'Tudor Lockdown for England's Nine-Day Queen' by Clarissa Skinner
Why was the nine-day queen, Lady Jane Grey, put into lockdown for so long before her execution? And what was the final straw that led Queen Mary to put her to death?
At 10 am on February 12, 1554, a diminutive figure in size. However, pious and graceful, England's nine-day teenage queen walks to the scaffold, reading her little prayer book supported on the arm of the kindly Lieutenant Sir John Bridges. Small with freckles and the Tudor red hair, she was dressed in a black gown with a French hood trimmed with jet. Her two ladies, Mrs Ellen and Mrs Tilney walk behind her, weeping.
Interested in a Tudor Tour? Our Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace day tour from London cover the entire Tudor Story.
Jane's husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, had requested an audience with Jane before their executions. Queen Mary had agreed to this, though Jane refused, saying they would meet in "a better place". However, to comfort him, she promised to watch as he walked from the Tower of London out onto Tower Hill for his public execution. She even stayed stubbornly at her window in the Queen's House until his headless corpse was brought back in a cart to be interred in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. A bloody white sheet covered the body, and his head was wrapped in a cloth.
When Jane reached the scaffold, she took a scarf from Mrs Ellen to use as a blindfold. She stood fumbling for the block, crying: "What am I to do? Where is it?" Someone stepped forward and helped her to the block, and as she stretched out her body, the axeman took her head in one blow. She was just 16. The French ambassador, Antoine de Noailles, recorded his shock at how much blood could come from so small a body.
Jane's claim to the throne came through Henry VIII's sister Mary Tudor (described as the most beautiful woman in England). She secretly married his chief adviser and friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. After raging at the deceit, Henry forgave them. Mary and Charles had two daughters, Frances and Eleanor. Frances was Jane's mother. Frances married Henry Grey, later Duke of Suffolk. They were unpleasant but proud parents, and Henry described them as "neither misliked nor much regarded" by his peers. They went on to have two more daughters, Katherine and Mary.
On Henry VIII's death on January 28, 1547, Edward VI became king. He was staunchly Protestant; to keep his Catholic half-sister Queen Mary (later known as Bloody Mary) off the throne, he is persuaded to name his cousin Jane as his heir. John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, had Jane marry his son Guildford Dudley to retain his power over the crown. Thus, upon the death of the King, Jane became Queen of England on July 10, 1553, aged only 15. Just nine days later, with Queen Mary having gained great support, she captures Jane and has her thrown into the Tower on treason charges.
Under sentence of death, Jane is treated well at the Tower, even making friends with Lieutenant Sir John Bridges, writing a message to him in the prayer book she left to him: "There is a time to be born and a time to die, and the day of our death is better than the day of our birth. Yours, as the Lord knoweth, a true friend." This message was beside one to her father, which ends: "Your obedient daughter till death." She lived in the gaoler's house, Partridge and his wife, and was allowed four members in her household, Mrs Ellen, Mrs Tilney, Mrs Jacobs and a manservant and given a decent allowance to live well. She was allowed to walk in the gardens and even out onto Tower Hill, under escort of guards.
Queen Mary recognised that Jane was an innocent pawn in a political game and was intent on not having her executed, hoping that when rebellions had been quashed, she would be able to release her. Jane, too, believed that one day she might be free. Thus, the Tower was almost a refuge to her, as she could read her beloved books. Jane was a Greek and Latin scholar (among other subjects) and staunch in her Protestant views - some might even say priggish. She was now free of all the venomous people in her life who had pushed and cajoled her into taking on the crown. Jane wrote to Queen Mary: "Although my fault be great, and I confess it be so, nevertheless I am charged and esteemed guilty more than I have deserved. For whereas I might take upon me that of which I was not worthy, yet no one can ever say that either I sought it on my own, or that I was pleased with it." The original letter did not survive, but there is a contemporary Italian translation.
The problem came when Queen Mary agreed to marry Philip of Spain, son of Emperor Charles V, Queen Mary's uncle and powerful ruler of the Habsburg empire. The English rose against this "foreign" match. Queen Mary stopped Jane walking on the walls of the Tower, keeping her out of the raging public. Worse, she was eventually told that she could not leave Partridge's house for her daily walks. Total lockdown. Jane became ill, and this, combined with the fact that Queen Mary considered her half-sister Elizabeth an even greater threat, meant she was allowed to at least walk in the gaoler's gardens again. Besides, behind the Tower walls, no one could see her.
Jane endlessly awaited her pardon with great resilience, but it never came, and she began to feel forgotten. She carved Latin inscriptions on the walls (they no longer survive, but once again contemporaries recorded them):
"To mortals' common fate my mind resign.
My lot today tomorrow may be thine."
"While God assists us, envy bites in vain.
If God forsakes us, fruitless all our pain.
