Gateway to the Classics: Great Englishwomen by M. B. Synge
Great Englishwomen by  M. B. Synge

Lady Jane Grey


L ady Jane Grey was born in a beautiful palace half hidden by masses of old trees, called Bradgate Hall, in Leicestershire, in the year 1537. Most of the old hall is now a ruin, but a tower still stands in which the villagers still declare that Lady Jane was born. Her father, Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset, was one of the king's most powerful noblemen; her mother, Lady Frances Brandon, was a niece of the king, Henry VIII. Jane was the eldest of three daughters; Katharine, her next sister, was two years younger, and therefore her companion in lessons and play. Mary was much younger. The grounds about Bradgate Hall, and the winding trout-stream about which the children played, may still be seen around the ruined palace; but much as little Jane loved the open air and the flowers that grew around, yet she was still fonder of her books.

While quite young her father engaged a master to come and teach his children, and Jane learnt very quickly. Greek, Latin, and French were her great delight; she could sing, play, sew, and write very clearly. With all this she was very sweet in temper, truthful, and beautiful to look at. The queen, Katharine Parr, Henry VIII.'s sixth and last wife, took a great fancy to the little girl. She was a clever and learned woman herself, and begged Lady Frances Brandon to allow Jane to live with her at court, promising to see that her lessons were still carried on. So at the early age of nine we find Jane attending on the queen, and carrying her candles before her. This was by no means an easy feat to perform, as the little candle-bearer had to walk backwards with the lighted candles. The child did not know, and happy for her that she did not, that she was looked upon by the court as the heiress to the throne of England, and that the queen was trying to fit her for the difficult post she was destined to fill.

When Jane was but ten years old, the king, Henry VIII., died, and his son Edward, a poor sickly boy, the same age as the Lady Jane, was made king.

Soon after, Katharine Parr died, and the little girl walked as chief mourner at her funeral, her long black train being held up by a young nobleman.

After this, the most natural thing would have been for Jane to go home to her mother at Bradgate; but her father and mother thought more of worldly advance than of their child's happiness. They agreed to let her go to Lord Seymour, a scheming and plotting man, who wished to bring about a marriage between the poor little Lady Jane and the young king, Edward VI., who was her cousin. At first Jane's parents pretended—for it was but pretence—that they wished to keep her at home, but when Lord Seymour gave them £500 they consented, for the sake of this contemptible sum of money, to let him take away their pretty little girl to teach her first, and then to marry her to a king. But this never came to pass, for the following year Seymour was taken to the Tower and beheaded in a horrible way, and his little ward was sent home. Her parents were bitterly disappointed; they treated her coldly, even cruelly, and her only happiness was in her lessons.

One day Roger Ascham, Princess Elizabeth's clever master, came to stay at Bradgate. Passing through the park he saw that the members of the household were hunting, but where was the Lady Jane? She was in her own room, he was told. Thither he went, and found her busily reading a Greek book by Plato. "Why was she not hunting in the park?" he asked, with some surprise.

"I wis," answered the child of fourteen, looking up with a bright smile, "all their sport in the park is but a shadow to that pleasure I find in Plato; they do not know, alas! what true pleasure means!"

Then they had a long talk, and the Lady Jane told Roger Ascham how she loved her books and lessons, and how thankful she was for her kind master. For she was never happy with her father and mother; they were sharp and severe with her, and whether she talked or kept silent, sat or stood, sewed or played, it was sure to be wrong. They laughed at her, scolded her, often even pinched and nipped her, till she longed for her lesson hour, when she could go back to her gentle teacher. There the time passed so quickly, and he was so good to her, and when lessons were over she would often cry, because everything else was "so full of great trouble and fear."

The gentle and clever girl was greatly beloved; her master was duly proud of his young pupil, whose knowledge of languages was quite wonderful, and surprised many an older scholar than himself. Greek was her favourite study, and the last letter she ever wrote was written to her sister Katharine on a blank leaf in her Greek Testament.

Lady Jane Grey spent the Christmas of 1551 with the Princess Mary, with whom the family were on very friendly terms. But the cold weather and the long winter walks she had to take injured her health, and she became very ill. Her slow recovery gave her plenty of time for work, and long letters still exist in Greek and Latin that she wrote to Roger Ascham, and also to many foreign students, who thought very highly of the noble Lady Jane.

Up to this time friendship had existed between Princess Mary, who was a Roman Catholic, and Lady Jane. One day Mary gave her a rich dress. Lady Jane did not care to wear bright colours, as she always dressed in the Puritan style.

"What shall I do with it?" she asked.

"Marry, wear it, to be sure," replied Mary.

But this Lady Jane refused to do, even to win favour with the princess.

This offended Mary. She had heard rumours, too, that Lady Jane, being a Protestant, was likely to succeed Edward VI., instead of herself, and thus the Lady Jane slowly dropped out of favour at court.

Lady Jane's father now occupied a high post; he had become Duke of Suffolk by the death of two elder brothers, and helped the Duke of Northumberland to govern England till the young king, Edward, should be old enough to govern for himself. But Edward instead of growing better grew worse; always delicate, an attack of measles left him worse, and he could not get rid of a bad cough. When the dukes found he was not likely to live long, they began to scheme for his successor. Of course Suffolk wanted his daughter to be queen; of course Northumberland wanted his son to be king; so they agreed that Suffolk's daughter, Lady Jane, should marry Northumberland's son, Guildford Dudley, and reign as king and queen of England.

