I have always held a special fascination for Lady Jane Grey, the nine days Queen. She died a religious martyr at seventeen years of age, and lived her life as a political pawn and social ladder for her overly ambitious parents. What must it have been like for such a young woman to knowingly and willingly face death rather than defy her parents or her religion?
Lady Jane Grey, born in October of 1537 was the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, the marquis of Dorset, and Frances Brandon, niece to King Henry VIII and the third in line to the throne. Jane was named for the King’s wife, Jane Seymour, who gave birth to Edward VI just two days after Jane’s birth. Henry and Frances had big plans for their daughter and hoped she would one day marry the prince.
They raised Jane with strict rules and very little freedom. Her role in childhood was to prepare herself for greatness. She said of her parents, they expected her to “do everything as perfectly as God made the world, or else I am sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened . . . that I think myself in hell.”
At the age of nine, Jane was sent to the court of King Henry VIII to serve his sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr, and to learn about court life in preparation for her future.
The Dorset’s desired only the best education for their daughter and hired royal tutors. Jane proved to be extremely precocious and found her greatest refuge in her studies. Jane would often neglect her domestic lessons in dance, music and riding to lose herself in the more intellectual pursuits.
At a young age she was reading the Greek philosophers, and through her tutor would correspond with German Calvinist and Zwinglian ministers. The correspondence later became known as the Zurich Letters.
When King VIII died, his son Edward VI inherited the throne at ten years of age. Katherine Parr married Thomas Seymour who had taken a liking to Jane and saw big things in her future. He also assumed that through his connections in court he could arrange a marriage for Jane with the new King, young Edward. He offered the Dorsets two thousand pounds to become her legal ward. Eager for their daughter to someday become queen, they complied. Jane, free of her parents’ strict household, found great comfort in her friendship with Katherine Parr. Her two years in the Parr/Seymour household were known as some of her happiest days and it was through Parr’s influence that Jane found her love of the Protestant church. Sadly, Katherine Parr died in 1548 due to complications with the birth of a daughter. Jane stayed to serve as chief mourner at her funeral and then was sent home. By this time, Thomas Seymour had fallen out of favor with the throne, so all hopes of Jane marrying Edward VI were dashed.
The Dorsets refused to give up hope for their daughter and formed an alliance with John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who was one of sixteen executors of Henry VIII’s will. When Thomas Seymour was executed, Dudley reclaimed his title of Lord High Admiral with direct access to the young King. Jane was fifteen years old at the time. Her parents informed her she was to marry Dudley’s youngest son, Guilford. In her only documented act of defiance to her parents, Jane refused. The result was a sound beating from her mother until she submitted. In May of 1553, Jane married Guilford, a handsome and charismatic young man who was also arrogant, spoiled and known as a “mama’s boy.” The marriage was not consummated until a year later, and then the couple still continued to live apart.
During this time, the King, young Edward VI became gravely ill. The next in line to the throne, according to his father’s will, was Mary Tudor, Edward’s half- sister, a woman devoted to the “old church” Catholicism. Greatly influenced by his step mother Katherine Parr, Edward had also become a fervent Protestant. Dudley, along with other Protestant followers close to the king encouraged him to change the succession. In late 1552, Edward began his Device for the Succession eventually naming his cousin Jane Grey, heir. Two months later, Edward VI died.
Three days after Edward’s death, Jane was called before the Council and was told she would be Queen. Horrified, she fell to the floor in a faint. When she finally recovered she announced, “The Crown is not my right, and pleaseth me not. The Lady Mary is the rightful heir.” Her parents, enraged, tried to reason with her. Jane dropped to the floor and prayed for guidance. After several minutes, she rose and took her seat on the throne.
Many people felt Mary was the rightful heir and were not pleased with Jane as Queen. At her coronation there were few cheering subjects. At first Jane refused to wear the crown, but later complied. She had been raised for this position and she decided to embrace the role she felt God called her to. However, when she was told that Guilford would be named King and a crown was being fashioned for him, she claimed she would gladly make him a Duke, but he would never be King. Finally, she would not be swayed from a decision.
