Prologue—February 11, 1554
“My lute awake! Perform the last
Labor that thou and I shall hast,
And end that one have now begun;
For when this song is sang and past,
My lute be still, for I have done”
--The Earl of Rochfort
It was a frozen, gray day. The sun hid behind roiling banks of clouds and sent not even a ray of reassuring light to the earth below, which was eerily silent. There were no shouts in the streets, no cries from merchants selling hot cider or roasted almonds, no quarrels or laughter. The river was empty of boats, and the crowds on London Bridge scurried on their business with their muffled heads down.
The whole vast city seemed to hold its breath, and for a moment the ebb and flow of daily life, the stink and striving and heave of it all, had grown still.
Suddenly the bells of the Tower church and All Hallows Barking rang out in a slow, rhythmic, solemn song and the city lurched back to life. The door of the Tower lieutenant’s house opened and a lady appeared there, soft and quiet as a ghost.
She was small and pale, and shockingly young. The crowd gathered outside gasped in surprise at the sight of her, so tiny in her stark black gown and furred cape, her oval, freckled face framed by a fine French hood trimmed with jet beads. She clutched an open prayer book in her hands, which were steady and still.
She did not cry or tremble, but the two black-clad ladies who followed in her train sobbed. Lieutenant Feckenham and his men, Queen Mary’s priest, and other grim officials joined the small procession, and they made their way slowly across Tower Green. The gathered crowd made room for them. No one said a word, overcome with sadness at the girl’s youth and composure. Not even the Tower’s ravens cawed or flapped their vast black wings.
The girl’s lips moved in silent prayer as they came closer to the scaffold built near the chapel. As she glimpsed the church’s open doors, where her young husband had been buried only that morning, she faltered for an instant.
“Oh, Guildford,” she whispered. But then her calm composure returned, and she mounted the steps to the scaffold. A hooded, red-clad executioner waited there near the black, scarred hulk of the block, his axe hidden from her view in the straw scattered at its base.
The girl stepped to the edge of the wooden planks and said in a clear, steady voice, “I pray you all good Christian people to bear me witness that I died a true Christian woman, and that I do look to be saved by no other means, but only by the mercy of God, in the merits of his only son Jesus Christ. Now, good people, while I am alive, I pray you to assist me with your prayers.”
While I am alive. Even at the threshold of death, she was staunchly Protestant, defying Queen Mary’s Catholic ways and the priest who stood behind her. Prayers for the dead were futile, according to the new learning. The dead were beyond help.
She gave her gloves and handkerchief to her two sobbing ladies and her prayer book to Thomas Brydges, who had assisted her in the long, dull months of her imprisonment. The ladies removed her headdress and her black gown. Clad in her white chemise, she seemed even younger, purer—more vulnerable. Her waving red-gold hair fell over her shoulders.
She glanced at the executioner, who stepped forward. To him she said, “I pray you, dispatch me quickly.” And as she knelt, she added in the first quavering hint of any anxiety, “Will you take it off before I lay me down?”
“No, madam,” he answered.
She swallowed hard and nodded. In one quick motion, she tossed her hair forward and tied on a white blindfold. But then she lost her bearings in that darkness and grasped desperately for the block, her hands fluttering in the air. Her cool composure finally cracked, and she cried out, “What shall I do? Where is it?”
A shudder heaved through the crowd, a wave of revulsion at what was happening to this pale, frightened young girl. At last one of the guards gently led her to the block and laid her hands on it, and she rested her head in its hollow.
“Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” she whispered, and flung her arms out to the sides. The executioner, a skilled, experienced man at his profession, swung his axe high and brought it down only once—and it was done.
Jane Grey, sixteen years old and once Queen of England for nine days, was dead.
Her hysterical ladies were carried back to the lieutenant’s house, where they had spent all the months of imprisonment with Lady Jane, and the silent crowds dispersed, their witness done. Jane’s small body lay there in the bloody straw for hours until it could be officially collected and laid next to her husband and her traitorous father under the floor of the chapel.
Only the ravens watched over her, along with a cloaked and hooded figure lurking in the shadows of Beauchamp Tower. Alone and silent, this figure stayed with her like a guardian angel until she was carted away and the gory straw swept up and burned. The block was hidden and the Tower peaceful again—for a time.
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