Lady Jane Grey holds the tragic record for the shortest reign of any monarch of England. Known by the epithet ‘The Nine Days Queen,’ Jane’s short queenship was wedged between the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. When Edward VI realised he was dying, he drafted ‘My Device for the Succession,’ in which he named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, and her male descendants, as his heirs, on the grounds that his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, were both illegitimate. Though Jane was proclaimed queen, she was never crowned, and she had little control over the country, which openly protested the disinheritance of Mary. After a very short period of revolt, Jane was imprisoned, and Mary was proclaimed queen, to much rejoicing.
But recently, some have pointed out that Jane actually reigned for 13 days, not just 9. This would seem to be an easy issue to resolve; however, it is a little more complicated.
Edward VI died at around 8pm on the 6th July, 1553. His council had their instructions – Jane was to be queen. However, they knew that this declaration would cause uproar. So there was a delay in announcing the death of King Edward, whilst the council scrambled to make arrangements to try and ensure a smooth transition of power. 3 days later, the 9th July, Jane was summoned from Chelsea to Syon House, where she was informed of her cousin’s death and her own succession. As a prisoner, recounted the scene in a letter to Mary, in the hopes of explaining her own innocence and being granted clemency:
The following day, King Edward’s death was announced, four days after it had occurred, and Jane was proclaimed queen. The Tudor diarist, Henry Machyn wrote of the occasion:
Nine days later, on the 19th July, Jane was arrested. She was already within the walls of the Tower of London, which was the traditional residence of the monarch in the lead up to their coronation. She was escorted from the royal apartments, to the Gentleman’s Gaolers apartment.
The question is, at what point did Jane become queen – when Edward died, when Jane was informed, or when Jane was publicly proclaimed?
The idea of ‘The Nine Days Queen’ rests on the idea that Jane became queen when she was publicly proclaimed, on the 10th July. However, this is in conflict with the long-standing ideology of the day.
In 1272, Henry III died whilst his heir, Edward I, was on Crusade. The Council at the time proclaimed Edward king, noting that ‘The throne shall never be empty; the country shall never be without a monarch.’ Edward therefore became king the moment his father died, despite being unaware of the fact until months later.
This idea lived on to the Tudor period with the concept of the king’s body politic, which was the idea that a king’s death was merely the death of his physical body; the body politic, in many ways the essence of kingship, lived on and transferred to his successor. This is a very simplified summary of the concept of the king’s two bodies; for anyone interested in reading more, the idea is explored in depth in Ernst Kantorowicz seminal work ‘The King’s Two Bodies.’
So custom would dictate that Jane became queen the moment Edward died, even though she was unaware of the fact. The wording of Jane’s proclamation seems to support this:
This would place Jane’s reign as beginning on the 6th July, making her reign, which ended on the 19th with her arrest, 13 days long.
Of course, once Mary was proclaimed queen, she had Parliament declare Jane a usurper, therefore erasing the concept of her reign; legally, Jane was never queen. This is part of the reason why Jane is widely known as ‘Lady Jane Grey’ rather than ‘Queen Jane,’ and why she is usually left off of regnal lists. But it is useful to remember her as a queen; otherwise it is easy to forget this pivotal moment in English history.
Should we therefore call Jane ‘The Thirteen Days Queen’? Perhaps. It doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well, but it is in-keeping with the concepts of kingship that existed at the time. However, the idea of ‘The Nine Days Queen’ is strong, and I don’t see that changing.