I hope for light after darkness."
It seems that Jane became bored and lonely, as one evening the Partridges' had Rowland Lee from the Royal Mint over, and Jane seems to have greatly enjoyed this fresh company to exchange ideas with. When he asked her what she made of the Duke of Northumberland's conversion to Catholicism at the last moment, and it was commented on that he was seeking to have his pardon, Jane cried out: "Pardon! Woe worth him! He hath brought me and our stock in most miserable calamity and misery by his exceeding ambition."
The protests against Queen Mary's marriage led to the Wyatt rebellion, led by Thomas Wyatt, son of a poet from Kent. Wyatt just wanted to stop the foreign marriage; however, others plotted more deeply. Edward Courtenay (great-grandson of King Edward IV), who had been imprisoned in the Tower throughout his youth by Henry VIII, was now freed aged 27 by Queen Mary. The plot involved having him married off to Queen Mary's half-sister Elizabeth and taking the throne. They would have made a powerful match. This Protestant plot gave Queen Mary no choice but to have Lady Jane put to death. Elizabeth brought to the Tower for questioning to determine her involvement in it.
While Elizabeth, briefly in lockdown at the Tower, was in the garden, a boy of five and a girl aged three or four came to the gate to offer her flowers. Another little girl provided the princess with a miniature set of keys "so that she may unlock the gate and go abroad". The guards thought they were being sent as spies concealing messages in the posy and banned them from coming again. But the brave little fellow did come again, just to let her know he could no longer bring her flowers. Elizabeth was considered a threat throughout Queen Mary's reign. She spent a long time under house arrest at Woodstock Manor (now Blenheim Palace outside of Oxford). While there, she is said to have inscribed on the window with a diamond:
"Much suspected of me.
Nothing proved can be.
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner."
Finally, Queen Mary, at the very last, sent Dr John Feckenham, the new Catholic dean of St Paul's Cathedral, to try to convert Jane. Despite herself, Jane could not help befriending Feckenham and found him kinder and better company than many Protestants. However, she could not be persuaded, arguing against transubstantiation, saying that when Christ broke the bread and said, "Take, eat, this is my body", he was very much alive. So the Real Presence in the Eucharist could not be true. Nonetheless, she agreed to have Feckenham join her at the scaffold to see her last breath taken. Jane told Feckenham of her lockdown horror: "I assure you, the time hath been so odious to me that I long for nothing so much as death."
After Jane's death, her father was discovered hiding at Astley Park, his estate in Warwickshire, in the stump of a tree where he had stayed for two days. He was brought back and executed on February 23, 1554. His head fell into the sawdust below, which was tainted with tannin. So it was perfectly preserved for 400 years - and even shown off to historians at St Botolph's Church in Aldgate - before finally being buried. Her mother, Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, immediately deserted her family and entered Queen Mary's court. Within weeks after her husband and daughter's death, she had married Adrian Stokes, 15 years her junior and her groom of the chambers. He was red-haired and flashy in dress, but more importantly, her inferior. A smart move, as it took her and any future heirs out of the line of succession, thereby removing her permanently as a threat to the throne.
The story of Jane's sisters' fate also has a terrible lockdown chill to it. Katherine Grey, one sister, fell in love with Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford. She was a true Tudor beauty like her grandmother. She had also been welcomed into Queen Mary's court. Still, when Elizabeth I succeeded Queen Mary, she kept Katherine close, being a potential rival. When Katherine secretly married the earl, the threat became greater, and Elizabeth was furious. Worse, she was pregnant with his child, and when it was born, it was a boy. They were both imprisoned at the Tower, but the Lieutenant, Ed Warner, took pity on them and let them meet in secret. An exceptionally unwise move, as once again, Katherine became pregnant and had a second son. Elizabeth was so incensed at this that Katherine was placed under house arrest. Here in lockdown, she pined away for the family she had lost. She probably became anorexic, as she ate very little and wasted away with consumption. You may think that this would have been warning enough for her sister Mary Grey, but not so. She decided to marry at 19 years secretly to the sergeant porter, Thomas Keys (again her inferior). A slightly comic match, as William Cecil said: "The sergeant porter, being the biggest gentleman in this court, hath married secretly the Lady Mary Grey, the least of all the court." She was described as so tiny that she may have been a dwarf and was also a little hunch-backed. She, too, was separated from her husband and put under house arrest at Chequers in Buckinghamshire. Mary Grey also wasted away and stopped eating (Thomas Keys was sent to the Fleet prison.) She was finally released in 1572, a year after her husband's death, and died in poverty and obscurity in 1578, aged 32. Tragically, on Katherine's deathbed, she sent a message to Elizabeth begging her to forgive her and asked of her children that Elizabeth "not impute my fault onto them".
Thus, we learn lockdown lessons from our torturous Tudor forebears.