Students of history often observe instances where an individual is thrust into a perilous, undesirable situation due not only to no fault of their own, but also due to birth into a particular family at a certain time. Such was the case of Jane Grey and Guilford Dudley.
The two teenagers were born into wildly ambitious families, who did not hesitate to use their children as pawns toward their goals of absolute power in England. Guilford was the youngest surviving son of the Dudley family, and his parents pinned all their hopes on the young boy. He was provided with a good, humanistic education, and due to his father's court connections, he was the playmate of the future King Edward VI, Queen Elizabeth I, and of course, the Lady Jane Grey.
When King Henry VIII died, the boy king, Edward, assumed the throne. He immediately made Guilford's father, John Dudley, the Lord President of the King's Privy Council. What this meant, due to the king's extreme youth, was that John Dudley ruled England de facto for a number of years. The position instilled a craving for personal power, and when the young king became ill, John Dudley plotted to have his son, Guilford, married to an heir to the throne. The best candidate was then Lady Jane Grey, whose family was equally ambitious and happy to help. Neither family took any particular note of the fact that Henry VIII had clearly stipulated that should his only son, Edward, die, his half-sister, Mary, would be next in line.
But, Mary was Roman Catholic, a child of the divorce that wrenched England from Papal favor, and the Dudley and Grey families determined that the English people would have no Catholic on the throne. However, Mary had many supporters, plus the people still retained a fond memory of not only Henry VIII, but also his first wife, Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon. Regardless, the plot continued, and Guilford and Jane were married in a splendid ceremony, approximately six weeks before Edward's death.
Meanwhile, John Dudley and others convinced the dying Edward to officially name Jane Grey as his successor to the throne. Immediately upon the king's demise, Jane was crowned, with Guilford as her royal consort. The scheming families rejoiced and even had coins quickly minted featuring the new queen. Mary's supporters, long organized, invaded and waged a successful coup against Queen Jane and her supporters. Guilford, Jane, and members of both their families were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Mary, who had taken the throne with much of the English people's support, ordered the execution of the young couple. She was initially reluctant to do so, since she was a cousin to Jane and the couple were so young and so clearly used as pawns by power-hungry parents, but her advisors convinced her that execution was the only appropriate choice.
The day before their executions, Guilford requested that Jane meet with him a final time. She refused, citing that meeting "would only...increase [their] misery and pain." At ten the next morning, February 12, Guilford was taken to Tower Hill. A great many gentlemen were there waiting to shake his hand in goodbye. He made a brief speech to the crowd. He then kneeled, prayed and asked those in attendance to pray for his soul. It was reported that he held "up his eyes and hands to God many times." Fortunately, given the circumstances, Guilford was beheaded with only one stroke of the axe. He was then carted with his head to the Tower chapel, where Anne Boleyn and other headless royals were buried.
Jane, who would be executed only an hour later, watched as the cart containing her husband's body rode by her window. She was said to have exclaimed, "Oh, Guilford, Guilford!" While Mary was convinced her decision to execute was the best choice, the people expressed great displeasure in seeing two young people, who were far less guilty than their parents, executed so brutally. Months after their executions, John Knox, who would become a leading light of the Scottish Reformation, wrote of Jane and Guilford as "innocents...such as by just laws and faithful witnesses can never be proved to have offended by themselves."