On the morning of 12 February 1554, peering from her window, Jane Grey saw her young husband’s decapitated body being brought back from the scaffold of execution and exclaimed “Oh, Guildford, my Guildford”. He had been subjected to a public beheading on Tower Hill, while Jane was granted a private execution inside the boundaries of the Tower.
Shortly after that terrible sight, she was taken out to Tower Green to be decapitated. She was dressed in black and carried an open prayer book in her hands.
On ascending the scaffold Jane looked calm, and made a brief speech, urging those who were present to pray for her.
After that, there was an endless five-minute silence ‘for the Queen’s mercy’ while officials were waiting for a last-minute clemency from the Queen, which did not arrive.
The executioner then kneeled down and asked for forgiveness.
It was only then that the girl noticed the block and turned to him pleading , “I pray you dispatch me quickly.”
She knelt down and asked him another question, “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” and he replied, “No, madame.”
Her ladies in waiting were too distressed to manage to blindfold her, so Jane herself had to tie her kerchief round her eyes.
She kept her composure until, blindfolded, she panicked as she failed to locate the block with her hands, and cried out, “What shall I do? Where is it?”
All looked frozen by that pitiful scene and no one, not her ladies, nor the officials, nor the executioner, moved to help her. It was one of the onlookers who had to guide her to the fatal spot.
With her head on the block, Jane said her last prayer: ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!’
After the executioner completed his horrible task, according to tradition, he held the severed head by its blood-soaked hair, announcing: “Behold the head of a traitor! So perish all the Queen’s enemies!”
Lady Jane was buried beneath the altar of the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London and, over the years, it is said her ghost has occasionally been spotted. She appears as a lonely headless white shape floating from the river mists. Then she wanders around Tower Green or glides along the battlements before disappearing.
After her tragic death some questions have remained open:
Was she pregnant at the time of her execution?
Was she the innocent victim of ruthless and ambitious men plotting around her?
Was she a Protestant martyr and anti-Catholic icon?
… or just a prodigy of Renaissance learning? Her surviving letters suggest that she was academically gifted, almost a genius.
Her small, determined voice may still be heard in the words – her epitaph – she wrote in her prayer book during the final days of her life.
It was a farewell statement consisting of three lines (the first in Latin, the second in Greek and the third in English), which translate as:
‘If Justice is done with my body, my soul will find mercy in God.
Death will give pain to my body for its sins, but the soul will be justified before God.
If my faults deserve punishment, my youth at least, and my imprudence were worthy of excuse; God and posterity will show me favour.’
Image: “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey” , oil painting by Paul Delaroche, completed in 1833, which is now in the National Gallery in London.
Delaroche painted the subject of Lady Jane’s execution in 1833, nearly 300 years after the event, drawing upon contemporary historical sources to help him portray it accurately