HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Last Tudor’ by Philippa Gregory

Image result for philippa gregory last tudorThe latest novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Philippa Gregory features one of the most famous girls in history, Lady Jane Grey, and her two sisters, each of whom dared to defy her queen.

Jane Grey was queen of England for nine days. Her father and his allies crowned her instead of the dead king’s half sister Mary Tudor, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her throne, and locked Jane in the Tower of London. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block, where Jane transformed her father’s greedy power grab into tragic martyrdom.

“Learn you to die,” was the advice Jane wrote to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and fall in love. But she is heir to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and then to her half sister, Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a Tudor son. When Katherine’s pregnancy betrays her secret marriage, she faces imprisonment in the Tower, only yards from her sister’s scaffold.

“Farewell, my sister,” writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary keeps family secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After seeing her sisters defy their queens, Mary is acutely aware of her own danger but determined to command her own life. What will happen when the last Tudor defies her ruthless and unforgiving Queen Elizabeth?

cover and blurb via amazon

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Gregory novels are a bit of a guilty pleasure. The history is a bit sketchy, the detail all fabrication, but taken as fact by many readers. The novels have their fans and their detractors, but I have them all, and don’t mind saying I like this little diversion from non-fiction.

The Last Tudor is about the Grey sisters – Jane, Katherine and Mary, the granddaughters of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s little sister. Henry’s older sister Margaret became Queen of Scotland and her family rule there; Henry did not want them taking over England when he died. He named his son Edward his successor, only to have him die aged 15. After Edward was Mary, and then Elizabeth, Henry’s daughters. If they all failed, then the Grey sisters would take turns.

Young Edward didn’t want his much older sister Mary, a Catholic, taking over after him. He rejected his father’s will, saying Jane Grey would come after him, as Edward knew his days were numbered. Jane had no interest in this, but her scheming parents, and members of the powerful Dudley family, had other plans. Married and pushed on the throne, Jane ruled for nine days before Mary came to London with an army at her back. The book tells this tale through Jane’s point of view, of a woman so determined to be godly she is irritating in her repetitive complaints. Naturally, when Jane loses her head, her part of the book comes to a sharp end.

Jane’s sister Katherine takes over, made out to be dumb and vain by Jane. She is not far wrong. Katherine has an air of a woman who expects everything given to her by right, which is a difficult characteristic to warm to. Poor Queen Mary dies, and Queen Elizabeth emerges. Portrayed as a vicious, jealous whore, Katherine has to hide her marriage to Edward Seymour, a noble man of the court, where Katherine serves the Queen. Katherine makes no attempt to see her marriage proved valid and promptly gets pregnant, while denying it to herself, her secret husband and the reader, all in the first-person narrative. Seymour whisks off to Europe on the Queen’s behalf, and the secret marriage is discovered as Katherine blooms at the waist. Elizabeth arrests her for plotting to take the throne and have an heir to the throne.

Katherine is a boring woman. She is dim and her much of her story is told in the Tower, where she sits expecting the world to rally for her, expecting to be heir to the throne while Elizabeth enjoys life and rules with an iron fist. Katherine even manages to get pregnant in the Tower when her dim husband returns as a prisoner. But it is vile how she is treated by Elizabeth (both in fiction and reality) when she released, only to be held prisoner away from her husband and son. Everyone dies forgotten and miserable.

The story takes up with Mary, a dwarf, the third sister and the least dimwitted of the set. Mary is tiny and forgotten, and yet also likes to make dumb choices. She too married in secret (since Elizabeth won’t give anyone permission to marry and potentially claim the throne), only to be caught and taken from her husband. Twelve years pass with Mary and her husband imprisoned, only for him to die. Mary is probably the one character worth rooting for in the end, but I felt she got over the heartache too easily.

I like that Elizabeth was portrayed differently than in many other novels, though there seems to be great dislike from other readers. Oh well. I liked the bitch narrative myself.  This is a book of long, quiet stretches when a reader could sigh and wonder why some women are made out to be so stupid. Maybe they really were. We will never know. Not as good as the others in the series’ by the author. You can really feel Gregory was ready to put the series to bed.

With the Grey sisters all dead, the Tudors were considered dead; Elizabeth never had a child of her own. But the Tudors weren’t gone; Katherine’s children lived on, and more importantly, Margaret Tudor’s Scottish descendants took over England. The surname changed; the blood line did not.
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