Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen of England’s Religious War Period

Lady Jane Grey was an English queen who lived during the 16th century. More appropriately, she was a claimant to the English throne, but only managed to hold on to it for nine days, hence her nickname, the “Nine Days Queen.” Lady Jane’s accession was not brought about by her own doing, but through the machinations of her father-in-law, John Dudley. Whilst Dudley succeeded in gaining the throne for Lady Jane Grey, he failed to secure it for her, and she was deposed soon after. Ultimately, Lady Jane was executed. The tragic story of Lady Jane Grey has as its backdrop the succession crisis of the Tudor dynasty, as well as the Catholic-Protestant tensions in England at that time.  

Lady Jane Grey was born into a noble family at this stately home known as Bradgate House in Leicestershire, England. The main house is in ruins today. (John Neal /  Public domain )

The Early Years of the Noble Born Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey was born in the autumn of 1537 at Bradgate House,  Leicestershire, England . She was the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, the 3rd Marquess of Dorset, and his wife, Lady Frances. It was through her mother that Lady Jane Grey was connected to the ruling Tudor dynasty. Lady Frances was the daughter of  Mary Tudor , the youngest sister of Henry VIII. Mary Tudor in turn was the daughter of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. Therefore, Lady Jane was the great granddaughter of Henry VII, and the grandniece of Henry VIII.

As Lady Jane belonged to a high-status family, she received a strict but good humanist education at home. Thanks to this education, Lady Jane was able to speak and write both  Greek and Latin at a young age. She is also reported to have been proficient in French, Italian, and Hebrew. Apart from that, Lady Jane was exposed to  Protestantism by her father and tutors. This was perhaps the most important aspect of Lady Jane’s education, as it would play a significant and tragic role later in her life.

When Lady Jane was about nine years old, she was sent to live in the household of Catherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII. Following the king’s death in 1547, Catherine married Thomas Seymour, Lord Seymour of Sudely. This was her fourth and last marriage, as Catherine died in 1548 due to complications of childbirth. Consequently, Lady Jane became a ward of Thomas Seymour, who, incidentally, was the brother of Jane Seymour, the third wife of  Henry VIII , and the mother of the new king,  Edward VI

A “likely or possible portrait” of Lady Jane Grey revealing her regal poise in an England beset by religious “wars” between the Protestants and the Catholics. (Unidentified painter /  Public domain )

Ambitious Men Try to Get Lady Grey Married To King Edward

Seymour was an ambitious man who sought to gain control of the young king. With regards to Lady Jane, Seymour attempted to marry her off to King Edward. This plan failed to produce any results, as Seymour fell from power in 1549, was tried for treason, and executed. Following the death of her guardian, Lady Grey returned to her home, and continued her studies. 

Lady Jane’s father was created Duke of Suffolk on 11th October 1551. On the same day,  John Dudley , hitherto the Earl of Warwickshire, was elevated to Duke of Northumberland. Grey was part of Dudley’s party, which, by that time, had almost completely dominated the English court. Dudley’s main political rival, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, was overthrown, and executed in 1552. Although Dudley was now the most powerful man in England, the  de facto  ruler of the kingdom, this was not to last, as he himself would lose his head in the following year.

In early 1553, Edward fell ill, and the king died on 6th July that year. Although not entirely clear, it is thought that the cause of Edward’s death was tuberculosis. The king’s rapidly deteriorating health was a great cause of concern, as his death would trigger a succession crisis. Edward was only 15 years old when he died. He was not married and did not have any children to succeed him. To compound the problem, the person next in line to the throne was Edward’s older half-sister, Mary I. This was a problem because Mary, unlike her half-brother, was not a Protestant, but a  Catholic, and a devout one at that. 

A portrait of John Dudley (by an unknown artist), hitherto the Earl of Warwickshire, who was elevated to Duke of Northumberland. Lady Jane Grey was part of Dudley’s political party, which, by the early 1550s, had almost completely dominated the English court. He was also executed! ( Public domain )

Battles Between Protestants And Catholics End In Executions

Dudley saw the looming crisis, and did what he could to counter it, and perhaps benefit from it at the same time. Lady Jane Grey would play a pivotal part in Dudley’s scheme. On 25th May 1553, Lady Jane was married to Lord Guildford Dudley, Dudley’s fourth son. Guildford is believed to have been born around 1535, and therefore was slightly older than Lady Jane. Apart from that, however, little is known about his early life.

