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To the Tower: The Tragic Fates of Jane and Katherine Grey

Conor Byrne | University of Southampton


A picture showing Lady Jane Grey about to be executed
Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, oil on canvas, 1833. (National Gallery)

On the morning of 12 February 1554, a seventeen-year-old woman dressed from head to toe in black made her way from her lodgings in the Tower of London to a scaffold on a green before the White Tower. After delivering a short speech to the assembled onlookers, she carefully removed her gloves, handkerchief and gown before kneeling, blindfolded, at the block. The executioner, standing nearby, removed her head with a single stroke of the axe. Three months earlier, Lady Jane Grey had been tried and convicted of treason against Mary I, having ‘falsely and treacherously assumed and took up for herself the title and power of the Queen of this kingdom of England’. Her late cousin, Edward VI, had barred both Mary and her younger half-sister Elizabeth from the succession on the grounds of their illegitimacy and instead nominated Jane as his heir, but Jane’s attempt to establish herself as queen in the summer of 1553 had spectacularly failed. In a matter of days, her status had changed from queen of England to a prisoner in the Tower, but even after Jane’s trial, the new queen showed little desire to sanction her young cousin’s death. Instead, matters beyond Mary’s control – namely, the outbreak of Wyatt’s Rebellion in early 1554, in which Jane’s own father was implicated – had led her, however reluctantly, to order Jane’s sentence to be carried out.


The circumstances that led to Jane’s execution on that February morning were unprecedented, but Jane was not the last member of the Grey family to suffer royal disfavour. Her father was executed eleven days later on Tower Hill, and seven years after that, Jane’s younger sister, Katherine, too, found herself a prisoner in the Tower. Her crime was to have married Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, without having obtained the permission of Elizabeth I, Mary’s successor which, as a member of the royal family, Katherine ought to have done.


This article will explore the circumstances and events that led to Jane and Katherine Grey being incarcerated in the Tower as a result of their loss of royal favour. The royal blood of both women, and their younger sister Mary, was to prove a curse for them all. While Jane, as is well known, was executed as the so-called ‘Nine Days’ Queen’, Katherine and Mary both suffered the consequences of secretly marrying without obtaining the permission of Elizabeth I. Mary was the only Grey sister not to be imprisoned in the Tower. The events that led to the disgraces of Jane and Katherine, however, were strikingly different.


A picture of Katherine Grey holding a child
Levina Teerlinc, Katherine Grey with Edward Seymour, c.1562. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jane and Katherine Grey were the first and second daughters, respectively, of Henry Grey, marquis of Dorset and subsequently duke of Suffolk, and his wife Frances. Frances was the eldest daughter of Mary Tudor (former queen consort of France) and, thus, granddaughter of Henry VII, the first Tudor king. In 1546, the last will and testament of Frances’ uncle Henry VIII decreed that, should his three surviving children – Mary, Elizabeth and Edward – die without producing heirs, the crown was to pass to the descendants of his sister Mary: the daughters of Frances Grey. Historians have debated both Henry’s decision to overlook Frances in favour of her offspring and his reasons for excluding the descendants of his elder sister Margaret – the Scottish line – from the line of succession. It seems likely, however, that the king never imagined that his three children would in turn die childless, thus changing the lives of Jane and Katherine forever.


In the spring of 1553, Henry’s only surviving son, Edward VI, fell ill and, before long, his life was despaired of. Historians have suggested that the king may have suffered from a pulmonary infection, kidney failure or tuberculosis, alongside a later onset of septicaemia and cyanosis. Edward’s ultimately fatal illness ended the dynastic ambitions that Henry and Frances Grey had long nurtured regarding a marriage between their daughter Jane and the king. Instead, Jane married Guildford Dudley, a younger son of Edward’s chief minister John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, on 25 May 1553. The same day, Katherine wed Henry Herbert, heir of the earl of Pembroke. The dying Edward, determined to prevent either of his technically illegitimate half-sisters from becoming queen, decreed that the crown was to pass to the male heirs of Lady Jane Grey in his ‘Deuise for the Succession’, although this was subsequently amended to name Jane herself as heir to the throne in the recognition that Jane would not produce a son before the king’s death. On 6 July, Edward died at the age of fifteen and Jane, despite her initial reluctance, was proclaimed queen of England.


A picture of a young Edward VI
William Scrots, Edward VI, King of England (1537-1553), oil on panel, c.1550. (Louvre Museum)

The surviving evidence suggests that, having overcome her initial doubts, Jane acted with a degree of agency during her brief queenship. In the days after the proclamation of her queenship, for example, letters were issued calling on her subjects to remain loyal to her as their duty and were signed ‘Jane the Quene’. Additionally, a warrant was issued to William Parr, marquess of Northampton, in which Jane instructed him to ‘indever yourself in all things to the uttermost of your powre, not only to defend our just title, but also assist us in our rightfull possession of this kingdome, and to disturbe, repell, and resist the fayned and untrue clayme of the Lady Mary basterd daughter to our grete uncle Henry the Eight of famous memory’. She also instructed Northumberland, rather than her father, to lead the forces against Mary.


However, Jane’s regime collapsed within days as the country rallied behind Mary and both the ‘Nine Days’ Queen’ and her husband found themselves prisoners in the Tower after Mary was proclaimed queen. Jane was subsequently held in the house of the gentleman gaoler, Nathaniel Partridge, on Tower Green, while Guildford was moved to the Beauchamp Tower. It was reported, however, that Mary ‘could not be induced to consent that she should die’ and ‘would not permit her to have her put to death’, despite the advice of the imperial envoys. Even after Jane and her husband were found guilty of treason at London’s Guildhall that November, the queen did not sanction their executions. Instead, it was the outbreak of rebellion in early 1554 – motivated by hostility to Mary’s proposed marriage to Philip of Spain – that sealed the couple’s fate. On 12 February, Jane was executed shortly after Guildford was put to death on Tower Hill. Jane’s father met the same fate on 23 February.


