The Grey sisters, granddaughters of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, have attracted quite a lot of attention since the publication of Leanda de Lisle’s Sisters who would be Queen in 2008, and they’re the subjects of Philippa Gregory’s latest book. The title, “The Last Tudor”, refers to Mary Grey, the youngest of the three: I don’t really get why Philippa Gregory would describe her as “The Last Tudor”, but maybe she just thought the title sounded good! The book focuses on each of the three sisters in turn – first Jane, then Katherine, then Mary. It’s told in the first person and the present tense, which I always find a rather infantilising way of presenting a historical novel but is the method that Philippa Gregory seems to prefer.
Whilst Katherine isn’t that well-known and Mary is very little-known, the story of Lady Jane Grey is pretty familiar to most people. There are several plays about her, and there’s also the 1986 film in which she’s played by Helena Bonham Carter, and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, is played by Cary Elwes (who later appeared in Days of Thunder) and depicted as a romantic hero. We were all so obsessed with that film at school that one girl in my class named a teddy bear “Guildford”! Unfortunately, Guildford was not a romantic hero: he was a brat, and that’s how he comes across in this book. And Jane was rather annoyingly priggish, and that’s how she comes across in this book. But they were both just pawns. Jane never wanted the throne. Both of them were just caught up in their families’ ambitions, and they were both executed as a result of a situation over which neither of them had any control.
Talk about the vultures gathering. It happened when Henry VIII died – the codicils to his will, awarding titles all over the show, were almost certainly forged – and it happened again when Edward VI died. With the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, in the following century, you do get the impression that most people were genuinely doing what they thought was right, but, when Edward VI died, the people at the top just seem to have been out for power. OK, there probably were some genuine concerns over Mary’s Catholicism, but it was basically a case of the Greys and the Dudleys wanting control. More the Dudleys than the Greys, you have to think, especially as the claims of Jane’s mother, Frances, were passed over. And Jane and Guildford went to the scaffold as a result.
Philippa Gregory doesn’t actually go with the traditional image of Jane as a tragic, romantic martyr to the Protestant faith. Well, she does show that Jane herself saw it like that, but we see Jane’s death largely from the viewpoint of Katherine, showing annoyance that Jane couldn’t have, as she herself and Elizabeth did, paid lip service to Catholicism, which might have persuaded Mary to spare her life. Interesting way of doing it.
So. Mary became queen. By the will of the people, which proved stronger than the desires of what we’d now call “the Westminster bubble”. Jane was executed. Mary had no children. Elizabeth succeeded her. By the will of Henry VIII, the next heir was Katherine Grey. Katherine secretly married Edward Seymour, and Elizabeth declared their marriage invalid and threw them both into the Tower of London. They had two children, both born there. Eventually they were released, but were put under what would now be called house arrest, and were separated. Their eldest child was separated from both of them. And Katherine died at the age of only 27.
It’s an incredibly sad story. Katherine didn’t claim the throne. People demanded that she be named as Elizabeth’s successor, but she herself never made that demand. She just wanted to marry the man she loved, and bring up their children. She does seem to have been rather silly and giddy, and that’s how she’s shown in the book, but she wasn’t hurting anyone. She just had the misfortune to be born with royal blood, at a time when that was a very dangerous inheritance.
The focus switches away from Katherine well before her death, and over to Mary. She’s an interesting character: she was a dwarf, but led a full life at court, until she also married without Elizabeth’s permission, to Thomas Keyes, Elizabeth’s serjeant-porter. Thomas was thrown into the Tower, and, by the time he was released, his health was broken and he died shortly afterwards. Mary was put under house arrest. The book ends on an upbeat note, with Mary vowing to stay strong … but she died only a few years later, aged just 33.
