Queen Jane Approximately

Now, I'm not talking about the song which inquires if you're tired of yourself and all of your creations.  I'm referring to a child who was caught up in a web of ambition nearly 500 years ago.  And when the strands broke, no one stretched out their hands to catch her.

She was small, with a petite frame made spare from years of anxiety brought on by a familial atmosphere which was positively fiendish.  She had the pale skin and auburn hair which was at the root of the Tudor family tree.  Her grandmother was Henry VIII 's sister.

Her mother was bulky and abusive.  She believed that her daughter – wealthy, titled, with powerful ancestors – needed to be tough in order to shoulder such a birthright.  She felt it was her duty to beat the quietude out of her daughter.  The royal blood oozed from the welts.

Her name was Jane Grey, and all she wanted to do was escape.

And for a while she did.  She rode the clear air of learning, flying from her intolerant parents and a future she didn't understand.  Jane's education was a shining palace, with many doors to slip through.  Her schooling began when she was four.  In two years, she was being taught French, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Latin and Hebrew – in addition to diction, deportment and handwriting.  After dinner there was dancing and needlework:  what a charming candlelit tableau that must have been! 

The Lady Jane Grey was a valuable commodity.  Her parents were ready to offer her like a sacrificial pawn to whatever dubious royal game that was afoot – so she would become queen, and to they would become the parents of a queen.

It was 1553, and King Edward VI was dying.  Not old enough to govern on his own, many nobles controlled his life and rule.  One of these men was John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland.  His power was so absolute that during these final days only he would decide what to tell an anxious kingdom regarding the health of their fading ruler.  Invariably his reports were innocuous, placating.  But Edward was dying horribly of tuberculosis – compounded by medicines of dubious ingredients (possibly arsenic).  His body swollen, limbs stinking and gangrenous, with his last breath Edward prayed, with fearful hope, that he had long desired to see God face to face…but if he could have some more time on earth, well, that would be nice, too.

When he died, the first move of one of those royal games was played.  You could almost hear the click of the pieces on the chessboard.  Dudley married the protesting Jane (subdued by her parents' whippings) to his son, Guilford.  Guilford was broad, spoiled and stupid – a poor match for his shy, devout, intellectual wife.

Jane knew she had broken the law.  By the Acts of Succession Henry's oldest daughter, Mary, was next in line.  The people would embrace Mary as their next ruler; not a girl kept suffocating in the pocket of a too-powerful lord.  When presented with her crown – that glittering condemnation – she fell to the ground weeping.  Her courtiers stood around her, impatient and nervous, but none of them drew near.  During her progress through London, her face was thin, her eyes sad and worried – her battered body encased in a severe velvet gown.

Mary had retreated to the Eastern counties.  Daily, loyal supporters joined her forces – when she rode into London, she was at the head of an army thousands strong – the voice of England, shouting down from East Anglia to oust their rightful queen's tiny usurper.  It had only taken her nine days.

Jane took the report of her new status calmly:

"Now I willingly relinquish the crown.  May I not go home?"

She never saw her home again.  For the next eight months she was housed in the Tower of London, awaiting Queen Mary's pleasure.  Mary was inclined to be lenient – she had just received from Madrid a portrait of her future husband, Philip of Spain, and had fallen in love.  For the moment, she believed in mercy.

But early in 1554, things changed.  Jane's father was involved in another rebellion, this time against the Spanish marriage.  The uprising was quickly slashed to pieces.  In the aftermath, Mary's heart had hardened.  Guilford must die.  Jane must die.

On February 12, 1554, Jane, dry-eyed and composed, was led to the scaffold by her distraught gentlewomen.  Her tranquility was shattered only once during this bleak walk:  when the headless corpse of her husband was carried past her in a cart, wrapped in bloody linen.  It was a blunt reminder that in minutes she too would be placed in a straw-filled cart, wrapped in a sodden winding sheet.

