Today, we remember one of England’s most tragic (and shortest reigning) monarchs: Lady Jane Grey, also known as the Nine Days’ Queen, who ruled England for just over a week and was executed at the age of 16 in 1554.
As the granddaughter of Mary Tudor (sister to Henry VIII) and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Jane was in the direct line of succession. According to Henry VIII’s will, the crown would pass to Jane’s mother, Lady Frances Brandon, if all three of his children died without issue. The crown would then go down through Frances’s family, of which Jane was the eldest child. Jane received an excellent education, and she was highly intelligent. Her studies were one of the few things in her life that made her happy: her parents were difficult, scheming social climbers who bullied and abused their daughter when they weren’t using her to get ahead in the world.
Jane’s ambitious parents first schemed to marry her to her cousin, King Edward VI. This came to nothing, and Jane was instead betrothed to Guilford Dudley, a younger son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland, one of the most powerful men in England. Although Jane had no interest in marriage, the ceremony went ahead in 1553.
Not long after the wedding, Edward fell ill, and the powerful Protestant lords, which included Northumberland and Jane’s father, Suffolk, were faced with the possibility of Edward’s very Catholic sister, Mary, becoming queen. They panicked, and Northumberland persuaded the dying king to set aside Henry VIII’s will and name Jane his successor, a highly illegal act (Edward was underage at the time, and Mary’s place in the succession was assured by an act of Parliament, which Edward couldn’t legally overturn.) Nonetheless, four days after Edward died on July 6, Jane was declared Queen of England.
Jane was not keen on the idea but felt she didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. She did, however, put her foot down and refused to name her sullen, childish husband king. Nevertheless, it was clear that she would be queen in name only, with her father-in-law Northumberland really pulling the strings.
Unfortunately for him, Mary was not content to see someone else usurp her throne, and the people of England weren’t happy with this plan either. Mary hadn’t started killing people yet, so she was still popular, and it didn’t take her long to rally quite a lot of supporters as she made her way from Hunsdon to London. The Privy Council panicked and switched their allegiance to Mary, proclaiming her queen on July 19. Jane and Guilford were imprisoned in the Tower, and Mary entered London in a triumphal procession in early August. Northumberland was swiftly tried and executed, on August 22.
Mary was reluctant, however, to put her young cousin to death. After all, Jane was basically a child, and she hadn’t wanted to be queen anyway. She was tried and found guilty of treason and sentenced to burn in November, but it was thought her life would be spared. Sadly, a Protestant rebellion led by Thomas Wyatt in early 1554, which Jane’s father Suffolk stupidly joined in, sealed her fate. Mary viewed her as a natural focus for future Protestant aggravation, so she signed the death warrants for both Jane and Guilford. Both were executed by beheading on February 12, 1554; Jane’s execution was carried out in private, which was a privilege typically only afforded to royalty and was seen as a mark of respect by Mary for her cousin. Poor Jane’s life was so unhappy, she is said to have been glad to end her ‘woeful days’ even at such a tender age.