The Tragic Story of England’s Nine-Day Queen

Jane Grey never wanted to be queen, and in the end, she died for it

Art historians have questioned whether this portrait is truly a replica of one painted while Jane Grey was still alive, but there's no way to know for sure. Wikimedia Commons

Jane Grey was headed for death.

The daughter of Henry VIII’s niece Frances, Jane was destined, at least originally, for greatness. But her path to queenship, her brief reign and her untimely death all show the politics underpinning succession in the Tudor years. Her story is a powerful antidote to the "Tudor myth"–a longstanding view of sixteenth-century England as a political and social golden age, ruled by the divinely-appointed Tudors. It demonstrates that the line of succession, something which had been portrayed as fixed, was as political and changeable as any other public office. And it shows the religious conflicts underpinning this era in English history. 

Grey's family had intended her to marry the king’s son Edward and prepared her for that role with education and training in England’s new Protestant faith. But when it became clear that the young Edward was dying instead, writes Richard Cavendish for History Today, plans changed.

John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland and "the virtual dictator of England," as Cavendish wrote, was "desperate to prevent the throne passing to Edward's half-sister and heir, the Catholic Mary Tudor,” writes the BBC. “Northumberland persuaded the king to declare Mary illegitimate, as well as Edward's other half-sister Elizabeth, and alter the line of succession to pass to Jane.” At the time, the young queen-to-be was about 16–historians are unsure of her exact birthdate.

So launched a series of events that culminated with her death.

May 25, 1553: Jane Grey marries the Duke of Northumberland’s son

Grey was married to Guildford Dudley, who was just a few years her senior. This cemented Northumberland’s link to the future throne.

July 6, 1553: Edward VI dies aged 15

Edward had been king since he was nine years old. He “was given a rigorous education and was intellectually precocious,” writes the BBC, but he was often sick. It turned out that he was suffering from tuberculosis–although after he died, poisoning rumors swirled.

July 9, 1553: Jane Grey is taken to the Duke of Northumberland’s mansion for a secret meeting

At the mansion, she found the Duke, her new husband and her parents. After being told that she was now the queen, writes Cavendish, she fainted. After coming to, she reluctantly accepted her duty, saying, he writes, “if what has been given to me is lawfully mine.”

July 10, 1553: Jane Grey takes the throne

The fact that Grey was now queen was publicly announced, leading to some grumbling among the citizens. The English citizens who had been through so much political and religious turmoil thought that Catholic Mary Tudor, with her ties to other Catholic monarchs, was the rightful inheritor of the throne. Although Mary later became unpopular, she was at this time very popular.

Grey made it to the Tower of London, from which she would rule, and then had a giant fight with her husband and her mother-in-law because she refused to make him king, writes Cavendish. Mary Tudor also sent a letter asserting her right to rule.

July 11-18, 1553: Jane Grey occupies the throne, ineffectually

“Jane continued going through the motions as queen in the Tower,” writes Cavendish, “but Northumberland had miscalculated badly.”  

Mary Tudor was traveling and gaining support. Grey was less well known.

The Tragic Story of England’s Nine-Day Queen
After her death, Lady Jane Grey was imagined as passive and helpless (like in this striking image). While she folllowed the path expected of her, she was a strong intellectual who stood up for her religious beliefs. Wikimedia Commons

July 19, 1553: Mary Tudor is declared queen. The Tower becomes Jane Grey’s prison

Public and political support led the royal council to declare that Mary, not Grey, was the rightful heir to the Tudor throne.

“Early hopes that Mary might pardon her predecessor dimmed after Jane vehemently opposed Mary’s legislation of the Catholic Mass,” writes Leanda De Lisle for 1843 Magazine. “In an open letter to a Catholic convert, Jane condemned the Mass as ‘wicked’ and exhorted Protestants to ‘Return, return again unto Christ’s war.’”

Not long after that, De Lisle writes, Grey’s father helped to lead an armed rebellion against Queen Mary in opposition to her plan to marry the king of Spain. Grey wasn’t involved, but she got the flack anyways.

February 12, 1554: Lady Jane Grey is executed

Grey was executed along with her husband because she was an ongoing alternative claimant to the throne. She was still a teenager.

After her death, writes De Lisle, Grey was considered a martyr of sorts to the Protestant cause, and remembered primarily as the Nine Days Queen. Her successor, Queen Mary I, ruled for about five years until her own death at the age of 42.

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