Sixteen years of age. A young wife. A teenage Queen. A tiny childlike figure at the scaffold, dwarfed by the executioner. She struggles to the execution block and the axe is swung.
Beheaded at 16, Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for nine days, is with her Saviour in his eternal kingdom.
Jane had become a victim of power politics, caught up in family feuds and conspiracy in high places. She was ‘an unwitting pawn’ in a power struggle between Protestants and Catholics who had little regard for biblical truth and principle.
Bradgate Park is a 900-year-old deer park in Leicestershire. Its 800 acres of woodland and bracken, and 300 roaming deer, constitute one of the East Midlands’ top tourist attractions with a million visitors each year.
It was here, at Bradgate House, that Lady Jane Grey was born in October 1537 to Henry and Frances Grey – wealthy landowners and ambitious parents.
Jane’s mother was a niece of King Henry VIII and one of ten in line to succeed him as monarch.
The Reformation had begun in Europe in 1517. Though Henry was Catholic in doctrine and practice all his days, a powerful movement for reform was sweeping the English church.
Although Jane’s birth was eclipsed by another royal birth in the very same month – a son at last for Henry VIII and Jane Seymour – the Greys had high ambitions for their daughter. They dreamt that one day she would marry her cousin Prince Edward, and be Queen of the land!
Neither parent had time for academic things, preferring deer hunting and other sports. But since a new era of learning had spread across Europe, Jane herself must prepare for her future role.
Domineering to an extreme, her mother devised a regimented, studious lifestyle for her daughter – an education fit for a princess.
When she was nine, Jane was sent away to ‘learn the ways of the highest’. In the providence of God, for two years, she found herself in the London home of a true Christian believer, Katherine Parr, widow of Henry who had died on 28 January 1547.
It could not have been a better choice. She found love and tenderness in Katherine, from whom she learnt about a merciful God and Saviour whom she could trust personally.
Sadly, after remarrying, Katherine Parr died in childbirth and Jane lost her best friend. But a ‘burning Calvinistic faith’ had already been lit in her heart by the time she returned to Bradgate House.
Protestants in name only, Jane’s parents were disturbed by the change in their daughter. Her devotion to Christ was obvious – contrasting strongly with their pleasure and power-seeking lifestyles.
Cruelty and ill treatment followed – more pressure and more studies. When a leading educationalist visited Bradgate House he found her reading Plato’s Phaedo in Greek. His verdict – ‘an incredible depth of maturity for a girl of her age’.
When the crown passed to Edward, just ten years old and physically frail, the way opened for manipulative adults to seize control.
The Reformation was making rapid progress in England and King Edward VI loved its doctrines. He soon determined to have Protestant religion in the land and devotion to the Bible.
He was a boy ‘of the Book’, and sought to govern by it. Prominent Evangelicals such as Nicolas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were his frequent visitors.
But the Greys and others in high places remained ambitious for control of the throne. In April 1552, when he was fourteen, young King Edward took sick with measles, which developed into tuberculosis. Something had to be done before he died!
The Protestants feared that staunchly Catholic Mary, elder daughter of Henry VIII, would become Queen. So a plan was devised and the Greys were turned to for help.
‘Get Jane, who was in the line of succession, married to the Lord Chamberlain’s son, Guildford Dudley. Then Jane for the throne!’ Not surprisingly, Jane’s parents co-operated – the achievement of their ambitions was in sight.
Jane rejected the plan but, bullied and abused, finally submitted to marrying a boy she hardly knew. The ceremony was hastily conducted on 25 May 1553 in London.
Young King Edward knew he was dying, and feared a Catholic succession to the throne. He was easily persuaded to draft an agreement altering the line of succession to Jane’s mother. He then changed the wording and declared Lady Jane Grey to be his successor.
Mary had been bypassed for a Protestant! At only 16, Edward died on 6 July. Three days later the unsuspecting Jane was brought before a distinguished group who knelt before her in homage. ‘The King is dead – long live Queen Jane!’, they cried.
This was devastating news for Jane! Horrified, she trembled, sobbed and fainted. She even insisted that Mary was the rightful heir to the throne of England.
Furious, her parents demanded obedience – their lifelong dream was in jeopardy! Under cruel pressure, Jane finally submitted, praying: ‘If what hath been given to me is lawfully mine, may thy divine majesty grant me such grace that I may govern to thy glory and service, to the advantage of this realm’.
So at 15 years of age, Lady Jane Grey became Queen of England and was crowned at the Tower of London on 10 July 1553. Jane’s cousin Mary soon contested this and mobilised support to pursue her legal claim to the throne.
Many throughout the nation rallied to her cause, and thousands marched on London. Mary entered in triumph on 3 August and the city welcomed their ‘Queen’. Bells rang, bonfires were lit, and many danced all night.
Council members met at the Tower and many conveniently changed allegiance, joining the declaration that Mary was the rightful Queen of England.
Jane and her husband Guildford were quickly tried and sentenced to death for high treason. So began months of lonely imprisonment in the Tower of London.
Mary disliked Jane’s faith but had no wish to begin her reign by executing a respected and well-loved teenager.
Jane’s father foolishly continued in active opposition to Mary and this eventually sealed her fate – Jane must die! But Mary gave her an escape route. A full reprieve was possible if she wound convert to Catholicism.
Priests were sent to the cell to persuade her, but Jane baffled them with biblical counter arguments. They were no match for her. There was to be no compromise – no denial of the Saviour she loved – and therefore no reprieve for Jane.
She spent her last hours writing letters to her family, including one of forgiveness to her imprisoned father in which she wrote: ‘To me there is nothing that can be more welcome than from this vale of misery to aspire to that heavenly throne of all joy and pleasure with Christ my Saviour’.
Jane sent her Greek New Testament to her sister Katherine, writing in it: ‘[this] is more precious than stones. It is the book of the Lord … it shall lead you to the path of eternal joy … it shall teach you to live and learn you to die … Follow the steps of your master, Christ, and take up your cross: lay your sins on his back’.
Early on Monday 12 February 1554, only eight months after Edward’s death, Jane watched from her window as her husband was taken away to public execution on Tower Hill.
She saw the cart bearing his body and head return before she herself was led to a private execution on Tower Green.
She was allowed to deliver a ‘short but impeccably Protestant sermon’, declaring: ‘I pray you all … to bear witness that I die a true Christian woman, and that I look to be saved by none other means but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son, Jesus Christ’.
Then Jane recited Psalm 51 and prepared for death.
Guided to the executioner’s block, the tiny childlike figure lay down. ‘Lord into thy hands I commit my spirit’, she cried.The end came swiftly.
Lady Jane Grey’s sixteen years of life were over. After just nine days as Queen, the crown of England was removed – only to be replaced by ‘a crown of glory that will not fade away’.
Jane’s short life and death were exemplary – barely more than a child, she stood firm while others fell. Her resolute commitment to the essentials of true Christianity – Christ alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, to the glory of God alone – remain a challenge to young and old in our time.
Hers was a martyr’s death – a death that could have been avoided by denying gospel truth. She refused and paid the penalty, like many others since. But to such belong the real triumph and the true victory.