by Philippa Gregory
‘[Katherine] turns to me and her blue eyes blaze with the Tudor temper. She has pride, just like me. “You don’t deserve my love for you,” she says, with her own silly logic. “But you have it anyway, when you least deserve it. Because I see the trouble you are in even if you are too clever to know.” ‘
I haven’t been around WordPress much in the past fortnight. A couple of domestic problems demanded my attention while I was working on a detailed edit of the novel I’ve just completed. First, my car broke down (beyond economic repair), then the central heating boiler!
Reading Philippa Gregory’s The Last Tudor was a very welcome relief from these everyday cares. Maybe it was just my mood but I thought it the best of her novels that I’ve read to date.
The story focuses on the lives of Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey, daughters of the Marquis of Dorset and Francis Brandon, who was herself the daughter of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister. As the family tree included in the novel makes clear, the Grey girls are thus first cousins once removed to King Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. At the same time, they are second cousins to both Mary, Queen of Scots and to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. And it is those relationships that catapult them into the middle of one conspiracy after another. Women of the sixteenth century, especially royal women, were mere pawns in a very vicious game.
In The Last Tudor, Gregory allows the sisters to tell their own stories, one after the other.
The fate of Jane Grey, Protestant Queen of England for only a few days, is well known. Deserted by those who placed the crown on her head, she is arrested, imprisoned and later executed on the orders of her cousin, the Catholic Queen Mary. She comes over in the book as rather sanctimonious and maybe too clever (certainly too scholarly) for her own good. The best advice she can give to her sisters is to ‘learn how to die’. But dead is dead, as one might say, and no one is coming to save her. One of the most powerful scenes in the book is when Jane, looking out of her window in the tower, sees the decapitated corpse of her teenage husband trundle past in the executioner’s cart. Deny her Protestant religion? Certainly not, but we must wonder if it would have made any difference anyhow.
‘This is what it is to be young and beautiful and alive, and not absorbed by some miserable creed that makes you learn to die and not delight in life. This is what I hoped when I ……. left my sister behind, to be beheaded and buried in pieces in the chapel.’
Katherine has a very different outlook on life. She wants to experience love, to have children. She doesn’t set out to be Queen but one gets the impression she would quite like to be. Much less well-known than her elder sister, Philippa Gregory gives her a distinctive voice, one which chronicles real historical events as they happen but do so from an imagined perspective. We like Katherine, in spite of her young naivety. When she falls in love with the dashing Ned Seymour, we feel instinctively (even if we do not know the facts) that no good will come of it.
It isn’t illegal to marry without the Queen’s consent. However, Elizabeth sees the betrothal of Katherine and Ned as a threat. She – or her advisers – seek ways of proving their secret marriage invalid. Really, that’s nice way of saying they can decide whatever the hell they like; Poor naive, in-love Katherine, already pregnant is locked up in the tower. Ned too – he is a Seymour after all.
The good news is that neither Katherine nor Ned is executed, but unless you know from history what their fate will be you had better read The Last Tudor. Or maybe read it anyway!
‘She stands high above me, I see her as a created monster, half of horsehair and satin, sea pearls and white lead. I think, this is the last day I will fear you.’
Oh – and Lady Mary Grey? Just because the history books hardly give her a mention, we shouldn’t suppose her unimportant. Born with a damaged spine, Mary, at only four feet high, is the butt of jokes, yet her fictional self is probably Philippa Gregory’s greatest creation. If you liked Katherine, you’ll love Mary. She won’t have an easy life either but, you know: f*** the Queen; f*** you all; you won’t put me down. She doesn’t say it of course but sometimes actions speak louder than words as they say.
I absolutely will not spoil the story for fans of historical novels, and of Gregory in particular, by telling you what happens. Suffice to say, although The Last Tudor is a sad novel, it is not without touches of humour. Presented in this way, the Grey sisters are great characters, royal to the core but each with her own unique perspective on life and on the scary times in which they lived.
Queen Elizabeth in this novel is the villain, whatever history has to say about her. One may deduce (rightly or wrongly) that Philippa Gregory shares Jane Austen’s opinion of her as ‘that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society.’ As for Robert Dudley and William Cecil, we must judge for ourselves whether their roles in the drama make them men of worth or sneaky, despicable cowards. Bess of Hardwick appears in this novel too and, on the fringes, Mary Stuart herself. Their relationship is more fully explored in another of Gregory’s novels, The Other Queen.*
[* see this link]