February 12 is the anniversary of Lady Jane Grey‘s beheading at the Tower of London. The Protestant teenager was the designated successor of sickly boy-king Edward VI, but popular and aristocratic support went for Mary Tudor in a landslide.
The Nine Days’ Queen landed in the Tower and copped to a treason charge on a tenuous deal for mercy (not applicable to her sponsors and allies, many of whom went to the block). But a January 1554 Protestant rebellion that had Protestant restoration as part of its programme made it a dangerous indulgence for Mary to keep her cousin’s neck attached to its shoulders.
On this auspicious anniversary, Executed Today is pleased to welcome Jane Grey expert J. Stephan Edwards, Ph.D. Dr. Edwards runs the Some Grey Matter site, and is working on a forthcoming book about our day’s famous beheadee.
ET: The conventional wisdom on Jane Grey is that she was basically destroyed by the machinations of the men around her. Is that a misapprehension? Was she more involved in events than she’s given credit for? Can one take seriously the notion that she didn’t want to be queen?
JSE: Having spent almost ten years researching the life of Lady Jane Grey Dudley and her very brief reign as Queen of England in July 1553, I am confident that she was not directly involved in the plans to make her Edward VI’s successor to the throne. At the same time, however, I am completely convinced that she was well aware of those plans at least six weeks before she actually became queen. And it is beyond question that she knew of the plan at least a week before her accession. Thus the standard mythology that portrays Jane as utterly unaware and totally innocent until the last possible second is just that … a myth.
I am similarly convinced that Jane accepted the crown after offering little more than perfunctory resistance. The crown offered a degree of personal independence that would otherwise have been unavailable to her. It also offered power. Despite Victorian-era storytelling to the contrary, Jane Grey Dudley was very much a product of her own age, and that was an age of widespread personal ambition, of duty to both family and God to advance one’s self and one’s family. It would have been a deep betrayal of her family and of social norms actually to refuse such an exalted position.
In the act of accepting, she is recorded to have asked God for some sign that she should refuse, paused for a moment, and receiving no such sign, she accepted. Further, Jane was apparently an adherent to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that all things, including our daily lives, are preordained and known to God, and as humans we are powerless to alter God’s plan. Having prayed to God for a sign that she should refuse the crown and receiving none was no doubt to her an indication that her God’s preordained plan was for her to be Queen of England. She therefore accepted without offering further resistance of any kind.
Further, there is ample evidence to show that Jane fully embraced her new status. She signed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of documents with her own hand rather than relying on a privy secretary to sign in her stead (common practice in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI before her). This indicates active and positive involvement in affairs. And on more than one occasion, she countermanded the orders of her council, imposing her own will upon them, again evidence of an intent to rule.
Was she “destroyed by the machinations of the men around her”? I think perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Jane Grey Dudley lived in an era when women were second class citizens with few legal rights and virtually barred from public affairs. Yet the circumstances of July 1553 mandated that a woman must assume the throne, however much that contradicted 400 years of established English practice. If anything, Jane Grey Dudley was a pawn in a political chess game in which the players, all male, searched desperately for a male king, yet all they had at hand were potential queens. The male players at the chess board were simply struggling with the pieces they had available and trying to make the best of an unfamiliar and even frightening situation. They failed, and Queen Jane was one of the unfortunate pieces swept from the board.
Jane is obviously a romantic figure — small r, big R — in part because she didn’t ever have the chance to start doing the un-romantic things that rulers have to do. How has her image changed over the years? What about her would most surprise people today?
Actually, Jane did “do some of the unromantic things that rulers have to do.” She sat in daily on meetings of the Privy Council. She helped to plan military maneuvers against her cousin, the future Queen Mary … maneuvers intended to bring about the latter’s death. She sent thousands of men off to die in battle. The nine short days of the reign of Queen Jane were packed with unromantic and burdensome activity unfamiliar to a woman of not quite eighteen years of age.
If anything, the years have served to erase much of that non-romantic material and replaced it with the image of an obedient girl-child secluded in study or prayer, uninvolved in the affairs of the world. Indeed, one biographer writing in the 19th century referred to her existence as one of “splendid isolation.”
Yet she was anything but isolated. The historical evidence makes it clear that she was socially active, participating in many of the public celebrations held by her kingly cousin’s court. She traveled a great deal, visiting with relatives and friends of the family scattered across the entire realm. And she had a love of music that was intense enough to give her tutor concern that she was becoming too distracted from her intellectual studies. The picture that has emerged from my own research is of a girl who was quite “normal” for those of her social and economic status in that era, with the possible exception of a gift for languages.