The poor young king, Edward, was weak and ill, and his strong Protectors could easily make him say that his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane, and her husband, Guildford Dudley, should succeed him, instead of his sisters Elizabeth or Mary.

Guildford was tall and very handsome; he was his father's pride and darling; but when Lady Jane was told that he was to be her husband, she was very angry, and refused to marry him. In vain her father urged her, and told her the king himself had ordered the marriage.

"And do you mean to disobey the king as well as your father?" he asked harshly.

We are told that he had recourse to blows at last; anyhow, the poor Lady Jane was too unhappy to hold out any longer; her life could not be much more miserable than it was, and she gave her consent at last.

On a summer day, Whitsunday, 1553, when Edward the king was lying at the point of death, Lady Jane Grey was married to Guildford Dudley, and very soon after she was told by her mother-in-law suddenly off hand, that she must hold herself in readiness at any moment to be crowned Queen of England! For a moment Lady Jane was stunned, almost stupefied, till the utter misery of her position slowly dawned upon her. She was to take the throne from the Princess Mary, who was the rightful queen, and reign over a people who would look on her as a usurper instead of pitying her as a helpless woman. The future weighed heavily on her mind; she became very ill, and was taken to Chelsea, to the house of her father-in-law, for change of air, there to await the king's death.

Late on one summer afternoon, the summons came for her to go at once to Sion House, whether well or ill. A barge was at the door to convey her up the river. What a long two hours it seemed to Lady Jane till the barge arrived at Sion House! She found the hall empty, but no sooner had she arrived than the two Protectors, her father and Northumberland, her mother and mother-in-law, and many dukes and earls entered, all bending low before her. Her cheeks grew hot, her heart beat fast. She understood everything. The young king was dead. She was Queen of England. A long speech was made, and all present swore to protect and serve her as queen, but it was all too much for the Lady Jane, already ill and unhappy. She tottered and fell to the ground, weeping bitterly; there she lay as one dead, her face white as marble, her eyes closed. When she came to herself she raised herself on to her knees, and prayed that, if to succeed to the throne were her duty and right, she might govern the realm of England well and justly.

Very early next morning, still weary from the excitement of the former night, the queen and her attendants came down the Thames in barges, and landed near the Great Hall of the Tower. Then a long procession was formed. Guildford Dudley walked beside his royal wife, cap in hand, bowing to the ground whenever she spoke. Crowds lined the way, and knelt as she passed to be crowned their queen; little did they know how gladly she would have changed her lot with any of her poorer subjects if she could. Her life grew more unhappy; she could not sleep; she fainted often while talking to her council.

One day she heard that her father, the Duke of Suffolk, was going to march against the Princess Mary, who had been proclaimed queen in many parts of England; but she was so alarmed at being left alone with the Dudleys, and wept so bitterly, that he consented to stay with her, and let Northumberland go instead. But he met with no success. There were no shouts of "God save Queen Jane!" no one cried "God speed ye!" He found that Mary's party was growing rapidly in strength, and that she had been proclaimed queen everywhere but in London itself.

The news fell heavily on the queen; sleep forsook her entirely; the long nights were "full of great trouble and fear," though she knew the Tower was barred and locked. At last the blow came. One day the queen had promised to stand godmother to a child; not being well enough to go she sent her attendant. The attendant was not gone long, but on her return she found officers in possession of the room, the royal canopy down, and was told that "Jane Grey was a prisoner for high treason." Thus from the state apartments she followed her to the prison rooms of the Tower.

She was still in the Tower, no longer a queen, but a prisoner; her nobles had deserted her, her subjects had risen up against her, her father and mother were gone, and her husband was separated from her.

On October 1st, 1553, Mary was crowned queen amid the cheers of the people; and the Duke of Suffolk, father of the late queen, was one of the first to acknowledge Mary as Queen of England.

The following month Lady Jane and her husband were accused of high treason; they pleaded guilty to the charge, and sentence of death was passed upon them. Husband and wife looked on one another for the last time, and Lady Jane was taken back to the Tower, there to await her death. A dismal Christmas passed, and the new year of 1554, which was to see so many bloody deeds, opened.

Queen Mary was forced somewhat against her will to sign the death warrant, and "Guildford Dudley and his wife" were informed that February 12th was the day fixed for their execution. Still, if Lady Jane would change her religion, become a Roman Catholic, and obey Mary, she might have her liberty and her life; but this she refused to do—rather death than that.

Guildford Dudley was the first to die; he had begged for a last interview, a last kiss from his wife, and it had been granted by the queen, but Lady Jane refused, saying it would be too much for them, and unnerve her completely. So she stood at the Tower window, and waved him a silent farewell, sobbing, "Oh, Guildford, Guildford!" An hour afterwards she was led forth for execution; she walked with a firm and steady step, and addressed to the crowd a few touching words, which drew forth heartfelt sympathy for the courageous and noble woman who was going to die. She said a psalm, her eyes were bound, she forgave willingly the man who was about to cut off her head, and in a few moments her unhappy life was ended.

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