Most English monarchs are remembered for their marriages, deaths, legislative action and policies, or military campaigns. But Lady Jane Grey, despite being England’s first Queen, is recognised today solely for the extreme brevity of her time on the throne. The shortest-reigning monarch in British history, she ruled for only nine days, becoming Queen on 10 July 1553 and being deposed on 19 July that year. A year later, on 12 February 1554, she was executed along with her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley. While she had a strong claim to the throne, the lack of complete legitimacy and the increasing Catholic sentiment was what ultimately led to her downfall.
Upon the execution of the Duke of Northumberland, her father-in-law and the chief promotor of her claim to the throne, she exclaimed “Like as his life was wicked, so was his end.” The circumstances which led her to despise her greatest political supporter so passionately were well-documented: Lady Grey felt that she had been manipulated into taking the throne and thus condemning herself to imprisonment and death. Indeed, it is difficult to see how a sixteen or seventeen-year-old could have been prepared to run and command an entire nation. While her claim to the throne was a strong one, her queenship was doomed from the start to end in complete disaster for her and her allies.
The claim in question was strengthened by her parentage: she was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII and the first cousin once removed of Edward VI, the king she would eventually succeed. Lady Grey was born in October 1537 (although the exact date is unknown) to Henry Grey, the Duke of Suffolk, and Lady Frances Brandon. Until the age of ten, she was tutored by John Aylmer in her family’s Leicestershire home at Bradgate Park, but around 1547 she was sent to live with Thomas Seymour, Baron of Sudeley and uncle of Edward VI. It was soon after this that the political instability of the period first upset her life.
Thomas Seymour had recently married Katherine Parr following Henry VIII’s death in 1547, but only a year later, she too died. In the wake of his wife’s death, Seymour began to plot to seize power by marrying the daughter of Henry VIII, the woman who went on to become Elizabeth I. However, this scheme to win influence over Edward VI was quickly thwarted by Seymour’s own brother, Edward’s Lord Protector, and in 1548, Seymour was arrested and eventually executed for treason.
By this point, Lady Grey was ten or eleven years of age, and already being used as a political pawn through her marriage prospects. In accordance with his own plans, Seymour had suggested her as a bride for Edward VI himself. Again, after his downfall, her father put her forth as a potential bride for the eldest son of the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour. But, despite the best efforts of her father, she would not be engaged until 1553, to Lord Guildford Dudley. For Henry Grey, such a marriage was an endlessly attractive prospect – it gave him a connection to John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, one of the most influential and powerful nobles in England. For Jane, however, this relationship with the opportunistic Duke proved catastrophic.
From 1549, finding himself Lord President of the King’s Council, Northumberland’s priorities of holding on to his power at all costs were clear. Ida Ashworth Taylor writes: “Northumberland addressed himself sedulously to the task of strengthening and consolidating the position he had won. In the Council he had achieved predominance, but the King’s minority would not last for ever, and the necessity of laying the foundation of a power that should continue when Edward’s nominal sovereignty should have become a real one was urgent.” To this end, Northumberland had spent the last few years ingratiating himself with Edward, in the hopes that he could retain most or all of his power even after the King had come of age.
This, however, never came to be, for in 1553 Edward was taken ill. From here, Northumberland’s first priority became ensuring that a monarch he was closely tied to was named to succeed Edward in his will. Yet his hopes of installing Lady Grey were complicated by a number of factors. That Edward himself was a boy-King, crowned at nine years old and requiring a Lord Protector and King’s Council, is evidence of the volatility of the line of succession and constant desperation to find a suitable monarch during this period of the Tudor era. Furthermore, in 1543, the Third Succession Act had permitted and legitimised the claims of Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.
Northumberland had, however, two factors working in the favour of his choice of Lady Grey First, that Mary and Elizabeth were popularly regarded as illegitimate owing to the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to their mothers, and that no male heirs were forthcoming. Second, that the dying Edward found the idea of handing over the crown to a Catholic, such as his heir presumptive Mary, unconscionable. Edward, like Lady Grey and Elizabeth, was a staunch Protestant, giving Northumberland hope that he might yet be able to hang on to his great power.
In June of that year, owing in large part to the constant influence of Northumberland, Edward’s will clearly stated that he would be succeeded by “Lady Jane and her heirs male”. Shortly afterwards, Edward died, and the throne unambiguously fell to Lady Grey.
