February 12, 1554 – Lady Jane Grey is Beheaded


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Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, National Gallery of London


Nine days. That’s all Lady Jane’s reign as Queen of England lasted.  Two-hundred and sixteen hours, give or take, from the time she was usurped and arrested. Seven months later, she would be dead.

Historians still have a hard time classifying Jane Grey’s role in the English monarchy – specifically whether she was a legitimate monarch or just a pawn in a dangerous game of power and intrigue.  Only sixteen years old and undoubtedly naive to the situation into which she was cast into, Jane is generally seen as a sympathetic figure whose death was the result of an orchestrated power grab for the throne.

To understand why Jane died, we need to first talk about how she even got to the palace in the first place, and to do that we first need to talk about her great-uncle, Henry VIII. You’ve undoubtedly heard about Uncle Hank’s penchant for marrying and discarding a bevy of women and then having them beheaded in order to move on to the next one. His marital machismo has been exaggerated a bit by history – although he did indeed order the execution of two of his wives, he divorced two more and left a widow, Catherine Parr, when he died at 55 years old.

Henry’s died as a father of three – Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward VI. Mary was a product of his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a staunch Catholic whom he divorced only after leaving the church and starting his own form of Protestantism that he was in charge of.  Like her mother, she remained devoted to the Roman faith and not at all fond of Protestantism. Elizabeth’s mother was converted Protestant Anne Boyelyn, Catherine’s former lady-in-waiting and – unfortunately – the first to fall under the axe when Henry’s passion for her died out. Edward was the son Henry had waited so long for, a sickly boy whose mother, Jane Seymour (Anne’s lady-in-waiting and arguably Henry’s favorite wife) died just weeks after giving birth to him. Raised Protestant, Edward seemed poised to keep the nation Anglican after his father’s death.

Unfortunately, it became apparent that Edward was unlikely to secure an heir before dying. He suffered from a lung disease – possibly tuberculosis – that caused him to suffer greatly. His death would mean that the succession of the English throne would fall to his Catholic sister Mary, and that Protestantism would be likely be outlawed or punished.

Here’s where Jane comes in. After the king’s death, Jane was sent to live with Thomas Seymour, Edward’s uncle. Seymour had married Henry VII’s widow, Catherine Parr. It must have been a fascinating household dynamic – the young king’s uncle, now married to his step-mother, also raised his half-sister, Elizabeth. Adding to the mix that Seymour had shown interest in marrying Elizabeth prior to marrying her step-mother and was often described as overly affectionate towards her, and the arrangement seems vastly more inappropriate.

Jane was Parr’s ward, an interesting and antiquated arrangement where children from noble but maybe lesser economically inclined households were sent to live with more affluent relatives under the guise of learning manners and graces. Catherine’s death after childbirth shortly after left her at the mercy of Seymour, who was constantly at odds with his own brother, also named Edward, for control over the young king.
After a bizarre incident where he tried to break into the king’s sleeping quarters, shooting one of his pet dogs in the process, Seymour was arrested and executed for treason. Yeah, it got really weird there for a bit.

Having seen her household fall apart after the death of Parr and Seymour, Jane married Guildford Dudley, the son of the Duke of Northumberland. It was Guildford’s father, John, who seemed to be most instrumental in what would happen next – pressuring the dying, teenaged King Edward VI to name Jane as his successor, skipping over both Mary and Elizabeth. When Edward passed away on July 6th, 1553. The council appointed Jane as Queen of England and Ireland on July 10th.

Mary, as you may suspect, was simply not having it. She set out, willing to physically capture Jane, rallying troops along the way. Hoping to prevent all-out religious war, and recognizing the support Mary had by Catholics and Protestants alike, the Privy Council denounced her appointment nine days later, allowing Mary to become Queen.

Jane was arrested, along with Guildford, put on trial for treason, and found guilty. There is some argument that her life may have been spared; Mary also came close to killing her sister Elizabeth but ultimately chose not to sign her execution order. Perhaps, despite her rather unfair bloodthirsty image as a woman furiously cleansing England of Protestantism one death at a time, she didn’t take the killing of blood relatives that lightly.

Her death was really precipitated by her father – ironic when you consider he hadn’t been much of a fixture in her life in a decade. His participation in Wyatt’s Rebellion, prompted by Queen Mary’s decision to marry Philip of Spain, made Jane’s continued presence a liability that couldn’t be chanced.

Seven months after their arrest, on this day in 1554, Jane and Guildford were executed. Jane was likely just seventeen years old. Mary went on to rule for just four more years before dying, childless, and naming Elizabeth as her successor, bringing Protestantism back to the English throne after all.