One summer morning in July 1553 a State Barge came up the Thames on the rising tide and moored on the north bank by Syon House, the home of John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland and Lord Protector of the Realm - and there it sat awaiting its passenger.
Early in 1553 the young King, Edward VI had fallen ill and was not expected to live. Fearing that the succession of his Catholic half sister Princess Mary Tudor would jeopardise the Protestant Reformation that Edward had helped introduce into Britain he was persuaded by John Dudley to write “My Device for the Succession” which would settle the crown not upon Mary but upon the King’s 16-year-old cousin Jane Grey. As well as being a pious Protestant she also happened to be the daughter-in-law of John Dudley, an ambitious man with aspirations for a place in the Royal family. If Jane succeeded as Queen his son Guildford would become King!
Edward died on 6 July 1553. Four days later, Jane was proclaimed queen. John Dudley and a group of nobles visited Jane in Syon House where she was living quite happily with her husband Guildford and presented her with the crown. At first she refused and pleaded to be allowed to remain at Syon House with Guildford. This did not suit John Dudley, her own father the Duke of Suffolk or her husband Guildford all of whom urged her to accept the crown. Without realising the weakness of her claim to the throne Jane accepted. The following day a state barge took her with great ceremony down river to the Tower of London which by a long-established custom was the home of the sovereign upon succession to the throne. Even as the proclamations of Jane’s ascendency were being made Princess Mary Tudor’s popularity was growing and by mid-July even Jane’s own father the Duke of Suffolk could see that the game was up. With Dudley’s supporters falling away Suffolk attempted to save himself by proclaiming Mary Tudor queen and persuading Jane to relinquish the crown. After just 9 days on the throne Lady Jane Grey, accused of high treason, was imprisoned by Princess Mary in the Tower along with Suffolk and her husband Guildford. On 12th August Jane and Guildford were indicted. Jane submitted a letter of explanation to the Queen, “asking forgiveness … for the sin she was accused of, informing her majesty about the truth of events and speaking of herself as “a wife who loves her husband”.
In November 1553 Jane and Guildford were brought to trial. They both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to death. The sentence was suspended, but when her father Suffolk supported Sir Thomas Wyatt’s doomed rebellion of 1554 against the catholic throne and the proposed marriage between Princess Mary and Philip of Spain, it marked the final straw for Jane and Guildford. On 12 February 1554, she and her husband were beheaded. Her father, the Duke of Suffolk, followed them two days later.
At her own execution on Tower Green and surrounded by weeping ladies-in-waiting, Jane managed to maintain her composure. She addressed the waiting crowd: -
“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 the face of God and the face of you good Christian people this day… this plague or punishment is happily and worthily [deservedly] happened unto me for my sins. I thank God of his goodness that he has given me a time and respite to repent.
With her head on the block, Jane spoke the last words of Jesus as recounted by Luke: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!”
Jane and Guildford died within an hour of each other and were buried together in the Tower chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.
The executions did not contribute to the government’s popularity. Five months after the couple’s death, John Knox, the future Scottish reformer, wrote of them as “Innocents … such as by just laws and faithful witnesses can never be proved to have offended by themselves”. Of Guildford, the chronicler Grafton wrote ten years later: “even those that never before the time of his execution saw him, did with lamentable tears bewail his death”.
Jane was young, probably no older than 16. Although she was an intelligent girl and well educated her life was limited by the plots and ambitions of her father, the Duke of Suffolk, and her father-in-law, John Dudley. Believing perhaps that as a Protestant queen she could provide a defence against Roman Catholicism Jane Grey became their dupe.
– from Martyn Day