ICYMI, England once had a queen for only nine days in the summer of 1553. Slipped between Edward VI and Mary I, Jane’s brief reign speaks to the gender, religious and dynastic issues the Tudors faced from the last years of Henry VIII to the first years of Elizabeth I. Her actions were at the direction of others and her intentions likely quite benign; still a teenager when she died, it’s not difficult to grasp why she has captured the public’s imagination and sympathy since her execution on February 12, 1554.
The traditional point of view on Jane’s birth was that it took place in October 1537, the same month and year in which the future Edward VI was born to Jane Seymour. However, new scholarship has theorized that she may have been born as early as the spring of 1536. Named for King Henry’s third wife, it’s a safe bet the soonest she could have been born was late May 1536 since Henry and Jane married on May 20th. Her parents were Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset and Frances Brandon, Marchioness of Dorset, both of whom, but especially Frances, had familial ties to the Tudors.
Frances was the eldest daughter of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, one of Henry VIII’s closest friends since boyhood, and Mary Tudor, Queen of France, Henry’s younger sister. Charles and Mary had married secretly, without the King’s permission, following Mary’s brief stint as the third wife of King Louis XII of France in 1515. Initially infuriated by the couples’ flagrant disregard for his authority, they would eventually be eased back into Henry’s favor.
Henry Grey, meanwhile, was a grandson of Elizabeth Woodville, consort to Edward IV, via her first marriage to the Lancastrian Sir John Grey. As such, his father had been the half-brother of Queen Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII’s mother. While the Greys were regarded warily by Henry VII, they were would be fixtures of his son’s court, particularly when they married into the Brandon clan in 1533.
At the time of Jane’s birth, it wasn’t inconceivable that the Greys, or another offshoot of the Tudor family, would be beckoned closer to the throne. The same year that Henry Grey and Frances Brandon married, the King broke with Rome, confirmed his divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and married Anne Boleyn. Their daughter, Elizabeth, would be born that September. The Church of England was by no means secure and there were still plenty of Catholic sympathizers (and martyrs, for that matter) that held religious and government office. Anne’s inability to produce a son both led to her downfall and maintained the dynastic prominence of the families of Henry VIII’s sisters, Mary and the older Margaret, whose son, James V, was king of Scotland. Even the birth of Jane Seymour’s son, Prince Edward, by no means wrapped up the issue completely given the high child mortality rate in Tudor England.
As such, it’s a fairly safe bet that Jane’s parents would have preferred a son they could put forward as an alternative heir. Instead, Jane was followed in the nursery by two younger sisters, Katherine (named for Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard) and Mary (named for her maternal grandmother, Mary Tudor). The girls were likely brought up at the Grey ancestral home of Bradgate in Leicestershire where they received a fairly progressive humanist education in comparison to the typical 16th century female, speaking further to their parents’ awareness one of them might be called upon to be learned. It was also fairly par for the course for a royal Tudor education – for all that the women of Henry VIII’s family received the short end of the stick, the educations they received were robust and on par with that of the men.
Jane, however, wasn’t a fan and chafed in her parents’ strict household. When the famous scholar and writer Roger Ascham visited she complained:
For when I am in the presence either of father or mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else 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.
One July 12, 1543 Henry VIII would take his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr. The new Queen Katherine was a close friend of Frances Grey, a firm adherent of the Reformed Faith, extremely learned herself and a proponent of education, particularly for girls. Because of their friendship, Frances was able to secure a place for Jane in Katherine’s household, which would not only further her education but expose her to both the Tudor court and the royal family. It was during this time that she also made the acquaintance of Prince Edward, and as they were roughly the same age they would become childhood companions.
On January 28, 1547 Henry VIII died and on February 20th, Edward, aged nine, would be crowned King Edward VI. The Dowager Queen Katherine retired from court to her home of Old Manor in Chelsea where, in July, she would secretly marry Edward’s maternal uncle, Thomas Seymour. The marriage scandalized the English court and particularly offended Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, Mary Tudor. Edward, however, who was close to both his stepmother and his uncle, was brought around, and Jane would follow the Dowager Queen to her new household where she continued her education. Notably, she was joined there by Mary and Edward’s half-sister, Elizabeth Tudor.
