thus fearynge leste I shoulde trouble youre lordshippe to muche I moste humblye take my leave of your good lordshyppe”
Despite her few years away, and her matured mind, Jane was not given the same freedoms as royalty at home. Instead, she found home life restricting and was often said to rebel.
Outside her home, Jane’s world was in open rebellion. Her cousin Edward – now King at the age of 12 – was fighting battles within England as Protestants and Catholics waged open hatred and violence. Now independent of his protectorate, Edward summoned Jane’s father to court as an official to help with the crisis. Jane, along with her family, returned to court life – traveling frequently between home, court, and other noble homes, including the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth. She continued her education, developing a love for reading Greek philosophy. By the age of 15, Jane was considered “the leading evangelical woman in England” and was sought out as a patron for churches and female intellectuals.
It seemed as if Jane was destined for a good marriage, a stable and well-educated life, and the benefits of being a royal patron.
That changed in the holiday season of 1552 to 1553. Edward took ill – likely from tuberculosis or a similar disease. This was a huge problem. England had – until now – been staunchly ruled by men. No woman had dared take the throne in her own right. Yet the Tudors faced a crisis – in his generation, Edward was the only boy. What remained after his death would be eight girls, most still young. Edward’s father, Henry VIII, had only two surviving sisters – who each only had daughters. His aunt Margaret was mother to Mary, Queen of Scots, who already rule one country. His other aunt, Mary, had two daughters – Frances and Eleanor. The eldest of these girls was Jane Grey, daughter of Frances Grey.
Like his father, Edward abhorred the idea of a woman ruling. Hence, his will dictated that the male heirs of the Grey family – who were Protestant – would rule. Yet no males had been born, and Jane and her sisters were barely teenagers. Jane was 15, and her sisters were 12 and 8, respectively. Despite this youth, Edward preferred them to his half-sisters, whose reigns he thought would be too contentious for England.
During his illness, a secret document is made in Edward’s own hand, titled “My device for th succession”. In the first paragraph, he repeats the word “male” – as in “heirs male” – he was talking about possible males born to him or a particular female line in the Tudor family – he chooses Francis Grey, his cousin, and any males who may issue from her or her daughters. If a baby boy has not been born to Francis’s daughters by Edward’s death, Frances would be a caretaker of the throne. So technically, the throne would be empty and Frances would be governor working with the Privvy Council. This leads to hasty marriages of Frances’s daughters, including 12-year-old Katherine and 8-year-old Mary. Jane, the eldest at 15.
For Jane, the marriage offers poured in. Reluctantly, she accepted Guildford Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland, whom she married on May 25, 1553. Northumberland was the most powerful man in England – said to be the power behind the throne, as Edward’s closest advisor and confidant. He was a self-made man, and by all interpretations, was set on making his family into the most powerful in England.
Jane’s wedding was an extravagant ceremony, but she is documented as being reluctant. She agreed to do it due to family pressure. One Italian chronicler states that her father even abused her into accepting going through with it.
A month after the marriage, just days before his death, Edward named Jane as his sole heir. In the last few weeks of his life, Edward changes the device – he adds the words “and her” – “the lady Jane and her heirs male” – meaning that Jane was now designated as the next monarch. He also granted Jane the power to deny her husband the crown and reign as sole regent.
Edward died on July 6, 1553. The Privy Council sprange into action. No public announcement of Edward’s death was made for 48 hours. Instead, Northumberland sent his son to capture Princess Mary and turns his attention to securing the Tower of London. To hold the tower was to hold power, so the Council occupied it to keep Mary from power. He fortifies it with guns and troops, preparing for the backlash of Northumberland’s plan to enact Edwad’s Device. The frenzied activity attracted attention, alerting key political players about what was happening. Yet still, Jane did not know.
Was Jane just a symbol? To be controlled? Historians think so, with Northumberland viewing her as a mere figurehead for his power.
On July 9, Jane is summoned to Northumberland’s home at Scion. She is brought by boat, a journey that took almost 2 hours. She was brought to the Long Gallery, and told she was to be Queen. (The room still exists.) Jane’s emotions are likely overwhelming – French ambassador reports she said “This is not for me. The rightful heir is Mary.” And that she burst into tears. But later, in an account to Queen Mary, Jane admits bursting into tears — but for the death of her cousin, Edward, not her new status. Faced with her parents and Northumberland, she prays to God to do the job that had been given to her. She likely reluctantly accepted her fate as Queen. Northumberland throws an opulent banquet to celebrate her succession.
