Fans of historical fiction most likely aren’t strangers to the writing of Philippa Gregory. She’s perhaps best known for her masterful reimagining of the lives of the Tudors, especially sisters Anne and Mary Boleyn in her bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl. In this, the last novel in her Plantagenet and Tudor series, she turns her attention to the three Grey sisters, (cousins to Queen Elizabeth I) with mixed results.
Lady Jane Grey never wanted to be Queen of England. A devout and studious girl, she was most content reading scholarly texts and spending time with her family, but when the only surviving son of Henry VIII succumbs to an illness, she is forced by her parents to take the throne. Some consider her the rightful queen due to her Protestant faith and her mother’s connection to the late Henry Tudor, but not everyone is convinced a cousin of the king should supplant his daughter as the country’s ruler. Still, once she realizes she will be queen whether she likes it or not, Jane is determined to do the very best job she can. Unfortunately for her, her right to the throne is contested, and, after only nine days as queen, she finds herself imprisoned in the tower of London, and is eventually executed for treason.
Katherine Grey knows she’s the prettiest of the Grey sisters. She may not have Jane’s intellect or pious nature, but any man would be lucky to call her his wife… at least, that’s how she sees things. True, her family name has been sullied by Jane’s disastrous claim to the throne, but Katherine’s mother is a strong-willed woman who is determined that she and her remaining two daughters will not be made to suffer for the sins of Jane and her father, the only two members of the family to be found guilty of treason. Before long, Katherine is a lady in waiting to Queen Mary, and then, after Mary’s death, part of Elizabeth’s court as well. She catches the eye of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, and the two of them embark on a love affair that will prove disastrous for them both, eventually costing Katherine her life.
When Katherine and Edward marry without Queen Elizabeth’s permission, Katherine faces her own imprisonment in the Tower of London, leaving her younger sister Mary alone at court. Mary is a dwarf, standing just over four feet tall, and, as a result of her deformity, she is mostly invisible to the court ladies and gentlemen who flock around Elizabeth. The Queen herself is determined to keep a close eye on Mary, not because she is a threat, but because of her connection to Katherine, who, even though she is imprisoned, remains parliament’s choice to succeed Elizabeth. But has seen where ambition has landed her sisters, and is content to keep a low profile. Of course, this is much easier said than done, especially when Mary realizes she has feelings for Thomas Keyes, Elizabeth’s chief security guard. Mary eventually follows in Katherine’s footsteps, marrying without royal permission and incurring the queen’s wrath.
Before I started reading The Last Tudor, I knew a little about Jane Grey, but next to nothing about her sisters. I thought this would be a good way to learn a bit more about the Greys, but things didn’t really work out that way and instead, the sisters serve as a sort of backdrop for yet another retelling of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, which wasn’t why I picked up this particular novel; I chose it because I wanted to understand the motivations of the Greys – Katherine and Mary in particular.
Don’t get me wrong: The Last Tudor is not a bad book and it’s filled with all the court intrigue a reader could want. Ms. Gregory is a master of recreating this particular period of history; her attention to detail is excellent, and I came away feeling like I’d traveled back in time for a few hours. Still, I picked this book up with pretty high expectations that weren’t really met.
The author seems to want readers to have sympathy for Katherine and Mary, but I found this difficult. Both women knowingly broke the law by marrying without first gaining their queen’s permission, and then railed against her when they were punished for their actions. Such a law seems absurd in modern times, but in the sixteenth century, it makes sense, and I wondered why they seemed unable to comprehend why they were being punished. Mary’s actions seemed particularly ill advised. She witnessed Katherine’s fall from favor, but then went right ahead and did the exact same thing without seeming to consider she would likely face similar consequences.
The novel is broken up into three distinct sections, one for each sister. Jane’s is the shortest, but is my favorite. Both Katherine’s and Mary’s sections dragged in places, as they seemed to painstakingly mark every detail of Elizabeth’s reign.
If you’re looking for something new and different, The Last Tudor most likely isn’t the book for you. However, if you’ve enjoyed Ms. Gregory’s previous novels, I imagine you’ll find this one appealing as well. She obviously knows a great deal about Elizabethan history, and she brings it to life here in vivid detail. It may be a bit too romanticized for some readers, but it’s sure to find a home in the hearts of the author’s fans.