Wise Beyond Her Sixteen Years


The following are some excerpts from a conversation between a Roman Catholic theologian and a Protestant believer:

Catholic: Then it is necessary unto salvation to do good works also, and it is not sufficient only to believe.

Protestant: I deny that, and I affirm that only faith saves: but it is fitting for a Christian, in token that he follows his Master Christ, to do good works; yet we may not say that they profit to our salvation. For when we have done all, yet we are still unprofitable servants, and only faith in Christ’s blood saves us.

Who might this Protestant theologian be? It’s none other than Lady Jane Grey, all of 16 years old, England’s “Nine Days’ Queen,” imprisoned at the Tower of London before her execution in 1554 during the reign of Bloody Mary. The above excerpts were from her conversation with John Feckenham, a Catholic chaplain sent by Queen Mary to persuade her to recant her Reformed faith to save her life two days before she was scheduled to be beheaded. (Feckenham was conferred a Doctor of Divinity degree by Oxford University two years later.)

Lady Jane Grey engraving (anon.)

Lady Jane Grey engraving (anon.)

Here’s another part of the exchange, when Feckenham tried to persuade the 16-year-old to accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation:

Feckenham: Does not Christ speak these words, “Take, eat, this is my body?” Do you need any clearer words? Does he not say, it is his body?

Lady Jane: I grant he said so; but he also said, “I am the vine,” “I am the door”; but he is never the door or the vine because of that. Does not St. Paul say, he calls things that are not, as though they were? God forbid that I should say, that I eat the very natural body and blood of Christ: for then either I should pluck away my redemption, or else there were two bodies, or two Christs.

It is almost unreal that a young teen could debate a learned theologian on a subject that caused a deep and permanent division among Catholics, Reformers, and Lutherans. How did a 16-year-old girl attain such an eminent and articulate knowledge of the Christian faith and the Scriptures that would shame even most ministers and theologians today?

Lady Jane was brought up in a world of education—both secular and spiritual. By the time she was 16 years of age, she delighted in reading the Greek Bible and ancient Greek classics. In addition to Biblical Greek, she was learning Hebrew and Latin, and already knew French, Spanish and Italian. Her tutors were eminent teachers—Drs. Thomas Harding and John Aylmer, a Protestant graduate of Cambridge. She corresponded with prominent Swiss and German Reformers such as Jacob Sturm, Martin Bucer and Heinrich Bullinger. As a 16-year-old, she was described by church historian Alison Weir as one of “the finest female minds of the [sixteenth] century.”

In one of her letters to Bullinger, she answered in a tone of respect towards him and humility before God:

Whatever the divine Goodness may have bestowed on me, I ascribe wholly to Himself, as the chief and sole Author of anything in me that bears any semblance to what is good, and to whom I entreat you, most accomplished sir, to offer your constant prayers in my behalf, that He may so direct me and all my actions that I may not be found unworthy of His great goodness …

Lady Jane had strong religious and theological convictions against Roman Catholicism. She wrote to a friend regarding Rome’s doctrine of transubstantiation,

Wilt thou torment again, rend and tear the most precious Body of our Saviour Christ with the bodily and fleshly teeth? [The Redeemer] was ascended into Heaven and placed on the right hand of God the Father; therefore it could not be situate upon earth in the sacrament of the altar.

She had the utmost regard for God’s Word. Before she was executed, she sent her Greek New Testament to her 14-year-old sister Katherine with a note encouraging her to read its precious words and obey them:

I have sent you … a book … more worth than precious stones … of the laws of the Lord; it is His Testament and Last Will, which he bequeathed unto us wretches, which shall lead you to the path of eternal joy, and if you, with good mind, read it, and with an earnest desire follow, it shall bring you to an immortal and everlasting life.

Lady Jane was unwillingly caught in the political and religious turbulence that was the 16th century English royalty. Her parents, Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, schemed, manipulated and conspired to take power. First, they forced her to marry Dudley’s son. Then they plotted against the rightful heir to the throne, Mary Tudor her cousin, and instead installed Lady Jane as Queen of England on July 10, 1553. But the people supported England’s lawful accession, so Lady Mary was proclaimed queen on July 19, 1553, and Lady Jane was imprisoned at the Tower of London. Lady Jane, her husband Guildford Dudley, and her father-in-law John Dudley were all convicted of treason and sentenced to death. She was beheaded six months later on February 12, 1554. Thus ended the brief life and tenure of the “Nine Days’ Queen.”

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche (1833)

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche (1833)

While many erstwhile professing Protestants rejected their faith to escape Queen Mary’s bloody persecution, including John Dudley and former tutor Harding, Lady Jane kept her faith. Although her famed sweet demeanor was betrayed by her harsh words against Harding (“deformed imp of the devil … filthy and stinking kernel of Satan … unashamed paramour of antichrist … a stranger and an apostate … a cowardly runaway”), she wrote these words in her prayer of contrition and repentance before her death:

O Lord, thou God and Father of my life, hear me, poor and desolate woman, which flieth unto thee only, in all troubles and miseries. Thou, O Lord, art the only defender and deliverer of those that put their trust in thee: and therefore I, being defiled with sin, encumbered with affliction, unquieted with troubles, wrapped in cares, overwhelmed with miseries, vexed with temptations, and grievously tormented with the long imprisonment of this vile mass of clay, my sinful body, do come unto thee, O merciful Saviour, craving thy mercy and help, without the which so little hope of deliverance is left, that I may utterly despair of any liberty …

O merciful God, consider my misery, best known unto thee; and be thou now unto me a strong tower of defence, I humbly require thee. Suffer me not to be tempted above my power, but either be thou a deliverer unto me out of this great misery, or else give me grace, patiently to hear thy heavy hand and sharp correction.

At the scaffold on the morning of her execution, she solemnly prayed all of Psalm 51 as well as this prayer acknowledging her execution as just punishment for her sins:

I pray you all, good Christian people, to bear me witness that I die a true Christian woman, and that I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son Jesus Christ: and I confess, that when I did know the word of God, I neglected the same, loved myself and the world; and therefore this plague and punishment is happily and worthily happened unto me for my sins; and yet I thank God, that of his goodness he hath thus given me a time and respite to repent. And now, good people, while I am alive, I pray you assist me with your prayers.

After she laid her head on the block, she prayed her Savior’s prayer on the cross, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Oh, if only 16-year-old girls today—and all of us—would attain even a miniscule fraction of her knowledge and faithfulness to Christ!


For some of Lady Jane Grey’s letters, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs section 246 is found here. Here are some other resources:

Foxe, John. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Luke, Mary. The Nine Days Queen: A Portrait of Lady Jane Grey. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1986.

Cook, Faith. Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen of England. Great Britain: Evangelical Press, 2004. Read a review by Rev. Angus Stewart here.

Related Articles:
  • No Related Articles