To fully consolidate his power, there was one last precaution that Northumberland had chosen to take: the capture of Mary, Queen of Scots, once and for all protecting his power base against a threat from her quarter. Luring her back to London just before Edward’s death, he hoped to imprison and eventually execute her. Mary, on the way to London, was saved only by the warning of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton. With his plans foiled, Northumberland knew that he would have to contend with Mary as a serious threat in the future.
In the days following Edward’s death, further controversy erupted surrounding the Duke. He was already despised by the many Catholics of the country, who resented Mary’s unfair treatment and felt that she, as Edward’s closest and oldest relative, should have taken the throne. But now, accusations began to surface that he had ordered the murder of the Duke of Somerset in order to get closer to Edward. Additionally, rumours abounded that Edward’s death was caused not by disease but by Northumberland slowly poisoning him. Whether or not these rumours held any water is, again, the least part of them. Northumberland had to face the fact that Mary was quickly becoming the popular favourite to succeed Edward.
While the Duke was celebrating his seemingly successful installation of a Queen under his control, Grey herself already had serious doubts about her ability to rule and the stability of her position. She is recorded as referring to herself as “untaught” and “unprepared” before being crowned and records that she fell to the ground “weeping very bitterly” in response to Edward’s death. While Northumberland began to enjoy the extension of his influence in the royal court, she was “declaring [her] insufficiency”; as he made the preparations for her coronation, she still “lamented much the death of so noble a prince”.
Nevertheless, on 10 July 1553, she was crowned, and her unpopularity compared to Mary became immediately obvious. Indeed, only a day after the coronation, a significant rebellion in favour of Mary had begun in Suffolk, while the Earls of Sussex and Bath also rallied to support her. Thus, Lady Grey had no opportunity to pass legislation or exert her power independently, as the entirety of her reign was consumed by the constant threat of Mary and her supporters. The people of England were rapidly seeing through the figurehead of legitimacy that Lady Grey was supposed to provide, instead deciding to raise arms against the much-despised Duke.
On 12 July, in response to this threat, Northumberland began to mobilise his own allies and forces. He himself, however, wanted to remain in London at all costs, and so sent the Earl of Suffolk to quash the rebellions surfacing all over the country. Yet that midnight, it was Lady Grey who, in an act of supreme bravery or possibly stupidity, out of hatred for the man who had abused her for so long, cancelled this plan and condemned the Duke’s forces to be overrun by the mounting rebellion.
Only a week later, Lady Jane Grey was arrested and deposed. Just three days after that, she was given some relief and hope when the Duke was executed. With the man who manipulated Lady Grey to truly threaten Mary’s power gone, she began to entertain some hopes of survival. Indeed, her execution was not as swift as that of Northumberland – it was only on 13 November that she was tried, having been kept at the Tower of London in the interim. Ultimately, she was found guilty of treason for having signed documents as “Jane the Quene” during her time on the throne. Despite the report to Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire pronouncing otherwise, she was sentenced to be “burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases.”
Mary chose beheading, an event that was expedited by the involvement of Lady Grey’s father and uncles in Wyatt’s Rebellion, angering the Queen. At the gallows just before her death, Jane is recorded as saying “I do wash my hands thereof in innocency, before God, and the face of you, good Christian people, this day.”
Lady Grey had a convincing case for her legitimacy as a candidate for Queen, being named directly in Edward VI’s will. But more impactful on the trajectory of her life and legacy than the validity of her claim to the throne were the conflicts she became embroiled with, most notably the growing tensions between Protestants and Catholics and the disputes between Mary and Northumberland. After her death, Lady Grey’s figure was used as a Protestant martyr, representative of Catholic injustice in executing an essentially blameless woman, with historian Albert Pollard describing her as a “traitor-heroine”. The power of her legacy today lies not in her strengths but in her victimhood, at the hands of both figures vying for power as she was caught in the crossfire.
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Pollard, Albert J. (1911). The History of England. London: Longmans, Green.
LADY JANE GREY’S LAST HOURS. (1879). Advocate of Peace (1847-1884), 10(2), 16–16. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27906035
The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey: with Some Extracts from Her Writings. (1800). [Documents]. London : Printed by P. White : Sold by F. Collins and J. Nisbet, [18–]. https://jstor.org/stable/community.32534100
Taylor, Ida Ashworth, 2018. “Lady Jane Grey and Her Times”. Palala Press