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.
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 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.
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.
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."