On February 12, 1554, 18-year-old Lady Jane Grey was beheaded after a nine-day reign as Queen of England.
To explain why, we first have to offer an all-too-brief primer on the political background of Tudor England up to this point.
Jane Grey’s grandmother was Mary Tudor, Queen of France and younger sister of England’s King Henry VIII.
Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, did not bear him a surviving son but only a daughter, Mary, born in 1516 (the year before Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle door). When the Pope would not sanction an annulment of the marriage between Henry and Catherine, Henry rejected papal jurisdiction over ecclesiastical affairs in England and founded the Church of England.
In 1537, King Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to a son, Edward. Upon the king’s death in 1547, the 9-year-old boy became King Edward VI. His Regency Council, designed to help him rule at a young age, was sympathetic to the emerging English Reformation.
Shortly before King Edward died on July 6, 1553, he and the Council amended his will (a “Devise for the Succession”) to prevent England from returning to Catholic rule under his older half-sister, Princess Mary. Edward nominated Lady Jane (his first cousin, once removed) to be the next Queen of England on July 10, 1553.
Mary, however, believed she was the rightful queen and was able to garner the popular and military support of England.
Jane’s nine-day reign as queen thus ended on July 19, 1553. She was imprisoned in the Gentleman Gaoler’s house within the Tower of London, while her new husband of two months, Lord Guildford Dudley, was held within the Beauchamp Tower. The two would never see each other again.
Queen Mary—later known by Protestant opponents as “Bloody Mary”—entered London two weeks later, in early August. She initially stayed the execution in the belief that Jane was a victim of her father-in-law, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, along with others. It is possible that if Wyatt’s Rebellion against the queen had not taken place in late January 1554, Jane and Guildford may have remained in custody indefinitely.
Mary even allowed one of her Catholic advisers to visit Jane, who sought to persuade her of the Catholic faith in order to save her soul (even if a conversion would not have saved her earthly life).
You can get a sense of Jane’s theology and piety from reading a letter she wrote to her 14-year-old sister Katherine a day or two before her death. In it she writes:
Live to die, that by death you may enter into eternal life, and then enjoy the life that Christ has gained for you by His death. Don’t think that just because you are now young your life will be long, because young and old as God wills.
Historian J. Stephan Edwards does not share my religious beliefs, but he kindly took some time to help answer some questions on Lady Jane Grey and her execution on February 12, 1554. Edwards’s doctoral dissertation was on “‘Jane the Quene': A New Consideration of Lady Jane Grey, England’s Nine-Days Queen,” and he runs the informative Some Grey Matter website, where he is happy to answer questions. (Note to historians: more sites like this, please!)
What led you to do your doctoral research and to focus so much of your professional interest on Lady Jane Grey?
I was drawn to her originally by the nature of the existing biographies and accounts of her life and times, virtually all of which were obviously tainted by legend and myth-building, even hero-worship. My research focuses on recovering a historical narrative based on original surviving evidence and freed of as much legend and myth as possible.
You have done extensive research on the portraits that claim to represent Lady Jane. Even though we do not have a reliably genuine portrait, if you had to choose one that comes closest to what she actually looked like, which would you choose?
I am of the opinion that the Syon House Portrait [pictured at the top of this post] is quite probably the closest we can presently come to an authentic depiction of Jane Grey. Even though it was painted in the 1610s, 60 or more years after Jane’s death, it was commissioned by the Seymour family, who were sons and grandsons of Jane’s sister Katherine Grey Seymour. At least one senior member of that family had known Jane personally and was still living when the portrait was created. Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford (son of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to King Edward VI) had known Jane quite well, and was even considered (before 1551) as a possible future husband for her. He lived until 1621, and may well have advised the artist on Jane’s appearance. Alternatively, the Syon Portrait may have been copied from a miniature (now lost) already in the possession of the Seymours, much like the large portrait at Syon of Jane’s sister Katherine.
Let’s focus here on her final days. Was beheading with an axe the usual punishment for treason?
Those of noble or royal status who were convicted of treason were often beheaded, whereas men of lower birth were hung, drawn, and quartered, and women of lower birth were often burned at the stake (considered more “humane” for the “weaker sex” than hanging, drawing, and quartering). The monarch’s consent was required for beheading, but it was seldom withheld. Thus Mary consented to Jane being executed by beheading with an axe.
What would she have worn to her execution? Paul Delaroche’s famous 1833 painting has her dressed in a flowing white gown. Is that accurate?
No, the angelically virginal white gown depicted in that painting is unhistorical. She would have dressed appropriately in a simple gown of somber color, usually gray or black.
Could those who were to be executed bring anything with them?
Many carried some type of religious text with them to the place of execution, often a Missal or Book of Hours (for Catholics) or a New Testament or copies of the Four Gospels (for Protestants).
Do we know what Jane carried?
She carried a book of prayers copied from the works of Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine, each a fourth-century church father. Tudor-era Protestants recognized the value of the writings of these men though they denied their status as saints and intercessors in heaven.
What did she do with the book once she got there?
That morning, she carefully inscribed the book to her jailer in preparation for presenting it to him in her last moments. Small gifts to jailers, and even to executioners, were considered signs of humility and Christian forgiveness.
Was her execution out in the open?
Jane was executed within the relatively private walls of the Tower of London rather than in the full glare of the crowds outside the walls on Tower Hill. Executions were large public spectacles that often drew huge audiences, so a private execution was considered a great favor to the condemned.
