Fortune's Fool! (1537)
In 2022, Queen Elizabeth II will become the first British monarch to mark seventy years on the throne, an event that will be commemorated with a Platinum Jubilee. In contrast, a crowned head ruled for even less time than Anne Boleyn, the Queen of one thousand days.
Charles Dickens regarded Lady Jane Grey as a martyr; Jane Austen thought of her as a prig. Nevertheless, whatever one’s view of the teenaged queen, like King Lear, she was “more sinned against than sinning.” Jane-probably so named after King Henry’s VIII wife, Jane Seymour- was born in the family’s estate, Bradgate Park, in Leicestershire, the same year as Edward Tudor, the son of her great-uncle, King Henry VIII. Her lineage was likewise impressive: Jane was the first surviving child of Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset who later became the Duke of Suffolk. Her mother, Frances, was the daughter of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister who had spent a brief stint as the Queen of France.
Frances and Henry were deeply disappointed that Jane had not been the desired son and were further put out with the arrival of her sisters, Lady Mary and Lady Catherine. The Greys were also irritated with Jane who did not share their passion for hunting and horses. Instead, she found refuge in education and immersed herself in French, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. When the duke and duchess were out on a hunt, Jane’s tutor discovered her reading Plato. In response as to why she had not joined in her family’s pursuit, she replied, “I wist all their sport in the park is but a shadow to that pleasure that I find in Plato. Alas, they never felt what true pleasure meant.” However, her greatest passion was for the new religion that her uncle, Henry VIII, had established after severing ties with the Roman Catholic Church. Aggravated with her daughter’s studies and scriptures, Frances-the Mommy Dearest of the 1550s- meted out daily physical abuse such as ear-boxes and pinches. On one occasion, Jane revealed her torment when she confided in her tutor, “I will tell you a truth which, perchance, you will marvel at…whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, I must do it as perfectly as God made the world, or I am so sharply taunted, yea, presented with pinches, nips, and that I think myself in Hell…”
Yet, her childhood contained pockets of happiness. A common practice in the Tudor era was for aristocratic children to spend time in other households, especially when the foster family was of a higher status. Thus, at age nine, Jane went to live with King Henry VIII’s widow, his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, and her husband, Thomas Seymour. In her new household, she played cards with King Henry’s son, the future King Edward; indeed, her parents harbored hopes that Jane would one day be his wife. During this time, Jane enjoyed a respite from the hell of Bradgate Park. However, with Katherine’s death two years later during labor, Jane made her reluctant way back home.
Alas, lady luck was to further desert Lady Grey. At age fifteen, when King Edward was dying from tuberculosis, John Dudley, the Earl of Northumberland, the regent of the boy-king, persuaded Edward to sign a Device for Succession that named Jane as his successor, an act that bypassed his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. The document delineated the princesses were not in line for the throne because of their illegitimate births. The self-effacing teenager fainted when informed she was to be the queen. Her mother slapped her back into consciousness at which time Jane reluctantly accepted her fate to the relief of the Privy Councilors who knelt before her to swear allegiance. Jane later recalled of the momentous event, “Declaring to them my insufficiency, I greatly bewailed myself for the death of so noble a prince, and at the same time, turned myself to God, humbly praying and beseeching him, that if what was given to me was rightly and lawfully mine, his divine Majesty would grant me such grace and spirit that I might govern it to his glory and service and to the advantage of this realm.”
The reason why Northumberland had plotted to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne was she had become his daughter-in-law after he had arranged her marriage to his seventeen-year-old son, Lord Guildford. The couple had taken their vows alongside her sister, Catherine, and her sister-in-law at a triple ceremony at Durham House. Although Jane had been opposed to the arranged marriage, Frances had persuaded her with some choice “nips and bobs.” Due to his Machiavellian machinations, the Earl had positioned himself as England’s de facto ruler.
