A few days ago, I stumbled across Suicide Blonde. It’s a blog that mostly features photographs, generally of pretty women, but also arty and\or kitschy pictures, too. I subscribed to their RSS feed, and got this in my inbox yesterday:
It’s a painting called The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, and it made me think of the gigantic mess that Henry VIII left in his wake.
Henry VIII came to the throne with plans. Plans to reinvent the Royal Navy. Plans to take power away from the nobles and give it to the King and Parliament. Plans to introduce progressive and efficient taxation. Plans to unify England and Wales. Plans to be a patron of the arts and architecture. It’s somewhat ironic that Henry’s main plan, the thing he thought about almost constantly – securing the future of the Tudor dynasty – nearly failed so horribly.
Henry died on January 28, 1547, leaving firm plans that his son Edward, from his third marriage to Jane Seymour, should be king. There was just one problem: Edward was only nine years old when his father died, so a Regency Council was created to rule in his stead until he reached adulthood. Thus, Edward was crowned King Edward VI of England on February 20 1547, and his Regency Council was led by by his uncle, Edward Seymour.
Seymour, as the king’s uncle, already had considerable power. But he rapidly consolidated and increased his power thanks to a clause added at the last minute to Henry’s will, which granted the executors the ability to give themselves land and titles. As you might guess, the executors lavished themselves with “gifts”, especially Seymour, who went from the merely pedestrian “1st Earl of Hertford” to “Lord Protector of the Realm, Governor of the King’s Person, and the Duke of Somerset”. Although Henry’s will had said nothing about a “Lord Protector”, Seymour used the lands and titles now at his disposal to gain favor with other executors, who – now loaded down with cash, lands and titles – eagerly voted to make him Edward’s protector. And to that end, they granted him such power that Seymour was a king in all but name.
Unfortunately for Seymour, trouble was brewing.
First, Seymour went to war against the Scots. Although he won a major victory at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, the royal finances simply couldn’t keep it up, and when the French attacked English holdings in Boulogne in 1549, Seymour was forced to retreat.
Secondly, the staunchly conservative (and secretly Catholic) areas of Cornwall and Devon arose against the new Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which had been written by Thomas Cranmer in 1549 and distributed to all the churches in the realm.
Thirdly, another rebellion arose, this time led by a tradesman named Robert Kett, which had to do with landlords enclosing what had previously been common grazing grounds for livestock. This rebellion was prolonged and exacerbated by the fact that Seymour, like all politicians before and since, created a “committee” to “look into” the complaints of the tradesmen and common folk. The committee was led by an evangelical MP named John Hales, whose liberal rhetoric often led the common folk to believe that the Protector was siding with them, although Seymour wasn’t about to turn his back on the people who put him into power. Whatever the case might have been, the year 1549 was a disaster for the English government generally and for Seymour specifically, and thus he was removed from power in October of that year.
In February 1550, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, came to power as Seymour’s successor… and this is where things get really complicated. Unlike Seymour, Dudley did not take the “Lord Protector” title. Although he even urged Edward to “declare his majority” (i.e. proclaim himself king), he nevertheless did take the titles of “Lord President of the Council” and of “Great Steward of the King’s Household” – and he ruled with the same iron fist that Seymour had. He removed Seymour’s garrisons from Scotland and surrendered the English colony in France, which saved the crown the truly enormous sum of £200,000 (which is hundreds of millions of modern pounds). He achieved a military victory over the “enclosure rebels” (when his small party found itself outnumbered by them, he kissed his sword and said that he would take “death before dishonour”, thus popularizing the phrase for British and American military types for centuries to come).
Contrary to the image handed down by history, Edward VI was not a “sickly child”. In fact, aside from typical childhood diseases and poor eyesight, Edward VI was completely unremarkable healthwise. However, in January 1553 Edward developed a fever and cough that only worsened over time. For months, his health resembled a roller coaster – he’d get better for several weeks, and be assured by the royal physicians that he would survive, only to relapse worse than before. Modern scholars think Edward got a particularly nasty strain of Tuberculosis as a result of getting the measles, but whatever the disease might have been, it was soon obvious to everyone at court that Edward was dying. And, on July 6, 1553, Edward died at Greenwich Palace at the age of 15.
His death left a huge power vacuum. The majority of Englishmen favored Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, as Queen. A sizable (and vocal) majority favored the reliably Protestant Elizabeth as Queen.
But John Dudley had other plans. He convinced the dying Edward to bar Mary and Elizabeth from the throne and instead nominate Lady Jane Grey, Edward’s cousin and Dudley’s daughter-in-law of six weeks, as queen. As the great-granddaughter of Henry VII, Lady Jane did have some claim to the throne, and Dudley – who had her forcibly married to his son Guilford just weeks before Edward’s death – wanted to use the marriage to cement his power. He invited the two princesses to come to London to be with the dying Edward, but Elizabeth, smelling a trap, refused, and Mary, also wary of Dudley, agreed, but moved at a glacial pace. Dudley then put out a call to convene Parliament to confirm Edward’s “wishes”, but such things took time in those days, so the clock ticked while Dudley waited. Edward’s former advisors – aghast at Dudley’s naked grab for power – were shocked, but eventually went along with his scheme… for the time being.
And as that clock ticked, popular opinion began to support Mary, who was ensconced at Framlingham Castle and who had defiantly proclaimed herself queen. East Anglians flocked to the castle to proclaim their love and devotion to her. An army was raised, and many who could not serve themselves sent vast quantities of beer, bread and beef for the fledgling army. By July 19 – scarcely a month after Edward’s death – the army exceeded 20,000 people.
Back in London, Dudley had Lady Jane proclaimed Queen, then left the city to do battle with Mary’s army. But he had barely left the city when all of his advisors, to save their own heads, turned on him. Dudley was declared a traitor, a reward was offered for his arrest, and Mary was proclaimed queen. Londoners exploded in joy, dancing in the streets and partying all night long. And when Mary entered the city, the celebrations nearly turned to rapture.
Dudley was quickly caught and thrown into the Tower of London, where he was executed on August 22, 1553. Lady Jane was also sent to the Tower, but spared by Mary, who felt pity for her that she had only been a pawn in Dudley’s high-stakes game.
But this isn’t the end of Lady Jane’s story.
One of Mary’s first decisions as Queen was to marry Philip of Spain, a Catholic. This didn’t go over well with many in the English countryside, and soon a rebellion broke out. Rightly fearing that the rebel army (which had just arrived outside the walls of London) would execute her and put Lady Jane back on the throne, Mary had Jane executed on February 12, 1554. She was executed with Guildford Dudley, the husband she didn’t want to marry, and her father, Henry Grey, who had sold his own daughter out to Dudley for money and a title.
And thus ended the life of Lady Jane Grey, a gentle, intelligent woman who never asked to be Queen, who spoke Greek, Hebrew and Latin, and who reined over England as queen… for nine days.