Lady Jane Grey: Queen of England?

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Podcast Transcript

Probably the most consequential monarch in British history was Henry VIII. He upended much of English society by changing the religion in the country from the top down. 

He also left in his wake a century of controversy and turmoil about the succession of the monarchy. In all of that controversy, one figure wound up being an asterisk in the list of British Monarchs. 

Someone who only ruled for nine days, if it can be said they ruled at all.

Learn more about Lady Jane Grey, the shortest-serving English monarch….maybe, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

It is hard to state just how messed up the political situation was in 16th-century England. 

I’ve touched on it in several previous episodes, but everything started because Henry VIII didn’t have a son and heir to the throne of England. 

It caused him to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and then go through five more wives. His divorce caused him to not only renounce the Catholic Church but also to set up a new church with himself as the head and to destroy most of the institutions that the Catholic Church controlled in the country. 

Henry did eventually get his wish. His third wife, Jane Seymore, gave birth to a son, Edward. 

However, as the saying goes, you have to be careful what you wish for. 

Edward was raised as a protestant, the first English monarch to do so. However, Henry died in 1547 when Edward was only nine years old, and this is where this story starts. 

The ascension of a child to a royal crown is not an uncommon occurrence in history. 

While someone that young may not be ready to rule personally, it does at least solve the problem of who was going to be the king. When a child ascends to the throne, there is usually a regent who governs the realm on their behalf until they are of age. 

In the case of Edward, now King Edward VI, he had two regents. The first was his maternal grandfather, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, who served as regent from 1547 to 1549. 

The second regent was John Dudley, the 1st Earl of Warwick and later the Duke of Northumberland, who served as regent from 1550 to 1553. 

In January 1553, Edward fell ill, developing a fever and a severe cough. Over the next several months, his condition worsened, and the court doctors realized that his illness was terminal. 

The lack of an heir, which Henry VIII feared, had just been passed down one generation. The young Edward VI had no children, which meant that the next in line to the throne would be his eldest sister Mary, who was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and was a Catholic. 

Edward, a protestant, didn’t want his Catholic sister to ascend to the throne, so in June, when it was clear he would soon die, he issued what became known as the “Devise for the Succession.”

In this edict, he skipped over his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth and declared that the crown would pass to his first cousin, once removed, Lady Jane Grey. 

The argument for skipping over Mary and Elizabeth was that they were declared bastards by his father and thus ineligible for the throne. 

Lady Jane Grey was the great-granddaughter of Edward’s grandfather, Henry VII. She also happened to be about the same age as Edward, about 15 years old. 

Most importantly, she, like Edward, was raised a protestant. 

By all accounts, Jane was well-educated and very intelligent. However, she wasn’t really a player in all of the power games which were going on in England. She just happened to have the right lineage.

There was one other thing. 

Lady Jane Grey was married just six weeks before the death of Edward to one Lord Guildford Dudley, the son of none other than Edward’s regent, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. 

If Lady Jane Grey, now Lady Jane Dudley, were to ascend to the throne, then she would still need a regent, and that would allow John Dudley to continue to rule the country. 

There was a problem with Edward’s “Devise for the Succession.” 

Henry VIII had passed a law, approved by parliament, known as the Succession to the Crown Act of 1543. In it, Edward was listed as Henry’s heir, but Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth were also explicitly listed as being in line for the throne, even though he declared them to be bastards. 

The Succession to the Crown Act of 1543 was the third and last such act passed during the reign of Henry. The two previous acts explicitly removed Mary and Elizabeth from the line of succession, but the third and final act put them back in. 

Moreover, the Succession to the Crown Act allowed Henry to change the succession in his will if he saw fit, and he explicitly did not do that. In fact, his will reinforced his daughters being in the line of succession, and only if they should not have male heirs would the crown then pass to the descendent of his sister Mary, which would then include Jane Grey. 

This left everything in a bit of a legal quandary. Could a king, who still had a regent and wasn’t ruling in his own name, unilaterally change the line of succession which had been previously approved by a king and approved by parliament?

That issue came to a head on July 6, 1553, when Edward VI passed away. Given the controversy surrounding the succession, word of Edward’s death wasn’t made public until July 9, when Lady Jane Dudley was notified that she was now the Queen Monarch of England.

