Friday, 12 February 2016

Remembering Lady Jane Grey

On 12 February 1554, Lady Jane Grey was executed within the walls of the Tower of London. Three months earlier, she and her husband Guildford Dudley had been found guilty of high treason. They had unlawfully usurped the throne from the rightful queen, Mary I. Traditionally, historians presented Lady Jane as an unwilling innocent, a much wronged young girl who had no desire whatsoever to be Queen of England. Recent research has disproved this legend. In actuality, Lady Jane was an intelligent, stubborn and resilient woman who was fiercely devoted to her Protestant faith. She regarded herself as appointed by God to rule England, and she likely regarded her Catholic cousin Mary Tudor as ungodly, even abominable in the eyes of God. He had chosen Jane to be Queen, and she believed it was her destiny to be sovereign of England.

Having been selected as Edward VI's heir, Jane was proclaimed queen in July 1553. As is well known, Jane's regime collapsed within days, and Mary was declared queen on 19 July. Jane's trial followed in November, and although she and her husband were found guilty, Queen Mary showed no desire to have them put to death. However, the outbreak of rebellion in early 1554, motivated by dislike of Mary's decision to marry Philip of Spain, coupled with the decision to reinstate the medieval heresy laws, sealed Jane's fate. Her own father was involved in the plot against the queen, and he followed Jane to the scaffold a few days after her own death. A courageous and resourceful young woman, Jane accepted her fate and bravely prepared for death.

Above: The traditional view of Lady Jane Grey, as portrayed in Paul Delaroche's nineteenth-century painting, as a wronged innocent.

Guildford Dudley was executed on the morning of 12 February 1554 on Tower Hill, where his father, the duke of Northumberland, had died the previous August. Guildford was himself still a teenager, perhaps no more than nineteen years old, and has been the victim of notable slanders. Modern historians have usually depicted him as a snivelling, weak-willed and vicious adolescent, loathed by Jane, but Leanda de Lisle's research questions whether this portrayal is accurate, as no contemporary source describes Guildford in such a negative way. Whatever the truth of Guildford's character, his end was tragic. Like Jane, he was the victim of his father's plotting, and he duly resigned himself to his fate. His wife was confronted by the sight of her husband's headless corpse, the fabric stained with his blood, returning on a cart from Tower Hill. She knew that her own demise was imminent.

Shortly afterwards, around ten in the morning, Lady Jane Grey walked out of her apartments and mounted the scaffold that had been built within the walls of the Tower. Onlookers commented on her braveness and her piety. Two versions of her scaffold speech survive, both of which confirm that she acknowledged that she was to die under the law, having been condemned by it. She confirmed that she had offended the queen and had behaved unlawfully. Most importantly, particularly for her posthumous reputation, Jane proclaimed that she died a true Christian woman, and looked to be saved only by Christ's mercy. This confirmed her commitment to the Protestant faith, for Catholics traditionally believed that good works also played an important part in one's salvation. She then asked the onlookers to pray for her.

Above: Queen Mary I, who ordered her cousin Lady Jane Grey's execution in February 1554.

Lady Jane's female attendants then helped her off with her gown and gave her a handkerchief to use as a blindfold. Groping about in the dark, she could not find the scaffold, and cried, "Where is it? What shall I do?" Someone came forward to guide her and she rested her head upon the block. Mercifully, she was decapitated with one blow, probably just a few months short of her seventeenth birthday. Her remains were interred in the nearby chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. With her passing, Lady Jane Grey's story became the stuff of legend. In Protestant works, most notably John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, she was depicted as a pious, virtuous Protestant maiden who had died for her faith, condemned by the cruel Catholic tyrant, Mary I. Victorian historians depicted her as an innocent victim of her grasping, scheming family, and portrayed Jane's mother, Lady Frances Brandon, as a tyrannical woman and an abusive mother. Modern historians have usually followed this version of events. But modern research has demonstrated that reality was more complex. Lady Jane Grey was far more than merely an innocent child, and there is no contemporary evidence to suggest that Frances was cruel to her daughters.

Lady Jane Grey remains, in many respects, a mystery. Her beheading was the first of several calamities to befall the Grey family. Her father followed her to the scaffold only eleven days after her own death; like her, he was executed as a traitor to his queen. In spite of this, Jane's mother, Frances, remained close to Queen Mary, and her younger daughters Catherine and Mary were resident at court. However, Elizabeth I's accession proved to be the final undoing of the Grey family. While she did not behead either of the Grey sisters, as Mary had done, Elizabeth had both Catherine and Mary Grey imprisoned for their clandestine marriages, and the distraught Catherine died in 1568 while still in her twenties, deprived of her husband and children. Mary followed her to the grave ten years later, her own husband having predeceased her. Lady Jane Grey's story has been represented as a great tragedy, but her younger sisters were as much victims of their birth as she was.

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