February 12, 2015

February 12, 1554: Lady Jane Grey Beheaded

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, 1833

She was only 18 years old, and she was Queen of England for only nine days.

Lady Jane Grey had almost nothing to do with her ascent to the throne. She had been married to Lord Guildford Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the most powerful men in the realm. And Northumberland had ideas of his own.

Jane was, in a vague sort of way, a legitimate contender for the throne. Henry VII's will had stipulated the succession of his three children first (even though the girls had been ruled illegitimate) and if none of them had heirs, the throne would pass to his sister, Mary Tudor's, line. Jane was the daughter of Mary's daughter Frances.

On his deathbed, Henry's son, Edward VI, had tried to overturn all that. He named his cousin Jane has his heir. He may have been influenced by his chief minister, the Earl of Northumberland, Jane's new father-in-law.

The problem was that Henry had made his ideas about succession legal through an Act, and Edward had only pronounced a "Declaration." It's not clear that it could actually supercede an Act. In the end, though, it all boils down to who has the most power.

When Mary rode into London, Jane was already ensconced in the Tower, the traditional residents of monarchs awaiting their coronation. It was an easy matter to change her status to that of prisoner. Everyone connected with the coup was charged with high treason and found guilty. Jane was sentenced to either be burned alive or beheaded, at the new Queen's pleasure. Jane's chief treasonist act was that she had signed several documents as "Jane the Queen."

At first it appeared that Jane's life would be spared, but a new rebellion soon put an end to that. Jane was scheduled for a beheading, but given a few days to prepare. Mary hoped that she could still be converted to Catholicism before her death.

Jane remained faithful to her Protestant faith, and on the morning of February 12th was taken to her place of execution. She gave a short speech asserting her innocence (in intention, if not in act) and recited Psalm 51. She forgave her executioners and asked them to allow her to lay herself down before beheading her. She blindfolded herself. Once blindfolded, she had trouble finding the block, and panicked a little. Her last words were "Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!"

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