There have been times in history when young people accomplished incredible deeds of courage and valor. One of these was the remarkable teen-ager, Lady Jane Grey.
Executed on 12 February 1554, Lady Jane Grey’s claimed rule of less than two weeks in July 1553 is the shortest rule of England in the history of the country.
Lady Jane had a reputation as one of the most learned women of her day, and she has been described as having one of “the finest female minds of the century.” She was fluent in French, Italian, Latin, and Greek, and could also read Hebrew. She was a real child prodigy. Through the teachings of her tutors she became a reformer.
Born around 1537, Jane was the eldest daughter of Henry Grey and his wife, Lady Frances Brandon, who was a niece of Henry VIII, was therefore the next claimant for the throne after Henry’s children.
Jane was a sort-of second cousin to King Edward VI, and they knew each other very well. They grew up together and were very good friends. One wonders what England would have been like if she would have married him, and God would have let Edward live more than 6 years. Imagine how different not only England’s history would have been, but that of our own country, if there had been two Reformed Protestants on the throne instead of “Bloody Mary”. But, apparently it wasn’t in God’s plans.
As it was, there were ongoing negotiations between Jane’s mother, Frances Brandon and the Duke of Northumberland. These led to a proposed marriage to Lord Guilford Dudley, son of the powerful Duke. Jane considered Guilford Dudley an arrogant bully, and had stated her preference for a single life, but her mother made her submit to the arrangement. The couple was married on 21 May 1553.
When Edward VI lay dying in 1553 at age 15, his Catholic half-sister Mary (Later known as Bloody Mary) was still the heiress presumptive to the throne. However, as was the custom then for Kings to name the heir to the throne if there was any question, Edward named his Protestant heirs of his father’s sister, Mary Tudor as his successors in a will composed on his deathbed. Mary Tudor was Jane’s grandmother. This effectively left the throne to Edward’s cousin Jane Grey, who (like himself) staunchly supported the reformed religions.
Edward VI died on 6 July 1553. Four days later, Northumberland and Lady Jane’s mother, Frances Brandon, had Lady Jane Grey proclaimed Queen of England on July 10,1553. Jane was reluctant to accept the crown forced upon her by her ambitious parents. She had not even received the news of Edward’s death before she was summoned to Sion House where nobles fell to the ground and kissed her hand to pay homage to her as their sovereign. She was genuinely grieved to hear of her cousin’s death, and this coupled with the shock or her new position caused her to feel “stupefied” as she would later write.
Within only nine days, Princess Mary had managed to find sufficient support to ride into London in a triumphal procession on July 19. When they heard that Mary was coming, Jane’s council members abandoned her one by one in hopes of saving their own lives. The people also were refusing to arm themselves and fight against Mary to support Jane. Parliament had no choice but to declare Mary the rightful Queen and denounced and revoked Jane’s proclamation as having been coerced. Mary imprisoned Jane and her husband in the Tower of London, although their lives were initially spared. The Duke of Northumberland was executed on August 21, 1553.
Trial and execution
We have available to us the entire account of the debate between Lady Jane and Lord Feckenham that took place on February 10,1554. Jane bravely defended her Protestant faith. Here is an excerpt from that remarkable interview:
‘I think that at the supper I neither receive flesh nor blood, but bread and wine; which bread when it is broken, and the wine when it is drunken, put me in remembrance how that for my sins the body of Christ was broken, and his blood shed on the cross. …I ground my faith upon God’s word, and not upon the church… The faith of the church must be tried by God’s word, and not God’s word by the church; neither yet my faith.’ Jane Grey to John Feckenham, 1554
Though Queen Mary would go on to execute many Protestants, Jane’s death was due to political expediency rather than religion.
Jane and Lord Guilford Dudley were both charged with high treason. Both defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death. Jane’s sentence was that she be burned alive [the traditional English punishment for treason committed by women] on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases. We’ve already seen that Anne Askew was burned, but often people of royalty or rank were given the “easier” death sentence of beheading.
On the morning of February 12, 1554, the authorities took Guilford from his rooms at the Tower of London to the public execution place at Tower Hill and there had him beheaded. A horse and cart brought his remains back to the Tower of London, past the rooms where Jane remained as a prisoner. Jane was then taken out to Tower Green inside the Tower of London, and beheaded in private. With few exceptions, only royalty were afforded the privilege of a private execution; Jane’s execution was conducted in private on the orders of Queen Mary, as a gesture of respect for her cousin. Jane’s last words were:
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.
She then recited Psalm 51 (Have mercy upon me, O God) in English. With her head on the Jane spoke the last words of Christ as recounted by Luke, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!” She was then beheaded. Jane’s courage as such a young woman, only 16 years old, who would not budge from her faith in the face of death is an example to all.
She sent a message to John Brydges, lieutenant of the Tower of London, saying, “’Live still to die, that by death you may purchase eternal life…. As the preacher sayeth, there is a time to be born and a time to die; and the day of death is better than the day of our birth.’
Jane was buried at St. Peter-ad-Vincula between the bodies of two other headless queens – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. During the reign of her Protestant cousin, Elizabeth I, she was celebrated as a martyr to her faith and remains one of the most famous queens of England.