Meanwhile, Dudley knew Mary Tudor would try to claim the throne. He left with an army to capture her, but was met by her army marching toward London. While he was absent, the royal council proclaimed Mary the rightful Queen. The proclamation was made and the people of London rejoiced. To save himself, Jane’s father signed the proclamation, went to his daughter’s apartments, and tore down her canopy of estate. Jane was no longer Queen. Jane stated, “Out of obedience to you and my mother I have grievously sinned. Now I willingly relinquish the crown. May I not go home?’
Her father left her in the Tower where she and Guilford became prisoners. Dudley, her father and Guilford were soon executed but Jane had been told the Queen would pardon her. When Sir Thomas Wyatt rebelled against Mary, she realized her Protestant enemies would stop at nothing to take her throne. She signed Jane’s death warrant. Uneasy with her decision, Mary sent John Feckenham, dean of St. Paul’s to Jane to try to convert her to the Catholic faith. Mary knew Jane had taken the throne under duress and if she could be persuaded to claim Catholicism as the one true faith, she could justifiably save her. Jane, true to herself and true to her faith, refused.
In my novel-in-progress, Jane the Quene, I open with Jane’s execution. I wanted to show her great dignity and courage during such a terrifying ordeal. She was a young woman with strong convictions and a desire to always do what was expected of her. She was truly an obedient servant to her kingdom, and her faith.
She emerged from the Tower upon the arm of the Queen’s lieutenant. Her diminutive frame and large eyes gave her the look of a bewildered child. Deep red, wavy locks framed her tiny, heart-shaped, face. She wore black and walked steadily, her head held high. She carried a well-worn prayer book.
They were met at the scaffold by a tall man, wearing vestments of the church. Several other chaplains attended him. She spoke to him.
“Dr. Feckenham, may God grant all your desires and accept my own hearty thanks for all your attention to me. Although, indeed, those attentions have tried me more than death can now terrify me.”
The tall man gave her a faint smile, full of helplessness and pity, and took her elbow as she began to mount the stairs. Her two ladies-in-waiting wailed as she ascended, unflinching, her mouth set in a determined smile. When she reached the top of the scaffold, she stopped and addressed the small crowd:
“I am to die this day for accepting the crown and thus committing treason, but, I do wash my hands in innocence, before God and the face of you, good Christian people. And now, while I am alive, I pray you to assist me with your prayers.”
She knelt, looking heavenward into a sunless sky and recited by memory the fifty-first psalm:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your faithful love,
In your great tenderness whip away my offences;
Wash me thoroughly from my guilt,
Purify me from sin.
For I am well aware of my offences,
My sin is constantly in mind.
Against you, you alone, I have sinned
I have done what you see to be wrong . . .”
She then nodded to her ladies. One of them, her nurse Mrs. Ellen, moved toward her, trying desperately to stifle her sobs. The young lady handed over her gloves and handkerchief, and then handed her prayer book to the Queen’s lieutenant. As she began to remove her heavy cloak, the hooded executioner moved forward to assist her, but she brushed him off. Mrs. Ellen removed the lady’s headdress and neckerchief and took the heavy robes. The executioner knelt before her and asked for forgiveness, which was customary.
The young lady smiled and said, “I give it willingly, sir.”
There followed a five minute silence. Crows could be heard from the crow’s keep, their crude squawking penetrated the silence, sending a shiver down her spine. Dr. Feckenham, the tall lieutenant, raised his face to the sky, closed his eyes, and fervently prayed.
Finally, the executioner told her where to stand, placing her directly in front of the square block. She held her hand out to Mrs. Ellen for her handkerchief, eyes never leaving the wooden stump. She addressed the executioner.
“I pray you dispatch me quickly.” Kneeling down, she looked up at him, confusion on her childlike face. “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” she asked, holding out the handkerchief.
With slightly shaking hands, she tied the cloth around her eyes and then reached her hands toward the block. Her hands flailed in front of her, seeking the wooden perch. “Where is it? What shall I do? Where is it?”
A man from the crowd climbed up the scaffold and gently helped her place her hands on either side of the block. She whispered her thanks and then in a clear voice spoke the words, “Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
The axe went down, sudden and swift. The executioner grabbed the blood soaked head by the hair and held it out in front of the crowd. “So perish all the Queen’s enemies,” he shouted. “Behold, the head of Jane Grey, a traitor.”
References: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/7545/MaryI.html; http://www.ladyjanegrey.org/time_line.html
Picture: 343429 Com de Laroche Jane, Suite 101.com, Wikimedia