Nearly 500 years ago, a petite 17-year-old girl with freckles and auburn hair briefly ascended the throne of England and Ireland in what would be Britain’s shortest reign.
Named after her notorious great uncle Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, Lady Jane Grey—otherwise known as the Nine Days’ Queen—would find herself in an impossible situation. She’s seen as an innocent victim of Tudor Dynasty politics, and her rightfulness to the crown is debated to this day. Here are 13 facts about her tragic legacy.
Throughout Renaissance Europe, it was common for aristocratic children to leave home and live as wards within a higher-ranking household. In addition to offering strategic upward social mobility and allegiances, wardships also provided these children with good education and future opportunities. For Lady Jane Grey, the expectation was no different.
Alongside her cousin, the future Queen Elizabeth I, 11-year-old Jane went to live at Sudeley Castle with Edward VI’s maternal Uncle, Thomas Seymour, and his wife, Dowager Queen Katherine Parr—Henry VIII’s widow.
In her newfound home, the formerly unhappy child, who once complained of being “sharply taunted, cruelly threatened … sometimes with pinches, nips, and bobs,” flourished under Parr’s god-loving, motherly guidance. The widowed queen shaped the young girl’s tenacious religious beliefs and broadened her exposure to contemporary humanist studies. Jane was heartbroken when Parr died in childbirth.
A bright and ambitious student, Jane was outspoken about her fondness for learning and scorned popular activities of the day, such as sporting and hunting—much to her family’s puzzlement.
She understood six languages, loved reading Plato as a child, and was inquisitive by nature, questioning the world and the beliefs of those around her. Indeed, Jane made it clear she preferred a simple, quiet life of study and religious dedication over pomp and ceremony—a trait that likely played a part in her later reluctance to accept the crown.
Arranged marriages were an expected part of life in 16th-century England. Often promised to a partner at a young age (sometimes even in infancy), families used matrimony to create safety, stability, and power for their households. After all, marrying into the wrong family could spell disaster.
Jane’s parents were always ambitious and eagerly looked to use their daughters for social gain. For eldest daughter Jane, their eyes were set on King Edward VI.
To prepare Jane for this match, they gave her a strong Protestant education and worked to get close to Edward VI’s maternal family, the Seymours. But their plans fell through when Thomas Seymour, who was getting increasingly bold in his attempts to Edward VI, was arrested and executed for treason after attempting to break into the young king’s living quarters. Jane’s parents eagerly sought to find another suitable boy—one who would also give them great power and wealth. That boy would be Guildford Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland’s 19-year-old son.
Edward VI became terminally ill in 1553. With a sick and dying king, and scheming parents on both sides of the equation, 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey and Guildford were married against their will.
King Edward VI appeared to hold little power within his court. He did, after all, ascend the throne when he was just 9 years old. Controlled by the men in his trusted privy council, many of the child’s reigning decisions were likely orchestrated by others—including the decision to make his cousin Jane Grey successor to the crown instead of his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth.
As the story goes, Sir John Dudley, the 1st Duke of Northumberland, was the man with the plan. As Edward VI’s regent advisor, the Duke held incredible power over the king. He was also shamelessly ambitious and strategically gained more and more authority during the years leading up to the young monarch’s death. And because Jane was married to his son, it meant that if she became queen, his son would be king.
Although many believe Jane unlawfully held the throne in some power-seeking scheme with her as the pawn, others argue that Queen Jane was the rightful heir all along.
When the dying King Edward VI chose cousin Jane as the next monarch, he might have believed that he was setting the books straight and undoing the actions of his freewheeling father, Henry VIII.
Going back to Henry VIII’s nullified marriages to Katherine of Aragon in 1533 and Anne Boleyn in 1536, Edward’s half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, lost their right to the throne and were denounced as illegitimate; Henry VIII later reversed his decision in 1543 in his Third Act of Succession. But even with his daughters back in line for the crown, he somehow forgot to also declare them as his legitimate children.
So what’s the problem? Well, a much older law forbid illegitimate children to hold land or crown—meaning that Lady Jane, born in wedlock and third in line to the throne, was the answer to this problem. It also didn’t hurt that she shared Edward’s religious beliefs.
It was a tumultuous era in England, and having the “right” religion could make or break you—literally.
When Edward VI’s father scandalously split from the Catholic Church to marry his second wife, Anne Boelyn, he began his own Protestant movement, where the monarchy replaced the Pope as the head of the Church of England.
Edward VI followed in Henry VIII’s footsteps, becoming a leader of English Reformation efforts throughout his six-year reign. Because he was opposed to his eldest sister Mary’s devotion to Catholicism, it’s unlikely he was willing to pass the kingdom to her, despite affectionately penning, “I love you most” in a letter to her.
