The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

When I was 24 I moved to London because I was in love with the English choral tradition, and wanted to immerse myself in music and history.  I also happened to have a crazy crush on an Unavailable Man who lived there, but even though the man and I didn’t work out, I fell deeply in love with London.  I worked in an office off the Strand near Trafalgar Square, and most lunch hours I popped over to the National Gallery to take in the paintings.  I’d never been a huge visual art person myself, having been turned off when I had a medieval art professor who encompassed every stereotype about a Bad Teacher that you can imagine, but eventually I decided that since I had so many great paintings literally on my doorstep (and it was free), I should really take advantage of them.  So I’d rush over and then pick a painting, any random painting, to become absorbed in for half an hour before I had to go back to the office, stopping for a sandwich on the way.

One of the paintings that attracted me early on was Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, which stood out to me because of the amazing satin dress that Jane was wearing.  She looked so helpless, so innocent, so much the victim of the men around her, and yet oddly still powerful.  As if even in her downfall, she was still making a statement with grace and elegance, and standing up for what was right in the world.

I got all of that in the first two minutes of starting at this painting.  It was then when I really realized how much of an impact the visual arts can have on someone, even someone like me who was always much more inspired by sounds than sights.

Lady Jane Grey was the great-neice of Henry VIII.  She was the eldest daughter of Frances, the daughter of Henry’s sister.  That meant that she had a claim – however distant – to the throne of England.  Henry’s son Edward died as a teenager, and he knew he was dying.  He had grown up around Protestants.  He had pushed through many Protestant reforms in the Church during his reign.  He had raised very vocal Protestants up to positions of power.  And then he got sick.  And his heir, the next person in line to the throne, was his sister Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  Mary was raised Catholic, and was a strong and vocal supporter of the Pope, and was very clear about what she thought about Protestant.

Edward feared what would happen to all of his reforms if he died and Mary took over.  His counsellors were afraid of what would happen to their lives.  And many of them had good reason.  She executed Thomas Cranmer, among other Protestants who enjoyed Edward’s favor.

So here we picture Edward, aware that he is dying, and very much afraid of what’s going to happen to everything he’s built after he goes.  He comes up with an idea.

Parliament had declared both Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate when Henry made his third marriage to Jane Seymore.  Later, in his will, he restored them to the Succession, but there was still the taint of illegitimacy lingering around them both.  Edward comes up with the idea that he should disinherit both sisters because they were illegitimate (he couldn’t have kept Elizabeth around while disinheriting Mary as it would have sent his shaky logic up in smoke) and then make the Grey side, who were conveniently Protestant, the heirs.  So he writes it in a special Device for the Succession, has people witness it, and he dies believing full well that Lady Jane Grey, the eldest sister (and a friend of Edward’s since they were close to the same age) would take over as Queen.

Jane Grey’s family were complicit in all of this.  Her parents married her off to Guildford Dudley, the son of one of Edward’s leading advisors, the Duke of Northumberland.  They were married in a lavish ceremony about 6 weeks before Edward died.  Jane was a bright girl, and biographers point out how studious she was, how her tutors marveled at her intense dedication to learning and study.  Her mother was what we would call abusive today; the caricature of a little unloved girl taking solace in her books isn’t that far off the mark.

Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey

After Edward died and she was declared Queen, she reacted with surprise, and said that the crown wasn’t hers to accept, but that Mary was the next in line.  She was pressed into accepting it, and responded that she would, but she didn’t want it.  Once she had the crown on her head, though, she showed that she was no shrinking flower.  She refused, for example, to have Guildford declared King, much to the chagrin of his father.  

Eventually Mary rallied and gathered her supporters, and Jane’s reign collapsed after only 9 days.  At first Mary wanted to show mercy to Jane and the others.  Jane’s mother Frances begged for the life of her husband to be spared, which it was.  Jane and Guildford stayed in the Tower, though, as a precaution.  But as time went on and there were more rebellions with Jane as the focus point, even another one involving her father, it was clear that the threat she posed, even unwillingly, wasn’t going anywhere.  So she was convicted of treason, and sentenced to be executed.  She was just 16.  The story remains compelling because of the idea of this very young innocent girl who was manipulated by some of the highest powers in British politics, which remains fascinating no matter how much time has passed.

Paul Delaroche was painting just after the turmoil of the French Revolution, and the raised platform on which Lady Jane is kneeling is similar to that used for nobility in France.  He was very interested in British history, and made several trips to London to make notes and sketches.  He wanted you to feel that he was acting as an historian, and he was obsessed with the details.  There are a large number of preparatory drawings as he worked out where the different figures would go.  We see two maidservants so upset that one can’t even bear to face the horror.  The straw is out to catch the blood from the head.  And just as in history, poor Jane needed help getting to the block, and wasn’t sure where to put her head.  The executioner stands by impassively, seemingly unmoved by what he’s about to do.

The painting itself was introduced at the Paris Salon of 1934 where it was a huge hit.  It was thought to have been destroyed in the 1928 Thames flood which ruined many paintings in the Tate Gallery.  It was rediscovered in 1973 by a curator writing a book on a British painter, and going through damaged paintings.  He found John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, albeit in very poor condition, rolled inside the Delaroche painting which was in perfect condition and transferred to the National Gallery.  To this day it is one of the favorite paintings in the gallery, as evidenced by the fact that the varnish on the floor in front of it needs to be replaced much more often than in the rest of the museum.  

Incidentally, in 1986 Helena Bonham Carter and Cary Elwes starred in a movie about tragic Lady Jane.

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