Not only am I a fan of modern royalty, but I also enjoy reading about historical royals, specifically the Tudor period.
On this day in 1554, Lady Jane Grey was executed for treason in the Tower of London. So little of Jane’s life is known that much of the details are either conjecture or outright myth, but the story as we know it is the sad tragedy of a steadfast young woman.
Jane was the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, the Duke of Suffolk. (This duke was the son-in-law of Charles Brandon of The Tudors fame. This made Jane the great-niece of Henry VIII and first cousin once-removed to Henry’s children.) She was a brilliant girl, and became one of the best-educated women of her day. Her parents, possibly disappointed over never having any sons, or because they saw the bookish Jane as weak, were reportedly abusive to her. The story goes that she had to be beaten severely before she would give in to the idea of marrying Guildford Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland (this was part of Northumberland’s plan to cement his hold on power among the King’s Council.)
She became queen because of some political hoop-jumping by King Edward VI and his council, who did not want to see the Catholic (and still legally illegitimate) Mary come to the throne despite the fact that Henry VIII’s will was iron-clad, and as the eldest daughter, Mary was supposed to follow her brother to the throne. Legally, Edward’s “device for the succession” was still weak, but Edward planned to have Parliament ratify his new plans. However, he died before anything could be enacted. After Edward’s death at the age of 15, Jane was proclaimed Queen and moved to the Tower of London, where all Kings and Queens of the time stayed before their coronation. She never left. Nine days later (thirteen after the death of Edward), Mary had gathered the support of most of the country and rode into London in triumph, and Jane was officially a traitor and usurper of the crown.
Realizing that the whole thing was not Jane’s idea at all, Mary initially intended to spare her cousin, but when a Protestant rebellion sprung up over the issue of Mary’s wildly unpopular desire to marry the King of Spain, Jane became a political liability. It was never the goal of Wyatt’s Rebellion to restore Jane to the throne, but Mary could not risk having a prominent Protestant so close to the throne – Jane had to die.
First, however – either to remove her as a viable Protestant alternative or to save her from the Protestant heresy before her death – Mary sent a Catholic theologian to convert Jane. Even though she knew it would mean her death, Jane refused to abandon her Protestant faith. She even debated Catholic priests on theology – and this was at a time when women were expected to keep silent in matters of religion, if they were educated in it at all.
On February 12, 1554, they came for Jane. (Guildford had been executed just an hour or so before.) She had with her only a few ladies, and Dr. Feckenham, the Catholic priest who had been sent to convert Jane, but befriended her instead. Famously, after blindfolding herself, Jane was unable to find the executioner’s block and became flustered. With a helping hand, she stretched out across the block and died with one blow of the axe. She was 16. She is buried in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains) within the Tower of London.
Jane was a quiet, studious girl with a whip-smart mind who much preferred studying to anything else, and she was a devout Protestant who refused to change her beliefs, even when her very survival was at stake. I’m a modern-day nerdy Christian girl (with a love for royalty), so you can probably understand why I admire her so. I pray that I’m never put in Jane’s position, but if I am, I also pray that I can have the same resolve.
I wear black today in Jane’s memory (as well as on May 19 to honor Anne Boleyn), with a red ribbon choker reminiscent of the post-revolution French fashion to memorialize those killed by the guillotine. (The French fashion was part of a really macabre craze, but I hope the centuries since then will lend my practice a little more honor.) It’s the least I can do to honor one of my heroes. (I also named my car Jane because I purchased it a year ago today.)
A more beautiful telling of Jane’s life and death can be found here, at one of my favorite history blogs. As opposed to Gareth, I happen to believe more in the version of Jane’s biographer Eric Ives, and that Jane was Queen, if only tenuously so, but Gareth’s writing is so beautiful that I find myself more willing to overlook the historical debates.