Had Jane, in fact, ruled, how different might events in England been? (and elsewhere, since this was also a key period of imperial competition?)
I am not myself a huge fan of “counterfactual history,” of speculating about “what might have been.” But since a lot of people do ask this question, I will say this: Had Jane remained queen, and had Mary remained on the political periphery (or been executed), it seems to me that the British Isles would be a very different place today. Just in basic political terms, Elizabeth also would likely not have become queen, so the great Elizabethan “Golden Age” would never have happened. Also, Jane would likely have had children, so there would not have been any need to reach outside the realm in 1603 to find an heir. James VI of Scotland would never have become James I of England, and Scotland may have remained forever a separate kingdom and nation. Without a King James of England, there would not have been a Charles I of England, and thus perhaps no religious civil wars in the mid 17th century. Carried still further, James II would never have become king, and no Act of Settlement would have been necessary. The Hanoverians would never have succeeded to the English throne … no George III and perhaps no American revolution. Certainly no Queen Victoria. And the current queen would instead be a German housewife.
All of this would likely have left England as a relatively small nation. It probably would never have become “Great Britain,” either geo-politically or symbolically. It might well have remained a minor actor on the international political stage. The great “British Empire” and the modern Commonwealth might never have existed.
Religiously, England might also have been very different. The more radical strain of evangelical reformism (later called “Puritanism”) espoused by Edward VI and Jane may well have prevailed. The moderate Elizabethan religious settlement of the 1560s likely would not have happened. Thus the Church of England might have looked today more like a Presbyterian or Lutheran church, both doctrinally and physically. Anglicanism today would have been based on simple preaching, with most ritual and liturgy pared down to a bare minimum. No vestments, no decorated churches, and perhaps no bishops and archbishops. All of that would, in turn, have had a huge impact on English culture, art, literature, etc.
In short, had Jane reigned long, the world would be a very different place today, in ways that we probably cannot even begin to imagine.
How did Jane herself change over the course of her experiences in proximity to power, and then as the queen, and then in the Tower?
This is a very difficult question to answer, if not an impossible one, because we have so very little evidence about Jane herself, her character, and her personality. We know next to nothing of her innermost thoughts and attitudes during this period, especially the period during her imprisonment in the Tower. The one thing that we can perhaps say is that religion became Jane’s chief comfort during the last six months of her life, and she clung to her faith with tenacity. The evidence suggests that she was accepting of her death in the belief that she was serving her God and her faith. In fact, she seems to have carried out the activities of her last days with great care and deliberateness so as to leave a carefully constructed final impression on others. She wrote a judiciously worded letter to her sister and penned a brief note to her father, almost certainly conscious that both would be published after her death. She engaged in a semi-public theological debate with Queen Mary’s own Roman Catholic chaplain and hand signed a transcript of that debate in order to authenticate her words. And lastly, she delivered an ambiguously worded speech from the execution scaffold that declared herself simultaneously innocent and guilty. Jane was a relatively unknown private figure when she became queen, and a very public one by the time she died, well aware that she would soon be known across Europe. That transformation from private to public figure must surely have changed her profoundly, in ways we can only guess.
As a researcher, how do you deal with the sketchy documentary trail on Lady Jane?
Historians and researchers deal every day with people and groups of people for whom few written records or other evidence exists. To compensate, many modern historians take pieces of evidence from here and bits of data from there and compile them, then use that compilation to construct snapshots of groups rather than of individuals. For example, we can reconstruct from written records the amount of charity that was dispensed in certain specific regions (e.g., a single parish in London). From that amount, we can gain some idea of how extensive poverty may have been in that region. And from the list of names and ages of those to whom charity was dispensed, we can deduce what percentage of the poor were male or female, young or old … even if we know nothing more than their names and ages.
With Jane, I have reversed the process. Historians have done a great deal of work to describe aristocratic young women in England in the sixteenth century … their education, their religious beliefs and practices, their domestic lives, etc. If that group composite picture is valid, we should also be able to say that if a certain person is a member of that group of young female aristocrats, she is likely to have had similar characteristics. Thus I have proposed that in the absence of any written evidence to the contrary, Jane was probably very much like her social and economic peers in many ways. She was different only in those ways for which we have clear evidence, such as her proficiency in as many as five to seven languages.
How was her execution carried out? Was it typical for its time, place, and circumstances?
