by Susan Flantzer
In the early summer of 1553, fifteen-year-old Protestant King Edward VI, King Henry VIII‘s son, lay dying. His eldest half-sister Mary, the Catholic daughter of King Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, was the heiress presumptive. The Third Succession Act of 1543 had restored Mary and Edward’s other half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn, to the succession. In addition, the Third Succession Act stipulated that if the children of King Henry VIII did not have heirs, the heirs of his younger sister Mary Tudor should inherit the throne. The heirs of Henry’s elder sister Margaret Tudor who married King James IV of Scotland were excluded presumably to ensure the English throne was not inherited by a Scot.
Henry VIII’s will named 16 executors who were to act as King Edward VI’s Council until he reached the age of 18. The king’s uncle Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset became Lord Protector of the Realm and Governor of the King’s Person. In 1550, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland became Lord President of the Council, the council being the Privy Council. In 1552, after the execution of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, Northumberland decided to take power and rule as primus inter pares, a Latin phrase describing the most senior person of a group sharing the same rank or office.
Jane Grey was born 1536/7, daughter of Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk and Lady Frances Brandon. Lady Frances was the daughter of King Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. Frances was the elder of her parents’ two surviving children. Two sons died in childhood, so the only surviving children were Frances and her younger sister Eleanor who had died in 1547. Frances and her husband had three surviving daughters. Jane was the eldest followed by two sisters:
- Lady Catherine Grey (1540 – 1568), married (1) Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, marriage annulled; (2) Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford, had issue
- Lady Mary Grey (1545 – 1578), married Thomas Keys, no issue
Jane was very well educated. She studied Greek and Hebrew with John Aylmer, later Bishop of England, and Italian and Latin with Michelangelo Florio, a former Franciscan friar who converted to Protestantism. In 1547, Jane was sent to live in the household of King Edward VI’s uncle, Thomas Seymour, who married King Henry VIII’s widow, Catherine Parr. Jane lived with the couple until the death of Catherine in childbirth in September 1548 and acted as chief mourner at Catherine’s funeral.
The powerful Duke of Northumberland thought marrying one of his sons to Lady Jane Grey would be a good idea. On May 25, 1553, three weddings were celebrated at Durham Place, the Duke of Northumberland’s London home. Lord Guildford Dudley, the fifth surviving son of the Duke of Northumberland married Lady Jane Grey, Guildford’s sister Lady Katherine Dudley married Henry Hastings, the Earl of Huntingdon’s heir, and Jane’s sister Lady Catherine Grey married Henry Herbert, the heir of the Earl of Pembroke.
Therefore, as King Edward VI lay dying in the early summer of 1553, the succession to the throne according to the Third Succession Act looked like this, and note that number four in the succession was the Duke of Northumberland’s daughter-in-law.
1) Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon
2) Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
3) Duchess of Suffolk (Lady Frances Brandon), daughter of Mary Tudor
4) Lady Jane Grey, daughter of Frances Brandon
5) Lady Catherine Grey, daughter of Frances Brandon
6) Lady Mary Grey, daughter of Frances Brandon
7) Lady Margaret Clifford, daughter of Countess of Cumberland (born Lady Eleanor Brandon, daughter of Mary Tudor)
King Edward VI’s death and the succession of his Catholic half-sister Mary would spell trouble for the English Reformation. Many on Edward’s Council feared this, including the Duke of Northumberland. What exact role the Duke of Northumberland had in what followed is still debated, but surely he played a big part in the unfolding of what happened. The king opposed Mary’s succession not only for religious reasons, but also because of her illegitimacy and his belief in male succession. He also opposed the succession of his half-sister for reasons of illegitimacy and belief in male succession. Both Mary and Elizabeth were still considered to be legally illegitimate.
King Edward composed a document “My devise for the succession” in which he passed over his half-sisters and the Duchess of Suffolk (Frances Brandon). Edward meant for the throne to go to the Duchess’ daughters and their male heirs. The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk were outraged at the Duchess’ removal from the succession, but after a meeting with the ailing king, the Duchess renounced her rights in favor of her daughter Jane. Many contemporary legal experts believed the king could not contravene an Act of Parliament without passing a new one that would have established the altered succession. Therefore, many thought that Jane’s claim to the throne was weak. Apparently, Jane did not have any idea of what was occurring.
After great suffering, fifteen-year-old King Edward VI died on July 6, 1553, most likely from tuberculosis. On July 9, Jane was told that she was Queen, and reluctantly accepted the fact. She was publicly proclaimed Queen with much pomp after Edward’s death was announced on July 10. Queen Jane made a state entry into the Tower of London. Her mother carried her train and the rather short Queen wore raised shoes to give her height. Jane showed some spirit when she refused to allow her husband to be proclaimed king.
The Duke of Northumberland had to find Mary and hopefully capture her before she could gather support. However, as soon as Mary knew her half-brother was dead, she wrote a letter to the Privy Council with orders for her proclamation as Edward’s successor and started to gather support. By July 12, Mary and her supporters had assembled a military force at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk. The Duke of Northumberland set out from London with troops on July 14. The nobility were incensed with Northumberland and the people, for the most part, wanted Mary as their Queen, not Jane. In Northumberland’s absence, the Privy Council switched their allegiance from Jane to Mary, and proclaimed her Queen on July 19, 1553. Mary arrived triumphantly into London on August 3, 1553 accompanied by her half-sister Elizabeth and a procession of over 800 nobles and gentlemen.
Aftermath: The Duke of Northumberland was executed on August 22, 1553. Lady Jane Grey and Lord Guildford Dudley were both charged with high treason as was Jane’s father Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. They were all found guilty. Queen Mary appeared as if she was going to be lenient, but the Protestant rebellion of Thomas Wyatt the Younger in January of 1554 sealed Jane’s fate, although she had nothing to do with the rebellion. Wyatt’s Rebellion was a reaction to Queen Mary’s planned marriage to the future King Philip II of Spain. Lady Jane Grey and Lord Guildford Dudley were executed on February 12, 1534. The Duke of Suffolk was executed on February 23, 1554. Lady Jane’s mother, the Duchess of Suffolk, married her Master of the Horse Adrian Stokes in March of 1555. She was fully pardoned by Queen Mary and allowed to live at court with her two surviving daughters. She died in 1559.