Lady Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley

by Nicola Tallis

The First Act of a Tragedy

Bride and Groom

On 25 May 1553, in the heart of London, a marriage ceremony was conducted with the utmost splendour. It was, in fact, a triple celebration, but there was one couple in particular that mattered: Lady Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley. In the same way as many other sixteenth century marriages however, it had been arranged for political reasons rather than personal ones. It was an attempt to bind together two families and secure allegiances for the dramatic events that were soon to unfold. A contemporary eyewitness observed that the marriage was ‘the first act of a tragedy’: it was a prediction that would transpire to be chillingly accurate.

The bride, Lady Jane Grey, was the sixteen-year-old daughter of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, and his wife, Lady Frances Brandon. A highly precocious and intelligent girl, Jane had been raised in the Protestant faith, and it was a faith about which she was becoming increasingly fervent. Jane’s groom, Guildford Dudley, was probably only a little older than Jane. The fourth son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and his wife Jane (née Guildford), little is known of Guildford’s early life. What is certain is that he had grown up in a close family, with parents who were genuinely fond of both each other and their children. Like Jane, he had been raised a Protestant, and as his later behaviour would demonstrate, he was prone to petulant outbursts.

The first mention of a potential marriage between the pair had been in late April 1553, and it seems likely that it had been decided upon only slightly before this. The impetus for the marriage appears to have originated with Elizabeth Brooke, Marchioness of Northampton, who was a friend of Jane’s parents. Her reasons for suggesting such a marriage remain a mystery, but it was not long before the idea gained the support of Guildford’s father, the Duke of Northumberland. All that remained was for Jane’s parents to agree, and on the surface this appeared to present difficulties. Jane’s parents were extremely proud of their daughter’s royal blood, and for many years had envisioned that she would be married to her cousin, the young King, Edward VI

Edward however, was gravely ill, and it was clear that his days were numbered. Moreover, Northumberland had hatched a plan whereby Jane would become the King’s successor, and thus a marriage between Jane and his son was an appealing prospect. In order for the plan to have any chance of success, Northumberland’s support was crucial, and blinded by promises of ‘proverbial mountains of gold’, the task of persuading the Duke of Suffolk to agree to the marriage transpired to be remarkably simple. The Duchess, however, was not so easily convinced. A contemporary chronicler noted that she was ‘vigorously opposed to it’, but her feelings were easily overruled: Jane was to marry Guildford Dudley.

By 28th April the young couple were betrothed, and it was expected that the marriage ceremony would speedily follow. Guildford’s reaction upon learning of his forthcoming marriage is uncertain, but Jane’s is clear. She was utterly appalled, and it is not difficult to understand why. Jane had always been acutely conscious of her own royal status, and would doubtless have been primed to expect a marriage of the utmost prestige as her parents had expected to make for her. The fact that such a groom had been substituted with the younger son of a duke – and one whose bloodline was tainted by executed traitors – cannot have been an appealing prospect. 

It is unlikely that Jane and Guildford knew one another well prior to their marriage, and there was certainly not any time for this to change: neither was it a consideration. They may have met during Jane’s occasional visits to court, but there is no evidence to prove this either way. Despite her personal feelings of distaste for the marriage, Jane had no choice. She was forced to accept what she could not change, and preparations for the marriage took place with speed.

On 25th May Jane and Guildford were married in a magnificent ceremony at Northumberland’s house on the Strand, Durham Place. Though King Edward was by this time too ill to attend, he did give the marriage his blessing. In a further gesture, he paid for all of the clothes worn by the wedding party, and the fabrics chosen for Jane and Guildford’s outfits were by far the most sumptuous. The couple shared their wedding day with two of their siblings, for it had been arranged that Jane’s younger sister, Katherine, would wed Henry Herbert, heir of the Earl of Pembroke, while Guildford’s younger sister, Katherine, was married to Henry Hastings, heir of the Earl of Huntingdon.

