Saturday 12 February 2011

February 12th, 1554: The Execution of Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley

"If justice is done with my body, my soul will find mercy with God. Death will give pain to my body for its sins, but the soul will be justified before God. If my faults deserve punishment, my youth at least, and my imprudence were worthy of excuse. God and posterity will show me more favour."
- Lady Jane Grey, the night before her execution, aged seventeen.

The Victorians were obsessed with her story and considered the downfall and execution of Henry VII's great-granddaughter, Lady Jane Grey, to be one of the single most edifying examples of femininity offered by British history. Jane, the devoutly Protestant granddaughter of Henry VIII's younger sister, Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, had been placed on the throne by her parents and ambitious father-in-law in the wake of King Edward VI's death in 1553. It had all been part of an attempted palace coup to maintain the Protestant monarchy established by young Edward and to prevent the throne passing to his Roman Catholic half-sister, Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Jane's usurpation had famously lasted nine days, before Mary was able to imprison her and install herself as Queen of England and Queen of Ireland. 

Given that Jane had been in her mid-teens when she was caught up in this scheme, the new Queen had initially been content to show her mercy and to keep her locked up in the Tower of London for the time being. Phenomenally well-educated, Jane was content enough with this arrangement since it left her to go back to her books in peace and finally removed her from the care of her abusive parents and her ambitious in-laws, whom she despised. However, Mary I's impending marriage to her second cousin, Philip of Spain, was putting pressure on the Queen. The last time a Spaniard had married into the English royal family, the Spanish government had made the same demand - all internal threats to the crown must die before the marriage could go ahead. Last time it had resulted in the execution of the Earl of Warwick before Katherine of Aragon was allowed to set sail for England. Now, Philip's father the Emperor was insisting that Jane and her adolescent husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, must die before he could send his son and heir to marry Queen Mary. The Hapsburgs' ambassador to London, Simon Renard, was a particularly firm advocate that "a little severity" must be used to rid England of the Grey-Dudley threat for good. For a time, Mary had resisted imperial advice on Jane's fate, but the Wyatt rebellion against her rule in 1554 changed her mind and sealed Jane's fate. With repugnant selfishness and stupidity, Jane's father, the Duke of Suffolk, had sided with the rebels and when the uprising was defeated, Mary began to change her mind about sparing young Jane's life. 

It is often erroneously assumed that her father's involvement in the Wyatt rebellion forced Queen Mary's hand and made Jane Grey's (or Jane Dudley, as we should properly call her now that she was married) execution a political inevitability. Political pragmatism made the unpalatable idea of butchering the teenager unavoidable, or so the traditional version of events goes. However, the fact that it was not wholly necessary to execute Jane is shown by the fact that in the days leading up to her execution, Queen Mary was quite prepared to spare her life. But only if she converted to Catholicism. In pursuit of this goal, she dispatched a learned and gentle priest called Richard Feckenham, the newly-installed Abbot of Westminster.

For Jane, who despite her youth was a Protestant both by sentiment and conviction, Abbot Feckenham's visits were ones of bittersweet agony. Despite a recent trend in history to argue that given the strength of Jane's Protestantism, had she managed to stay on the throne she would have become a "Bloody Jane" to English Catholics in much the same way as her cousin was about to become "Bloody Mary" to the nation's Protestants, Jane actually struck up a warm and friendly relationship with the Catholic priest, one which Mary was demonstrably incapable of showing to any Protestant clergyman.

