“Once we strip away the layers of myth and exaggeration, the Jane we find is devout, unflinching, and composed to the end.”— Helen Castor.
Tucked quietly between the reigns of her cousins Edward VI and Mary I, Lady Jane Grey isn’t called the “Nine Days Queen” because her reign was long and prosperous. Executed for usurping her cousin’s throne, Jane Grey was mostly a figurehead for the ambitions of adults around her. For that, the teenager is easily one of the most romanticized monarchs in English history.
Her story has the basic ingredients of legend: her Protestant martyrdom, her brutal death, and her unlikely Cinderella-like ascension—right down to the (allegedly) abusive parents. These tropes have invited romantic artists and Protestant polemics alike to build the unlucky teen into the ultimate symbol of virgin sacrifice.
Behind the legend, what was Jane Grey really like? Was she so passively a pawn? Could her death have been prevented? Upon historical examination, Jane showed herself capable of resistance toward authority. Did that matter in the end? Climb the scaffold with these 42 facts about Lady Jane Grey, England’s Nine Days Queen.
42. “Humble” Origins
Despite the heights she would (briefly) reach, Jane was not born to an important branch of the royal family tree. At the time of her birth, her parents weren’t really public figures, so her early life is unrecorded. Historians still debate whether she was born in October 1537 in Leicestershire, or if it was sometime in late 1536 in London.
What is certain: Jane was the eldest of three girls born to Henry Grey, the 3rd Marquess of Dorset, and Frances Brandon, a niece of Henry VIII.
41. Named in Your Foreboding Honor
Jane Grey was likely named after the third wife of Henry VIII, Jane Seymour. Seymour was the mother of Edward VI, and Henry’s only wife to deliver a legitimate surviving son. Unfortunately, this older Jane died from doing so due to childbirth complications.
40. Not a Princess, But She Had Pedigree
Jane’s maternal grandmother was the former Queen of France, Mary Tudor, who was also the younger sister of Henry VIII. After Mary’s first husband died, she eloped with Henry’s own best friend, Charles Brandon. Mary and Charles had several children together, including Jane’s mother Frances. This royal lineage made Jane a grand-niece to Henry VIII and a direct descendant of the first Tudor king Henry VII.
39. You Can Never Know Too Much
Jane received one of the finest humanist educations for a lady of her day. She was fluent in French, Italian, Latin, and Greek—as was the fashion among learned ladies of the English Renaissance— but also in Hebrew.
38. I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie
While Jane loved her studies, she disliked sports and was not a hunting fan like her parents. One day, the visiting scholar Roger Ascham asked why she was inside instead of on the family hunting trip. The young girl replied that “their sport in the Parke is but a shadoe to the pleasure I find in Plato. Alas! Good folke, they never felt what trewe pleasurement.”
In other words, “Plato is better than guns, my guy!”
37. Back to the Drawing Board
To the frustration of Tudor fan artists, no detailed report exists on Jane Grey’s physical appearance. But it wasn’t always like this: until 2010, historians made due with only one detailed account of her. A merchant supposedly witnessed her procession to the Tower of London. In his letter, he describes the teen queen as “very short and thin, but prettily shaped” with “nearly red” hair, “sparkling and reddish-brown eyes,” and freckled skin.
Many Tudors were redheads, so his take seemed plausible enough. Unfortunately, in 2010, historians outed this letter as a fake.
36. Royally Impossible Standards
According to Roger Ascham, Jane chafed under her parents’ harsh regime of discipline. Jane confided the pressure she was under to perform every little act as “perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways (which I will not name for the honor I bear them) … that I think myself in hell.”
35. Harsh? It’s Debatable
Lady Frances Brandon goes down in history as an abusive and cruel mother to Jane, even by 16th century standards, but this has less historical basis than most would believe. In fact, writers revolve their accusations of abuse around that one account, wherein Jane complains about her parents. On one hand, one shouldn’t totally miscount her recall of “pinches, nips, bobs, and other ways” of punishment.
However, Ascham wrote about this meeting years after it happened, and he was writing a treatise to promote how kids thrived better under kinder tutors. No other accusations exist. This had led some scholars to more closely re-examine the accusations that Jane led an abuse-filled life.
34. The Windfall of a Lifetime
Although no one could have predicted it, Henry VIII’s Act of Succession (1544) changed Jane’s life forever. In the bill, the king famously re-inherited his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Additionally, he laid out that his sister’s descendants (i.e. Jane’s family) would inherit in the event that all three of Henry’s kids died childless.
No one thought this was going to happen (although it actually did later on), so placing Jane 4th in line was seen as more of an insurance policy than a reality to plan for. Welp.
33. You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice
Despite popular belief, Jane never claimed to have been physically forced by her parents to marry Guildford Dudley. It might have saved her life to claim so before Mary I in order to make herself look more like a pawn, but no accusations of violent coercion were made. It’s fair enough to assume that Jane held just the average amount of agency that girls did in such 16th century matters.