It’s a very sorry tale. And Philippa Gregory makes Elizabeth the villain of the piece. She really does not like Elizabeth. She always makes out that she was having a full-blown affair with Robert Dudley, which I very much doubt; and, far worse, she makes out that she let her obsession with Dudley override the best interests of the country, which is utter nonsense. She makes out that she was weak and vacillating, which just isn’t true at all – look at everything she achieved! And she not only hints strongly that she was involved in the death of Amy Robsart, but even blames her for the murder of David Rizzio. What?? How on earth can anyone try to blame Elizabeth for the murder of Rizzio?! And she really plays up the suffering of the Greys. OK, obviously they did suffer, but it’s highly unlikely that Katherine starved herself to death because of her unhappiness: she probably died of TB. And to say that Frances Grey married her groom, Adrian Stokes, because she thought that marrying a man of low birth would get her out of the orbit of the court is rubbish. She married Adrian Stokes because she had to (the baby sadly died in infancy)!
The book is told from the viewpoint of the Grey sisters, and Katherine and Mary would inevitably have hated Elizabeth because of her treatment of them, but it has to be seen in context. Edward IV almost certainly had Henry VI murdered. Richard III almost certainly had the Princes in the Tower, his own young nephews, murdered. Henry VII had the young Earl of Warwick, who wasn’t guilty of anything other than other people trying to use him as a pawn, executed. Henry VIII had quite an assortment of his relatives executed, including Margaret Pole, who was an elderly lady by Tudor standards and whom no-one seriously thought was plotting against him. Mary had Jane executed. It even went on into the reign of James I – he had Arbella Stuart, the granddaughter of his half-great-aunt Margaret Douglas (another one whose treatment by Elizabeth is criticised in this book), and William Seymour, the grandson of Katherine Grey, both thrown into the Tower of London for marrying without his permission. So why criticise Elizabeth? And look at her childhood, and her sister Mary’s. They were as much victims of the whole ongoing succession nightmare as many of the others were. So many innocent lives affected. So sad.
Going back to Arbella, I did wonder if Philippa Gregory might be planning a book about her, because Bess of Hardwick – Arbella’s other grandmother – features quite prominently in this book, but she says that she’s moving away from this period for the time being.
Margaret Douglas is also mentioned quite a lot in the book, and so, of course is Mary Queen of Scots. But what about the one Tudor line which is always forgotten? I’ve got a book by Alison Weir, Children of England, about the heirs of Henry VIII, and this branch of the family isn’t even shown on the family tree in that. Why does everyone always seem to forget that Frances Grey, nee Brandon, had a sister? She had. Eleanor Brandon. Eleanor married into the Cliffords of Skipton Castle and Brougham Castle. She died very shortly after Henry VIII, but her claim passed to her daughter, Margaret. And the Dudleys were well aware of Margaret: they tried to pair her off with Guildford, before realising that they could go higher up the pecking order and get Jane instead. Margaret married the Earl of Derby. Lots of northern connections here! And Elizabeth was certainly very well aware of her: she had her briefly arrested in 1579, for speaking out of turn.
Margaret predeceased Elizabeth, and so did her eldest son, the interestingly-named Ferdinando, but the claim passed to Ferdinando’s eldest daughter, Lady Anne Stanley. Poor Anne. She was widowed young, and then remarried, to Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven – whose son, also Mervyn, appears in highly fictionalised form in Pamela Belle’s wonderful Herald of Joy. The elder Mervyn seems to have been some sort of horrendous debauched monster, and, on his orders, Anne was raped by a servant. She was so traumatised that she tried to commit suicide. Very bravely, she testified against her husband in court, and he was executed. It’s a horrific story, but it’s one which deserves to be told. And this is the woman who, if you were going to go by the will of Henry VIII rather than by primogeniture, and if you were to accept that the marriage of Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour was invalid (it was proven to be valid, but not until later), should have become Queen of England in 1603. Not that that’s got much to do with the Greys, but it does annoy me how that line of the family’s always ignored!
This book is standard Philippa Gregory stuff. Her books can be quite annoying, but they are always readable. So there we go!