The marriage between Lady Jane and Guildford was arranged for political, rather than for personal reasons, as Dudley hoped to secure the allegiance of the Greys in his scheme. Moreover, Lady Jane was a potential successor to Edward, and Dudley could use her, and her husband, his son, to maintain his  control over England .

The idea to marry Lady Jane to Guildford seems to have not originated with Dudley himself. Instead, it seems that this idea was first proposed by Elizabeth Brooke, the Marchioness of Northampton, a friend of Lady Jane’s parents. It is unclear, however, as to the reason behind the marchioness’ suggestion of this marriage.

In any event, Dudley learned of this proposal, found it favorable, and threw his support behind it. The first recorded mention of a potential marriage between Lady Jane and Guildford was in late April 1553, though discussions may have already taken slightly earlier than that. 

It seems that the one obstacle to this marriage was Lady Jane’s parents, who had been entertaining the idea that Lady Jane would marry the young king, thanks to her royal blue. As Edward’s health deteriorated with each passing day, this dream seemed increasingly unlikely. In order to obtain the approval of Lady Jane’s parents for the marriage, Dudley came up with a plan whereby Lady Jane would succeed Edward upon his death. As already mentioned, this arrangement would also enable Dudley to retain his position of power even after the king’s death.    

King Edward VI’s famous letter detailing that Lady Jane Grey should ascend to the English throne when he died. The letter is called: “My devise for the Succession.” The letter passed parliament but not with ease and thus Lady Jane Grey became Queen Jane for 9 days! (Edward VI of England /  Public domain )

Lady Jane Grey Is Prepared By Dudley For The English Throne

Therefore, Dudley had to persuade the king to name Lady Jane as his heir. This was not too difficult a task for Dudley, who played on the tensions between Catholics and Protestants in England at the time. In the event of Edward’s death, his natural successor would be Mary, the king’s older half-sister. Mary was a devout Catholic while Edward was a staunch Protestant. The king wanted to keep Protestantism as the religion of England but was well aware that should Mary come to the throne, she would bring the kingdom back to  the Catholic faith . Dudley used the king’s concern about this issue to push for Lady Jane’s “candidature” as heir to the throne. 

Although Lady Jane Grey was fifth in line to  the English throne , Dudley succeeded in convincing Edward to name her his heir. Indeed, Edward would have much preferred to have a Protestant as his successor, rather than his Catholic half-sister. Therefore, Edward agreed with Dudley’s plan, and named Lady Jane as his successor in a document called “My devise for the Succession.” Although the document was surrounded by some controversy at the beginning, it was eventually passed by Parliament. 

In the meantime, Lady Jane and Guildford were married. Their marriage took place on 25th May 1553. Less than a fortnight after the marriage, Edward died, on 6th July 1553. The king was only 15 years old. Three days after Edward’s death, Lady Jane was brought to a secret meeting at Dudley’s mansion. Lady Jane was told that she was now the queen of England. Apparently, Lady Jane fainted when she heard the news, but when she recovered, she reluctantly accepted her new role. On the following day, 10th July 1553, Lady Jane went to the  Tower of London , and was formally proclaimed queen.

A portrait of Queen Mary I by Hans Eworth painted in 1554. She wears a jeweled pendant bearing a pearl set beneath two diamonds. She became queen after Lady Jane Grey was dethroned. (Hans Eworth /  Public domain )

Jane’s Supporters Plot Against Mary’s Supporters for Throne

Even so, Mary was still a threat that had to be dealt with. Shortly before Edward’s death, the king summoned his half-sister to his side. Mary, however, sensed that this was a trap to capture her, and decided to leave for the safety of her estates in East Anglia. Not only was Mary out of Dudley’s grasp, but it also turned out that he had underestimated Mary’s popularity. Although Lady Jane Grey’s succession had the approval of the late king, as well as those in power, Dudley and his supporters failed to recognize Mary’s popularity amongst the commoners, until it was too late.

