The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey was Queen of England for just 9 days until she was driven from the throne and sent to the Tower of London to be executed.

Jane became queen after the death of her cousin, Edward VI in 1553. As a Protestant, Jane was crowned queen in a bid to shore up Protestantism and keep Catholic influence at bay.

The plan didn't work. Jane's claim to the crown was much weaker than Edward VI's half sister Mary. Mary, a Catholic, had popular support and soon replaced Jane as queen.

Lady Jane Grey was executed at Tower Green on 12 February 1554. She was just 16 years old.

In this painting, she is guided towards the execution block by Sir John Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower. The straw on which the block rests was intended to soak up the victim's blood. The executioner stands impassive to the right and two ladies in attendance are shown grieving to the left.

The painting was exhibited in Paris at the city's famous Salon in 1834, where it caused a sensation.

In conversation
Curators Chris Riopelle and Jane Spooner on Lady Jane Grey
5 mins 33 secs

Miranda Hinkley: This monumental canvas depicts one of the darker episodes in English history, in which the blindfolded figure of the 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey has to be helped to find the block on which she must place her head. A victim of her power-hungry father-in-law, John Dudley, Lady Jane ruled as queen for just nine days following the death of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI. But her cousin, the Catholic Mary Tudor, seized the throne. Lady Jane was held prisoner in the Tower of London, convicted of treason, and on 12 February 1554 she was beheaded. Almost 456 years to the day, Leah Kharibian and the National Gallery’s Chris Riopelle made a visit to a very chilly Tower to meet Historic Royal Palaces curator, Jane Spooner. There, she took them to a spot rich in associations with the ‘Nine Days Queen’.

Jane Spooner: We’re standing on Tower Green, which is famous for its association with the execution of Lady Jane Grey. To one side is the medieval Beauchamp Tower and is where her husband and her husband’s family were imprisoned after her fall and Mary Tudor’s triumphant return to London. And in front of me is St Peter ad Vincula, the Chapel Royal, and this is where Lady Jane Grey’s body is buried. And over to the right hand side, over to what’s now the parade ground, right next to the White Tower, is actually where we know that the scaffold was erected for the execution of the unfortunate queen, and this is actually recorded in a chronicle written by somebody who was very likely to have been an eye-witness – a tower official.

Leah Kharibian: And Jane, do you find that visitors are still really fascinated in the story? Are they still looking for the precise place where Lady Jane Grey was executed?

Jane Spooner: Yes, visitors do come to the Tower and they’re always expecting an ‘X-marks-the-spot’ moment and of course so much history did happen at the Tower of London, but we don’t always know the exact location. We do know where Lady Jane Grey was executed but it actually isn’t where we have a memorial for people executed within the Tower walls. This spot was created on the orders of Queen Victoria, who was so moved by the story of the execution of Anne Boleyn, but we now use this particular execution site memorial space as a place to commemorate all of those who were executed within the Tower walls and that includes Lady Jane Grey.

Leah Kharibian: And Chris, if I can ask you, I mean, the enduring fascination of Lady Jane Grey, does that go for you too, for the painting at the National Gallery?

Chris Riopelle: Yes, ever since the painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey was rediscovered in 1973 and then put on view at the National Gallery in 1975, it has been something of a phenomenon. Almost immediately it emerged as one of the favourite paintings in the National Gallery; people were fascinated by the story, by the realism of it, and to this day there is always a crowd in front of it. The picture remains extraordinarily popular. In fact, we notice that such are the crowds that the varnish on the floor is repeatedly worn down and has to be replaced on a regular basis.

Leah Kharibian: And what do you think accounts for this fascination in Lady Jane’s story? If I could ask you first, Jane?

Jane Spooner: Well, I think certainly at the Tower, it’s the contrast between this very young girl pitted against some of the most politically ambitious motives of the day; imprisoned in what is, in the popular imagination, a very harsh stony fortress. The Tower is associated with dungeons, torture, and execution in people’s minds. I think when people come to the Tower and they realise this is the real location, this is the place where Lady Jane Grey actually met her death, I think that’s a very moving and profound thing.

Leah Kharibian: And Chris, we know that Delaroche… although it’s an absolutely fantastic painting, he did play around with some of the elements, didn’t he? For example, the execution appears to take place indoors as opposed to outside as we know it really did.

Chris Riopelle: Yes, but Delaroche was very interested in getting the details right. And we know that he came to London twice in 1822 and 1827 to do research. He came to the Tower of London to see what it was like, to make notes – there are notes and sketches made here – he wanted you to feel that he was acting as a historian. There are a very large number of preparatory drawings as he worked out the details, worked out the placement of the figures, those are all gathered in the exhibition, and also Delaroche was the French painter most obsessed with English history. Throughout his career, he painted these great scenes from English history, three of them set here at the Tower of London, and those are all in the exhibition as well, showing Lady Jane Grey in the widest context.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Chris Riopelle, Jane Spooner and all at the Tower of London.

Key facts

Artist dates
1797 - 1856
Full title
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
Date made
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
246 x 297 cm
Inscription summary
Signed; Dated
Acquisition credit
Bequeathed by the Second Lord Cheylesmore, 1902
Inventory number
Location in Gallery