The troubled years of succession following the death of Henry VIII are beautifully rendered in this myth-breaking account of the Tudor dynasty. The short reign of Edward I is followed by years of conspiracy and plotting. With Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, declared illegitimate, plans are soon in motion on behalf of the Grey sisters - Mary, Katharine and Lady Jane Grey - great-granddaughters of Henry VII, grandnieces of Henry VIII, and rivals to Mary and Elizabeth for the crown of England.
As “the Nine Days Queen,” Lady Jane Grey holds a special place in the hearts of English people, but the true tale is far more complicated and riddled with manufactured truths. The author carefully dissects this controversial material, from Henry’s death through the end of the Tudor dynasty to Charles I, detailing the uncompromising religious politics that drive the factions behind monarchs, even the tragic Lady Jane Grey.
It is easy to romanticize the girl who takes the crown and loses her head as Mary Tudor sweeps into London with the support of the people. History reveals an era of political and religious struggle that begins with Henry’s break with the Church, exacerbated by the prejudice against women as rulers, a common belief pervasive that they are inferior to men, driven by their emotions.
Make no mistake: without other choices, the unmarried princesses become perfect pawns in the game that is power in pursuit of the throne, whether in the cause of Henry’s Protestantism or Mary’s Roman Catholicism. Behind each would-be monarch is a religious dogma. For all her youth, Lady Jane Grey is a religious fanatic, refusing to yield her beliefs even to save her own life. Her sisters survive but lead quite different lives due to their positions as Henry’s chosen successors, their futures dogged by their positions and the throne.
By the Stuarts being cut off in Henry’s will – as well as the threat of foreigners on the throne - the Greys are next in line. Once Jane is disposed of, Katherine and Mary remain viable, albeit far less threatening to Henry’s natural daughters. Unfortunately, Katherine and Mary cannot avoid their situations vis-à-vis the throne, either in Mary’s rule or Elizabeth’s, who neutralizes both Grey sisters by imprisonment.
Ultimately, Katherine’s mistake lies not in falling in love but in her choice of mates, creating a threat Elizabeth cannot ignore. Katherine pays a terrible price for her passion. Mary Grey spends her days separated from her husband and incarcerated. Jane’s life on earth is short, her sisters bearing the weight of their inheritance and unable to break free from fate or the dreams of powerful men.
The beauty of this book is in the intricate melding of politics and personality, the human element in the quest for power and Henry’s determined belief that “the King was under God, not law, because the king makes law.” Combined with the prejudice against female rulers, this is a heady brew where intrigues are driven by religious fervor as much as ambition, a lack of male heirs to secure the throne of England forcing women into the spotlight.
Fascinating from the first chapter to the last, in this history De Lisle imbues the facts with a vividness rarely accomplished, the urgency, frustrations and ambitions of her characters as fresh today as in that century of political turmoil.