Feckenham, who was a tolerant and wise man, was a shining example of English Catholicism and had Mary's counter-reformation been led by men like him rather than men like Bonner and Pole, it's likely that its long-term historical reputation would have been much kinder. His arguments in favour of the truth of the Roman Catholic faith, made over the course of several days, also did not convince Jane. It was agony for the young woman to know that if she could abandon her religious principles, she would be allowed to live. Given how young she was, very few, then or now, would have blamed her for ditching Protestantism in order to save her life. After all, at the age of nineteen, her cousin Mary had abandoned Roman Catholicism and publicly conformed to the state Catholicism of her father's regime, in order to save her own life and have her position at Court restored to her. And, right now, nineteen year-old Elizabeth Tudor was limbering up to perform some neat theological acrobatics by shedding all signs of the Protestant piety she had exhibited during her late brother's reign. Jane, however, would not be swayed, despite Feckenham's kindness and the prospect of terrestrial salvation. "I might not deny Thee, my God," she prayed. "Be unto me a strong tower of defence. Suffer me not to be tempted above my power. I beseech Thee that I may stand fast."

Feckenham was impressed by Jane's intellect and he admired the young girl's character greatly and so he was doubly heartbroken when he failed in his mission to convert her to what he saw as the true faith. For Feckenham, such a conversion would not only have saved her soul but also her life. Still, despite their religious differences, the good abbot valued his friendship with the deposed queen and he asked if she would let him accompany her to the scaffold, as a final act of companionship. Jane would much rather have had a Protestant priest accompany her, but Queen Mary absolutely refused to allow this. And so, because she liked him too, she agreed to the abbot's request.

During her final night alive, Jane had decided to wear a simple and demure black velvet dress, with a dark head-dress trimmed with jet for the execution. She had written farewell letters to her family and a few friends. She had ended-up comforting the Constable of the Tower, Sir John Bridges, who was devastated that his young prisoner was to die tomorrow. She wrote him a farewell note in her prayer book, which expresses something of Jane's maturity and the depth of her religious feelings: "There is a time to be born and a time to die, and the day of our death is better than the day of our birth. Yours, as the Lord knoweth, a true friend." She rejected the Queen's offer that she could spend an evening with her husband, Guildford, who was also to die the next day. It had been a marriage of political convenience and one which Jane had entered into with the greatest reluctance. She did not have much love for her party-loving husband, who was both socially and intellectually her inferior. Moreover, Guildford was apparently distraught and hysterical at the news that he was to be executed and Jane did not want any scenes. She spent the last few hours in prayer, which, as always, she found very comforting.

As the son of a renegade duke, Guildford died first and in public. As he was escorted from the fortress and out onto Tower Hill, he was weeping. The tears stopped for a moment when he shook hands with friends who had come along to say goodbye, but as the handkerchief was placed over his eyes he began to sob again. He was still wailing when the axe sliced through his neck. 

From her windows, Jane saw her husband's corpse being brought back for burial in the Tower's chapel of Saint Peter-ad-Vincula. At the sight of it, she too began to cry, saying, "O Guildford! O Guildford! O the bitterness of death!" She managed to stop the tears after a few moments, however, and prepare herself for her own execution, which was scheduled to take place at ten o'clock. Jane obviously had an iron-will beneath her gentle exterior, because earlier in the day she had been forced to submit to the indignity of a medical examination to determine whether she was pregnant or not. If she had been, the execution would have been postponed. 

Jane, of course, was not pregnant and at ten o'clock, she was escorted out onto Tower Green by an ashen-faced Sir John. She was to die on the same spot as Anne Boleyn, the countess of Salisbury and Catherine Howard. Throughout the walk, Jane continued to read from her prayer book and leaned on Sir John's arm for support. Like Anne Boleyn, Jane's composure impressed many of the eyewitnesses around her and again like Anne, Jane's dignity only served to highlight the hysterical distress of the women accompanying her. Behind her, she was attended by her childhood governess, Mrs Ellen, and a Mrs Tilney, both of whom were "wonderfully weeping." Keeping them company, as he had promised, was Abbot Feckenham.

