On this day in history, 12th February 1554, Lady Jane Grey and her husband, Guildford Dudley, were executed by being beheaded.

The Execution of Guildford Dudley

At 10am on the 12th February, Guildford Dudley, brother of Robert Dudley and son of the late John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, was led out of the Tower of London and up to the scaffold site on Tower Hill. No priest accompanied him on to the scaffold and Eric Ives writes that this suggests that “Guildford had remained staunch to reform”1. On the scaffold, Guildford addressed the crowd briefly and then got down on his knees and prayed “holding up his eyes and hands to God many times”2. After asking the crowd to pray for him, he put his neck on the block and the executioner beheaded him with a single blow of the axe.

Of Guildford Dudley’s execution, Eric Ives writes:-

“Recourse to the axe did not win the Queen [Mary I] many friends. Richard Grafton, who very probably had known Guildford, recalled ten years later that ‘even those that never before the time of his execution saw him, did with lamentable tears bewail his death’.”3

Although his wife, Lady Jane Grey, had allegedly refused to see Guildford, she had insisted on watching the execution from a window and the chronicler, Raphael Holinshed, writes of how, as she was being led out of the Tower to be executed, Jane met the cart carrying Guildford’s body – how awful!

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Although her husband had been executed on Tower Hill, Lady Jane Grey was executed inside the Tower of London, on Tower Green. Once the executioner had had time to make his way back from Tower Hill, Jane was led out to the scaffold. Although her ladies “wonderfully wept”4, Jane, who was dressed all in black, managed to maintain her composure. She addressed the waiting crowd:-

“Good people, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same; the fact indeed against the Queen’s Highness was unlawful and the consenting thereunto by me: but touching the procurement and desire thereof by me or on my behalf, I do wash my hands thereof in innocency before the face of God and the face of you good Christian people this day.

I pray you all good Christian people to bear me witness that I die a true Christian woman and that I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the merits of the blood of his only son Jesus Christ. I confess when I did know the word of God I neglected the same and loved myself and the world, and therefore this plague or punishment is happily and worthily [deservedly] happened unto me for my sins. I thank God of his goodness that he has given me a time and respite to repent.

Now good people, I pray you to assist me with your prayers. Now good people, while I am alive, I pray you to assist me with your prayers.”5

Eric Ives writes of how, in her speech, Jane was showing that “she was dying confident in salvation by faith alone”4 and that she believed that “praying for the dead was a Catholic superstition”. Jane was being true to her reformist faith.

After her speech, Jane knelt and said Psalm 51, the Misere, in English, “Have mercy upon me O God, after they great goodness: according to the multitude of thy mercies, do away mine offences”. She then embraced John Feckenham, Mary I’s chaplain and confessor, the man who had been sent to Jane to prepare her for her death, and said to him “Go and may God satisfy every wish of yours”6. Jane then gave her handkerchief and gloves to Elizabeth Tilney, and her prayer book to Thomas Brydges, the deputy lieutenant of the Tower, who had been charged with passing it on to her father. She then removed her gown, headdress and collar, refusing the help of the executioner. After forgiving the executioner and begging him “despatch me quickly”, Jane knelt at the block, tossing her hair forward and out of the way, and putting on the blindfold. It was then that she lost her composure and panicked, “What shall I do? Where is it?”. A bystander took pity on the floundering girl and guided her to the block where she lay her neck, praying “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” The executioner took her head off with one blow.

This time last year, I ended my article on Jane’s execution with the words of Jane’s biographer, Eric Ives, and I’m going to do the same this year. His words are better than any I could write about Jane and are incredibly moving:-

“The pages of history are asterisked with names which defy the erosion of time. Jane Grey is one such, but strangely so. Truth to tell she counted for little. She was important for barely nine months, she ruled for only thirteen days. She contributed little to writing and nothing to ideas. She founded no dynasty and left almost no memorabilia. Then what is it, keeps the story of Jane alive while many more significant figures in history are recalled only by scholars? For many years Jane was a saint in the Protestant pantheon, but martyrs are now out of fashion – and so too ideal Victorian maidens. In the West, growing secularization ensures that relatively few people even understand the issues which meant so much to her. And yet her name still lives. Something is due to a memorable sobriquet: “the nine days queen” – not any Jane, that Jane. Romance, too, is part of the explanation; along with Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Mary Queen of Scots, Jane completes a quartet of Tudor queens who died on the scaffold. Undeniable, too, there is the macabre attraction of the girl sacrifice. She died Jane Dudley, but is universally remembered as Jane Grey, Ariadne chained to the rock. All this and more. But the fundamental justification for remembering Jane is the justification for remembering Anne Frank centuries later. They speak for the multitude of brutality’s victims who have no voice.”7

While Eric Ives sees Lady Jane Grey as a “victim”, Leanda de Lisle writes of how “Jane died a leader, and not merely a victim”8 and sees her as “a Protestant Joan of Arc, calling up fresh troops to fight against Mary Tudor while her own generals betrayed her”9. Whichever view you have of this Tudor queen, her life deserves to be remember and her death commemorated. Visitors to the Tower of London today will be able to pay their respects in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where there is a memorial tile to Lady Jane Grey on the floor by the altar table.

RIP Lady Jane Grey, or Queen Jane, and Guildford Dudley.

Notes and Sources

  1. Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, Eric Ives, p275
  2. The Marquis of Northampton quoted in Ives, p275
  3. Richard Grafton quoted in Ives, p275
  4. Quoted in Ives, p276
  5. Eric Ives, p276-277, quoting from “Here in this Booke”
  6. Eric Ives, p277, quoting Giovanni Francesco Commendone, “The Accession, Coronation and Marriage of Mary Tudor”
  7. Ives, p293
  8. The Sisters Who Would Be Queen, Leanda de Lisle, p282, US hardback version
  9. Leanda de Lisle, p286

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