The Trial of Lady Jane Grey – 13th November 1553

Posted By on November 13, 2011

On this day in history, 13th November 1553, Lady Jane Grey, her husband Guildford Dudley, his brothers Ambrose and Henry, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer were tried for treason at a public trial at London’s Guildhall. They were led from the Tower of London, through the streets on foot, in a procession led by a man carrying an axe turned away from the prisoners, to show that they had not yet been found guilty of a capital crime: treason.

The Chronicle of Queen Jane describes the procession, although some of the wording is missing:-

“Next followed the lorde Gilforde Dudley, between (blank)
Next followed the lady Jane, between (blank), and hir ij. gentyll-
women following hir.
Next followed the lorde Ambrose Dudley and the lorde Harry
Dudley.
The lady Jane was in a blacke gowne of cloth, tourned downe ;
the cappe lyned with fese velvett, and edget about with the same, in
a French hoode, all black, with a black byllyment, a black velvet
boke hanging before hir, and another boke in hir hande open,
holding hir (the entry breaks off).”1

Eric Ives writes of how the trial opened with a Catholic liturgy and that the commission chosen to try Jane and the men was headed by Sir Thomas White, the Lord Mayor, and also the Duke of Norfolk. He comments that the commission “was overwhelmingly Catholic in sentiment”2. Ives explains that Jane, Guildford, Ambrose, Henry and Cranmer were all charged with high treason, “the archbishop for entering the Tower on 10 July and proclaiming Jane, and also for sending troops to Cambridge; Jane and Guildford for taking possession of the Tower and proclaiming Jane while she faced the additional charge of ‘signing various writings’.”3

Cranmer, at first, pleaded ‘not guilty’, but after the case had been presented, and before the jury delivered their verdict, he changed his plea to ‘guilty’, like the others. They were all found guilty as charged, with the men being sentenced to being hanged, drawn and quartered, and Jane to be burned alive, or beheaded. Leanda de Lisle4 writes of how Michel Angelo Florio recorded that Jane remained cool and calm during the proceedings and it seems that she did not react at all to the sentence, perhaps her faith sustained her. Ives goes on to describe of how she used her months of imprisonment in the Tower studying the Bible and writing letters and prayers. In his chapter “The Tower”5, Ives goes into detail on the writings of Jane at that time and how “Jane revealed more about herself than ever before”. Her “intimacy with the scripture” was clear and also “her determination that her death should have meaning, and Ives believes that Jane saw her imprisonment and suffering as “a test of her election” by God:-

“Jane faced imprisonment in the Tower positively. The loss of liberty was irksome, but the more she could, by God’s grace, triumph over hardships, the more confident she could be of her eternal destiny.”6

Although Jane had been condemned to death, no date was given for the sentence to be carried out and it appeared that Mary would spare her. Things changed, however, in 1554 with Wyatt’s Rebellion. Although Jane was not personally involved in this uprising against the Queen and her proposed marriage to Philip of Spain, her father, the Duke of Suffolk, was. Leanda de Lisle writes of how “although the intention of the rebels was to have Elizabeth as their Queen, this was not clear at court. Jane and Guildford were potentially dangerous figureheads for the rebel cause. As they had already been found guilty of treason and condemned to die, it would also be a simple matter to allow those sentences to be carried out.”7 Ives writes of how it is unclear how it was decided that Jane should be executed and that the speed of events during and after the rebellion suggests that the decision to execute Jane and Guildford was a result of “panic”8. A 3 day reprieve was granted to give time for Benedictine John Feckenham to convert Jane to Catholicism but it didn’t work, Jane kept her faith and was executed on the 12th February 1554, just days after the rebellion.

Why did Mary I executed Lady Jane Grey? Well, Giovanni Francesco Commendone9 wrote of how Mary was actually on the verge of reprieving Jane “but judging that such an action might give rise to new riots, the Council ruled it out”. This view is also backed up by Michel Angelo Florio who believed that Mary’s decision was based on “‘papist’ warnings about security and urged on by Habsburg advice from Brussels.”10 John Knox blamed Catholic members of the Queen’s Council, men like Stephen Gardiner, for corrupting Mary and Ives writes of how Gardiner did “keep up the pressure for Jane’s death until the last”11, preaching a sermon at court on the day before she was due to be executed calling upon Mary not to be merciful to “rotten and hurtful members” who should be “cut off and consumed”. Ives concludes that “Mary was ultimtaely responsible for what was both a crime and folly, but the guilt may well lie elsewhere”, with those who were advising the Queen and putting pressure on her to act against Jane and Guildford. Leanda de Lisle agrees in part, saying that “The Privy Council, including those who had proclaimed Jane in the summer, joined together with the imperial ambassadors to press Mary into doing so [signing the execution warrants]” but that “it may not have been very difficult”12. Was Mary a puppet in the hands of her Council and the imperial ambassadors or was she making a statement that rebellion and challenge to her throne would be handled ruthlessly? It is hard to know. Whatever the truth of the matter, it must have been hard to sign the death warrant of a sixteen year old who was also her relation.

What happened to Guildford and the other men?

  • Guildford Dudley, husband of Lady Jane Grey, son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and brother of Robert, Ambrose and Henry, was beheaded before his wife on the 12th February 1554
  • Henry Grey, father of Lady Jane Grey, was beheaded on the 23rd February 1554
  • Ambrose Dudley was released in late 1554 and went on to serve Elizabeth I as her Master of Ordnance and a Privy Councillor. He died in 1590.
  • Henry Dudley was also released and was killed in battle, fighting for Philip II against the French
  • Robert Dudley, who had also been imprisoned in the Tower after Mary I seized the throne from Lady Jane Grey, was also released in Autumn 1554. He became a favourite of Elizabeth I and died of natural causes in 1588.
  • John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, was executed on 22nd August 1553 for his part in putting Lady Jane on the throne.
  • Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was tried for heresy in September 1555 and then burned at the stake in Oxford on the 21st March 1556.

Notes and Sources

  1. “The chronicle of Queen Jane, and of two years of Queen Mary, and especially of the rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyat written by a resident in the Tower of London”, edited, with illustrative documents and notes by John Gough Nichols (1850), p32
  2. “Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery”, Eric Ives, p252 of UK hardback
  3. Ibid.
  4. “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen”, Leanda de Lisle, p124, US hardback
  5. Ives, p248-260
  6. Ibid., p260
  7. De Lisle, p131
  8. Ives, p267
  9. Commendone, “Accession”, p44, quoted in Ives, p268
  10. Ives, p269
  11. Ibid.
  12. De Lisle, p133
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