The wedding was a splendid occasion, and Northumberland had given orders to the Master of the Revels to prepare several impressive entertainments. The day was only ruined by the fact that several of the guests, including Guildford, were affected by food poisoning caused by a chef selecting the wrong leaves for a hot salad dish. This had little bearing on the evening’s events however, for it had already been agreed that Jane and Guildford’s marriage would not be consummated immediately. According to the Imperial ambassador, this was on account of the couple’s ‘tender age’, but the reason was probably more calculated. It may have been a security measure, so that if the events planned in the future did not go to plan the marriage could be easily annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.

Similarly, and unusually, Jane was given a further brief respite from her husband’s company when she was allowed to return home with her parents following the wedding. This was surely much to Jane’s relief, but the separation was to be of brief duration. Before long Jane had been installed with her husband at Durham Place, the venue for their wedding. It was at this time that her relationship with Guildford as man and wife began, and the marriage was finally consummated.

During these first days of their marriage, there is no indication as to how harmoniously the couple lived together. No reference is made in contemporary accounts, but it seems unlikely that they formed a close relationship. What is certain is that following the death of Edward VI on 6th July, Guildford was with his wife when Northumberland informed her that Edward had named her as his heir in his final will. He was also by Jane’s side as she made her entry to the Tower of London on 10th July, and was publicly proclaimed queen. Guildford’s presence at this time was crucial, and he had to be seen, on the surface at least, to be supporting her.

Shortly after the couple entered the Tower’s walls, Jane was presented with the royal crown. She had not asked for it, and she was alarmed to receive it, but she was more concerned by the words of the Lord Treasurer; he assured her that another would be made to crown her husband. Though she said nothing at that time, that evening her feelings came spilling out. Alone with Guildford, Jane made it perfectly clear that she had no intention of allowing him to become king. It seems probable that Guildford had every expectation of being crowned king consort alongside Jane, and it was later reported that he had himself addressed as ‘Your Grace’ and ‘Your Excellency’. In this his ambitious father may have primed him, but whatever the reasoning, he was to be sorely disappointed. 

It was a crushing blow to Guildford, and he listened as his wife informed him that she would concede to make him a duke, but nothing more unless she was petitioned by Parliament. Unable to contain his anger and amazed by his wife’s show of defiance, Guildford sought the assistance of his mother. The Duchess of Northumberland was fond of her son, and immediately took Guildford’s side in the matter. She urged her son not only to abandon Jane’s bed, but also to leave the Tower with her that same evening. Jane, however, put her foot down, and sent orders to prevent Guildford from leaving. Much to his annoyance, Guildford was forced to obey.

Though the dynamics of their relationship were not conventional, it is evident that despite Jane’s superior status, Guildford still expected her to conform and behave as an obedient wife who was ready to do his bidding. Jane, however, had a mind of her own, and she was nothing if not stubborn. She was determined to assert her authority, and it is clear that she was not prepared to bow down to the demands of others – even those of her husband.

Prisoners in the Tower

As the struggle for the throne ensued over the course of the following days, no mention is made of what passed between Jane and Guildford. It was undoubtedly a fraught time, and under such circumstances it seems unlikely that their relationship improved. Nevertheless, on the morning of 19th July Jane gave permission for the son of Edward Underhill, a Tower warder, to be christened Guildford in honour of her husband. This may have been no more than a polite gesture, and should certainly not be taken as a sign of affection towards Guildford. 

Later that day, Jane’s reign came crashing down around her as her former Council declared their allegiance to her cousin Mary, and she was informed that she was no longer queen. As those around her fled the scene, Jane and Guildford were left almost alone. Neither of them had any choice but to stay: they were both prisoners now. Within a short time they were escorted the short distance from the Royal Apartments within the Tower to separate prison lodgings. For Jane, this was the house of the gentleman gaoler close to Tower Green, and for Guildford, the nearby Beauchamp Tower.

