Lady Jane Grey is a well-known figure in English history – a naïve young girl, coerced by both her natal family and her powerful in-laws to usurp the crown, reigning for nine days and eventually paying with her life. A fervent Protestant, Jane is often presented as a martyr in popular art and literature. The 1833 painting by Paul Delaroche, ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ depicts Jane as a tragic maiden in white, pitifully feeling her way to the executioner’s block while her ladies swoon and weep behind her. This portrayal is familiar and comfortable, but in life, Jane Grey was a complex character, who could be considered not a usurper, but the rightful heiress of England.
Lady Jane Grey was born in 1536 or 1537 as the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk and Lady Frances Brandon. Jane’s family was royal on her mother’s side – Frances Brandon was a daughter of Mary, Dowager Queen of France and sister of Henry VIII, which made Jane a great-niece of Henry VIII. Henry’s 1544 Act of Succession stated that should all of his children die without heirs the crown should pass to the descendants of his younger sister Mary, meaning Jane was in the line of succession and close to the throne from an early age.
During the English Renaissance it became fashionable for the titled and wealthy to educate not only their sons, but their daughters, and as part of the royal family, Jane received a brilliant education from some of the most respected scholars of the time. Jane’s tutors were often vocal about their Protestantism, and it is likely that she absorbed these views throughout her childhood. In 1547 Jane was sent to live in the household of Thomas Seymour, the maternal uncle of Edward VI, son of Henry VIII. Thomas Seymour had recently married Henry VIII’s widow Katherine Parr, who was herself a noted Protestant reformer who encouraged Protestant thinking and teaching. It is likely that Jane’s religious convictions developed further during this time. In 1553, Jane was married to Lord Guildford Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland.
Later in 1553, Jane’s cousin once removed, Edward VI developed tuberculosis. Edward was, like Jane, a staunch Protestant, and had removed the last vestiges of Catholicism from the Church of England during his short reign. However, Edward was still a minor, and as his illness developed, it became clear that he would not live long enough to produce children to continue his religious reforms. Under Edward’s father Henry VIII’s 1543 Act of Succession, should Edward die without heirs he would be succeeded by his half-sister Mary. Mary was a fervent supporter of the Catholic church, and Edward would have foreseen that his religious reforms would be reversed if Mary acceded to the throne. To ensure that Protestantism in England would continue after his death Edward wrote ‘My Devise for the Succession’, a document which stated that if he died childless the crown would pass to “the Lady Jane and her heirs male” Interestingly, the Devise originally stated “the Lady Jane’s heirs male”, but this was later updated, passing the crown to Jane herself. It is likely that at this stage Edward had realised that he would not live long enough to ascertain whether Jane would produce any male children.
On Edward’s death in July 1553, a reluctant Jane Grey was taken to the Tower of London by her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, and proclaimed Queen of England. The move was not popular with the people of England, who expected Mary Tudor to inherit the throne. Mary was a popular and well-known figure in England at this time, and Jane very young and largely unknown. However, during her short reign, Jane did manage to make her voice heard. She stated that she would not make her husband Guildford Dudley King of England, but would instead name him Consort, a fact which would have infuriated her father-in-law.
Nine days after Jane’s accession, Parliament declared their support of Mary Tudor’s claim to the throne and Jane was declared a usurper and charged with treason. Held prisoner in the Tower of London until February 1544, Jane was eventually executed on 12th February to prevent her from serving as a figurehead to Protestant rebels. She was 16 or 17 years of age.
Mary Tudor’s right to accede to the throne is accepted by most as fact, but actually, this could be disputed. Under English law at this time, only legitimate children could inherit the throne. Mary had been declared illegitimate by her father Henry VIII after he proclaimed his marriage to Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon, invalid. Likewise, Elizabeth Tudor, half-sister to Edward and Mary, had also been declared illegitimate after Henry VIII declared that his marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn, had also been invalid. Henry VIII believed he only had one legitimate child – his son and heir, Edward. His daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, had been restored to the succession, but crucially, not legitimised. It is in fact not possible for both Mary and Elizabeth to be legitimate, as, at the time of Elizabeth’s birth to Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon was still living. Therefore, the question of Mary’s legitimacy must be raised, and indeed had been raised during one of her childhood betrothals, on the grounds that Katherine of Aragon was the widow of Henry VIII’s elder brother.
Even if we consider Mary to be legitimate, we must also consider that the reigning monarch, Edward VI, had specifically barred her from inheriting the throne. The document barring her from accession had been signed by the King and his council and had also barred Elizabeth from inheriting. The next indisputably legitimate heir was Lady Jane Grey.
Conversely, we must also consider that Henry VIII’s Act of Succession predated Edward’s Devise for the Succession, and was passed by an act of parliament. In contrast, Edward’s Devise was signed only reluctantly by his council, and possibly under duress from the powerful Duke of Northumberland. The document’s legality is therefore questionable.
Whether or not Jane Grey was the true heir to the throne or a usurper, her popularity in death has certainly exceeded that of Mary Tudor, who is generally remembered only for religious persecution of Protestants. We cannot know how Jane’s rule would have progressed if she had remained on the throne, but her Protestant convictions were well known, and it is likely she and her family would have supported the persecution of Catholics. However, it is the story of the martyred young girl that lives on in popular imagination.