32. Royal Model
The nine-year-old Jane Grey was sent to the royal court as a ward of Queen Catherine Parr. Considering Parr’s own great love of learning (and Protestant opinions), it’s not a stretch to assume her time there had some influence on Jane.
31. Matchmaker, Matchmaker
In February 1547, Jane was sent to live with Parr and her new husband, Thomas Seymour. It’s believed her parents sent Jane there with hopes of marrying her to the king, Edward VI, as Seymour was the maternal uncle to the king.
When Jane moved in with Parr and Seymour, the young Princess Elizabeth Tudor was also living with her stepmother. Thus, it’s very likely these two book-loving future Queens of England were playmates.
29. Behind Closed Doors
Jane had much in common with her cousin Elizabeth Tudor and might have enjoyed being ward to the similarly pious Queen Catherine. However, this bliss was not to last. Catherine’s new husband, Thomas Seymour, took an inappropriate interest in Elizabeth. His advances escalated as Catherine advanced in her pregnancy.
Eventually, Catherine sent Elizabeth away. After this, we don’t know much about Jane’s interactions with her better-fated cousin.
28. Loss of a Surrogate
At approximately 11 years old, Jane acted as the chief mourner at Catherine Parr’s funeral in 1548. Parr had died a few days after giving birth to her only child, Mary Seymour.
27. Martyr in the Middle
Jane remained with Thomas Seymour for several months after Catherine Parr’s death. There might have been a short power struggle over who still held the valuable chess piece of Jane’s custody. In theory, her parents were becoming impatient about her potential match with the king. They soon demanded Seymour send Jane back home.
Others have put forward that her parents were also scared that the ambitious (and honestly creepy) Seymour might whisk Jane away and marry the heiress for himself, in spite of her young age.
26. Unleash the Dogs of War
Two months after Jane returned to her parents’ home, her guardian Thomas Seymour was arrested and executed for high treason. In proposing Jane for Edward, he got caught in a dovetail of other bungled decisions, from allegedly plotting to marry Elizabeth Tudor without council permission to also shooting the king’s dog.
25. I’ll Pass
Henry Grey’s connection to the disgraced Thomas Seymour put the Grey family under temporary suspicion. Henry was interrogated four times, after which he proposed that Jane marry the eldest son of Edward Seymour, Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset. This attempt to smooth things over was turned down.
24. Safety Spouse
In 1553, Jane was finally betrothed—not to the king, but to Lord Guildford Dudley. Guildford was a younger son of John Dudley, the 1st Duke of Northumberland and the new Lord President of the young king’s council. Jane’s new husband was also the brother of a more famous Dudley: Elizabeth I of England’s future favorite and possible more-than-a-friend, Robert Dudley.
23. Triple Feature
Siblings are used to sharing, but few shared like this: Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley were married in a triple wedding. The co-brides were Jane’s younger sister, Catherine Grey, and Jane’s future sister-in-law, Katherine Dudley. The three couples (six people in total) were married to their respective spouses on 25 May 1553.
22. I Now Pronounce You Queasy and Wife
During the wedding, Jane’s groom (and other guests) caught food poisoning due to “a mistake made by a cook, who plucked one leaf for another.” If that isn’t an omen, I don’t know what is…
21. Meet the Parents
According to some biographies, Jane didn’t get along with her in-laws. The teenaged girl was said have shown some resistance to moving in with her new husband, which “enraged” her mother-in-law, the Duchess of Northumberland.
20. Fourth Choice
Jane’s father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, had a lot riding on the marriage between Jane and Guildford. By early 1553, King Edward’s health wasn’t great; his living to produce an heir would be very unlikely. After him, either Mary or Elizabeth Tudor would rule, and that did not bode well for Northumberland’s career or his life expectancy.
By aligning his son to the next ruler after Henry VIII’s daughters, he was securing his bases.
Jane’s wedding was so rushed, her dress had to be borrowed from the royal Master of Wardrobe on a loan.
18. Okay, Some Girls Allowed
In summer 1553, a dying King Edward VI was convinced that his crown shouldn’t go to a non-Protestant. After him, the Catholic Mary Tudor was set to inherit. Thus, Edward added a “device” to his father’s will that bypassed the crown from both his Catholic sister Mary and even his Protestant sister Elizabeth. Earlier in 1553, he specifically redrafted the will to go to the (future) male heirs of his cousin, Jane Grey; he was not willing to give the crown to a girl just yet.
Unfortunately, sons take time to make and it became clear Jane could not pop one out by the time Edward died, which would be very soon. Thus, the king relented; Edward named “Lady Jane and her heirs male” to ascend after him, and perished on 6 July 1553.
17. Life Comes at You Fast
King Edward’s death was not officially announced for four days. Thus, Jane was one of the first to know her cousin was dead. On 9 July 1553, at approximately 16 years old, Jane was told she would be queen.
16. I Do, I Guess
According to her claims (after the fact), Jane accepted the crown with great reluctance.
15. It’s the Final Countdown
At this time in English history, not every procession to the Tower of London was a death march. New kings and queens were expected to make their way to the royal hotel/prison in preparation for their coronations. Dressed in Tudor white and green, Jane and her husband made their official procession to their residence, where Jane was declared Queen on 10 July 1553.