Did the Tower of London contain a permanent execution scaffold?
No, scaffolds were built specifically for each execution, then immediately dismantled. The eyewitness accounts indicate that the scaffold for Jane’s execution was built against the wall of the central White Tower, at its northwest corner (the corner closest to the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula).
Since Jane was housed in the upper story of the Gentleman Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) quarters, which still stands today, she would have seen the scaffold being built just a few yards across Tower Green. She would also have had a short walk from her quarters to the scaffold, though she would have been in full view of the many permanent residents, workers, and official visitors within the Tower that busy Monday morning. She is said by eyewitnesses to have made the walk with great dignity and without any outward signs of distress.
Did anyone accompany her to the scaffold?
Jane was accompanied by at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and by John de Feckenham.
Who was Feckenham?
Feckenham was John Howman (c. 1515-1584), a member of the Benedictine Order of Roman Catholic monks. He had been born in the town of Feckingham in the county of Worcester, and it was customary at the time for monks to drop their family surname and to use instead only their forename and the name of the town where they had been born—thus “John de (or “of”) Feckenham.”
At the time of Jane’s execution in February 1554, Feckenham was one of Queen Mary’s personal chaplains and confessors. He was, in effect, one of the Queen’s personal spiritual advisers. He famously convinced Mary to allow him to attempt to convert Jane to Roman Catholicism over the course of three days before the execution, and to have engaged in a semi-public debate with Jane on theological issues. Their debate was witnessed and transcribed and published shortly after Jane’s death, becoming known as the Feckenham Debate.
What purpose did Feckenham serve at the execution?
He was there for two reasons.
First, he was available should Jane wish to convert to Roman Catholicism in her final moments, and to offer whatever spiritual comfort he could should she chose not to convert. No Protestant preacher or pastor was allowed.
Second, Feckenham served as the personal representative of Queen Mary, ready to witness the proceedings and to recount them to her.
What did Jane do upon reaching the scaffold?
Jane, like all those condemned to die, was allowed to make a final speech. Such speeches were customarily written and memorized in advance with great care, as it was common practice for the witnesses present to write down the dying person’s last words. Scaffold speeches were often published within days of the execution and circulated widely, sometimes as political propaganda, sometimes as educational tools or warnings to others, and sometimes simply as “news of the day.” Jane would have been well aware of this practice, and her final speech, as it was published barely more than a month later, reflects a careful choice of words.
What did she say in her final speech?
Here are her words:
Good people, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same. The fact against the queen’s Highness was unlawful, and the consenting thereunto by me: but, touching the procurement and desire thereof by me, or on my behalf, I do wash my hands thereof in innocency before God, and the face of you, good Christian people, this day.
In other words, she stated that she was guilty of having broken the law by accepting the crown, but that she was innocent of having sought it. She acknowledged the justice of her execution, as all condemned were expected to do. Protestations of innocence at the moment of execution were paradoxically considered signs of guilt, of lack of humility, and transgressions of God’s will.
Did she ask for prayer as well?
Yes, she asked those there:
I pray you all, good Christian people, to bear me witness that I die a true Christian woman, and that I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son Jesus Christ: and I confess, that when I did know the word of God, I neglected the same, loved myself and the world; and therefore this plague and punishment is happily and worthily happened unto me for my sins; and yet I thank God, that of his goodness he hath thus given me a time and respite to repent.
And now, good people, while I am alive, I pray you assist me with your prayers.
When she asked the small audience to pray for her soul “while yet I live,” her choice of words reflected her disagreement with the Catholic practice of saying masses for the dead.
What did she do next?
Following her recitation of Psalm 51, Jane stood again to make final preparations to meet the axe.
She handed her gloves and handkerchief to one of her ladies, and she gave her small prayer-book to Thomas Bridges, the brother of the Lieutenant of the Tower. (The prayerbook, pictured below, has survived and is sometimes displayed as part of the permanent “Treasures of the Library” exhibition at the British Library in London.)
After her attendants assisted her to loosen the neck of her gown, the executioner knelt in the customary request for forgiveness from the condemned. The executioner then asked her to stand upon the straw spread around the block to soak up the blood.
As she began to kneel, she asked the executioner whether he would take her by surprise and strike before she was ready. Assured that he would not, she tied a cloth around her head to block her eyesight.
Is it true that she couldn’t find the block where she was to lay her head for the executioner’s axe?
Yes. She felt blindly for the block, and not finding it because of the cloth over her eyes, she asked, “What shall I do? Where is it?”
It was against custom to assist the condemned to find the block, lest the person offering aid be accused of having an unjust part in a death. However, someone—usually reported as Feckenham—apparently did reach down and guide her hands to the block.
Finally finding the block, she laid her neck upon it.
What were her final words?
She repeated Jesus’s words on the cross, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” The executioner swung his axe, and she was dead.
* * *
Here are a few biographies at different levels and from different perspectives that you may want to explore:
- Faith Cook, The Nine Day Queen of England: Lady Jane Grey (Evangelical Press, 2005)
- Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)
- Leanda de Lisle, The Sisters Who Would be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Tragedy(Ballantine Books, 2009)
- Simonetta Carr, Lady Jane Grey; Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012); illustrations by Matt Abraxas
And here is execution scene as depicted in the 1986 film Lady Jane, starring Helena Bonham Carter: