Lady Jane Grey ruled as Queen of England for less than two weeks before being deposed in favour of her cousin, Mary I. Tried against an arras of political maneuverings, festering family rivalries, mounting religious tensions, rebellion and hostility, Jane was executed on the morning of 12 February 1554, at the age of seventeen. Yet her tragic downfall had largely played out the year before, spread over a smattering of weeks in July of 1553, following the death of King Edward VI.
21 June 1553: Edward VI’s ‘Devise for the Succession’, which designates his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his rightful heir, is issued. Written in the ailing King’s own hand, this proclamation removes Edward’s illegitimate half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, from the line of succession, a direct contradiction of their father Henry VIII’s will (attempting to establish a race of Tudor kings on the throne, the succession would now pass to Jane and any sons she might bear).
Though the improvisation is largely without precedent, if his late father’s wishes were to prevail, the thirty-seven year old Mary Tudor would inherit the throne and reinstate England’s former loyalty to the Pope, undoing the work the King’s government had done to establish the Edwardian church. It is a likelihood that Edward, as he lay dying, swollen and in failing health, refuses to brook.
4 July 1553: Aware that her brother has no hope of living, Mary Tudor retreats from Hundson to her palace of Kenninghall, formerly belonging to the Dukes of Norfolk and reassuringly near to the coast.
6 July 1553: Edward VI dies at Greenwich. The King’s cause of death was most likely tuberculosis, although Edward’s symptoms were particularly gruesome. In the weeks preceding his death, the young monarch had experienced fever, fatigue, and difficulty breathing. Worse still, he was troubled by a persistent cough that produced bloody and blackened sputum, and severe swelling in the legs. The fifteen-year-old King passes in the arms of his childhood friend, Sir Henry Sidney, having declared his gladness to die. On the advice of the council, Edward’s death is concealed from the public. The unsurprising news that the King was gone, however, reached his half-sister, Mary Tudor, within hours. But as Mary fled east to assemble support in her bid for the throne, Lady Jane Grey, the King’s cousin, was being informed that she was now, by the terms laid out in Edward’s devise, Queen of England. It is a duty that she accepts with a troubled conscience.
7 July 1553: A day after the death of Edward VI, a young Robert Dudley departs from London, leading a force of 300 men into Norfolk where the King’s half-sister, Mary Tudor, is actively assembling support in her bid for the throne. By the time Dudley arrives, he discovers Mary has already declared herself Queen in Norfolk and in nearby towns.
10 July 1553: At five o’clock, a public proclamation announces both Edward’s death and the fact that, by the late King’s statute, ‘the Lady Jane and her heirs male’ were his successors. Printed copies of the ‘Devise’ were circulated among the people, in order to make clear the King’s intention to recognize Jane as his heir. Following the proclamation, Jane is conveyed to the Tower of London and received as Queen. Aware of the people’s outpouring of affection for Mary, she issues decrees commanding her subjects to support her as their rightful queen. According to papal envoy Giovanni Commendone, the people receive Jane’s proclamations with ‘remarkable discontent’.
11 July 1553: Mary quits Kenninghall for Framlingham, in Suffolk, another seat of the conservative Catholic Howards. Believing Mary’s relocation to be a ploy in hatching an escape to Flanders, Northumberland issues instructions to position ships along the Norfolk coastline to intercept the Lady’s possibly voyage.
12 July 1553: Assembling at the Tower, the Council resolves that, for the ‘security of the realm’, the Lady Mary must be brought to London. Despite being ill-equipped for the undertaking, Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, is assigned the responsibility. Burdened by a sense of unease, however, Jane requests for her father to stay at the Tower and keep her company. In his place, Northumberland is summoned to carry out the task of fetching Mary. Rumours already begin to spread that Northumberland had hastened the demise of King Edward to place his son, Guildford, and Lady Jane on the throne.
14 July 1553: Northumberland and his forces process through the city of London, their aim set on retrieving Mary. While passing through Shoreditch, Northumberland voices his dismay, declaring: ‘the people press to see us, but not one sayeth ‘God speed ye!’’
19 July 1553: To the sound of great celebration among the people of London, Mary officially declares herself Queen of England in place of Jane. In the face of looming danger, Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, hastens to publicly proclaim Mary on Tower Hill, leaving his daughter and Guildford ensconced within the Tower.
Jane is informed that she is no longer Queen, and the canopy of estate is promptly removed from her rooms. She is then escorted from the queen’s apartments at the Tower and imprisoned at Partridge House. Her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, is lodged at Beauchamp Tower.
While imprisoned, Jane is permitted by the Lieutenant of the Tower to take walks upon the green only ‘at convenient times and at his discretion’.
20 July 1553: On hearing that Mary had proclaimed herself Queen, Northumberland himself proclaims Mary. With tears streaming down the Earl’s face, he expresses that he knew Mary to be a merciful woman, hoping that the new Queen might pardon him for advancing Jane’s cause. An hour later, he receives an alarming directive from the council – signed by Cranmer, Suffolk, the Marquis of Winchester, and the Earl of Pembroke – instructing him to ‘disarm and disband’ his army. Northumberland is also informed told not to return to London until further instructions are received from the monarch. The message emphasizes that if he were to demonstrate himself as a good and quiet subject, the Council would continue to support him, along with his family, as humble subjects of the sovereign, Queen Mary.
