February 12th, 1554: England's forgotten queen, Lady Jane Grey, is executed for treason. In most popular histories, and as taught in probably all UK schools, succession of British monarchs in the early modern period goes Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary 1 and Elizabeth I. There is, however, a notable absence in this list of Tudor kings and queens, namely Lady Jane Grey. Admittedly the title 'lady' does not make her regal connection immediately obvious, but neither would Tudor public relations and marketing. If nothing else the Tudor dynasty was highly adept at self-promotion and in particular writing a history most favourable to themselves. William Shakespeare’s play Richard III is a rather good example of how Tudor propaganda has influenced more modern ideas. In ‘merrie ol’ England’, not towing the party line led many of the Tudor’s subjects to an early grave. Undoubtedly keen not to upset Queen Elizabeth, therefore, Shakespeare crafts Richard has a ugly hunchback, ‘rudely stamp'd’, ‘deformed, unfinish'd’, and plotting to usurp the throne from his brother Edward’s two sons who Shakespeare has murdered by Richard’s command. The latter ‘fact’ is still contested today there being little surviving evidence to prove Richard was complicit in the deaths of the two princes in the Tower. All anyone can say with any certainty is that the fate of the two boys remains unknown. There is also an irony in painting Richard as a usurper given one could argue that the first of the Tudor monarchs, Henry VII, was exactly that.
Regardless of Ricardian machinations or Tudor propaganda, Henry VII son - the infamous Henry VIII - devoted a great deal of effort to secure an heir. From six marriages he and his wives produced just three surviving children and only one of them a boy. When that son, who reigned for just six years as Edward VI, died at the age of 15 in 1553, the troubling question of succession arose once more.
Both Mary and Elizabeth had been reinstated to the succession by their father Henry VIII in 1544, but in Edward’s will neither sister was in line to the throne. Rather the Protestant Edward did not want his Catholic sister Mary to rule and make England’s crown once more subordinate to the Pope in Rome. Instead, Edward’s will named as successor his cousin Lady Jane Grey (right). Aged just 16 or 17, she was promoted as the Protestant alternative to the Catholic Mary. On July 10th, 1553, four days after Edward’s death, Jane was proclaimed queen. Nine days later the Privy Council changed its mind, Jane was deposed, and Mary ascended the throne.
During her trial at the Guildhall in November Jane was accused of ‘falsely and treacherously’ taking the crown of England thereby challenging Mary’s rightful ‘royal status, title, order and power of her kingdom of England.’ Perhaps hoping for mercy from the new queen, Jane pleaded guilty. It was a decision that doomed her; Jane could not be left alive to act as a beacon for the anti-Catholic faction. Although Mary allegedly desired to save her cousin, the Queen’s hand was forced by the politics of the day and she eventually agreed to Jane’s execution.
On February 12th, 1554 Jane ascended the scaffold constructed within the Tower of London. She bravely delivered her final speech as custom dictated and asked the assembled onlookers to pray for her. Eerily calm, Jane allowed herself to blindfolded before kneeling on a bed straw. Unable to see, her composure failed as she panicked, her flailing hands searching vainly for the headsman’s block. She was heard to cry ‘What shall I do? Where is it?’ Mere moments later Jane’s head was cleaved from her body by a single blow. She entered history as a tragic pawn in the world of cruel patriarchal politics only to become England’s forgotten queen.
Carr, H. (2023), Lady Jane Grey is executed for treason’, Anniversaries, BBC History Magazine February edition, p.43.