“I wager three maids for a crown.” So says Henry Grey, Duke of Stafford and father to Lady Jane, Lady Katherine, and Lady Mary Grey. The history of the Grey sisters after the death of Edward VI is one of the great dramas of the English succession. With a Tudor bloodline to rival that of both Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, the eldest - Jane Grey - is carefully groomed by ambitious parents and the powerful, secretive John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, to slip onto the throne as queen by right of birth. Cynical, scheming and relentless, Henry and Frances Grey wed Jane to Guilford Dudley, assuring Dudley’s investment in a coup for a kingdom. That Jane has no desire for marriage or leadership is entirely moot.
Unable to withstand her mother’s punishing diatribes and beatings, Jane submits, a spark of rebellion slowly burning in her stalwart Reformist soul: “Give way. You’ll have to do what they command in the end.” The assumption is made that the country will accept Jane rather than face the fanatical Catholicism of Mary Tudor. Katherine Grey is part of a double marriage ceremony, the more beautiful younger sister an enthusiastic bride. To Katherine’s dismay, though, neither union is consummated on the wedding night. In lieu of Jane, Katherine is a viable candidate for queen as well.
The gem of the piece is tiny, misshapen Mary, a “crouchback” whose body is twisted but whose heart is kind, gentle and utterly devoted to her sisters. Mary watches with horror as Jane is beheaded for her hubris and Northumberland’s grand plan fails, Jane rejected by the people in favor of Mary Tudor, who leads an army of supporters. Although the fascination is in the political machinations that deliver an unwilling Jane to her unwelcome fate - a “nine day queen” - March Chase focuses primarily on the relationships between the sisters over the years.
While Jane’s brutal marriage reaches its expected physical conclusion, Katherine’s union never comes to fruition, a sham and political ploy to get Jane on the throne after Edward’s death. Once Jane fails - she goes to her death a stubborn Reformist - and Mary Tudor becomes queen, Katherine and little Mary pay for their parents’ overreaching as the Tudor queen’s ladies-in-waiting, ever under the new monarch’s watchful eye. When Katherine secretly weds Edward Seymour and bears him two Tudor heirs, Mary’s wrath is formidable: the couple are separately imprisoned, Katherine never to know the joys of husband and children, clinging to her love for Edward to survive a lonely existence.
Eventually all that is left is Mary, whose unexpected marriage leads to expected umbrage from the queen. No threat to the crown, Mary’s actions are still unacceptable. The author gives us a clear picture of the myriad threats to the throne of England from varying sources, a monarch always cognizant of those who would take her place. A fascinating but tragic footnote to Tudor history, the Grey sisters’ fate serves as a powerful cautionary tale.