29 July 1553: Still living in seclusion at Hatfield, Henry VIII’s younger daughter, Elizabeth, descends upon London ‘with a large train of followers’ and establishes residence at Somerset House. Five days later, she joins her sister Mary as the Queen embarks on a splendid entrance into the City of London. Adhering to royal tradition, Mary assumes her state lodgings at the Tower.
18 August 1553: Less than a month after Jane’s overthrowing, her father-in-law, Northumberland, is convicted of treason and condemned to die. Protestations that the Earl had acted by royal warrant fall on deaf ears.
22 August 1553: Northumberland is beheaded on Tower Hill for his involvement in installing Jane on the throne. On the morning of the 21st, Dudley had publicly renounced his Protestant faith and converted to Catholicism, declaring: ‘my masters, I let you all to understand that I do most faithfully believe this is the very right and true way, out of which true religion you and I have been seduced these sixteen years passed, by the false and erroneous preaching of the new preachers’. The Earl’s hopes to secure Queen Mary’s mercy through conversion had, by then, become futile. His life came to an end with a single swing of the axe. It is believed that his remains rest beneath the chancel floor, alongside that of his longstanding rival, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.
5 October 1553: The Act of Repeal is passed in Parliament, decreeing: ‘the Regal Power of this Realm is in the Queen’s Majesty [Mary] as fully and absolutely as ever it was in any of her most noble Progenitors Kings of this Realm’.
10 October 1553: An official proposal of marriage from Philip II of Spain is presented to Mary. After careful consideration, Mary accepts the offer, with some unease. Though Philip presents a fitting choice in husband for the new Queen – as both a devout Catholic and heir to a wealthy and powerful region of Europe – the so-called ‘Spanish Match’ proves deeply unpopular, igniting fear among the people that England is on the verge of becoming one of Spain’s satellite territories.
Following the announcement of the betrothal, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger devises a perilous scheme to raise armies across the country and descend onto London. Prominent among his conspirators is Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, entrusted with the task of raising support in Leicestershire. Wyatt’s plans, however, are soon uncovered; many of the insurgents involved in Wyatt’s Rebellion either defect or abandon their cause.
Wyatt opts to proceed with his plans, unaware that Queen Mary, cognizant of the scheme, had delivered a rousing speech at the Guildhall, appealing for the people’s support. The plot ends in failure, with Lady Jane Grey paying the ultimate price for her father’s involvement in the uprising.
13 November 1553: Jane Grey and her husband, Guildford, are arraigned for high treason at Guildhall, in a trial led by Thomas White, the Lord Mayor of London. Jane is informed that ‘she should be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases’. The Queen grants the couple the option to see each other before their executions, which Jane later rejects.
February 1554: Before her execution, Jane pens a farewell letter to her father: ‘The Lord comfort your Grace, and that in his word wherein all creatures only are to be comforted. And though it has pleased god to take away two of your children, yet think not, I most humbly beseech your Grace, that you have lost them, but trust that we, by leaving this mortal life, have won an immortal life. And I for my part, as I have honoured your Grace in this life, will pray for you in another life. Your Grace’s humble daughter, Jane Dudley’.
12 February 1554: Lord Guildford Dudley and the seventeen-year-old Lady Jane Grey are executed at the Tower of London. Jane’s broken body remains on the scaffold for many hours before she is buried at the nearby Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, alongside two other fallen queens – Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. The Chronicle of Queen Jane and of Two Years of Queen Mary provides a comprehensive description of the Dudleys’ executions:
‘His [Guildford’s] [carcass] thrown into a cart, and his head in a cloth, he was brought to the chapel within the Tower, where the Lady Jane, whose lodging was in Partridges’ house, did see his dead carcass taken out of the cart, as well as she did see him before alive on going to his death – a sight to her no less than death.
By this time was there a scaffold made upon the green over against the White Tower, for the said Lady Jane to die upon…. The said lady, being nothing abashed….with a book in her hand whereon she prayed all the way till she came to the said scaffold…. […]
The hangman went to her to help her [tie her gown]; then she desired him to let her alone, and also with her other attire and neckercher, giving to her a fair handkercher to knit about her eyes.
Then the hangman kneeled down, and asked her forgiveness, whom she gave most willingly. Then he willed her to stand upon the straw: which doing, she saw the block. Then she said, ‘I pray you dispatch me quickly.’ Then she kneeled down, saying, ‘Will you take it off before I lay me down?’ and the hangman answered her, ‘No, madame.’ She tied the kercher about her eyes; then feeling for the block said, ‘What shall I do? Where is it?’
One of the standers-by guiding her thereto, she laid her head down upon the block, and stretched forth her body and said: ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!’ And so she ended.’The Chronicle of Queen Jane and of Two Years of Queen Mary
Sources & Suggested Reading
Ridgway, Claire. 2015. “Mary I Proclaimed Queen – 19 July 1553 – the Tudor Society.” Www.tudorsociety.com. July 19, 2015. https://www.tudorsociety.com/mary-i-proclaimed-queen-19-july-1553/.
Tallis, Nicola. 2016. Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey. New York, NY: Pegasus Books.
Wilson, Derek. 2013. The Uncrowned Kings of England. Constable.
Wikisource contributors, “The Cambridge Modern History/Volume II/Chapter XV,” Wikisource, https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=The_Cambridge_Modern_History/Volume_II/Chapter_XV&oldid=6535552 (accessed July 7, 2023).