A picture of the Tower of London on a sunny day
The Tower of London, viewed from the River Thames (Gavin Allanwood)

Seven years after Jane’s execution, her younger sister also found herself a prisoner in the Tower. In the final months of Mary’s reign, a romance had blossomed between Katherine and Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, her first marriage to Herbert having been annulled in the aftermath of Jane’s overthrow. Prior to Elizabeth’s reign, Katherine’s presence in the contemporary records is fragmentary, but after 1558, she became a subject of national and international interest in view of her claim, set out in Henry VIII’s will, to succeed Elizabeth should the queen die childless. The imperial ambassador recognised Katherine’s dynastic importance and, with the approval of his master, Philip of Spain, arranged a plot (which ultimately came to nothing) for Katherine to be brought to Spain and married to Don Carlos, the Spanish king’s son, motivated partly by Spanish antipathy to the prospect of the French king’s daughter-in-law Mary, Queen of Scots becoming queen of England in the event of Elizabeth’s childlessness. Katherine’s involvement in this scheme was taken for granted. Rumours of a prestigious match with the earl of Arran may also have circulated in Scotland with the goal of uniting the heirs to the English and Scottish thrones. Katherine was, however, only interested in one possible suitor: Hertford. The couple secretly married in late 1560 with the assistance of the earl’s sister Jane, having previously sought the aid of Katherine’s mother and stepfather in approaching the queen to obtain her approval for them to marry (tragically, Frances Grey died before such an attempt could be made). While they initially managed to conceal their marriage, disaster struck when Katherine became pregnant. Whether Katherine and Hertford believed they could keep their marriage a secret, and for how long, is unknown, but matters were complicated by the death of Jane Seymour, which coincided with Katherine’s suspicion that she was pregnant. Before Jane’s death, Katherine reckoned herself to be with child, to which the earl replied: ‘We must abide by it, and trust to the Queen’s mercy’.


A painting of Elizabeth I
The Hampden Portrait of Elizabeth I of England, oil on canvas, c.1567. (Wikimedia Commons)

Any attempt by Katherine to keep her condition a secret soon proved futile, with it becoming a subject of scandal and gossip during the court’s 1561 summer progress. When Elizabeth found out about the couple’s marriage, she ordered both Katherine and Hertford to be incarcerated in the Tower, where Katherine gave birth in September to a son, Edward. Seven years after her sister’s execution, Katherine shared Jane’s prison and must have feared that she would meet a similar fate. The Treason Act of 1536 had made it a treasonable offence to marry or ‘deflower’ a member of the royal family without the monarch’s permission. Katherine’s lodgings in the Tower (possibly in the Bell Tower) were furnished with footstools and velvet cushions that had belonged to her great-uncle Henry VIII, alongside six pieces of tapestry, a bed of damask, two Turkey carpets, a chair of cloth of gold and a cushion of purple velvet. The couple were kept apart from one another in the Tower. Jane Seymour’s unexpected death in March 1561 and the couple’s failure to locate the priest who had married them meant that they could not prove that their marriage had taken place, and Elizabeth’s commissioners ruled that their marriage was invalid and any offspring illegitimate. A second son, Thomas, was born in 1563, after Katherine and Hertford contrived to meet one another in the Tower contrary to the queen’s express command. In the summer after Thomas’ birth, the couple were released from the Tower due to the onset of plague in London and were separately placed under house arrest – Katherine with her younger son in the custody of her uncle Lord John Grey at Pirgo in Essex, and Hertford with the elder boy at the earl’s mother’s residence at Hanworth. Katherine and Hertford never saw one another again. Katherine spent her final years under house arrest at a succession of residences, including Pirgo, Ingatestone, Gosfield Hall and Cockfield Hall.


A photograph of a funeral monument to Edward Seymour and family, made of stone or marble and positioned in Salisbury Cathedral.
Monument to Edward Seymour and family, Salisbury Cathedral (Julian P Guffogg/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Unlike Mary, Queen of Scots, who harboured ambitions for the English throne, Katherine showed no desire to be recognised as Elizabeth’s heir during the 1560s succession debates, instead longing to be reunited with her husband and eldest son. That hope was destined never to be fulfilled and she died in January 1568, perhaps of tuberculosis. She was buried at Yoxford church in Suffolk and, during the 1640s, her grandson arranged for her remains to be reinterred at Salisbury Cathedral alongside her husband, who died in 1621. It is somewhat ironic that it was in the reign of James I – son of Katherine’s leading rival for the English throne – that the marriage of Katherine and Hertford was declared valid.


The stories of Jane and Katherine Grey are tragic: both were, in many respects, victims of their royal blood. The dynastic status of both women, as set out in Henry VIII’s last will and testament, ultimately had devastating consequences for the sisters. Both endured imprisonment in the Tower and ultimately lost their liberty and, in Jane’s case, her life, as a result of their loss of royal favour.   


 

Further Reading:


  • Conor Byrne, Lady Katherine Grey: A Dynastic Tragedy (Cheltenham: The History Press, 2023).

  • Leanda De Lisle, The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The Tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey (London: Harper Press, 2008).

  • Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

  • Nicola Tallis, Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey (London: Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 2016).


Conor Byrne is a second-year PhD student at the University of Southampton researching representations of the executions of four British queens in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources. He is the author of several books, including Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Slandered Queen (2019) and Lady Katherine Grey: A Dynastic Tragedy (2023).


Instagram: @_cbhistory

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