His cousin Jane, on the other hand, was passionate about leading a good and pious life as a reformist. She read from the newly sanctioned Book of Common Prayer and zealously embraced Edward’s religious cause. As a dedicated Protestant raised by similar morales and guided by some of the best reformist figures of the time, such as Heinrich Bullinger and the king’s beloved stepmother, Katharine Parr, Lady Jane was an ideal candidate for succession.
Jane was emotionally and physically unwell at the time of King Edward VI’s death. She blamed her distress on her in-laws, the Dudleys, and even thought they were poisoning her. Though her claim was untrue, it was nonetheless ominous.
When Jane was summoned against her will to the Duke of Northumberland’s estate at Syon House, she was dumbfounded to find a small crowd, including her in-laws, parents, and husband awaiting her arrival. Her reaction to the announcement of Edward VI’s passing and their proclamation that she was now Queen of England and Ireland was one of shock: She fainted.
Jane at first rejected the crown, crying, “The crown is not my right and pleases me not! The Lady Mary is the rightful heir!” After some convincing, however, the young girl reluctantly accepted her unwanted title with a short and hesitant speech on July 9, 1553.
Inside the complex that would soon become her prison, she ruled as Queen Jane for a mere nine days, surrounded by the hubbub of an increasingly demanding privy council. Jane graciously held onto what little control and dignity she had left over the situation.
Because she refused to proclaim her husband Guildford king without going through the proper parliamentary process, she found herself head-to-head against her willful mother-in-law. But righteous Jane didn’t budge. Was this a good old case of spite? Maybe. Was it to avoid abusing her power? Likely.
In the beginning, Jane’s small group of supporters and advisors were incredibly outspoken. Not only about her legitimacy to the throne, but about the entire Protestant Reformation, which their newly appointed queen so vehemently backed.
The tone changed, however, when news spread that Mary Tudor was not only on the move to overthrow her cousin but had built up a massive force to do so. Poor Jane suddenly found herself completely alone.
Within days, Mary would claim the crown, depose her cousin, and hand out treason charges left, right, and center. The Duke of Northumberland was the first to lose his head.
As for Jane’s own father, Henry Grey managed to save his neck by denouncing his Protestant faith in favor of Mary’s Catholic views—and ultimately turned his back on his daughter’s reign.
Although Queen Mary I is known to have sent hundreds of dissenting Protestants to their deaths, earning her the moniker “Bloody Mary,” she initially showed mercy to her young cousin Jane. She did not initially intend to execute Jane, though she had to put her and Guilford through trial and sentencing—even if it was all for show. She could not afford to appear weak.
The teens were pardoned but expected to remain temporarily at the Tower of London. They were treated well during their imprisonment; Jane was even allowed to stroll in the queen’s garden.
Sadly, the tune changed when Jane’s father decided to join Wyatt’s Rebellion, a failed coup against the newly reigning Mary I. Unable to risk keeping her young cousin alive, Mary I made the decision to have the young couple, along with Jane’s father, executed.
On February 12, 1554, in the company of her distraught ladies in waiting, including her childhood nursemaid, Miss Ellen, the 17-year-old did her best to remain calm as she awaited the cold and heavy blade of the ax.
Guildford, beheaded at the public scaffold an hour before Jane, was unceremoniously returned to the tower grounds in the back of a hay cart. As it passed Jane’s window, the girl unraveled in sudden terror at the sight of his decapitated body.
After a short delay, it was her turn. Bravely pulling herself together, Jane gracefully made her way to Tower Green, all while clutching her Protestant prayer book defiantly.
After making a short speech, where she claimed innocence, Jane blindfolded herself and, unable to find the executioner’s block, fumbled in anguish until someone stepped in to guide her. She uttered one final prayer before bravely faced her death. Her father would follow 11 days later.
In the days leading up to the execution, Jane was offered mercy one final time—but only if she converted to Catholicism. Queen Mary I sent Benedictine Monk John Feckenham to her prison cell, hoping Jane would change her mind. But the unshakable Jane refused, remaining true to her faith.
Perhaps in part because of her innocence, beauty, and youthfulness, and most certainly because of her unwavering devotion to the English reformation, Jane became known as a Protestant martyr. Her harrowing tale has been retold countless times. She’s honored in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and romanticized in art and literature throughout the ages, and her unwavering religious devotion in the face of death is the stuff of legends.
Like any terrible tale of the past, Lady Jane Grey’s story wouldn’t be complete without a ghost sighting or two.
According to the many accounts told over the years, it’s believed that Jane’s sorrowful spirit roams the Tower of London’s tall ragstone battlements, gazing down upon the lawn where she so tragically died. Other times, she’s said to wander directly across the courtyard green.
Usually seen on her death anniversary, February 12, Jane appears as a white, fragile figure who flickers away as soon as being spotted. However intriguing these ghostly encounters are, let’s just hope they’re folklore—for Jane’s sake, if anything.