The set up wouldn’t last long. In May 1548 Katherine would send Elizabeth away due to the nature of the 14-year-old’s relationship with Thomas. It’s unclear whether Katherine was more upset with Elizabeth, Thomas or if she blamed them both equally, but in the scandal that later followed, it became clear that Thomas may have entertained notions of marrying Elizabeth himself (she was in line for the throne) and their interactions with each other were flirtatious at best. Reportedly, what led to Elizabeth’s dismissal was Katherine finding her in an “embrace” with her husband. In any event, Elizabeth would write a letter to Katherine and Thomas shortly after her departure that demonstrated some sort of acknowledgement that the relationship had been inappropriate.
During all of this Katherine was pregnant with her first child and on August 30th she gave birth to a daughter, christened Mary. Katherine would die, six days later, of childbed fever. Jane, now roughly 11, briefly returned to her parents at Bradgate, before Thomas Seymour expressed interest in maintaining her in his home – it’s worth noting that the full extent of his relationship with Elizabeth was not yet widely known. The Greys acquiesced and Jane returned for another three months before Thomas was arrested in January 1549. The immediate cause was his political strife with his elder brother, Edward, the Lord Protector, and Thomas’s efforts to alienate him from the young king. However, in building the case against him, his relationship Elizabeth re-surfaced and its details came out, damaging Elizabeth’s reputation and helping to solidify a narrative that Thomas may have been hoping to seize power, marry Elizabeth and take the throne himself as her husband. He would be executed on March 20th while Elizabeth laid low at her home of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.
It was around this time that serious conversations about the possibility of King Edward and Jane marrying surfaced – indeed, it was one of the guises used by Thomas to keep Jane in his household and, certainly, marrying her to Edward would have, in his mind, further cemented his closeness to the throne. He would try a different tack during one of his last interrogations by Council by proposing Jane as a wife for his brother’s eldest son, but the issue was short-lived. Ironically, it would be Jane’s younger sister, Katherine, who eventually married the younger Seymour years later.
Now let’s take a beat and review the succession. Henry VIII’s three legitimate children were born from his first three wives: Mary from Katherine of Aragon, Elizabeth from Anne Boleyn and Edward from Jane Seymour. Because his first two marriages ended in divorce, both of his daughters were declared bastards and stricken from the line of succession for several years. In 1543, four years before his death, Henry VIII wrote an updated Act of Succession which stated Edward and his heirs would follow him to the throne, followed by Mary and her heirs, followed by Elizabeth and her heirs. If all three died without children the throne would pass to his great-niece, Jane. In this order, he bypassed the family of his older sister, Margaret (aka Scotland’s House of Stuart) and his niece, Frances Grey. His exact reasoning for this are unclear, but he and Margaret had often been at odds and it’s possible he just assumed that by the time all three of his children died out, Frances would be long-dead. The Act would be confirmed the following year.
By 1553 the legality of the succession hadn’t changed, nor indeed had the marital or parental status of any of Henry’s children. However, in January 1553 Edward fell ill and by the late spring it was clear he was going to die. The issue then became one of religion for Edward’s heir was his older sister, Mary, a staunch Catholic, while England had been officially Protestant for 20 years and Edward was a firm advocate of his own religion. In June he re-wrote the succession to cut out both of his half-sisters and instead named Jane his heir. Striking Mary out for religious reasons makes sense, but Elizabeth was also a Protestant – this move against her speaks to another issue.
Despite ousting his brother, Thomas, in 1549, Edward Seymour’s hold on his government wasn’t long for the world. By early 1550 he had effectively been pushed aside by a rival, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and on January 22, 1552 he was executed at the Tower of London. Once Edward fell ill the next year, Dudley read the writing on the wall and began to prepare against the reality of Mary’s Catholic reign. Working in coordination with Henry and Frances Grey, who had since inherited the duchy of Suffolk, the two families schemed to join forces and place Jane on the throne. And to sweeten the deal for the Dudley, they married Jane to his son, Guildford.
The wedding took place on May 25, 1553 at Durham House in London in a joint ceremony alongside Jane’s sister, Katherine, to Lord Henry Herbert (the Earl of Pembroke’s heir), and Katherine Dudley to Lord Henry Hastings (the Earl of Huntingdon’s heir). It’s notable that the wedding took place prior to Edward re-writing the succession, indicating that these plans were underway for a while. They were also covert: France and Spain were gearing up for Mary’s reign and the return of England to the Catholic fold, and the Spanish royal family was related by blood to Mary through her mother. Therefore, any plans to debar her could very well lead to a foreign relations nightmare and run the risk of military intervention.