Jane was just sixteen. Upon hearing the news, she is said to have fallen on the ground and wept. Was she truly sad? Or was Jane – a highly intelligent young woman exposed to the political machinations of court – making a political statement? It was common in the Tudor period for political figures to project theatrical messages – and that is likely what Jane did, making a public point that she had not sought the crown and, instead, that it had been imposed upon her. Yet as soon as she had begun crying, she stopped. She stood up and addressed the gathered crowd, accepting the kingdom, praying to God for the grace to govern, and making it clear that she intended to rule and not be a puppet for some man.
Elsewhere, Princess Mary, having evaded capture, writes to garner support from across the country. On July 9, Mary writes a letter and signs it “By the Queen” – proclaiming herself Queen. She asserts that she is Queen by act of parliament and the last will of her father, Henry VIII. The letter was to Sir Edward Hastings, an influential landowner whom she hoped would support her by raising forces in Middlesex.
The next day, Northumberland publicly proclaims Jane as Queen. Jane is taken to the Tower via riverboat – her first public appearance as Queen. For Jane, there is no going back. Her arrival is full of pomp and ceremony, proclaiming her legitimacy. A Venetian diplomat in London that day wrote that Jane was accompanied by her mother, who held her train. Even though Frances had a better claim to the throne, Jane was Northumberland’s daughter in law. This was shocking to people – both for a woman to rule, and for a mother to serve her daughter. The shock is also religious in nature – by politically and socially turning up norms, it also speaks to the Devil being present – of evil being present. Additionally, the letter details Jane’s husband did not bow to Jane. Guilford assumes a physical position of prominence – in front of Jane in the procession, which subtly proclaims Guilford should be king – not Jane as Queen. It hints that there may be a plan for Guilford to become crowned King, which would force Jane aside and allow the house of Northumberland to rule.
The people saw a coup in progress, rather than a lawful succession. In response, Northumberland becomes very unpopular – more so than he already was for violently putting down the religious rebellions less than a decade before Edward’s death. Despite a nearly 3-page proclamation on Jane’s legitimacy, the public are unconvinced that Jane should be queen.
That same day, a. dispatch arrives from Princess Mary, calling upon the Council to display their loyalty to her and that she would pardon them if they declared her queen. It threatens civil war, and gives the nobles a choice: support Mary, or face the loss of everything – even their lives – should Mary win. Yet no one turns away from Jane; instead, they write to Mary on Jane’s behalf – Jane signs it as Queen. Her signature would soon be given as evidence of treason.
By the end of the first day, Jane has changed from the reluctant girl who accepted the role. In her letters – which may have been written for her – Jane is preparing for war to defend her throne. The next day, as Northumberland sends out recruiting parties, Jane continues to write letters. She builds on her education under influential women, and begins to assert herself. She was part of the Tudor dynamic of strong women – like her cousins, Mary and Elizabeth. One account from the royal treasurer states that Jane is alone when the crown is brought to her. She is said to have put it on to see how it suited her. Jane states to the treasurer that no crown will be given to Guilford – she intend shim to be made a Duke, not a King. Guilford is furious, but Jane is steadfast in her decision to rule alone. She has taken control, and it surprises Northumberland and the Council. In not bidding to the mens’ bidding, and rejecting Guilford as king, Jane has asserted herself and turned the fight into a battle between two women – Jane and Mary.
Mary gathers her forces quickly, relocating to Framlingham Castle in Suffolk. It is a well-situated fortress, perfect for war. Meanwhile, Northumberland – still not believing Mary is a credible threat – slowly gathers his forces. He is slowed by the people – who prefer Mary, and make that known. Ordinary people confront their lords, demanding they make allegiance with Mary, even threatening to abandon their lords in order to fight for her. They believed in the will of Henry VIII, which stated that Henry wanted his daughters to inherit should Edward die childless. The will had been approved in two Parliamentary acts, making it incredibly legitimate in the eyes of the people.
Religion was also a factor. Edward’s persecution of the Catholics was still well remembered by the people, half of whom were likely still Catholic. In a country torn by religious war, the people wanted peace – they wanted a time before Henry VIII had pursued Anne Boleyn. We have to remember that it’s only been 20 years since England’s religious life was turned upside-down with the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so the memory is still really fresh.