She accepted the position reluctantly and, on July 10, was proclaimed the Queen of England, France, and Ireland. She took up residence in the Tower of London to await her coronation, which was the tradition for previous monarchs. 

Behind the scenes, a lot was happening. 

For starters, Lady Jane has very little public support. No one really knew who she was. Mary, on the other hand, was the daughter of Henry, and everyone knew who she was.

Mary might have been Catholic, but Protestantism had been brought to England top down, not bottom up like in other parts of Europe. Most common people had no problem with Mary being Catholic. 

All of the Catholic nobility supported Mary, whereas the Protestant nobility had fractured support for Jane, who had a very questionable and tenuous claim to the throne.

When Mary got the news of Edward’s death, she didn’t go to London. Instead, she headed to East Anglia, where she had extensive land holdings and where the Duke of Northumberland, the father-in-law of Lady Jane, was extremely unpopular for having recently put down a rebellion there.

Moreover, there was a huge difference between the two women. Jane was 15 or 16 when she was thrust into the spotlight and had only a few weeks to prepare. 

Mary was 37 and had spent her entire life embroiled in the politics of court, creating alliances, and otherwise, getting ready to become queen one day. 

A result of this is that Mary had the support of most of the military, including most of the high-ranking generals and officers. 

On July 14, Northumberland left London with soldiers to try and track down and capture Mary, which was now is only realistic way to retain power, but there was no way that was going to happen with Mary in East Anglia. 

On July 19, while Northumberland was away, the Privy Council, the group consisting of the senior members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, switched their allegiance and declared Mary to be the Queen of England. 

The decision of the Privy Council to shift their allegiance was largely the result of Henry FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel, who Northumberland had previously arrested twice, and towards whom he held a very big grudge. 

With the support of the Privy Council gone, that was it for Lady Jane and, most importantly, for her father-in-law. 

On July 19, the day the Privy Council declared Mary Queen, the Tower of London went from being a fortress for Jane to being her prison. 

Jane is often called the nine-day queen, using the date of July 10, her receiving the news of Edward’s death, to her removal on July 19. However, if you mark it from the actual death of Edward, she would be the thirteen-day queen. 

That is, if you consider her actually to have been queen at all. 

One person who certainly did not consider her a queen was the now Queen Mary. 

There is an ancient saying attributed to Queen Cersei Lannister, which says, “if you play the game of thrones, you either win, or you die.” 

The Duke of Northumberland found that out really quick.

He was captured, and on August 18 he was tried for treason. Many of those who sat in judgment were once his colleagues. He denounced Protestantism and said, “the plagues that is upon the realm and upon us now is that we have erred from the faith these sixteen years.”

It was a huge PR victory for the Catholics in England, and his words were printed and distributed widely throughout the realm. 

He was found guilty of treason and was beheaded in the Tower of London on August 22, 1553.

Things didn’t go any better for Jane and her husband, Guildford. 

That November, Jane was put on trial for treason, of which there was ample evidence showing that she was a usurper who claimed the title of queen. She was found guilty and sentenced to “be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases.”

The sentence wasn’t immediately carried out, however. 

That changed when in January of 1554, a rebellion in England took place against Mary’s plans to marry King Philip II of Spain.  One of the leaders of the rebellion was Jane’s father, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. 

The involvement of Jane’s family in the rebellion sealed her fate. On February 12. 1554, she and her husband were beheaded. Jane was only 16 or 17 years old. 

A similar drama of succession and religion was to be carried out again in just five years when Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by her sister Elizabeth, who was a protestant. 

When Queen Mary went on to persecute protestants, Jane became known as a martyr to the Protestant cause. A belief that was held for several centuries amongst protestants in England. 

For years, historians have considered Jane to have been a pawn in the mechanicians of the Duke of Northumberland, who just used her to secure power for himself. 

There hasn’t been much in the way of portrayals of Jane Grey, but there was a 1986 movie where a young Helena Bonham Carter portrayed Jane. There was also a very popular painting called The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, painted by Paul Delaroche in 1883. 

There are no contemporary portraits of her that survive. 

Jane Grey has gone down as a historical footnote. If there is a list of English monarchs, she is either completely omitted, or there is an asterisk next to her name. 

However, it is her brief brush with fame and power that makes her story interesting.