On the day of her coronation, Jane and Guildford entered the Tower of London by Lion Gate, an entrance so named after a former royal menagerie. Jane wore a green velvet dress embroidered with gold, with a long train carried by her mother. Her head covering was heavily bedecked with jewels, and on her neck, she wore a chinclout, a scarf, of black velvet, decorated with gold and pearls, rubies and diamonds. She walked under a canopy, accompanied by Guildford, outfitted in white and gold.
The first crack in Northumberland’s plan to become the power behind the throne was Jane’s decision to do God’s bidding rather than blindly go along with her father-in-law’s demands. An example of her strength of will was her refusal to make Guildford king. Although history is unclear about how Jane felt about the husband who had been forced upon her, conjecture is that the girl who had been derived of love throughout her life grew fond of her spouse.
Another flaw in the Earl’s calculation was he had not bargained on opposition from Mary, who, cut from the same cloth as her father, did not take kindly to the theft of her birthright. The Privy Council, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, had similarly underestimated the threat of the Catholic princess and wrote Jane that in order to dispel opposition, she should be “quiet and obedient.” Factions formed in favor of Mary who gathered her troops in Norfolk. When Northumberland left London to capture her from her stronghold of Framlingham Castle, the Privy Council switched sides and proclaimed Mary the new queen. In a move calculated to save his own skin, Henry signed the proclamation before fleeing. Seeing in which direction the political wind was blowing, the earl’s s supporters dispersed.
After nine days, Jane ceded the throne to her cousin. Mary’s men arrested Jane and her husband and charged them with high treason. Of her father-in-law, Jane stated, “He hath brought me and my stock in most miserable calamity and misery by his exceeding ambition.” Once again bearing the title Lady Grey, Jane and her husband landed in the Tower of London, William the Conqueror’s twelfth century fortress where two of Henry’s VIII’s discarded wives had met their gruesome ends. Frances, true to form, never contacted her doomed daughter though she did plead for her husband’s pardon.
On trial, as evidence of Jane’s guilt was a document that bore the words, “Jane the Quene.” The court decreed that Jane be either burned or beheaded; Mary chose neither option, aware that her cousin had been a mere pawn in a power game. She allowed her prisoner to be attended by three gentlewomen and the privilege of walking in the Queen’s Garden. Her mercy did not extend to Northumberland, whose scheming ended with his execution.
Jane might have lived, although in captivity, had her father and uncle not participated in the Wyatt Rebellion, brought about by Mary’s decision to marry Philip, the King of Spain. Mary’s advisors took the uprising as a sign that Jane remained a rallying figure for Protestants, a fact that sealed the teenager’s fate. Even after her sentence that demanded the ultimate price, she did not hear from her mother who was having an affair with a servant fifteen years her junior. The day before her death, she wrote her younger sister a farewell letter, penned on a page of a Greek New Testament Bible, “Consider that I shall be delivered of this corruption.” Henry had meddled for his last time as the crown decreed his death.
In 1554, on her way to the chopping block at the Tower Green, the hapless girl spied the body of its recently dispatched victim, her nineteen-year-old husband, whose body lay on a stretcher, his severed head ensconced between his thighs. Although abandoned by her family and supporters, Jane derived comfort from the faith that had always been her pillar. She recited Psalms 51:8, “Let the bones you have crushed rejoice” and then begged her executioner, “I pray you dispatch me quickly.” After tying a blindfold over her eyes, unable to find the block where she was to kneel, she revealed her turmoil, “What shall I do? Where is it?”
Jane’s remains ended up next to Anne Boleyn’s in an unmarked grave in St. Peter ad Vincula by the Tower. The former queen became a Protestant martyr who has long aroused empathy. Almost three hundred years after her decapitation, Charles Dickens wrote that the English axe “never struck so cruel and so vile a blow.” The Tower’s ever-present ravens, that feast on rabbits, showed as much compassion as the queen had displayed towards her cousin. The last prayer the condemned uttered was, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” However, the words of Romeo-who also lost his life in his teens-could well have been Jane’s own, “O, I am fortune’s fool!”