Dying was an active process in the Tudor era. It was something a person did, not something that happened to a person. Those facing death were expected to carry out certain predetermined actions and to behave in certain specific ways as demonstrations that they were destined to go to heaven. Dying was to be done with dignity, with a measure of planning (if the death was anticipated far enough in advance), and with particular tasks to be performed by the dying before they took their leave of the earthly world and moved on to the spiritual world. A large body of literature and advice books on how to die, or “the art of dying” (ars moriendi in Latin), emerged during the period. Jane Grey Dudley played her part so well that she was held up as an example to all in later years of “how to die well.”
The condemned were always afforded the opportunity to prepare themselves spiritually, with the method of preparation dependent upon the form of religion then in place. Jane was executed after Roman Catholicism had been re-instituted in England, so she was given the opportunity to confess to a Catholic priest, to be absolved, and to take final communion. Holding firm to her Protestant beliefs that confession was a private matter between penitent and God alone and not necessitating a priest’s hearing, that absolution was given only by God and not mediated by priests, and that the Roman Catholic Mass was erroneous, she instead engaged in a public theological debate with John de Feckenham. During this debate, Jane professed her faith to a sizable audience, outlining its central tenets, an action that itself served as a kind of “Protestant confession” without directly involving a priest in the process.
She then wrote letters to her sister and father bidding them farewell and offering spiritual counsel to them as well. She probably wrote letters to others, especially her mother, but they have not survived. Taking leave of the world and offering consolation to those to be left behind was part of the ars moriendi. Jane’s letter to her sister, in particular, was reproduced repeatedly over the next century as a near-perfect example of how to bid farewell to loved ones. [Available here, the last of several Jane Grey letters reproduced in this public-domain book.]
On the morning of the execution, she would have dressed appropriately in a simple gown of somber color, usually gray or black (certainly not the angelically virginal white depicted in Paul Delaroche’s famous histrionic painting of her execution). Many carried some type of religious text with them to the place of execution, often a Missal or Book of Hours (for Catholics) or a New Testament or copies of the Four Gospels (for Protestants). Jane carried a book of prayers copied from the works of St Jerome, St Ambrose, and St Austin, each a father of the early Christian church of the fourth century (Tudor-era Protestants recognized the value of the writings of these men though they denied their status as saints and intercessors in heaven). That morning, she carefully inscribed the book to her jailer in preparation for presenting it to him in her last moments. Small gifts to jailers, and even to executioners, were considered signs of humility and Christian forgiveness.
Jane was to be executed within the relatively private walls of the Tower of London rather than in the full glare of the crowds outside the walls on Tower Hill. Executions were large public spectacles that often drew huge audiences, so a private execution was considered a great favor to the condemned.
There was no permanent execution scaffold within the Tower. Scaffolds were built specifically for each execution, then immediately dismantled. The eye-witness accounts indicate that the scaffold for Jane’s execution was built against the wall of the central White Tower, at its northwest corner … the corner closest to the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula. Since Jane was housed in the upper storey of the Gentleman Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) quarters, which still stands today, she would have seen the scaffold being built just a few yards across Tower Green. She would also have had a very short walk from her quarters to the scaffold, though she would have been in full view of the many permanent residents, workers, and official visitors within the Tower that busy Monday morning. She is said by eyewitnesses to have made the walk with great dignity and without any outward signs of distress.
Jane was accompanied to the scaffold by at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and by John de Feckenham, her debate opponent of the previous days. Feckenham served two purposes. Firstly, he was available should Jane wish to convert to Roman Catholicism in her final moments, and to offer whatever spiritual comfort he could should she chose not to convert. No Protestant preacher or pastor was allowed. Secondly, Feckenham served as the personal representative of Queen Mary, ready to witness the proceedings and to recount them to his mistress.
Upon reaching the scaffold, Jane, like all those condemned to die, was allowed to make a final speech. Such speeches were customarily written and memorized in advance with great care, as it was common practice for the witnesses present to write down the dying person’s last words. Scaffold speeches were often published within days of the execution and circulated widely, sometimes as political propaganda, sometimes as educational tools or warnings to others, and sometimes simply as “news of the day.” Jane would have been well aware of this practice, and her final speech, as it was published barely more than a month later, reflects a careful choice of words. She stated that she was guilty of having broken the law by accepting the crown, but that she was innocent of having sought it. She acknowledged the justice of her execution, as all condemned were expected to do. Protestations of innocence at the moment of execution were paradoxically considered signs of guilt, of lack of humility, and transgressions of God’s will.