A scaffold is high – so that the condemned's final drama could be seen and heard by all.  Jane was so weak:  she must have paused for breath before begging the executioner to 'dispatch her quickly'.  She was then blindfolded.  And in the quick dark became disoriented, losing her nerve in the sudden blindness.  A thin strip of cloth around her eyes – not her Damoclean fate – sent her into a panic.

Clawing at the air, searching for the block, she cried, "What shall I do?  Where is it?"  When unseen hands reached out to lead her towards the block, she must have settled her head on it as thankfully as if it were a downy pillow.  In a clear voice, she commended her spirit to God.  There was a sharp rush of air.  And her troubles were over.

She was 16 years old.


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18 responses to “Queen Jane Approximately

  1. Wow. What a tragic story.

  2. When presented with her crown – that glittering condemnation – she fell to the ground weeping. poor thing… What choice did she have? It's not always good to be Queen.
    Aubrey you breathe life into these historic figures. I love it! 🙂

  3. Lady Jane is one of my favorite films. And you tell the story so vividly.

  4. This is just gorgeous. I love your writing so much! And I second MarsViolet, you breathe such life into these people.Such tragic tales, allowing these women to have the power of knowledge only to have it taken away from them so quickly and effortlessly.

  5. Sad and lovely. I knew the story because my sister loves that period of history, but I didn't realize Jane was so young when she died. You really bring her to life!

  6. This reminds me that I need to watch "Lady Jane" again.

  7. Yeah this brought back Helena Bonham Carter in that role for me. I saw the movie as a teen, but had you asked I would have only remembered she was about 15 and was beheaded, but reading this I remembered a bit more about the story.
    Wonderfully written, as always, Aubrey!

  8. Your posts are always so beautiful!
    You've seen the Pre-Raphaelite painting of the execution, right? "Clawing at the air, searching for the block":

  9. I've known the story of Lady Jane for many years – she was too gentle for a brutal century. Her final terrified words brought to life the minutes before her death like no eye-witness account, or final speeches or historian could ever do.
    Peg – I was going to post that picture! Really! But whenever I cut and paste more than one picture, the fonts and arrangements get all akew. It makes me quite wild.

  10. I think the one you posted, with Lady Jane offering her learning and wealth to potential suitors, on display like goods in a shop, has its own pathos.

  11. Lady Jane's story always makes me so sad. To be treated by a commodity by everyone around you and to have your very breath controlled by someone other than yourself… how awful.

  12. Heartbreaking. Aubrey, I would love it if you wrote entire history books! Nothing brings the past to life like your writings. Thank you, again!Hey did anyone go to the link of the painting of Lady Jane's execution and use the "zoom" feature? It's incredible!

  13. This is fantastic. The last trip to London found me in the Tower and I have become intrigued by all the twists and turns of the English crown. Last weekend I sat entranced watching "The Lion in Winter", trying to follow all of the plots and schemings of Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and Eleanor of Aquatane (Katherine Hepburn). I often reach for my Shakespeare to try and keep all the pieces together as well.
    On a trip to Minneapolis, I had the extreme pleasure to see the Execution of Lady Jane while it was on tour in America. It was an enormous canvas, all the better to show the grief and anguish of a young innocent life taken too soon. I lingered for many moments, thinking about what it must have been like to be a pawn whose life was held at the whim of whomever was in power at the time.
    Thank you for such an excellent post.

  14. Poor Lady Jane. Trying even at the last moment to do the "right thing". Sigh. It must have almost been a relief for her to have it over.

  15. I saw Delaroche's painting at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where it's hung so that one stands almost on the same level as the subjects. I felt strangely comforted by it, because the executioner seems so concerned, tender almost. You feel sure that he means to end her suffering quickly.

  16. When I went to the Tower of London, they showed us the room Jane had been held in, and where she carved her name into a brick "IANE" (in the old way, with I instead of J, because J is a modern letter, we were told). She carved it rather large, too.

  17. You may enjoy my website, The Lady Jane Grey Internet Museum http://www.bitterwisdom.com/ladyjanegrey/Sonja Marie

  18. This is your website? I DID stumble onto it, while looking for some piquant details for this post. The care and detail you put into this created a fascinating site!

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