“Learn you to die.” An apt reminder for royal women caught up in the Tudor bloodline of England’s Henry VIII. At seventeen, an unsuspecting Jane Grey will find herself the center of a devious plot to claim the throne upon the death of Henry’s fragile son, Edward VI. Unaware how quickly her fortune will change, Jane loves two things above all: her Protestant God and extensive formal education, the equal of any young man of her status. While her parents meet in private with John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, Jane turns to her prayers and her studies. Discussions with Dudley turn to arguments, finally an announcement to the three Grey sisters Jane, Katherine and Mary, a “little person” blessed with a generous personality. Jane and Katherine are to be married to the duke’s sons, Jane to ascend the throne before the forces of Catholic Mary Tudor can gather and claim the throne on her behalf. Mary, of course, will marry in name only.
Katherine is excited, delighted with the idea of marriage. A frivolous, shallow young woman, she is for now a minor actor in the drama, Jane more difficult to convince. A strong will and a supple mind cannot prevail over her mother’s relentless badgering and deliberate cruelty; Jane agrees to the plan to save the country from the fanatical Mary Tudor, who will bear the sobriquet of Bloody Mary. Jane reluctantly marries Guildford Dudley
and accepts the weighty crown upon her head (forever known as “the nine-day queen”) in a brief sojourn as the godly ruler of her country. Of course, the best laid plans go awry, as does this greedy quest to slip upon the English throne. Mary Tudor
is left without recourse.
This tale of treachery and tragedy is recounted by an author who has penned the stories of royal women in the dynasties of men, those who stand beside or behind kings and princes, never to reign without a male until Elizabeth I refuses marriage and the dominance of a king consort. While each royal daughter of Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, plays significant parts in Jane Grey’s tale, the focus is on the fate of the little nine-day queen. The Last Tudor treats the sisters--and the queens who demand their obedience--as they might have been, a story begun in deviousness begets resentment and rancor. The schemes of parents, forced upon their daughters, bequeath unhappiness and enmity, young lives forfeit to failed ambition, each in her way.
Told from different viewpoints, The Last Tudor is perhaps the last of the series, filled with the details of a court in search of an heir after Edward’s death, Elizabeth Tudor on the cusp of her own spectacular life. Regardless of status, circumstances or desires, these women--even the sister queens--are never cardboard cutouts in a world commanded by men. Each sister speaks in her own voice, adapts to a hostile environment--all but Jane, whose stubbornness delivers her to the scaffold. Katherine seems silly, careless and selfish at first but eventually reveals an inner strength with the unbounded loyalty of the devoted. Gregory describes her as “a woman inside the Tudor family, but outside the Tudor favor.” Little Mary, easy to ignore for her diminutive size, is a spry wit, a keeper of secrets, a survivor who has lost her sisters. (In the Author’s Note, Gregory says that Mary is often not even mentioned historically, too insignificant to count.)
Each reader has her favorites in this magnificent historical period. Even though Elizabeth I remains my favorite, a queen without a king who pledges her troth to England, the stubborn, book-loving little Jane Grey is a close second, with a spirit equal to any man, had she a choice in the matter, and a devotion to her faith for comfort in the final hours. She is a match of arrogance and devotion, rabidly religious and sure of a place in heaven. The author captures both women and events, authentic and fully alive, often as courageous and bright as the men they stand behind. I find The Last Tudor--as well as any of Gregory’s historical novels--an opportunity to walk along with people and places long forgotten, a welcome respite as time falls away.