The details of her reign are shaky. Can she be considered as England’s first queen? Or should the title go to Mary I, the rightful heir to the throne? Many only know her as the ‘nine-days queen’, Interestingly, some take her reign as ’13 days’—that is, if you take the days between Edward I’s death (6 July 1553) to the day Jane was declared as queen (9 July 1553) into account. Her reign ended drastically on 19 July, when Mary I was declared as queen instead.
There are so many details of Lady Jane’s life that remain shrouded in mystery. Her life was exceedingly coloured with the ideals of later historians, many who pictured her as an innocent, helpless young girl who was pushed onto the throne—and eventually, the block, by her ambitious parents and father-in-law. Yet, how big was her role in deciding her fate? Was she truly the passive victim that many thought her to be?
One thing that we can be sure about—Jane was an exceedingly learned child for her times. During those days when girls were trained in needlework, dancing, music, and managing a household, Jane received formal education in Latin, Greek and Hebrew with her tutor John Alymer, and Italian with Michelango Florio. She was a notable scholar, was considered well-learned and intelligent, receiving the praise of many for her interest and advancement in her studies. It wasn’t entirely strange though, that Jane would have received such an advanced education. She was, after all, the granddaughter of Princess Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry the Eighth. (Not to be confused with his daughter, also named Mary) Both her cousins Edward VI and Elizabeth also received an education befitting their rank as members of royalty. She was also a zealous Protestant, and her faith would determine her fate eventually.
In early February of 1547, Jane was sent to live in the household of Katherine Parr, the former queen, along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth. She adored the kind queen, who was genuinely interested in the welfare of her stepdaughters as well as Lady Jane’s. Her parents were said to be very strict towards her, but that is another controversial fact.
A few months into her stay with the queen, Katherine remarried; this time to Thomas Seymour, who was related to King Edward through his sister, Jane Seymour. It was revealed later that Jane’s stay with the Seymour’s had a reason—Thomas Seymour tried to propose Jane as a royal bride to Edward VI, though eventually nothing came out of it. Jane acted as the chief mourner at Katherine Parr’s funeral, and continued staying at the Seymour’s household for another two months until Thomas Seymour was charged with treason for attempting to hold Edward VI captive, along with other charges.
In the year of 1553, King Edward took ill. Knowing that he was close to his death, he decided to redraft the act of succession. According to his father’s will, Edward’s immediate successors would be his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, who were both declared illegitimate. Mary was a staunch Catholic, and her beliefs largely conflicted with Edward’s. Many officers feared that Mary would turn England back to the ‘Roman Religion’. Edward decided to cut both his sisters out of the succession, and pass on the crown to the male heirs of Frances Brandon and Lady Jane instead. After all, his sisters were illegitimate, one was a Catholic, but worse of the worst, they were girls. And how could a woman hold power over men? It was considered unnatural indeed, according the views of that time.
The problem was neither Jane nor her mother Frances had any male heirs. Frances’ had a son, who died young; her remaining children were three daughters. Jane was newly married to Guilford Dudley, the youngest son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Setting the issue of gender aside, Edward had to stick to reality. As his death neared, he decided to change his will—and make it possible for Jane or her sisters to succeed instead. It was possibly done under the persuasion of the Duke of Northumberland, who would benefit greatly if his daughter-in-law became queen.
By all means, Edward’s immediate successor should be Frances Brandon, but she willingly gave up her right to succession and allowed her daughter to reign in her place. There are a few possible reasons to this. Frances was getting old, and getting past the age of childbearing, while Jane was still young and she could produce male heirs who could succeed her in the future. Besides, the adults knew well that leaving Mary and Elizabeth out of the succession was a risky thing—if the plan foiled, they could very well be beheaded for treason. Jane’s young age also made her a suitable pawn that could be manipulated at ease. And most importantly, she was married to John Dudley’s son. With his son made King of England—what more could the duke hope for? The throne may be Jane’s, but the power would be the duke’s.
Jane was taken to the Syon House where two great lords kissed her hand. She was informed of the death of Edward I, and that she was now proclaimed as queen, which she wrote as feeling ‘stupefied’ as she heard the news. She was reluctant to accept the throne, which she believed to be the right of Mary I. She fell to the ground, weeping, but in the end, after forceful persuasion from her mother and her husband, she was forced to succumb to their will.
However, John Dudley had underestimated his daughter-in-law. She refused to make her husband Guilford King of England, making him a duke instead. She refused to back down even after admonishment from her mother-in-law.
Mary’s letter to the Privy Council arrived, demanding that she be recognized as the rightful heir to the throne. In response to her letter, two of Guilford’s brothers were sent to meet Mary. Mary and Elizabeth were also declared as illegitimate and thus unfit to succeed the throne in a sermon at St Paul. Dudley however miscalculated the people’s support for Mary. Her rightful claim to the throne overrode her religion, and many did not know who Queen Jane is. The people were in favour of Mary’s accession, and Mary managed to gather a large force of supporters to secure her claim.
It was decided that Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, should lead an army to put Mary down. Jane refused to let him go, and in the end, John Dudley had to go instead. At the same time, the strain of the situation was catching on. Jane suffered from health problems with her hair falling out and her skin peeling off. She believed herself to be poisoned, but it was probably a result of anxiety and stress of the uncertainty of her position.
However, Mary had amassed supporters in East Anglia and the Thames Valley. The peasants also refused to take arms against Mary, whom they recognized as their rightful queen. Taking opportunity of Dudley’s absence, several councilors fled. By and by, the lords of the Privy Council began to desert Jane, to save their own lives. They left to St. Paul’s and gave thanks for the country’s deliverance from treachery—in other words, they were proclaiming their support of Mary as queen.
