Jane Grey (c. 1537 – 1554)
Born: Leicestershire or London, England
Role: Temporary successor to Edward VI as monarch of the Kingdom of England, martyr
Emphasised: justification by faith
Protested against: transubstantiation
As England’s piously Protestant, but short-lived king Edward VI (son and successor of Henry VIII) neared his death from tuberculosis, the heirless ruler was certain to be succeeded by one of three women: Mary Tudor (Henry VIII’s eldest child), Elizabeth Tudor (his other daughter) or Lady Jane Grey (Henry VIII’s grand-niece).
All, in fact, would succeed him at various points in the next 5 years – but the immediate question of who would preserve the political and religious status quo after his death was one of the utmost seriousness. In fact, it would prove to be deadly serious for the first woman to bear the weight of the Crown.
Jane Grey was a teenager during the reign of her cousin Edward and was both a brilliant student and a devout Protestant. The convergence of her noble status, academic intelligence and evangelical piety led to her correspondence with significant figures in the first and second generation of Protestant Reformers, including Martin Bucer and Heinreich Bullinger – both of whom were like spiritual and intellectual fathers to her. Well versed in the Scriptures, theology and the classics – including being a diligent student of Latin, Greek and Hebrew – Jane was a remarkable young female scholar in a period when women scarcely attained such an education. Her faith also appears to have outshone many of her noble peers – including her own parents, whose vices appear to have precluded genuine religious observance.
The circumstances surrounding Jane’s proclamation as Queen of England and her de facto reign of but a few days are truly tragic. From King Edward’s perspective she was a more suitable Protestant successor to his Catholic half-sister Mary and even his other, moderately Protestant, half-sister Elizabeth. Both had been removed from the line of succession by a legal and ecclesiastical declaration that they were not legitimate children of Henry VIII and therefore ineligible to be his heirs. There was a perceived likelihood of either of them marrying a foreign Catholic prince or monarch and thus compromising the established position of Protestantism in England. Jane was already married to a Protestant English nobleman and her solid commitment to evangelical religion made her a kindred spirit with her cousin the King.
But Edward was not the main person driving the plan to see Jane succeed him as Queen. The young Lady was seen as the ideal monarch by her parents and her even more powerful in-laws, who wished to consolidate their political position in the kingdom and effectively rule through the new Queen. Their motives appear to have had little to do with maintaining religious liberty for Protestants and everything to do with personal advancement.
Edward’s sincere religious concerns and the political machinations of Jane’s family resulted in her becoming Queen on 9 June 1553. The royal office was thrust upon her in a sort of ambush – she was informed of Edward’s will for her to succeed him only moments after learning of his death. After initially refusing the crown on the basis that the right belonged not to her, but to Princess Mary (a view that was overwhelmingly shared by the English people), she reluctantly concluded that perhaps this fell within God’s providential will for her.
Those who had plotted to make Jane queen failed miserably in their attempt to establish her reign over the country. Supporters of Mary were able to show enough military force to assert her claim to the throne and displace Jane a mere nine days after her proclamation as queen. England would now have a Catholic monarch instead of a deeply Protestant one and Mary’s reign would see the deaths of many a Protestant martyr.
Numbered among those martyrs would be Jane herself. She was spared at first by her usurper, but committed to imprisonment in the Tower of London where she would spend the remainder of her life. An abortive insurrection was carried out by the Protestant Thomas Wyatt against Queen Mary in 1554, which hardened the authorities against keeping Jane and her (also incarcerated) husband Guildford Dudley alive any longer.
While her execution was a politically motivated one – to remove her as a potential, alternative Protestant ruler to Mary – the nature of the circumstances also make her a Protestant martyr. Her Protestant faith had been a significant element in her candidature for the English throne during Edward’s final days and it remained the factor that made her a perceived, ongoing risk to the security of Mary’s reign. Mary sent her chaplain to convert Jane to Catholicism while on death row, but Jane steadfastly remained true to what she knew was the biblical Christian faith. She was even offered a royal pardon if she would convert, but counted the truth more precious than her earthly life and refused.
Like many figures in the early Reformation, Jane was subjected by the Catholic authorities to a public disputation concerning the some of the articles of faith in contention between them. She gave a spirited defence of justification by faith and confessed the Protestant understanding of the sacraments against the unbiblical beliefs of the Catholics.
The night before her execution, Jane wrote the following exhortation to her younger sister Katherine:
Rejoice in Christ, as I do. Follow the steps of your master Christ, and take up your Cross: lay your sins on his back, and always embrace him. And as touching my death, rejoice as I do (good Sister) that I shall be delivered of this corruption, and put on incorruption. For I am assured that I shall for losing of a mortal life, win an immortal life: the which I pray God grant you, and send you of his grace to live in his fear, and to dye in the true Christian faith, from the which (in God’s name) I exhort you that you never swerve, neither for hope of life, nor for fear of death.
At her execution itself she made the following confession and plea to those in attendance:
I pray you all, good Christian people, to bear me witness that I dye a true Christian woman, and that I do look to be saved by no other means, but only by the mercy of God in the blood of his only Son Jesus Christ: and I confess that when I did know the word of God, I neglected the same, loved my self and the world, & therefore this plague and punishment is happily and worthily happened unto me for my sins: and yet I thank God of his goodness that he has thus given me a time and respite to repent: and now (good people) while I am alive I pray you assist me with your prayers.
Jane is a significant figure for who she was, but just as much for who she might have been. She deserves to be recognised and remembered as a pious and scholarly star among her peers; as one whose position and reputation was maliciously exploited by the people who should have loved her – but were far less honourable than she was. Though a victim of political skulduggery, she stood firm in the face of execution and became one of the most high-profile martyrs of the English Reformation. Although John Rogers has been rightly identified as the first English Protestant martyr (on a purely religious basis) of the ‘Marian persecutions’ beginning in 1555 that would characterise Mary’s bloody reign – Jane’s execution was the first stroke of political and religious violence by the new regime against a woman who stood firmly for the biblical faith.
There is a chance that had this Protomartyress of Mary Tudor’s terror been recognised as Edward’s successor and remained as Queen of England she could have been the greatest Protestant ruler the country had ever seen. While the political operators who sought the throne through her may have made her reign difficult for her, Protestant clergy would likely have continued to live and preach freely and their churches flourish. Instead, they were to go the same way as their would-be Queen – the way of the Cross – as England instead got one of its worst ever regimes and a Queen of Cruelty and Oppression.
Faith Cook, Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen of England (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2001).
“Jane Grey” wikipedia