Throughout the course of their imprisonment in the following months it is unlikely that the couple were allowed to meet. The queen, Mary I, had, however, given some indication that their lives were safe. Despite this she realised that some form of justice had to be seen to be done, and on 13 November Jane and Guildford were reunited in chilling circumstances: the day had been appointed for their trial. However they may have felt about one another in personal terms, from the moment of their marriage their fates were to be intertwined – whether they liked it or not. Jane and Guildford stood side by side in Guildhall within the City of London, and both pleaded guilty to the charges of treason that were brought against them. They were both condemned, and both sentenced to death. It was a seemingly terrible conclusion for the young couple, but neither showed any outward signs of turmoil.

Following their trial, Jane and Guildford were returned to the Tower to resume their separate imprisonment. Queen Mary made no move to implement the sentence brought against them, and thus it was a waiting game as the couple were forced to endure their imprisonment with a death sentence looming over their heads. Though in December the terms of their imprisonment were relaxed, it seems improbable that they were allowed to converse together, neither is there any evidence that they wished to. Jane’s primary solace at this time seems to have been in prayer, while a contemporary observed that she was also allowed several visitors.

In January 1554 the discovery of the Wyatt Rebellion in which Jane’s father was carelessly involved forced Queen Mary’s hand, and she was left with no choice but to order the executions of Jane and Guildford. As the couple prepared to meet their ends, both of their thoughts turned to Jane’s father. Rather than berating him for his actions in securing their doom, however, both Jane and Guildford wrote the Duke of Suffolk a farewell message. Both of these messages survive in the pages of Jane’s tiny prayer book, demonstrating that this was an object to which Guildford had access at some point too. There is no clue as to how this was contrived – did Jane and Guildford meet, or at least have an opportunity to converse and agree to write her father a final note? It is improbable that they met, and it was probably managed with the connivance of the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Brydges.

On the evening of 11th February, the night before their executions were due to take place, a contemporary recorded that Guildford requested one final meeting with his wife. The fact that Guildford asked for such a meeting is suggestive of the fact that he had either developed some kind of feelings for his wife, however small, or that he perhaps wished to apologise to Jane for his past behaviour before their day of reckoning. Wherever the emphasis came from, it was a request that Jane refused. Her reason for doing so was reportedly because she felt that such a meeting would achieve nothing, and that after all, they would soon be reunited in heaven where they would ‘live bound by indissoluble ties’.

Though Jane had deprived Guildford of a final opportunity to say farewell, this was not quite their final encounter: indeed, it was to be far more chilling. On the morning of 12th February, Guildford was led out from his prison. From a window in her lodgings, Jane watched as her husband left the Tower one final time. It was the last time that she saw Guildford alive. Shortly after she was forced to confront the grim reality of her forthcoming fate, as the cart carrying Guildford’s severed remains was returned to the Tower for burial within the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Whatever her feelings towards him may have been, this was a harsh and all too painful reality, and she cried out in anguish, ‘Oh Guildford, Guildford!’ Jane’s husband was dead, and soon after Jane’s head, too, was severed by the executioner’s axe. Following her execution, it is probable that Jane’s remains were laid to rest beside those of Guildford within the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where they almost certainly remain to this day. The couple who had experienced so much together, yet in reality barely knew one another, were reunited in death.

Whatever the true nature of the relationship between Jane and Guildford, it is unlikely to have been the great romance that was portrayed blossoming in Trevor Nunn’s 1986 film, Lady Jane. The truth is that neither Jane or Guildford were given the time or opportunity to develop any kind of deep rooted feelings for one another, and that the foundations of their marriage were based on politics, and not personal, preferences. They were married for almost eight months, but in fact spent very little of that time together, and had no opportunity to get to know one another. Nevertheless, from the moment that they said their marriage vows they became a partnership whose fates were inextricably, and fatally bound. It was in truth, as well as in deed, ‘the first act of a tragedy’.