By Rachel Harper
Poor Lady Jane Grey. For nine whole days she was Queen of England in July 1553. Those nine days should have been happy ones, but they were miserable, just like the sixteen previous years of her life. Jane’s story is the ultimate tragedy of an abused child, a victim of manipulation, a courageous young woman who made a brave stand on the scaffold just moments before her life was brutally cut short. Her story has been immortalized in paintings, prose, films, plays, and books, and although some facts differ and theories are a plenty, there’s never disagreement on thing. She was absolutely not guilt of treason.
Jane was born around 1536/7 of royal blood. Her mother, Frances Brandon, was the niece of King Henry VIII, and an absolute nightmare. Frances was a strict disciplinarian who probably saw her petite, auburn-haired, freckled daughter as weak and in need of constant correction. Physical and verbal abuse was the dominate feature of Jane’s childhood. Jane once complained that every second in her parents presence they demanded perfection. “I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways (which I will not name for the honour I bear them) … that I think myself in hell.” Jane, like every other female in Tudor times, was seen as an object to be married off to further the family name and continue the line. But Lady Jane was also smart as a whip, and her intellect was known as far away as Zurich, where she frequently corresponded with scholars.
Jane finally got some freedom from her clawing, overbearing, and manipulative parents. In February 1547, Jane went to live with King Edward VI’s uncle, Thomas Seymour, and the Dowager Queen Katherine Parr. No doubt Jane’s parents were hoping to broker a marriage contract between her and the King, her cousin. The following year, the Dowager Queen died in childbirth and Lady Jane was the chief mourner at her funeral. This was a big job for a pre-teen and she handled the pressure well. Although she was sad to lose Queen Katherine, Jane was relieved to stay on in the Seymour household, which was much preferable to living with her parents. However, her life was shattered a few months later when Thomas Seymour was accused, tried, convicted of treason, and sentenced to death for multiple crimes, one being that he tried to broker a marriage contract between Lady Jane and King Edward. The fact that Jane’s father avoided the axe and largely remained unscathed from the debacle was very lucky. But what to do next about Jane?
Clearly marriage was the answer. Her parents went to the next most powerful man in England after the King, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, and married Jane to the Duke’s youngest son, Guildford. Suffice to say, it was not a happy marriage but fortunately (or unfortunately) it didn’t last long. Within a few months, young King Edward knew he was dying, and that he had to preserve his legacy of Protestantism. Next in line to the throne was Edward’s half-sister Mary who was Catholic. So, in fairness, Edward set aside both of his half-sisters (Elizabeth too, even though she was Protestant) and named his cousin, Lady Jane, as his successor. Lady Jane’s father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland likely played a key part in convincing Edward to name Jane as his heir. When Lady Jane got the news of Edward’s death, by her own admission she was reluctant to accept the crown. However reluctant, she did accept, and she immediately took up lodging in the Tower of London, where it was custom for monarchs to stay until their coronation.
Unfortunately, Jane’s coronation never took place. Mary Tudor rallied her supporters and got the Privy Council to switch their allegiance to her. Mary was proclaimed queen in London on 19th July 1553. Poor Lady Jane was sent to the block with her husband, father and father-in-law. Lady Jane’s mother, Francis married her Master of the Horse, Adrian Stokes, a year after the death of her husband.
Lady Jane Grey is the perfect tragic heroine in every way. A brilliant mind with an abusive upbringing, manipulated by so many people and pushed onto the throne reluctantly, only to have everyone go against her and betray her after only a week. Even though her reign was short, she displayed signs that she could have been a great queen. For example, in an early move of independence, Jane refused to name her husband as King. Instead she offered him the Dukedom of Clarence. When Jane’s moment of death approached her, she handled it with grace and dignity. Jane made the usual scaffold speech, gracefully accepted her fate and committed her soul to God. She granted forgiveness to the executioner, and pleaded “I pray you dispatch me quickly”. Not even 17 years old, the young girl asked the executioner if he would take her head off before she put it on the block. “No madam” he replied, and so she blindfolded herself. But she couldn’t find the block, and as she groped around for it, Jane panicked and cried “What shall I do?” Finally, an unknown person guided her hand to find the block, and Jane put her head down to die. She is buried inside the Tower in the Church of St Peter ad Vincula with previous Tudor queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.