BLURB: “Elizabeth’s royal cousin Jane Gret is faced with the choice of death or denying her faith after being forced onto the throne of England. It is left to Elizabeth to measure the threat posed to her by the remaining Grey girls – the famous beauty Katherine Grey and her sister, a little person, Mary. Alternately befriended and snubbed, the two girls thrive as the queen’s companions, learning to judge her moods and avoid her temper tantrums. But they each have a secret: Katherine is in love with an heir to the great family Seymour, and Mary with the queen’s sergeant porter. They come to realise that Elizabeth will never allow them to marry for fear of a Tudor heir to the throne.
Their martyred sister Jane’s advice is clear. ‘Learn you to die’, Jane wrote in her famous letter to Katherine. But Jane’s tragic story and her fatal choice is only the beginning for her two beloved sisters…”
REVIEW: I have always been a fan of Philippa Gregory, but as readers of this blog may remember, I was very disappointed with her previous offering, ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’, which was unrealistic and poorly written. ‘The Last Tudor’ is another novel about three sisters, but in this Philippa Gregory is certainly back on form. The book is based solidly on historical fact and primary sources, which the previous book seemed to lack and which is vital in writing historical fiction – there is a great deal of difference between artistic licence and plucking facts out of nowhere. This novel is split into three parts, each narrated by one of the three Grey sisters – Jane, Katherine and Mary. I previously knew quite a bit about Jane and Katherine Grey, but far less about Mary, and was therefore surprised by what I read. The book is gripping and well-written; I didn’t want to put it down despite knowing how the stories of each character would end. The tragic lives and the strength and endurance displayed by these three women make them truly worthy of admiration, and I hope that in releasing this novel more people take an interest in these bold historical figures. Jane’s story narrates her devotion to the Protestant faith, which she refuses to recant even upon facing death, and her difficult relationship with her mother. When Jane is pushed into marriage with Guilford Dudley, and then pushed to take the throne upon the death of her cousin, Edward VI, she is terrified and unwilling. Yet Jane is brave, and sees her accession as an opportunity to strengthen the Protestant faith throughout England. When supporters rally behind Mary Tudor, however, Jane finds herself in the Tower of London, betrayed and neglected by those she trusted most – aside from her two younger sisters, who continue to love and support her.
Upon Jane’s execution, we move on to hear Katherine’s story. Viewed as giddy and foolish by her religious older sister, we discover that Katherine is actually intelligent in her own right, with a deep understanding of court politics that serves her well both in the court of her Catholic cousin Mary and later in the court of the volatile Elizabeth, who views both Katherine and Mary as threats to her throne. Katherine is also beautiful, with a love for animals and merriment at court, and she soon catches the eye of Ned Seymour. By marrying the two would hold a strong claim to the throne in the form of any children they may have; so knowing that Elizabeth will refuse them permission, the two marry in secret. Katherine is soon pregnant with Ned’s child, and while he is abroad on a diplomatic mission she is locked up in the Tower, where she gives birth to a son who has a strong claim to the Tudor throne. Ned and Katherine gain the sympathy of a Tower jailer who allows them to meet in secret, and she soon gives birth to a second son. The two are torn apart when Elizabeth discovers this, forced to live away from each other until Katherine dies of grief.
Finally, we hear the story of Mary, a sufferer of dwarfism who at the time would have been referred to as a ‘little person’. Mary uses her height to her advantage, able to spy and listen in on court gossip without anyone noticing she is there. Also beautiful and intelligent, she falls in love with her social inferior, the Queen’s sargeant porter Thomas Keyes. Much like Katherine, when their secret marriage is discovered, the couple are separated and Thomas is locked up in the Fleet prison.
All three sisters had tragic lives and suffered cruel and terrible fates at the hands of the Tudor Queens. This novel is a fascinating attempt by Gregory to make their stories better known, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.