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Women of the Reformation: Jane Grey

When Jane Grey was told on July 9, 1553, that King Edward had died and she was to succeed him as Queen of England, she collapsed in weeping and tears. Though she had royal connections and heritage, sixteen-year-old Jane had not anticipated becoming queen.

A Seriousness and Delight for Learning

A precocious girl, Jane had been given a Renaissance education. She was fluent in French, Italian, Latin and Greek and could also read Hebrew. When she was ten she was sent to live in the household of Thomas Seymour, who had married Henry VIII’s widow, Catherine Parr. Catherine had a strong biblical faith, and Jane’s study and understanding of the Scriptures deepened while she was in Catherine’s house.

In 1550, when Jane was fourteen, Roger Ascham, the classical scholar and tutor to the future Elizabeth I, had stopped for a visit at the Greys’ home. He found everyone had gone hunting except Jane, who was reading Plato’s Phaedo in her room. When he asked why she wasn’t out enjoying herself with the others, Jane replied that they didn’t know what true pleasure was. When Ascham wondered how Jane found such pleasure in her studies, and she replied that the cruelty and harshness of her parents and the gentleness of her schoolmaster had encouraged her love of learning. Reading and her studies were a refuge from troubles at home. Jane’s seriousness and delight in learning so impressed Ascham, that he put Jane in contact with the German Reformer Martin Bucer, then teaching in Cambridge, and later with the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger. Jane corresponded with them in elegant Latin about theological issues, always thanking them for helping her in her spiritual walk.

The Nine Day Queen

When the young King Edward (he was the same age as Jane) became ill and was near death, Edward and the Privy Council revised the royal succession. Edward had promoted the Reformation in the Church of England, and he did not want his half-sister Mary, who was a strong Catholic, to take the throne and reverse the Reformation policies.  Though Henry VIII’s will had included Mary and Elizabeth in the succession, both were still legally illegitimate, and Edward excluded them from what he called his “devise for the succession,” making Jane next in line for the throne (Jane’s royal connection came through her grandmother Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s favorite sister). John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and head of Edward’s Privy Council in his last years, sought to secure his own family’s power by having Jane marry his son Guildford. Jane did not favor marrying Guildford, but her parents forced her into the marriage, which took place May 23, 1553. Less than seven weeks later, Edward was dead, and Jane was declared Queen.

Jane was brought to the royal quarters of the Tower of London with great pomp as she reluctantly accepted the crown. However, Mary refused to recognize the change in the succession made by Edward and the Privy Council, and she gathered forces in opposition to Jane. Within nine days, support for Jane collapsed, and Mary was proclaimed Queen; Jane and her husband left the royal apartments and became prisoners in the Tower.

Imprisoned in the Tower

Queen Mary reinstituted the Catholic Mass in the Church of England and abandoned the church reforms Edward and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had implemented. Some changed their religion with the political winds and returned to the Mass and Catholic practices. Thomas Harding, who had once been chaplain in the Grey household and a strong preacher of the Gospel, was one who returned to Catholicism. While imprisoned in the Tower, Jane heard of Harding’s turning to Rome and wrote him a lengthy letter filled with reflections and admonitions from Scripture:

So oft as I call to mind the dreadful and fearful saying of God, That he which layeth hold upon the plough and looketh back, is not meet for the kingdom of heaven; and on the other side, the comfortable words of our Saviour Christ to all those that, forsaking themselves, do follow him; I cannot but marvel at thee, and lament thy case, which seemed sometime to be the lively member of Christ, but now the deformed imp of the devil; …sometime my faithful brother, but now a stranger and apostate; sometime a Christian soldier, but now a cowardly runaway.[1]

Jane quoted numerous Scriptures about repentant sinners and warnings about the judgment of apostates. She frequently quoted from Matthew 10: “whosever seeketh to save his life shall lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it;” “Whosoever loveth father or mother above me, is not meet for me. For he that will be my disciple must forsake father and mother and himself and take up his cross and follow me;” “I am not come to bring peace on the earth but a sword;” “he that denies me before men, I will deny him before my Father in heaven.” Jane encouraged her former chaplain to return to the arms of Christ who died for him. Her letter evidenced the depth of Jane’s knowledge of the Scriptures and her passion to be faithful to Christ, no matter the cost.

November 13, 1553, Jane, her husband, his two brothers, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer were tried for high treason, found guilty and sentenced to death. Prone to be merciful, Queen Mary planned to spare Jane’s life, but when her father joined a rebellion against Mary over her planned marriage to Philip of Spain, she went ahead with the verdict. Jane’s and Dudley’s execution was scheduled for February 9, but Mary postponed the execution for three days, sending her chaplain, John Feckenham, to Jane to try and convert her to Catholicism.  Jane wrote out her conversation with Feckenham, which was a testimony to her faith in Christ and the Scriptures.  Jane denied that good works brought salvation:

I affirm that faith only saveth; but it is meet for a Christian, in token that he followeth his Master Christ, to do good works; yet may we not say that they profit to our salvation.  For when we have done all, yet we be unprofitable servants, and faith only in Christ’s blood saveth us.[2]

Jane told Feckenham she would ground her faith in God’s word, not upon the teaching of the church.

The evening before her execution, Jane distributed her personal items. To her sister Katherine she gave her Greek New Testament.  In it she wrote of the importance of the Scripture in teaching us how to live and die: She wrote of the importance of the Scripture in teaching us how to live and die. Click To Tweet

I have sent you, my dear sister Katherine, a book, which although it be not outwardly trimmed with gold, or the curious embroidery of the artfulest needles, yet inwardly it is more worth than all the precious mines which the vast world can boast of: it is the book, my only best, and best loved sister, of the law of the Lord: it is the Testament and last will, which he bequeathed unto us wretches and wretched sinners, which shall lead you to the path of eternal joy: and if you with a good mind read it, and with an earnest desire follow it, no doubt it shall bring you to an immortal and everlasting life: it will teach you to live, and learn you to die: it shall win you more, and endow you with greater felicity … Farewell once again, my beloved sister, and put your only trust in God, who only must help you. Amen. Your loving Sister![3]

February 12, 1554, Guilford Dudley was first beheaded on Tower Hill. Jane saw his decapitated body in the cart as it was brought back to the Tower. She then was brought to the scaffold set up in Tower Green. She spoke to the people standing about:

…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 blood of his only Son Jesus Christ: …  And now, good people, while I am alive, I pray you assist me with your prayers.[4]

Jane knelt, recited Psalm 51, laid her head on the block and said, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Jane’s letters and writings while facing death in the Tower were soon printed and circulated widely. Only sixteen or seventeen at her death, Jane was esteemed as a Protestant martyr. John Calvin recognized her as “a lady whose example is worthy of everlasting remembrance.”[5]


[1] Jane’s letter to Thomas Harding is found in John Foxe.  Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous dayes, touching matters of the Church, volume 6 Book x, “Beginning with the Reign of Queen Mary,” London: R,B, Seeley and W. Burnside, 1838, 418.

[2] Actes and Monuments, 416.

[3] Actes and Monuments, 422.

[4] Actes and Monuments, 424.

[5] Eric Ives. Lady jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery.  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 288.

Diana Severance

Diana Severance is Director of the Durham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University. She received her PhD in history from Rice University and is the author of several books, including Her-Story: Devotions from Twenty-One Centuries of the Christian Church; Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History; A Cord of Three Strands: Three Centuries of Christian Love Letters; The Story of Emily, a Proverbs 31 Woman; and, with her husband Gordon, Against the Gates of Hell: A Christian Missionary in a Moslem World.

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