Mary was widely regarded as Edward’s rightful heir, and many commoners were sympathetic towards her cause. For instance, the imperial ambassador reported that when Lady Jane was proclaimed queen, “no one present showed any sign of rejoicing.” Support for Mary came not only from the English capital, but from the rest of the kingdom as well. This was severely underestimated by Dudley and his collaborators. The Privy Council, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and many other powerful men sent a joint statement to show their support for Lady Jane, and another to Mary, telling her to be “quiet and obedient.”

In the meantime, Mary’s supporters rallied around her. Two days after lady Jane’s accession, Mary was in command of a large army, and prepared to march on London from her stronghold of  Framlingham Castle . Only now did Lady Jane’s supporters realize the threat posed by Mary. Dudley, therefore, raise a small army, and led it against Mary. The duke, however, decided to retreat, realizing that it was impossible for him to defeat Mary. Meanwhile, in Dudley’s absence, Lady Jane’s supporters went over to Mary’s side. This included Lady Jane’s own father.           

A depiction of the execution of Lady Jane Grey in 1554 by the French artist Paul Delaroche. (Paul Delaroche /  Public domain )

Lady Jane Grey Defined a Pivotal 16th Century English Crisis

On 19th July 1553, Mary was proclaimed the new Queen of England, and Lady Jane Grey was deposed after a short reign of nine days. Although it was almost certain that Lady Jane would be executed by the new queen, Mary decided to pardon her, shortly after sending her to the Tower of London. This decision was made on the basis that Lady Jane was her cousin, on account of her youth, and because she had been manipulated. Mary’s clemency extended to Lady Jane’s father, but certainly not to Dudley, who was executed for treason on 22nd August 1553.

Lady Jane, however, was a zealous Protestant, and was openly and fiercely opposed hostile towards Mary’s Catholic faith. Consequently, Mary saw Lady Jane as a growing threat. On 14th November 1553, Lady Jane and her husband were arraigned for high treason. Although she pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to death, Lady Jane’s execution was suspended. The involvement of Lady Jane’s father in a rebellion in early 1554, however, sealed the former queen’s fate.

Around the same time Lady Jane was arraigned, there were rumors that Mary was planning to marry Philip II of Spain, who was a staunch Catholic like herself. On 26th November 1553, a plot was hatched to prevent this marriage from happening. The conspirators met at the house of Lady Jane’s father. It is not entirely clear if the resulting rebellion was religious in nature, i.e., a Protestant rebellion against a Catholic monarch, nationalistic in nature, i.e., an English rebellion against a foreigner occupying the throne of England, or a mix of both. 

In any event, the rebellion, known as Wyatt’s Rebellion, was destined to fail, in spite of its detailed planning. The rebellion was named after Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger, the most prominent conspirator, and the one chosen to recruit soldiers and other insurgents in Kent. Several other conspirators were sent to other parts of England for the same purpose. Once the armies were assembled, the rebellion would start on 18 March 1554.

Additionally, the conspirators had obtained promise of support from the French, should the rebellion go according to plan. One of the conspirators, however, lost his nerve, remained at court, and was interrogated when word of the rebellion reached the Lord Chancellor. 

Consequently, the interrogated conspirator spilled the beans, and the rebellion was started by Wyatt on 25 January 1554, much earlier than planned. The rebellion was easily put down, and Wyatt executed. For his part in the rebellion, Lady Jane’s father was also executed.

Although Lady Jane was not involved at all in Wyatt’s Rebellion, she became one of its victims nonetheless, partly because she was a potential rallying point for Protestants who were discontent with Mary’s Catholic rule. On 12th February 1554, Lady Jane, who was only 17 years old at the time, was beheaded at the Tower of London. Thus, the life of England’s Nine Days Queen came to a tragic end. 

Top image: This stamps shows the kings and queens of England in the 16th century. Lady Jane Grey became queen in 1553 but was executed in 1554 during the Catholic and Protestant battles for all of England.  Photo source:  konstantant / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                      

References

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