Jane also asked those in the small audience to pray for her soul “while yet I live.” Her choice of words reflected her disagreement with the Catholic practice of saying masses for the dead. She then kneeled and asked the audience to recite along with her as she spoke the words of Psalm 51, the Miserere, which begins, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”
Those of noble or royal status who were convicted of treason were often beheaded, whereas men of lower birth were hung, drawn and quartered and women of lower birth were often burned at the stake (considered more “humane” for the “weaker sex” than hanging, drawing and quartering). The monarch’s consent was required for beheading, but it was seldom withheld. Thus Mary consented to Jane being executed by beheading with an axe. Therefore, following her recitation of Psalm 51, Jane stood again to make final preparations to meet the axe. She handed her gloves and handkerchief to one of her ladies, and gave her small prayer-book to Thomas Bridges, the brother of the Lieutenant of the Tower. The prayerbook has survived and is sometimes displayed as part of the permanent “Treasures of the Library” exhibition at the British Library in London.
After her attendants assisted her to loosen the neck of her gown, the executioner knelt in the customary request for forgiveness from the condemned. The executioner then asked her to stand upon the straw spread around the block to soak up the blood. As she began to kneel, she asked the executioner whether he would take her by surprise and strike before she was ready. Assured that he would not, she tied a cloth around her head to block her eyesight. Then, in one of the most poignant of scenes, she felt blindly for the block, and not finding it because of the cloth over her eyes, she asked, “What shall I do? Where is it?” It was against custom to assist the condemned to find the block, lest the person offering aid be accused of having an unjust part in a death. However, someone -– usually reported as Feckenham –- apparently did reach down and guide her hands to the block. (This instant is the scene depicted in Delaroche’s near-life-sized painting, though most of the details of that painting are quite inaccurate.)
According to the gallery’s advance publicity, “For the first time, Painting History examines this iconic masterpiece in the context of Delaroche’s great historical paintings, particularly the poignant scenes from English history which made his reputation. The exhibition features seven major international loans of paintings by Delaroche including The Princes in the Tower, 1830 and Young Christian Martyr, 1854–5 (both Louvre) and Strafford on his way to Execution, 1835 (private collection). Displayed alongside are Delaroche’s expressive preparatory drawings for Lady Jane and a selection of comparative paintings and prints by his contemporaries, including Eugène Lami, Claude Jacquand and François-Marius Granet.”
Finally finding the block, she laid her neck upon it and repeated Jesus’s words on the cross, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” At those words, the executioner swung his axe and she was dead.
There is a previously unchallenged tradition that Lady Jane Grey Dudley was buried in the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula (St Peter-in-Chains) within the Tower, supposedly beneath the floor just in front of the left-hand side of the altar. A plaque to that effect was placed there in the 1870s, and the modern tour guides of the Tower usually regale tourists with heavily embellished stories of the events.
My own research, however, suggests that Jane may have been buried outside the Tower. Several circumstances of the day support my conclusion. First, the chapel had been restored to service in the Roman Catholic faith by mid-February 1554. The Roman Catholic Church explicitly prohibits the burial of heretics in consecrated ground, and Jane was considered a heretic by that Church. Additionally, there is a contemporary account that tells of the bodies of Jane and her husband Guildford, who was executed the same day on Tower Hill, lying in a cart outside the chapel for several hours. The reason for the delay is given as a need to seek special permission to bury them within. None of the eyewitness accounts of the day go on to speak of the burial itself. Whether this is because none of those eyewitnesses saw the burial take place or because it was considered by them to be not worth the mentioning is unclear. However, Jane’s father Henry Grey was executed on Tower Hill two weeks later for his part in a rebellion in late January 1554, and he is reported to have been buried in the Church of Holy Trinity Minories just yards from Tower Hill. That church was a former abbey of the Order of St Clare that had been closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the 1530s. Henry Grey had purchased the former abbey, together with its church, from the crown in the 1540s. During renovation work in 1851, a workman discovered a carefully preserved severed head that was later identified as the head of Henry Grey. It therefore seems probable that Henry Grey was indeed buried inside Holy Trinity Minories, one of his own properties conveniently nearest the place of his execution. It is equally possible that his daughter Jane Grey Dudley and his son-in-law Guildford Dudley were buried at Holy Trinity just days before Henry.
Holy Trinity was closed as a place of worship in 1899 and merged with the nearby Church of St Botolph’s-without-Aldgate. Henry Grey’s preserved head is now kept in a secret location somewhere on the grounds of St Botolph’s, but the remains of the Church of Holy Trinity Minories were destroyed during the London Blitz of 1940. All that remains is a small public garden in Tower Hill Terrace over the road from the north outer curtain wall of the Tower, a mere 150 yards from the site of Jane’s execution.