HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The House of Grey’ by Melita Thomas

The Grey family was one of medieval England’s most important dynasties. They were were on intimate terms with the monarchs and interwoven with royalty by marriage. They served the kings of England as sheriffs, barons and military leaders. In Henry IV’s reign the rivalry between Owain Glyndwr and Lord Grey of Rhuthun was behind the Welsh bid to throw off English dominance. His successor Edmund Grey played a decisive role at the Battle of Northampton when he changed allegiance from Lancaster to York. He was rewarded with the disputed lands and the earldom of Kent. By contrast his cousin, Sir John Grey, died at the second battle of St Albans, leaving a widow, Elizabeth née Woodville, and two young sons, Thomas and Richard. Astonishingly, the widowed Elizabeth caught the eye of Edward IV and was catapulted to the throne as his wife. This gave her sons an important role after Edward s death. The Greys were considered rapacious, even by the standards of the time and the competing power grabs of the Greys with Richard, Duke of Gloucester led to Richard Greys summary execution when Gloucester became king. His brother, Thomas, vowed revenge and joined Henry Tudor in exile.

When Thomas Grey’s niece, Elizabeth of York, became queen, the family returned to court, but Henry VII was wary enough of Thomas to imprison him for short time. Thomas married the greatest heiress in England, Cicely Bonville, their numerous children gained positions in the court of their cousin, Henry VIII, and his daughter, Mary. The 2nd Marquis was probably taught by Cardinal Wolsey but was a vigorous supporter of Henry VIII s divorce from Katharine of Aragon. But his son’s reckless involvement in Wyatt s rebellion ended in his own execution and that of his daughter, Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine Days Queen’. Weaving the lives of these men and women from a single family, often different allegiances, into a single narrative, provides a vivid picture of the English mediaeval and Tudor court, reflecting how the personal was always political as individual relationships and rivalries for land, power and money drove national events.

cover and text via Amberley Publishing

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I jumped with joy when Amberley kindly sent me a copy of this book. Thomas Cromwell was beloved by the Greys, and they are a big theme in my next Cromwell novel out next year. The Grey family has not been given enough of the spotlight, and yet they are always there, close beside the better-known members of the royal court, ready for their time to shine.

While the Grey family began in the late 1100s, it was Lord Reginald Grey of Rhuthun who rose to prominence under Henry IV, and is famous for his battles with the Welsh, and being held hostage due to failed plans. His son, Edmund Grey fought during the Wars of the Roses, splitting from his family, who supported the Lancasterians, and supported the Yorkist cause instead. His son John Grey continued to fight for the Lancastrian cause, but was killed at the Battle of St Albans in 1461, leaving his wife Elizabeth Woodville a young widow with two sons, Thomas and Richard. When she secretly remarried to King Edward IV, the Grey family became full Yorkist supporters. It is these sons Thomas and Richard the world already knows. As with many noble houses of the time period, divided loyalties were a major problem when making the wrong choice could mean death.

Richard, younger of the brothers, did well from his mother’s remarrriage, elevated at the royal court, and half-brother to the heir to the throne. But when Edward IV died in 1483, Richard Grey was executed beside his uncle Anthony Woodville, on Richard of Gloucester’s (Richard III’s) orders, aged only about 26. These killings sparked an already deeply divided power battle between the newly widowed queen and Richard III, her brother-in-law.

Elder brother Thomas Grey was a loyal Yorkist, and the Marquess of Dorset, and watched Richard III be crowned in London as his brother died, and soon after heard of the disappearance of the Princes of the Tower, his two young half-brothers. Thomas joined the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III, but when that rapidly failed, Thomas changed loyalties fled to Brittany to join Henry Tudor, who pledged to marry Thomas’ half sister Elizabeth of York, and rule England. Thomas was ready to invade England alongside Henry Tudor in 1485, only to hear that his mother had come to terms with Richard III, and he tried to desert the Lancastrian cause. Instead, he was captured by the French and held in Paris while the Battle of Bosworth saw Henry Tudor crowned Henry VII and step-uncle Richard III slain. Thomas was only released when Henry was on the throne and the new king could pay his French supporters.

Thomas Grey never recovered his influence in England after flipping between York and Lancaster, and was imprisoned during the Lambert Simnel uprising and the Battle of Stoke Field. Despite being the new queen’s brother, the cloud of treason hung over Thomas, and he enjoyed little favour until his death in 1501, aged only about 48. But Thomas had 14 children, including his heir and namesake, the 2nd Marquess of Dorset.

While his father suffered for his divided loyalties, the young Thomas Grey did well as the ward of Henry VII, only encountering trouble towards the end of the king’s life, when suspicion of treason was rife. But with the accession of Henry VIII, Thomas Grey sat comfortably for another twenty years as one of the few Marquess’ in England, until the King’s Great Matter started to divide the royal court. Grey, along with his brothers and their wives, were loyal to the king, and their Queen Katherine. The Grey family were again forced to take sides and divide their loyalties between Henry and Katherine, to their great disadvantage. But the Grey family, from Dowager Cecily Grey downwards, had the love and friendship of Thomas Cromwell, who gave them money, patronage and preference in the royal court. Thomas Grey died in 1530, leaving behind his  siblings, and also four sons and four daughters, among them Henry and Elizabeth.

While Elizabeth would go on to marry a friend of Cromwell’s, Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley, and live a happy life, Henry Grey was not the smartest man. (His grandmother Cecily asked Thomas Cromwell to watch out for him at court, guide him, possibly godfather his children, etc.) Henry married Frances Brandon, daughter to Charles Brandon and Henry VIII’s sister Mary, Queen of France; quite the coup. (Cromwell continued to favour the Grey family,and the Dudleys due to their connection in marriage to the Greys). Henry and Frances had the famous Grey three daughters – Jane, Katherine and Mary. Henry rose to the title of Duke of Suffolk after the death of his brother-in-law in 1551 (rather than earning a title), but it was Frances Brandon who was the brains of the pair, and their daughters, Jane especially, became the heirs of King Edward VI. Henry Grey saw his daughter Jane become queen for nine days in 1553, only for he and poor Jane to be overthrown, and beheaded a year after their imprisonment. After 150+ years serving high in the royal court, constant divided loyalties saw the Grey family finally slip from favour.

The story of the Grey family at court is one of huge ups and downs from family upheavals all the way up to executions from kings and queens. The Greys were an integral part of the royal court alongside Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III (and the cause of Edward V), Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Grey family members still had claims to the throne during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and succession of King James VI/I.  The story of this family takes place in a tumultuous time, and I greatly enjoyed reading this book.  As someone who prefers the players in the shadows to the stars of the royal court, the tale of the Grey family shows a new side to old tales in history. I truly love having this book in my library.

See also ‘The King’s Pearl’ by Melita Thomas

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