This Teenager Ruled England For Nine Days... Before She Had Her Head Cut Off

In the violent and dramatic history of the English monarchy, the story of Lady Jane Grey stands out as one of the most tragic. She was a teenage Queen of England who ruled for only nine days before she was deposed and ultimately executed. But there is a lot more to Lady Jane’s story than the fact that she had the briefest reign in English history.

Lady Jane Grey was born in October 1537 to a powerful noble family with close ties to the throne. She came of age during the reign of Edward VI. He was the Protestant ruler of an England that had been Catholic only a few decades before, and Edward was resolved to keep his kingdom Protestant. By 1553, it became clear that 15-year-old King Edward VI was going to pass without an heir. So, those in power began to look for suitable candidates to become the next king or queen. Lady Jane was at the top of some people’s list - but not everyone's.

Why was Lady Jane Grey important? A glance at a Lady Jane Grey family tree reveals why she would be a likely pick for the English throne: her mother was the king's cousin. So in July 1553, after Edward's death, Lady Jane became Queen of England under very bizarre circumstances.

Some would argue that the throne was never hers to begin with; Lady Jane’s fall was just as swift and astonishing as her rise. Nine days after becoming queen, Lady Jane was deposed by Mary I, Edward's Catholic older sister. At the age of just 16, Jane had won and lost a crown. 

  • She Was Never Supposed To Be Queen To Begin With – Edward Skipped Over His Sisters To Make Jane His Heir

    She Was Never Supposed To Be Queen To Begin With – Edward Skipped Over His Sisters To Make Jane His Heir
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Edward VI's father was King Henry VIII, the storied, larger-than-life king who ruled exactly as he pleased. Though he had hemmed and hawed over his children's succession rights, in 1543 things were more or less settled in the Act of Succession: Edward, Henry's third legitimate child and only surviving son, would succeed his father. Should Edward fail to produce any heirs, the throne would then pass to his older sister Mary; and then, failing Mary's production of heirs, to Henry VIII's second child, Elizabeth. At the end of Henry's reign in 1547, his will provided a critical asterisk: should Elizabeth pass without an heir, then – and only then – the crown would go to the children of Henry's younger sister and Edward's aunt, Mary Tudor.

    But after Edward became king, he came up with his own succession scheme. A staunch Protestant, Edward and his advisors were concerned about what would happen to the English Reformation if his older sister Mary, a Catholic, should inherit the throne. So, Edward determined that he would pass the throne directly to his aunt Mary Tudor's descendants, thereby passing over his Catholic sister.

    Jane Grey was the granddaughter of Mary Tudor – and she happened to be a confirmed Protestant. When Edward named his cousin Jane his heir, he completely skipped over his two older sisters who were legally supposed to succeed before their cousin.

    Edward and his councilors' attempts to block his older sisters from legally inheriting the throne were futile. Both Mary and Elizabeth eventually ruled in their own rights, and Jane was the first of three Tudor queens: Mary from 1553 until 1558, and then Elizabeth from 1558 until 1603. For half a century, the Tudor dynasty was led by strong, intelligent, and fierce women.

  • Edward's Puppet Master Engineered Jane's Rise To The Throne And Conveniently Married Her Off To His Son

    Edward's Puppet Master Engineered Jane's Rise To The Throne And Conveniently Married Her Off To His Son
    Photo: C. R. Leslie / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Edward VI was only nine years old when he succeeded his father as King of England. As was the case with all young kings, he relied on a Regency Council to do the business of ruling for him. By 1553, Edward's kingdom was more or less run by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Being a relative of the king meant that Lady Jane's hand was a prize, and Dudley determined that it was a prize best won by one of his own. So in May 1553, Jane was pressured into marrying John Dudley's son, Guildford.

    It was John Dudley who ultimately convinced Edward to name his cousin Lady Jane – Dudley's own daughter-in-law – queen.

  • She Had An Education Fit For A King And Was A Bookworm

    She Had An Education Fit For A King And Was A Bookworm
    Photo: John Calcott Horsley / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Lady Jane Grey had a mind to match her position. She was considered a bight, engaging young woman with a sparkling intellect. Her parents' lack of sons meant that Lady Jane received a "princely education" that was more robust than what women typically received in the 16th century. By all accounts, Jane was an eager, enthusiastic student with a love of learning. She spoke eight languages including Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and French

  • She Actually Had No Interest In Being Queen And Wept When Offered The Crown

    She Actually Had No Interest In Being Queen And Wept When Offered The Crown
    Photo: Giovanni Battista Cipriani / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Unlike many in the Tudor world, Lady Jane Grey probably had very little interest in becoming queen – it was simply not her ambition. But when King Edward VI passed on July 6, 1553, his wishes dictated that the crown be offered to Lady Jane, and that offer was literally impossible to refuse.

    Jane's reaction to the crown reveal a deep reluctance on her part. She reportedly fell to the ground and cried, citing her "insufficiency" for her new role. As Richard Cavendish noted for History Today, Jane accepted the crown with the codicil, "if what has been given to me is lawfully mine."

  • She Resisted Her Husband's Efforts To Be Named King

    In May 1553, Lady Jane married Guildford Dudley, who was also a teenager like her. When his wife became queen a few months later, Dudley displayed his true colors: he wanted to become king. No matter how Lady Jane felt about her new husband, she believed that he had no right to the throne. So when he asked to be named king, she told him no – she would make him a duke, but not king. 

    Guildford and his family threw a fit. Not only did they retaliate by saying that Guildford would withhold his conjugal duties – and thereby rob Jane of an heir – but Guildford also strutted about the palace like a king, complete with state dinners and attempts to strong-arm his way into councils.

  • Plenty Of Other People Had Much Stronger Claims To The Throne Than She Did

    Jane became queen at the pleasure of her cousin King Edward VI; it was his will that determined that the descendants of his aunt Mary would succeed him. But, there was a problem: by inheritance rights, the crown should not have passed to Mary Tudor's descendants – they should have passed to Margaret Tudor's.

    Edward VI had two aunts: Margaret Tudor, born in 1489, and Mary, born in 1496. Succession typically was based on gender and birth order, giving Margaret's descendants a stronger claim for the throne than Mary's. Among Margaret's descendants were illustrious royals and nobles who would make their mark on history, like the young Queen Mary of Scotland, the Countess of Lennox, and her son Lord Darnley.

    Why were Margaret's descendants prevented from being named Edward's rightful heirs? In his final will, Henry VIII basically blocked Margaret Tudor's line from succeeding the English throne, since they were Scottish royalty. So even though Mary, Queen of Scots, and other Scots had a better claim to the throne than Jane Grey, Edward still bypassed this branch of his family tree. In other words, the throne that Jane sat upon in July 1553 was hotly contested, and her critics had a very valid point when they claimed that it was not rightfully hers.