Day one of nine began…
14. Not My Queen
To the surprise of very few, Mary Tudor resisted being passed over in the succession. On the same day Jane was pronounced as Queen, a letter from Mary arrived wherein she ordered Parliament to proclaim her as King Edward’s successor. Additionally, Jane’s father-in-law had tried to lure Mary to London in order to seize and imprison her, but the princess had gotten wise and gathered support outside the city.
13. If You Love Me, Put a Crown on It
Jane refused to make her husband a king. Guildford Dudley (and his family) fully expected for her to crown him, but the little girl refused to back down. She offered Guildford the title of Duke of Clarence, but no more.
12. You Did This to Yourself
For Jane’s refusal to make him a king, Guildford refused to share her bed anymore. Apparently, his own mother told him to use these sexual negotiation tactics (no husband = no heir) and then just go home. Jane commanded that he stay with her in the Tower nonetheless. But for the rest of their very short reign, Dudley mostly dined alone but in great style, as befits a sex-deprived queen’s husband.
11. Easy Come, Easy Go
Jane’s reign lasted 9 days, but its downfall needs but one fact: on July 12—two days in—Mary’s forces had fully assembled at Suffolk and overtaken the Dudleys. One week later, on July 19, Jane was formally deposed.
10. Close Call
When she was arrested, Jane was already in the Tower of London for her coronation. Now, it was her prison: she, Guildford, and the Duke of Northumberland were found guilty of treason. Her father-in-law would be executed on 22 August 1553. Jane herself was originally sentenced to be burned. But for the time being, Mary was sympathetic to the teenaged Jane and Guildford.
The new queen understood them to be pawns and spared their lives.
9. Two Strikes, You’re Out
The tragedy of Jane is that her fate was partly sealed by a man she never met—and another she should have been able to trust. In 1554, Mary I of England made plans to wed Philip of Spain. It was a hugely unpopular match with the people; Thomas Wyatt the Younger led a rebellion against the queen. Unfortunately for Jane, her father and uncles joined them.
Although Jane was already in the Tower—doing nothing—the government held the rebellion and her father’s conduct as proof it was safest to go through with her original death sentence.
8. Friends in Strange Places
Before her execution in February 1554, Jane was given three days to convert to Roman Catholicism in order to “save her soul.” Mary even sent her own chaplain to convince Jane. While Jane refused to “repent” her devout Protestant beliefs, she did befriend this man and let him escort her to death.
7. The Dress Rehearsal Is Always Rough
Despite their rocky marriage, Jane was distraught at her husband’s execution. Right before Jane herself was sent to die, Guildford was publicly executed at Tower Hill. She caught sight of his corpse on the commute and exclaimed: “Oh, Guildford! Guildford!” in a legitimate display of grief.
6. All My Little Words
A devoted learner until the end, Jane asked her executioner if he was going to take off her head before she could kneel down. He replied, “No, madam.” Blindfolded, she then fumbled a bit—as awkward teenagers do—to find the block with her hands and cried, “What shall I do? Where is it?” A deputy helped guide her. Right before her head was struck off, Jane drew her last words—the same last words of Jesus Christ in Luke: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!” and then died on 12 February 1554. She was 16 or 17 years old.
5. Can’t Blame Her for Moving on
About a year after Jane’s death, her mother Frances married her own Master of the Horse, Adrian Stokes (Jane’s father had been executed for treason shortly after Jane). Although none of Jane’s posthumous half-siblings survived infancy, Frances and Adrian were apparently happy; even the future Elizabeth I was said to have expressed her envy at their love.
4. What Are You in for, Sis?
Jane’s younger sister Catherine also spent the rest of her life in captivity, though she was never executed. Catherine Grey first enjoyed some favor as the cousin and ostensible heir of Elizabeth I. However, she spoiled it by secretly marrying without the Queen’s permission. Catherine gave birth to her two sons in the Tower of London—where her older sister had spent her last days—before she herself died of consumption in 1568.
3. Opposites Attract (and Get Arrested)
What happened to Jane’s mysterious youngest sister, Mary Grey? Born about eight or nine years after Jane, Mary was very short in stature—some alleged she was a dwarf and the Spanish ambassador described her with a crooked back. In 1565, she followed her sister-in-scandal by marrying without the Queen’s permission to a man who was allegedly the tallest man in court.
She died in disfavor in 1578.
2. Who You Gonna Call?
The alleged ghost of Jane Grey has made several appearances at the Tower of London. Her most famous reported sighting was in 1957, when two guards say they spotted a phantom woman walking above the battlements. Since then, her ghost is said to pop up around the time of her death’s anniversary.
1. Brand Name Recognition
Jane is the only English monarch in the past 500 years for whom a definitive portrait does not exist. In the 90s, a long-time believed picture of her turned out to be that of her guardian, Catherine Parr. Perhaps because of this void—one of many in Jane’s life—centuries of artists have depicted her tragic story in music, painting, and literature, thereby giving face to a mostly faceless queen.
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