Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Life and Death / Then and Now

Just before his death in July of 1553, King Edward VI of England changed the law of succession, disinheriting his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth (on the claim that they were illegitimate), recognizing instead as his heir his first-cousin-once-removed, Lady Jane Grey. He did this because the Heiress Presumptive, Mary Tudor, was a Catholic, while both he and his cousin were Protestant.

Upon the death of the king, Jane's father-in-law, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, announced the proclamation of the change of succession and began to gather troops in London to uphold this claim. Despite having all of the resources of the state behind him however, Dudley's attempted coup failed, as almost the whole of the country rallied to Mary. Jane's reign lasted only nine days, and before July was ended she was a prisoner in the Tower of London. All of the conspirators were tried and found guilty of treason, but only Dudley was executed immediately. Jane, being scarce sixteen years old, was thought to be less culpable and so her execution was stayed. Mary hoped that Jane might be pardoned once Mary had produced an heir and her hold on the throne was thus more secure.

The Protestant rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyatt in late January 1554 sealed Jane's fate, however. Though the rebellion failed almost at its inception, Mary's councelors pointed up the fact that as long as Jane was alive she would serve as a rallying point for Protestants. They had counceled severity from the start and, as this new uprising seemed to prove them right, Mary signed death warrants for Jane and her husband.

On the morning of 12 February 1554, the authorities took Jane's husband, Lord Guilford Dudley from his rooms at the Tower of London to the public execution place at Tower Hill and had him beheaded. Being of the Blood Royal, Jane was not executed publicly, but was beheaded in a private room in the Tower later that afternoon. She is said to have been reconsiled to her fate and comported herself with great dignity.

Thus were taitors dealt with in the sixteenth century.

In reading a fuller account of this incident I happened to take note of one of the practices of that time. On the 10th of February, two days before the execution was to take place, three matrons were dispatched to Jane's apartment in the Tower where they examined her to make sure she was not pregnant. Had she been with child, the execution would have been postponed so as not to take that innocent life.

Contrast that if you will, to the situation today where thirteen states no longer execute criminals, yet in every state abortion is legal.

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