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February 12, 1554 – Execution of Lady Jane Grey

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, by Paul Delaroche, 1833 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a guest post from David Field, a writer of historical fiction who is coming out with six Tudor-era novels this year (for you mystery lovers, he already has a great series – the Esther and Jack Enright Mysteries). Hope you enjoy – and there are more details about him following the post…

The Reluctant Queen

On 12th February 1554 – 475 years ago today – a teenage girl walked tremblingly towards the wooden block that was awaiting her on Tower Green, stained brown with the blood of those who had gone before.  Not her husband, since he had been dispatched earlier that day in front of the howling mob that always disgraced Tower Hill on such occasions, but she had been obliged to watch as his bloodied remains had rumbled past on a cart destined for the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where her remains would join his later that day.  Her official, married, name was Jane Dudley, and under that name she had been tried and condemned to death for treason.  She is better known to us today as ‘Lady Jane Grey’, but even her birth name does not reveal the fatal legacy that was in her genes.  She was a Tudor, and a threat to the new Queen Mary.

Her naive innocence is betrayed by her words and actions during her final few moments.  Having granted her headsman the customary forgiveness, plus the few coins passed to him by her maid in the hope that he would do a clean job, Jane enquired whether or not she was to lie down or remain standing while her head was removed.  The executioner explained the function of the block, and since her own attendant was fumbling with nervous fingers Jane tied her own blindfold.  She had then lost sight of the block, and was led, like a sleepwalker being slowly brought back to consciousness, to the block at which she knelt after declaring, in effect, that she had never wanted to be Queen.  A few short prayers to God, and it was all over.

She had, almost certainly, never wanted to be Queen, but two driving forces had deprived her of any choice in the matter.  The first was her bloodline, and the second the religious conflict that defined almost the entire Tudor era.

She was the grand-niece of the late Henry VIII, and second cousin to the more recent Edward VI.  Her mother, Frances Grey, had been born of the romantic union of Princess Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister, and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, a nursery companion of Henry’s since Brandon’s own father had fallen while holding the battle standard of Henry Tudor at Bosworth.  Frances had married Henry Grey, Duke of Sussex, and they brought up their three daughters – Jane being the oldest – on their estate of Bradgate, a few miles out of Leicester.  Jane received a fine ‘Humanist’ education in the Protestant form, and her ambitious mother introduced her at Court, where she became a favourite of the young King Edward, ruling under a Regency Council.

It was a good time to be a Reformist in religious matters, since the young Edward, heavily influenced by his Seymour uncles, and most notably Edward, Lord President of the Council, was taking the Church of England founded by his father into new realms – and, if you were Catholic by persuasion, dangerous ones.  The Book of Common Prayer was forced onto every parish church, and Catholic rebellions were ruthlessly and efficiently suppressed as soon as they broke out.  Then Edward fell ill, and regardless of the sycophantic reassurances of his physicians he sensed the approach of the Grim Reaper.  It was time to fix the succession.

His father Henry had left it clean and tidy, with the crown going, in order, to Edward and his heirs, whom failing Mary and her heirs, then to Elizabeth and hers.  In the event that some common calamity overtook them all, then the title was to pass to the descendants of his younger sister Mary, which of course opened up the succession to the Greys.  For some curious reason Henry had omitted his niece Frances Grey, the next in line were Elizabeth to die without heirs, and this opened the door immediately to her oldest daughter Jane.

Had Edward left this as it stood, Jane Grey might well have lived to a ripe old age.  As it was, Edward was fearful of the crown passing to his arch-Catholic sister Mary, whose carping tongue on the rare occasions when they met left him in little doubt that she would lose no time in returning England to Rome, undoing the Reformist policies that had dominated Edward’s life.  So he wrote his own last will and testament, and it bypassed Mary, to place Jane at the head of the queue, even before the young Elizabeth.

There was no great outcry at the time, since nobody knew about the will except Archbishop Cranmer, who had witnessed it.  But, fearful of what he had been a party to, he confided in the recently installed Lord President of the Council, and ‘Protector’ of the realm, Sir John Dudley.  The Seymours had fallen from grace, and Dudley – Duke of Northumberland – had a son called Guildford, of marriageable age and quite handsome by Tudor standards.  Without revealing that the bride was one day to be Queen of England, Dudley arranged for Guildford to marry Jane Grey, and when Edward finally succumbed to his recurring chest ailment Northumberland had a somewhat bemused and reluctant Jane declared Queen, and withdrew the happy couple into the sanctuary of the Tower.  They were destined never to leave it alive.

An incandescent Mary Tudor rallied her supporters in traditionally Catholic East Anglia and marched on London, sweeping Dudley’s hastily-assembled army aside.  The nervous Council members changed sides, pledging allegiance to Mary, and Jane and her husband were charged with, and convicted of, treason.  But all might not have been lost – given Mary’s reluctance to have Jane executed – had not Henry Grey taken advantage of the Wyatt Rebellion that broke out in protest against Mary’s declared intention of marrying Philip of Spain.  Grey committed an unrealistically small army to the task of rescuing Jane, and her fate was sealed.  She was too great a Protestant icon to be allowed to live, and she paid the price on this day in 1554.

A Protestant martyr to some, a hopelessly dreamy girl to others.  Usurper or dupe, fatally ambitious or just easily led, she remains the ‘Nine Day Queen’ of the history books, and another almost innocent victim of a turbulent age.

About David Field

David was born and educated in Nottingham, England, and even as a school student he loved to combine English with History.  This former hobby became a new career when he retired after fifty years as a lawyer, and took to writing historical novels on a fulltime basis.  By then he had emigrated to Australia, where he now lives with his wife on the borders of New South Wales and Queensland.

David has written a series of six novels set in the Tudor period, all of which will be published by Sapere Books during 2019, and which between them cover the entire era, from the early life and accession of Henry Tudor right through to the final days of Elizabeth 1st.  The fourth in the series, “A Clash of Seymours,” recreates the life and fate of this tragic girl from Leicestershire who reigned for the shortest recorded period in English history.

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If you like my posts, you’ll love my books! The Path to Somerset came out on August 24 – have you ordered your copy yet? Click on the photo to be taken to Amazon.Com:

(What? You haven’t read Jane the Quene yet? Here are some easy links to Amazon.Com,  Amazon.Co.UK  and Amazon.Com.Au!)

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