Jane mounted the scaffold, a tiny pale figure dressed all in black, and made a short speech, in which she admitted that under the strictest interpretation of the law her death sentence was fair. The attempt to put her on the throne instead of Mary had been "unlawful," but she also made it clear that she had not wanted the throne - "touching the procurement and desire thereof by me, I do wash my hands in innocency before God and the face of you, good Christian people. I pray you all to bear me witness that I die a true Christian woman. And now, good people, while I am alive, I pray you assist me with your prayers." The last sentence reveals again how strong Jane's devotion to fundamentalist Protestantism was. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she did not ask the crowd to "pray for me," which carried with it either an implicit or explicit belief in the efficacy of prayers for the dead. Jane, of course, did not believe in Purgatory and she was thus quite firm in adding "while I am alive" to her prayer request. And this request places Jane at the very forefront of Protestant evolution, since a firm and total rejection of Purgatory had only come to dominate mainstream Protestantism in the last four or five years.

After her speech, she turned to say goodbye to the abbot who had tried to save her life. "Shall I say this psalm?" she asked, holding up her prayer book. She had picked Psalm 51, the Miserere mei Deus, which she could have said in Latin or Greek, given her proficiency in languages, but considering her position as a Protestant figurehead, Jane was determined to say it in English. Jane Grey's death was as deliberately and devoutly Protestant as Mary Stuart's was to be Catholic, thirty-three years later. Feckenham, by now, was choking back tears and it was a while before he could answer her. Jane was touched by his care for her and she leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek. "God, I beseeched Him to abundantly reward you for your kindness towards me. Although I must needs say it was more unwelcome to me than my instant death is terrible."

Jane knelt in the straw and began to pray aloud the Psalm she and Feckenham had selected together.

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy mercies, blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

Hide thy faces from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteounsess.

O Lord, open thou up my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

Then Jane, who had been the sacrifice on the altar of politics, rose and handed her gloves to Mrs Tilney and, as promised, her beloved prayer book to Sir John, who had apparently never found it harder to carry out his duties than he did on this day. The executioner offered to help her untie various parts of her gown, but Jane was far too proper to allow such a thing and indicated that she could manage on her own. As was customary, she forgave the executioner and asked him if he planned to take her head off before she had time to position herself. He replied that he did not and he would wait until she was ready. After removing her scarf and facing the freezing February air, Jane took a beautiful linen handkerchief from Mrs Ellen and tied it around her own eyes, since by this stage neither woman was of any practical use to their mistress, given how hysterically upset they were. 

Blindfolded, Jane knelt before the block and then the famous moment where she could not find it occurred and the panic she must valiantly have been struggling to repress all morning burst into view. "What shall I do?" she cried. "Where is it? Where is it?" A quick-thinking bystander rushed forward to help her and guided her hands to the block. Tracing her fingers across its curvature, Jane placed her neck upon and cried out, "Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." The axe descended and a great torrent of blood shot out across the scaffold as Jane Grey's head was separated from her body. The executioner stepped forward and grabbed Jane's head and holding it aloft by its long ginger hair, proclaimed, "So perish all the Queen's enemies! Behold the head of a traitor."

A few hours later, Mrs Ellen and Mrs Tilney took Jane's body into the Chapel of Saint Peter, to rest alongside her husband. She was buried near the altar, in the same vault that held the bodies of Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, Jane Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Thomas More, Cardinal Fisher, Margaret Pole,  Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Jane's father-in-law, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. The short and tragic life of Lady Jane Dudley was over, but the romantic legend of the Nine Day Queen was about to commence its long and fascinating journey through English history.


After completing this article, I read Claire Ridgway's discussion of the same events at The Anne Boleyn Files and she includes a very moving quote from Professor Eric Ives, author of The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn and also of the new biography Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. I hope Claire won't mind my quoting it here, because it's an absolutely beautiful reflection on the power of Jane's story: -