This is exemplified in one story. In Ipswich, Sir Thomas Cornwallis – the sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk – supports Jane in public. Yet immediately, the people shun and scorn him. Seeing the public favor of Mary, Cornwalllis rides to Framlingham and meets with Mary – begging her forgiveness and swearing his allegiance. Other gentry follow suit.
On July 12, Jane’s father became ill. Jane insists her father remain at the Tower, and sends Northumberland in his place to the battlefield. Northumberland knows if he leaves, everything could fall apart. But Jane was likely not thinking of it like this – she was likely more seeing an opportunity to assert herself, removing Northumberland and allowing her to take control. She also had a daughter’s love – looking out for her father. Northumberland obeyed – taking his best men to the battlefield.
As he does, the gentry move to support Mary instead of Jane. It’s really an extraordinarily democratic moment. The people have chosen Mary over Jane, and they are forcing the noble’s hand in choosing loyalties. Mary’s forces turn into thousands, thanks to the will of the people. This is because Mary is a much more known figure – she had been seen by the public all her life. In contrast, Jane is relatively unknown – she had led a very sheltered life, so the public did not know her at all.
By now, the Privy Council is struggling, especially since Jane refuses to make Guilford king and their leader, Northumberland, is away. On July 14, Jane asks for an inventory of the royal jewels, which were now hers, though we don’t know why. She might have been preparing for a coronation ceremony, trying to understand how she should dress.
On July 15, Northumberland’s forces surround Mary. Yet bad luck ensues – a heavy northeasterly wind forces his ships to take refuge in an estuary. Additionally, tavern gossip leads Mary’s forces to realize that some of the ships have not been paid and are unhappy – they coup and get the ships to turn to Mary’s side. This means Northumberland is now outmanned and outgunned. The news of the mutiny frightens the Privy Council, who don’t tell Northumberland of the mutiny – leaving him to his fate. Even Jane’s most ardent supporters are afraid. As Mary’s support spreads, militias gather against London and nobles fear for their lives if they continue to support Jane.
Over the next four days, Jane’s support crumbles. She locks herself and her supporters in the Tower of London. The mood must have been very anxious and depressing – locked up inside the fortress, Jane must have wondered whether her initial reaction – that Mary was legitimate – was something she should have held fast to. Whatever Jane’s feelings were during this time, we have no record.
The armies meet on July 18 outside Framlingham. In London, Jane’s supporters are fleeing – one of whom gathers an army 10,000 strong to lay siege on London. Another who flees is Jane’s own uncle. They are said to have fled by the hour, disappearing from the Tower. Jane frantically writes letters for help, some of which survive. She asks for help mustering troops and come quickly to Buckinghamshire to help quell the rebellion. But it is too late – Northumberland’s potential defeat has scared off everyone. Meanwhile, Northumberland is finally informed that he is outnumbered and outgunned – in response, he withdraws back to Cambridge.
By the end of July 18, Jane knows her fight is over. Few supporters remain, notably her father – Henry Grey – and her husband, Guildford Dudley.
On July 19 – just 12 days after being proclaimed Queen – the Privy Council declared Mary the legitimate Queen. They did this to save their own lives – realizing that Jane was a lost cause. The city erupts in celebration of the proclamation, and Mary becomes Queen without a single battle.
The Privy Council sends a military force to the Tower to inform her of the decision. Henry Grey, her father, is the one to accept the news, stating “I am just one man.” He then informs Jane, removing the cloth of state from Jane’s head. According to witnesses, Jane is neither angry nor sad – she simply states that she will give the crown to Mary willingly, and asks if she can return home. For Jane, it almost appears as if she doesn’t fathom what her actions have cost her. This is a point that makes historians wonder – if Jane was so intelligent to gain control during her nine days, what would make her so willingly give it all up and assume she can go home?
Jane was now considered a traitor. She was stripped of her valuables and escorted to a small house on the Tower Green – the house belonging to the jailer. Her rooms – once lavish – was now a small house, where she was referred to as Lady Jane. She was kept separate from her husband.