Edward died on July 6, 1553, aged 15, at Greenwich Palace. Three days later Jane was informed she was now the queen of England, a role she was, by her own accounts, hesitant to take on. Reportedly she was berated by her parents, Dudley (now the Duke of Northumberland) and an assemblage of Protestant noblemen who had pegged their hopes on her to block Mary’s rule. Her husband, Guildford, also worked to persuade her to accept the title. In any event, she did, and the next day, July 10th, she was proclaimed queen in London and she and Guildford made their formal entry into the capitol to reside in the Tower of London ahead of their coronation.
Now, opinion on the relationship between Guildford and Jane has been divided. Some have adamantly maintained that the marriage was against Jane’s will and yet another sign of her parents bullying, while others have noted there’s evidence of at least some warmth. There’s not a wealth of information on which to build, particularly given the marriage’s brevity, but there are a few snapshots worth noting. Of those, the most significant is that while in the Tower Jane was presented with the option to name Guildford king by letters patent and she refused, deferring the matter to Parliament.
This can be read a couple ways: 1) Jane, hesitant to be queen, was too squeamish to make such a declaration without the advice and consent of her government and finally had the authority to refuse her parents or 2) Jane, once she had power, was no longer interested in being bullied by her parents and father-in-law and had little interest in ceding that power to her husband.
It’s worth noting, too, that England had had not a female monarch at this point. Arguably, the 12th century’s Empress Matilda can be counted, but she “reigned” briefly and in the middle of a devastating civil war between her and her cousin, King Stephen. She was never crowned and her rule is usually disregarded in the succession of monarchs. That disastrous period was England’s only taste for what a woman in power meant – war. The other factor was that in order to secure the succession a woman would have to marry and since marriages were premised on a woman bowing to her husband, whoever she married would likely have total control. It is for this reason that the eventual marriage of Mary Tudor would be so controversial and it is for this reason that Elizabeth Tudor would never marry.
For her part, Mary learned of Edward’s death at the same time that Jane did. On the day Jane was proclaimed queen in London, a letter arrived from Mary ordering her own proclamation. Two days later, on the 12th, she assembled forces in Suffolk and prepared to meet Dudley head on. Dudley departed London at the head of his own army on the 14th, however no sooner had he done so then London switched allegiances. Mary was proclaimed queen on the 19th, ending Jane’s nine-day rule and transitioning her from monarch to prisoner within the Tower. Three days later, her father-in-law, Dudley, was executed on Tower Hill.
Mary entered London on August 3rd alongside her sister, Elizabeth. At this point, it was not a foregone conclusion that Jane would die. Jane’s father, Henry Grey, when he saw the tide had turned, quickly proclaimed for Mary and was allowed to leave the Tower. Jane’s mother, Frances, was Mary’s first cousin; only eight months apart in age, the two had been close friends and had grown up together – she, too, was allowed to leave. Jane’s fate remained up in the air, but her youth and gender made her a sympathetic figure and Mary likely knew how little say she had had in the events of the summer.
On August 12, Jane, Guildford, two of his brothers and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury under Edward VI, were charged with high treason. Jane wrote an impassioned letter to her cousin begging for forgiveness and, in one of the most tangible insights we have into her relationship with Guildford, described herself merely as a “wife who loves her husband.”
Their trial was held that November at Guildhall and all were found guilty and condemned to death. But there was no immediate move to execute them. Instead Jane was granted the liberty of walking outside in the nearby garden when she pleased. Guildford, kept apart, was held with his brother, Robert.
Concurrently, Mary was not only re-establishing Catholicism, but planning her own marriage. Thirty-seven at the time of her accession, it was imperative that she married and produced an heir as soon as possible to ensure the throne wasn’t inherited by her Protestant half-sister. The natural choice was Spain; in Mary’s youth she had been betrothed to the now Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Though he had subsequently married, his eldest son, Philip, was by this time a young widower in his mid-20s.
Movement on this match began that winter and even prompted a formal request of Mary from Parliament to choose an English husband, the implied choice being her cousin, Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon (a descendant of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville via their daughter, Katherine). It also provoked the first rebellion of Mary’s reign, in which Jane’s father, Henry Grey, participated. Known as Wyatt’s rebellion, its end goal was to displace Mary for Elizabeth, who would then be married to Courtenay. Whether this uprising, which began in January 1554, was motivated more by politics or religion is still debated today, but suffice to say the end result had a bit of a two birds one stone flair for its leaders.
