30 August 2010

Tragic Tales: Lady Jane Grey

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

English history is filled with tragic tales of political pawns and religious martyrs. The markers along the path of the bloody Tudor dynasty include individuals like Anne Boleyn, whose ambition to become Queen of England proved to be the instrument of her own destruction, and Lady Jane Grey, who succumbed to the executioner’s axe after being pressured to accept a crown she did not covet.

The daughter of Henry Grey, the Duke of Suffolk, and Lady Frances Brandon, Jane was the grand niece of Henry VIII of England and cousin to the ill-fated young King Edward VI, son of Henry and Jane Seymour.

Jane was an unassuming young woman who excelled at her studies and aspired to please her demanding parents. Subject to treatment by Lady Frances that would be condemned as abuse by modern standards, Jane once told a visitor:

"For when I am in the presence of either 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, yes presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways...that I think myself in hell."

Jane's father sought the most politically advantageous marriage possible for his daughter and eventually settled upon Lord Guildford Dudley, whose father--the Duke of Northumberland--was considered the most powerful man in England, as Jane's prospective husband. Jane balked at the arrangement, but married Dudley at the insistence of her parents on May 21, 1553.

When King Edward VI lay dying, Northumberland persuaded the doomed young monarch to set aside his half sisters Mary and Elizabeth in favor of Jane Grey because Jane was a devout Protestant. Without Northumberland's interference, the crown would have passed to Mary, the Catholic elder daughter of Henry VIII upon Edward's death. Instead, in a will drawn upon his deathbed and in his "Device of the Succession," Edward effectively left the throne to his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, who, like Edward, was a staunch Protestant.

After months of illness, changes in Edward's condition had been closely monitored and reported. In anticipation of Edward’s death, Mary decided to relocate to Kenninghall in Norfolk, where she would be surrounded by supporters.

Edward died at age 15 on July 6, 1553. Northumberland had to act quickly before all England learned of Edward's death if he was to become the father-in-law of the Queen of England. Not the least of his tasks was convincing a reluctant Jane to accept the crown. Jane had fainted upon hearing the news that Edward had died and named her as his successor.

Northumberland sent soldiers to capture Mary as she fled north, but his attempt to prevent Mary from reaching her Catholic supporters was unsuccessful. Mary reached Kenninghall on July 9th, where she confirmed her brother’s death, gathered her followers around her and promptly declared herself Queen of England.

Northumberland had Lady Jane Grey proclaimed Queen of England and Ireland after she was sequestered in the Tower of London as was customary for monarchs awaiting coronation. Jane marched in a coronation procession through the streets of London on July 10, 1553.

Unfortunately for Jane, when Mary raised her standard as queen, she had the support of 15,000 men. As the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, her countrymen felt Mary had a valid claim to the throne, and the people soon began to rally around her, buoyed by her promise to make no changes to the religious structure of England, a falsehood which earned her Protestant as well as Catholic supporters.

When Mary demanded that Jane renounce her title, Jane willingly did as requested, explaining that she had only accepted the title out of respect for her parents and her father-in-law, who had pressured her to accept the role. Mary was proclaimed the Queen of England on July 19th amid great celebration, while Jane and her husband were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Jane's rule of England--nine days--was the shortest in England's history.

The Duke of Northumberland was executed on August 22, 1553 for treason, and the following month, Parliament named Mary the rightful queen and declared Jane a usurper.

Jane and Guildford Dudley were tried on charges of high treason on November 13, 1553 and sentenced to death. It is widely believed that Mary intended to spare Jane's life, but when Jane's father participated in Wyatt's Rebellion in February of 1554--a revolt against the rule of Queen Mary--he sealed his daughter’s fate. Wyatt's Rebellion was a popular rebellion protesting Mary's planned marriage to Prince Philip of Spain.

Facing pressure from the Spanish court to put an end to the unrest by removing the Protestant threat, Mary signed the orders for execution and both Jane and Dudley were beheaded on February 12, 1554. Dudley was executed first in a public event at Tower Hill, and then Jane was taken out to Tower Green inside the Tower of London and beheaded in private. Private executions were usually reserved for members of royalty, therefore Mary's order for a private execution was viewed as a sign of respect for her cousin. Jane was just 16.

Lady Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley are buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, the parish church of the Tower of London.