“The pages of history are asterisked with names which defy the erosion of time. Jane Grey is one such, but strangely so. Truth to tell she counted for little. She was important for barely nine months, she ruled for only thirteen days. She contributed little to writing and nothing to ideas. She founded no dynasty and left almost no memorabilia. Then what is it, keeps the story of Jane alive while many more significant figures in history are recalled only by scholars? For many years Jane was a saint in the Protestant pantheon, but martyrs are now out of fashion – and so too ideal Victorian maidens. In the West, growing secularization ensures that relatively few people even understand the issues which meant so much to her. And yet her name still lives. Something is due to a memorable sobriquet: “the nine days queen” – not any Jane, that Jane. Romance, too, is part of the explanation; along with Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Mary Queen of Scots, Jane completes a quartet of Tudor queens who died on the scaffold. Undeniable, too, there is the macabre attraction of the girl sacrifice. She died Jane Dudley, but is universally remembered as Jane Grey, Ariadne chained to the rock. All this and more. But the fundamental justification for remembering Jane is the justification for remembering Anne Frank centuries later. They speak for the multitude of brutality’s victims who have no voice.”


  1. Poor little Jane! I do love her! Another beautiful post!

  2. This is one of those stories that are just *too* sad. I've always felt great sympathy and admiration for Jane, although we would be at opposite ends of the religious spectrum.

  3. Matterhorn, I'm so glad to hear you say that because recent Tudor historiography seems to be bending itself over backwards to praise Mary Tudor and exonerate her of any and all mistakes and the way in which some writers have done that is to criticise the legend of Jane Grey. I'm not a Jane devotee, but I think it's annoying when historians decide the only way to redress one individual's reputation is by tearing down another's. It's good that we're getting a more rounded and fair portrait of Mary's time as queen, but I think the revisionism may have gone slightly too far in the opposite direction. By praising her so lavishly, I think pro-Marian scholars are ironically leaving both themselves and their subject open for a severe reassessment by post-revisionists. But, twas ever thus. Aside from anything else, I don't think Mary or Jane were necessarily "wrong" or "right" in 1553-4, I just think that, as you and Elena Maria said, it's an incredibly sad story of someone who was not much more than a child.

  4. "It's good that we're getting a more rounded and fair portrait of Mary's time as queen, but I think the revisionism may have gone slightly too far in the opposite direction. By praising her so lavishly, I think pro-Marian scholars are ironically leaving both themselves and their subject open for a severe reassessment by post-revisionists."

    I think you are absolutely right.

  5. Ed Hillenbrand3 April 2011 at 02:52

    Reading the current bio of Mary I was once again intrigued by Lady Jane, the ONE person in history I would most love to meet. Popular history has made a monster out of Queen Mary unfairly; "Bloody" Mary. As any student of the Tudor period knows, it was a perilous time to be a Queen. Henry VIII was terrible to Mary. Yet he was a male and could afford to let Mary live. Mary was the first English Queen ruling in her own Right, she could not afford to allow Jane to live after the Wyatt Rebellion, in which Jane famously calls out her father. Yet there remain two questions: why didn't Jane flee? The opportunity had presented itself. Yet Jane chose death. Secondly, what did Queen Mary truly think of loping off her cousin's head?

  6. Hi Ed. Thanks for the comment, although as I said in the article, I don't think it's true that Mary "could not afford to let Mary live." Nor did Jane call out her father during Wyatt's rebellion. Jane was against her father's involvement in the uprising which, in any case, almost certainly wasn't aiming to put her back on the throne. It was either to put Elizabeth on the throne or to force Mary to abandon her proposed alliance with Spain. Either way, Jane was not their rallying point, despite the Duke of Suffolk's criminally stupid involvement with it. I'm also not certain if Jane ever did have the chance to flee. She was in the Tower, as queen, and by the time she and her entourage realised that she was now its prisoner and not first lady, it was too late. The entire city of London had sided with Mary; Jane was trapped and surrounded. Moreover, where could she have fled to? However, you are right in saying she chose death in 1554, but not by a lack of action, but rather by a declaration of it. She chose not to convert to Catholicism, which would have saved her life and which Mary offered as the terms on which she would release her. Had Mary truly had no choice but to execute her cousin, she would not have been in the position to make such an offer. But, you're right, Mary was queen in a particularly perilous time and evidently she felt her actions against Jane were justified.


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