It was a lost cause. John Dudley gave up resisting; he proclaimed Mary Tudor, but this did not prevent his arrest. He was executed on the 22nd of August that very year for high treason. On the ninth day of Jane’s reign, Jane’s father entered the presence chamber where Jane was seated, tore down the canopy of state and informed her that she was no longer queen. Innocently, she asked, “Out of obedience to you and my mother I have grievously sinned. Now I willingly relinquish the crown. May I not go home?” Things were not so simple however; perhaps Jane herself did realise it. Her father hastened to Tower Hill to proclaim his support for Mary I; but it was already too late to turn back. Jane was now a usurper and a prisoner of the state. She was told to turn in her crown and other regalia to Queen Mary. She was then taken into custody in the apartments of the Tower’s Gentleman Gaoler. Her husband, Guilford, was held in Beauchamp Tower.
Initially, Mary took pity on Jane, as she understood that Jane was no more than a pawn for her family’s ambitions. Her treatment of Jane during her imprisonment was also kind—instead of being confined in a dark, draughty dungeon, Jane was given the privilege of lodging in relative comfort, and was allowed to take walks on Tower Green at convenient times and at the discretion of the Deputy Lieutenant of the Tower. She also had several ladies to attend to her. However, her fate was sealed when Thomas Wyatt the younger raised a rebellion against Mary I to overthrow her after she announced her decision to marry Philip II of Spain. The English did not want a Spanish king on the throne, and were extremely displeased by Mary’s choice. Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, also had a part in the rebellion, and it turned out to be a failure. The duke was sentenced to be beheaded for high treason. According to popular account, Philip II refused to set foot in England as long as Jane lived, knowing that she could easily be the figurehead for further rebellions. Mary was given no choice but to issue her beheading on the on the 9th of February. (But then again, this is open to controversy) However, she wanted to give Jane a second chance—and brought in a Catholic priest, Dr. Feckenham to convince her to convert to Catholicism. (Note: there is dispute on this fact, and Mary 's attempts may be aimed at saving her soul, not her life). Jane’s execution was delayed to the 12th of February to give her time to decide whether to convert. Given a choice between life and death—Jane stood her ground and staunchly refused to change her faith. Despite her young age, her conviction was admirable. Although Jane did not allow herself to be ‘saved’, Dr. Feckenham decided to accompany her to the scaffold and prepare her for her death.
Jane was given a last chance to see her husband before her execution—which she refused. Being devout and religious, perhaps she wanted to focus her mind on religious matters rather than earthly ones. Or rather, it could be inferred that Jane was not overly fond of her husband who had practically been forced onto her to fulfil the ambitions of her father-in-law. But then again, this story might not be true. All we can be sure of is that, Jane’s relationship with her husband was far from what was portrayed in the movie ‘Lady Jane’, where they spent their last night together and bade each other a tearful farewell.
On the 12th of February, Jane watched as her husband was taken to the Tower Hill to be executed. She later saw his headless body being brought back on a cart. It is said that Jane had cried out, “Oh Guilford! Guilford! The bitterness of death!” Perhaps the sight reminded her of her impending doom. Then, she herself was led to Tower Green to be beheaded on a much private affair—a privilege her royal status granted her. Traditionally the punishments for women who had committed treason is burning or beheading, but noblewomen were often given the ‘privilege’ of the latter, which incurred much less suffering. Which somehow reminds us the injustice of the world in life and even in death!
Donning a solemn black dress befitting the occasion and clutching her prayer book in her hands, Jane was accompanied by two ladies—Mrs Tylney, her attendant and Mrs Ellen, her nurse; the Deputy Lieutenant of the Tower Sir John Brydges. She met Dr. Feckenham at the scaffold as promised. She was praying all the way to the scaffold. Her two ladies were weeping, but Jane appeared composed. As required by tradition, she delivered a short speech before the small crowd that had gathered to watch her execution. According to the accounts of a contemporary, her speech was as such,
“Good people, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same. The fact, indeed, 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.”
She then recited Psalm 51 to the end in English in a most devout manner. After the prayer, she told Dr. Feckenham that she beseeched God to abundantly reward him for the kindness he had shown to her. Then, she gave her gloves and handkerchief to Mrs Tilney and gives her prayer book to the Deputy Lieutenant. (An account says that it’s his brother that she handed the prayer book to) She began to untie her outer gown, which would be in the possession of the executioner after the execution. The executioner stepped forward to offer her help, but she declined politely, and was aided by her attendants instead. One of the women handed her a kerchief to bind her eyes with, and the executioner knelt down before Jane, asking for her pardon, which she gave willingly, as required by tradition. (Which makes me wonder at the fact that even executions in Tudor England requires much tradition) She hands him a purse with his payment (for lopping off her head, something that I find ironic), and kneels on the straw, blindfolding her eyes. She begs the executioner to dispatch her quickly, asking, “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” To which the executioner assured her that he won’t.'
However, at this point she reaches for the block, fails to find it, and starts to panic. We can imagine all her anxiety at her impeding death arising at this point, surfacing through her outward countenance of composure. Unable to see through her blindfold, she gropes with her hands, and failing, cries out, “Where is it? Where is it? What shall I do?” One of the bystanders (some say that it is the Deputy Lieutenant, another account says that it is Dr. Feckenham) takes her hands and guided her to the block, where she laid her head down. The last words she uttered was ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit’ and the executioner’s axe came down and thus ended her short, illustrious and tragic life.