In the height of the rebellion’s frenzy, Mary’s council advised her to have the participants in Jane’s coup executed. The Queen agreed. It’s easy to cast Mary as the villain here and, indeed, she usually is. But this was a woman born and raised to be queen, stripped for her birthright at the age of 17, separated from her mother, forced to bow to a steady stream of stepmothers and give up a faith in which she vehemently believed. That she had persevered and found her way to the throne was incredible, and, more importantly, it was the fate the long-dead Katherine of Aragon had instilled in her was her right. Her adolescent cousin, Jane Grey, was certainly not going to be allowed to jeopardize that.
Elizabeth was brought in for intensive rounds of questions which she evaded nimbly and with politic skill for which she would become known. Though she lost Mary’s trust, her life would be spared. In a way, Jane’s death was not only a crude way of removing another Protestant contender, but a warning shot across the bow to Elizabeth of what Mary was willing to do as queen to protect herself.
Jane and Guildford’s executions were scheduled for February 9, but Mary delayed it by three days, offering her cousin the chance to convert to Catholicism and save her soul – another sign of the familial ties between them. Jane refused. On February 11, Guildford asked Jane for one last meeting, but she refused that too, writing that it would only “increase their misery and pain, it was better to put it off […] as they would meet shortly elsewhere, and live bound by indissoluble ties.”
On the morning of February 12th, Guildford was removed from his lodgings and publicly executed with a single strike of an axe. His remains would be ferried on a cart to the Tower’s chapel, traveling past Jane’s window. Upon seeing her husband’s corpse, she apparently cried out, “Oh Guildford, Guildford!” But then it was Jane’s turn.
She was escorted to the Tower green where she delivered the following speech to the gathered crowd:
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.
The style of victims at their executions is often remarked upon, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard being two who carried off their deaths with style and aplomb. Jane would not be so fortunate, perhaps belying her youth (she was 16/17 when she died). Terrified, she asked her executioner if he would attempt to strike before she had had a chance to lay it on the block. He promised he would not. She tied her own blindfold herself and knelt down, but was unable to find the block with her hands, crying out, “What shall I do? Where is it?” Once assisted, her last words were, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!”
Jane would be buried alongside Guildford in the Tower’s chapel, where their bodies remain today.
Henry Grey would be executed 11 days later on February 22nd. Bizarrely, his severed head was said to be discovered in the Holy Trinity Church in 1851, perfectly preserved because of tannins from the oak sawdust used during his execution. Intriguingly, the London church was known to have been a place of worship for Henry and Frances, and it’s been purported that Frances may have gained custody of his head and hidden it away.
Frances, for her part, was not punished any further by Mary. She was allowed to reside at court alongside her two younger daughters, though kept in poverty. She would remarry within a year of her husband’s execution to her Master of the Horse, Adrian Stokes, and have three more children, none of whom survived infancy She died on November 20, 1559.
Mary would move forward with marrying Philip, though the union would be wildly unpopular and miserable, for Philip at least. Mary fell head over heels in love with her husband, while Philip tried to spend as little time with her as possible, moving between England and Spain. Despite multiple false pregnancies, likely the cause of either psychosomatic symptoms or a tumor, Mary never conceived and died childless on November 17, 1558. She would be succeeded by Elizabeth who promptly re-established the Church of England.
Mary’s reign would become known for its killing of Protestant heretics and she, herself, would become famous by the moniker of “Bloody Mary.” Three hundred Protestants would be burned at the stake, though the unpopularity of her rule and the rise of Protestant martyrdom would truly begin with Jane and Guildford, whose deaths were widely lamented and viewed as unnecessary.
But Jane and Guildford had one final legacy, which arguably was just as important for English history. In the heat of Wyatt’s rebellion, when Elizabeth was held in the Tower under suspicion, she became re-acquainted with Guildford’s brother and prison-mate, Robert. The two had known each other in childhood, but would re-establish a relationship that would have lasting significance throughout Elizabeth’s eventual reign, with many believing the two were in love and planned to marry. They wouldn’t, of course, but Robert is arguably as close as Elizabeth came. Though she survived him by 15 years, after her death a letter he wrote her was found in a box next to her bed. Written on it in her own hand was, simply, “His last letter.”
For more, see From Normandy to Windsor