The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Anne Wightman, Guildhall Art Gallery Volunteer
Painting by Paul Delaroche

‘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’.  

Whether she truly believed this or not, a frightened seventeen-year-old girl has recently uttered these words and now finds herself poised above the block for her execution on charges of treason.  It is a cold February afternoon in 1554 in a dark room of the Tower of London.  This painting, by the 19th century French artist, Paul Delaroche, imagines the last minutes of the Nine Day Queen, Lady Jane Grey, victim of the political ambitions of her own family and that of the former protector to Edward VI, the Duke of Northumberland.

Jane had been fifth in line to the throne on the death of Henry VIII in 1547 by dint of her maternal lineage.  Her mother, Frances, was the daughter of Mary Tudor, the youngest sister of Henry VIII. To us today, fifth in line seems fairly far removed from the ‘top job’.  It’s hard for us to imagine any scenario whereby little Prince Louis would find himself King.  In the 16th century though, a period where early death was common, Jane’s chances of being Queen were not as remote as they would appear.  Henry had stipulated that his daughters, Mary and then Elizabeth, would inherit the throne if his son, Edward, or any of Edward’s male heirs died.   All it took was the scheming John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, to persuade Edward, when it was clear he was dying, that, if England were to remain Protestant then he would have to change his will to make sure his half-sister, Mary, and consequently his other half-sister Elizabeth, didn’t follow him.  Mary was an ardent Catholic and would certainly do everything in her power to return England to the Catholic faith and the embrace of the Pope in Rome.

Northumberland had pinpointed Lady Jane Grey, as ardent in her Protestant faith as Mary was in hers, as the potential successor and it was his plan that his fourth son, Guildford Dudley, would become her husband and be crowned King.  Edward VI did die at the tragically young age of 15 in 1553 and Northumberland’s plan was quickly put into action.  Jane was proclaimed Queen on 10th July 1553.

Things unravelled pretty swiftly. Northumberland had under-estimated Mary’s popularity with the people of England, who barely knew who Jane was. Northumberland’s followers didn’t waste time in deserting him and, of course Jane, and Mary became Queen less than two weeks after her cousin had taken the crown.

The role of family in Jane’s story is a pivotal, and ultimately a tragic one.  She was brought up in a loving family and had a strong relationship with her father, who, though weak shared Jane’s fierce intellect and almost fanatical Protestantism. But she was groomed from an early age to be someone of importance and when the opportunity arose to edge her towards the ultimate goal, her parents didn’t hesitate to do whatever it took.  The greatest tragedy for Jane was that it was her father in the end who was responsible for her death.  

The new Queen Mary had no desire to end her young cousin’s life and, even following the guilty verdict against Jane and Guildford at Guildhall, she was prepared to absolve Jane from any responsibility. Although we only recall Bloody Mary because of her harsh treatment of Protestants, it is not too hard to imagine her disappointment when she received the news that Jane’s father, Henry Grey, had been one of the conspirators in the Wyatt Rebellion of early 1554 to try and replace her with the Princess Elizabeth after Mary had announced her intention to marry Philip II of Spain.  She really had no choice at that stage but to agree to Jane and Guildford’s execution.

The painting shows us that Jane was moved just a few feet away from where she had enjoyed the trappings of a new Queen to a gloomy room in the Tower of London to meet her death.  She certainly didn’t have to move far, but Delaroche has used artistic licence here as the execution in fact took place in an inner precinct of the Tower known as Tower Green.  Jane had just witnessed her husband’s body being towed away in a cart after his beheading on Tower Hill, where crowds would have gathered to witness his end.  Jane was to enjoy the ‘luxury’ of a private execution, attended only by her two ladies-in-waiting, the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Brydges and Dr John Feckenham, Dean of St Paul's who, at Mary’s request, had tried to persuade Jane to convert to Catholicism to save her soul. It is believed that Brydges is the elderly man seen here assisting Jane in her final seconds.  He had  developed a strong affection for Jane in her time in the Tower, even asking for a memento from her, which was her tiny prayer book.  

The scene depicted by Delaroche is that of a brave young woman, dressed wholly in white to highlight her innocence, mourned by her ladies-in-waiting.  Their agony must have been heightened when, blindfolded, Jane failed to find the block and started crying.

Hands are very much brought to the fore in the painting: Jane’s groping for the block, those of John Brydges comforting her and, more menacingly, the executioner’s waiting to take up the axe.

Delaroche’s original painting, which now hangs in the National Gallery, was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1834 and prompted a storm of sympathy for Jane Grey that would result in no fewer than 24 paintings of her being displayed at the Royal Academy between 1827 and 1877[1].  

[1] N.Tallis. Crown of Blood, p.286