In 1833 Paul Delaroche completed his famous oil painting of the execution of the first female Queen of England, Lady Jane Grey, the so-called “Queen of Nine Days”. Today this entrancingly beautiful artwork belongs to The National Gallery in London and can be viewed in high quality resolution online. In the painting the seventeen-year-old Lady Jane is presented, accurately, as a victim of conspiratorial forces. She is surrounded by darkness, and shines white with purity as her hesitant hands are guided to the chopping block.
But there is far more to the story. While this superbly stylised picture of Jane’s execution tells the truth about the tragic nature of her death, it masks a few facts about her martyrdom: she would not have worn white, the scaffold for the execution was outdoors in the London Tower courtyard, and the Benedictine monk, John Feckenham stood nearby in the hope that she would change her mind, recant her beliefs, and ask for the last rites. She would, as Feckenham soon discovered, not give him that pleasure.
The last of these facts is important, for Lady Jane was an enthusiastic evangelical with a firm faith in Christ alone. Her family was involved in the earliest evangelical rumblings in England, associated with Thomas Cromwell and the reformation in Zürich. She resided within evangelical author (and former wife of Henry VIII) Katherine Parr’s household, a meeting ground for preachers like Thomas Becon and linguists like Miles Coverdale. Her education was at the feet of England’s best and brightest evangelical rising stars, and she was even remotely tutored by Heinrich Bullinger (Snail Mail, not Zoom). With multiple languages under her belt (Latin, Greek, Italian, and some Hebrew) and a remarkable grasp of the Scriptures, she was one of the best educated and most articulate evangelical women in the kingdom (perhaps except for another future monarch, Princess Elizabeth).
To be fair, Feckenham’s last minute hope for Jane’s return to the Roman church was probably rather weak. He had just spent the last three days in theological debate with her, and had come off second best. This is important evidence for Lady Jane’s personal faith, for Feckenham was nearly twenty years her senior, was theologically trained and ecclesiastically ordained, and was a seasoned preacher and disputant – he even managed to trap Thomas Cranmer in a theological trial two years later. So celebrated was Jane’s fortitude in the face of Feckenham, that the Marian exiles even published a smuggled transcript of the dispute – the so-called Conference with Feckenham – to embarrass the enemies of evangelicalism. We have that publication today, and its contents reveal the core evangelical concerns of not only Lady Jane, but the English Reformation itself.
Within the Conference there are three main points of contrast between Jane’s evangelicalism and Feckenham’s Roman Catholicism. The first, and most controverted point of debate, is over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Feckenham asserts that Christ’s second greatest commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” implies that faith does not justify alone (Matt. 22:39), and he employs Paul’s teaching that faith without love is useless (1 Cor. 13:2). To this, Jane counters that faith and love agree together; where there truly is the one, there is the other. Essential to her position is the saving significance of justification by faith alone:
“I affirm that faith only saves. It is right for all Christians, in token that they follow their master Christ, to do good works. Yet we may not say, nor in any way believe, that they profit to salvation: for even if we have done all that we can, yet we are unprofitable servants, and the faith we have only in Christ’s blood and his merits, saves.”
The second major doctrinal dispute is over sacramental theology, and in particular, the Lord’s Supper. The occasional modern interpreter may mistake this debate as a mere political concern, but it was just as biblically and theologically driven as that over justification. Feckenham asks whether Jane needs any plainer words than “this is my body” to believe in the natural presence of Christ in the bread and wine. The teenage theologian replies that this was figurative speech, just as Christ taught “I am the vine” and “I am the gate” (Jn 15:5; 10:9). The Benedictine monk then mounts the case that God’s omnipotence could miraculously make the bread turn into the body of Christ just as easily as Christ walked upon water. However, Jane retorts that this was not God’s intention, for God intended that Christ’s body would be broken upon the cross, not within bread. Moreover, it would be absurd for Christ to have broken and eaten bread with his disciples if that really were his very own body! The heart of her point is that:
“I receive neither flesh nor blood, but only bread and wine; the which bread when it is broken, and the wine when it is drunk, reminds me that for my sins the body of Christ was broken, and his blood shed on the cross. And with that bread and wine I receive the benefits which came by breaking of his body, and the shedding of his blood on the cross for my sins.”
The third and last spiritual skirmish is over the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. Feckenham provokes this point by suggesting that Jane grounds her faith upon theologians who disagree among themselves (a commonplace anti-Reformation polemic). Rather, he calls her to base her beliefs upon the church, to whom she ought to give due credit. In response, Jane blasts back that the church which grounds itself upon erroneous tradition is an evil church not good; not the spouse of Christ but of the devil himself. Her words have the enthusiastic echoes of the defiant German reformer Martin Luther, as she declares:
“No, I ground my faith upon God’s word, and not upon the church; for if the church be a good church, the faith of the church must be tried by God’s word, and not God’s word by the church.”
In Lady Jane we have a serious student of the Holy Scriptures, a grateful recipient of God’s means of grace in the Lord’s Supper, and a determined defender of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. There is a tenacity, fortitude, and erudition, which is shrouded by the stunning Delaroche scene. The truth is much grittier than the picture would suggest, and the grit of her faith more true. She was, in John Calvin’s words, “a lady whose example is worthy of everlasting remembrance.” Therefore, how might we remember her?
- She was student of the Scriptures: a theologically trained, linguistically learned, and humble hearted woman of the Word. What a great example to the youth and young men and women in our churches to read, mark, and learn their Bibles (let alone the rest of us who ought never rest from our searching of the Scriptures).
- She had certainty for eternity: as a sinner standing confidently before God, only by the blood of Christ. What a blessing that assurance is, and how many are our friends who need to hear the relief of those words, “no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1). The covering of Christ’s robes of righteousness and the relief this brings is such liberation to weary and wounded consciences.
- She valued the visible word of the Lord’s Supper: the outward signs of bread and wine which brought her mind to the cross and thus brought afresh the cross to her heart. What a blessing it is that our Sydney Anglican clergy are ministers of Word and Sacrament, who likewise bring this rich pastoral blessing to their flocks. In a world of church growth strategies, we ought not overlook God’s means of spiritual growth, especially in the Lord’s Supper. Rather, let us taste and see that the Lord is good!
- She was an underdog for Christ: a teenage woman in Tudor times confronted with the ferocious intellect of a formidable monastic opponent twice her age. What a wonderful embodiment of Paul’s command, “Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Tim. 4:12).
Above all, the most inspiring and uplifting example from Lady Jane Grey’s life and death is her extraordinarily firm faith in the face of suffering. She once wrote that “… to me there is nothing that can be more welcome than from this vale of misery to aspire to that heavenly throne of all joy and pleasure, with Christ my Saviour.” This is the kind of faith we aspire towards and the type of trust we pray that the Lord would graciously grant our dearest friends and family members. May we all aspire to that same heavenly throne, with Christ our Saviour.
 For more information on her life, see https://www.australianchurchrecord.net/lady-jane-grey-a-firm-faith/
Mark Earngey is the head of Church History, and Lecturer in Church History and Christian Doctrine at Moore College.