I pray you all, good Christian people, to bear me witness that I die a true Christian woman, and that I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son Jesus Christ: and I confess, that when I did know the word of God, I neglected the same, loved myself and the world; and therefore this plague and punishment is happily and worthily happened unto me for my sins; and yet I thank God, that of his goodness he hath thus given me a time and respite to repent.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

On February 12, 1554, 18-year-old Lady Jane Grey was beheaded after a nine-day reign as Queen of England.

I pray you all, good Christian people, to bear me witness that I die a true Christian woman, and that I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son Jesus Christ: and I confess, that when I did know the word of God, I neglected the same, loved myself and the world; and therefore this plague and punishment is happily and worthily happened unto me for my sins; and yet I thank God, that of his goodness he hath thus given me a time and respite to repent.

 

On February 12, 1554, 18-year-old Lady Jane Grey was beheaded after a nine-day reign as Queen of England.

To explain why, we first have to offer an all-too-brief primer on the political background of Tudor England up to this point.

Jane Grey’s grandmother was Mary Tudor, Queen of France and younger sister of England’s King Henry VIII.

Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, did not bear him a surviving son but only a daughter, Mary, born in 1516 (the year before Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle door). When the Pope would not sanction an annulment of the marriage between Henry and Catherine, Henry rejected papal jurisdiction over ecclesiastical affairs in England and founded the Church of England.

In 1537, King Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to a son, Edward. Upon the king’s death in 1547, the 9-year-old boy became King Edward VI. His Regency Council, designed to help him rule at a young age, was sympathetic to the emerging English Reformation.

Shortly before King Edward died on July 6, 1553, he and the Council amended his will (a “Devise for the Succession”) to prevent England from returning to Catholic rule under his older half-sister, Princess Mary. Edward nominated Lady Jane (his first cousin, once removed) to be the next Queen of England on July 10, 1553.

Mary, however, believed she was the rightful queen and was able to garner the popular and military support of England.

Jane’s nine-day reign as queen thus ended on July 19, 1553. She was imprisoned in the Gentleman Gaoler’s house within the Tower of London, while her new husband of two months, Lord Guildford Dudley, was held within the Beauchamp Tower. The two would never see each other again.

Queen Mary—later known by Protestant opponents as “Bloody Mary”—entered London two weeks later, in early August. She initially stayed the execution in the belief that Jane was a victim of her father-in-law, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, along with others. It is possible that if Wyatt’s Rebellion against the queen had not taken place in late January 1554, Jane and Guildford may have remained in custody indefinitely.

Mary even allowed one of her Catholic advisers to visit Jane, who sought to persuade her of the Catholic faith in order to save her soul (even if a conversion would not have saved her earthly life).

You can get a sense of Jane’s theology and piety from reading a letter she wrote to her 14-year-old sister Katherine a day or two before her death. In it she writes:

Live to die, that by death you may enter into eternal life, and then enjoy the life that Christ has gained for you by His death. Don’t think that just because you are now young your life will be long, because young and old as God wills.

Historian J. Stephan Edwards does not share my religious beliefs, but he kindly took some time to help answer some questions on Lady Jane Grey and her execution on February 12, 1554. Edwards’s doctoral dissertation was on “‘Jane the Quene’: A New Consideration of Lady Jane Grey, England’s Nine-Days Queen,” and he runs the informative Some Grey Matter website, where he is happy to answer questions. (Note to historians: more sites like this, please!)

What led you to do your doctoral research and to focus so much of your professional interest on Lady Jane Grey?

I was drawn to her originally by the nature of the existing biographies and accounts of her life and times, virtually all of which were obviously tainted by legend and myth-building, even hero-worship. My research focuses on recovering a historical narrative based on original surviving evidence and freed of as much legend and myth as possible.

You have done extensive research on the portraits that claim to represent Lady Jane. Even though we do not have a reliably genuine portrait, if you had to choose one that comes closest to what she actually looked like, which would you choose?

I am of the opinion that the Syon House Portrait [pictured at the top of this post] is quite probably the closest we can presently come to an authentic depiction of Jane Grey. Even though it was painted in the 1610s, 60 or more years after Jane’s death, it was commissioned by the Seymour family, who were sons and grandsons of Jane’s sister Katherine Grey Seymour. At least one senior member of that family had known Jane personally and was still living when the portrait was created. Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford (son of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to King Edward VI) had known Jane quite well, and was even considered (before 1551) as a possible future husband for her. He lived until 1621, and may well have advised the artist on Jane’s appearance. Alternatively, the Syon Portrait may have been copied from a miniature (now lost) already in the possession of the Seymours, much like the large portrait at Syon of Jane’s sister Katherine.

Let’s focus here on her final days. Was beheading with an axe the usual punishment for treason?

Those of noble or royal status who were convicted of treason were often beheaded, whereas men of lower birth were hung, drawn, and quartered, and women of lower birth were often burned at the stake (considered more “humane” for the “weaker sex” than hanging, drawing, and quartering). The monarch’s consent was required for beheading, but it was seldom withheld. Thus Mary consented to Jane being executed by beheading with an axe.

What would she have worn to her execution? Paul Delaroche’s famous 1833 painting has her dressed in a flowing white gown. Is that accurate?

No, the angelically virginal white gown depicted in that painting is unhistorical. She would have dressed appropriately in a simple gown of somber color, usually gray or black.

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