On August 3, Mary finally entered the Tower as Queen. She was said to be a vision of royal splendor, displaying the wealth and power of a Queen. Mary quickly turned to deciding Jane’s fate. Despite advice, Mary wanted a bloodless solution – this was her cousin, and Mary wanted to be merciful as she began her reign. Her advisors looked for ways to declare Jane’s marriage – even her life – illegitimate, which would spare her execution. Part of this was likely due to Jane’s mother, a former confidant of Mary who persuaded the Queen that the blame was entirely on Northumberland. Mary pardoned Jane’s father, allowing him to return home. Additionally, it seems Jane agreed with her mother – stating to friends of Nathaniel Partridge that Northumberland was the architect of it all, and she hated him.
Yet Jane would not be saved. Too many called for her to be put on trial, and executed. Jane’s public trial was held on November 13, in the Guild Hall. Jane was tried alongside Guilford, with Jane dressed entirely in black and holding her prayer book. Jane remained calm during the trial, and even pled guilty. Guilford pled guilty as well. Both were found guilty and convicted to death. Jane’s fate was to be set by Mary, while Guilford was to suffer hanging, drawing, and quartering.
Mary suspended Jane’s sentence, hoping to bring people together rather than continue the violence. But unfortunately, Jane was not prepared for the life Mary offered her. A Catholic Queen, Mary re-legalized Catholic Mass. Instead, Jane wrote letters from her prison, which vented her Protestant faith and called Catholic Mass a form of satanic cannibalism. Jane goes so far as to write to a former tutor calling for war against Mary’s religious rule. At exactly the time Jane should have stayed quiet and obeyed, her will shows again – speaking out for her Protestant faith and advocating what Catholics would see as an act of war. Yet Mary overlooked these letters – continuing to refuse to sign the death warrant. Jane is left isolated in the Tower, visited by a select few – including her parents, as Mary begins to remove all traces of Jane’s existence in an effort to help the people forget her.
Yet one twist of fate awaited. While imprisoned, Thomas Wyatt led a force to try to remove Mary from the throne. Wyatt and his forces were captured and tried, and Jane was implicated in the plot – even if she had no hand in it. Hundreds were sentenced to death, including Jane’s own father – who was executed.
Wyatt’s actions – and her father’s – sealed Jane’s fate. Mary was left with no choice – she signed Jane’s death warrant.
Jane prepared to die, doing so with the grace seen of other Tudor ladies whose fates had been met at the Tower. In a letter to her sister, Catherine, she stated, “And as touching my death, rejoice as I do and consider that I shall be delivered of this corruption and put on incorruption, for as I am assured that I shall for losing of a mortal life, find an immortal felicity. Pray God grant you and send you his grace to live in the love..”
Yet we can imagine that Jane was also angry, likely at the circumstances and men who had led her to this fate. In a letter to her father, she wrote, “Although it hath pleased God to hasten my death by you, by whom my life should rather have been lengthened…” Though Jane goes on to accept – and almost celebrate – her fate, she was likely miserable. Finding only comfort in her faith.
Jane was executed on February 12, 1554, within the Tower itself. She is one of a select few afforded this privilege of a private execution – joining Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard in this honor. As an anonymous witness to the scene described, “By this time was there a scaffold made upon the green over against the White Tower, for the said Lady Jane to die upon…. The said lady, being nothing abashed….with a book in her hand whereon she prayed all the way till she came to the said scaffold…. First, when she mounted the said scaffold she said to the people standing thereabout: ‘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’ and therewith she wrung her hands, in which she had her book. And then, kneeling down, she turned to Feckenham [the dean of St Paul’s] saying, ‘Shall I say this psalm?’ And he said, ‘Yea.’ Then she said the psalm of Miserere mei Deus, in English, in most devout manner, to the end. Then she stood up and gave…Mistress Tilney her gloves and handkercher, and her book to master Bruges, the lieutenant’s brother; forthwith she untied her gown. The hangman went to her to help her therewith; then she desired him to let her alone, and also with her other attire and neckercher, giving to her a fair handkercher to knit about her eyes.
Then the hangman kneeled down, and asked her forgiveness, whom she gave most willingly. Then he willed her to stand upon the straw: which doing, she saw the block. Then she said, ‘I pray you dispatch me quickly.’ Then she kneeled down, saying, ‘Will you take it off before I lay me down?’ and the hangman answered her, ‘No, madame.’ She tied the kercher about her eyes; then feeling for the block said, ‘What shall I do? Where is it?’ One of the standers-by guiding her thereto, she laid her head down upon the block, and stretched forth her body and said: ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!’ And so she ended.”
Lady Jane Grey was dead at 17.