The Tudor period in British history – from the late 15th century to early 17th century – is one that just keeps on giving.
Endless history books, a highly successful and award winning TV series The Tudors starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, an acknowledged source of G.R.R. Martin’s global hit Game Of Thrones and then, as if that were not enough, Philippa Gregory’s own The Other Boleyn Girl, both book and film in 2001 and 2008 respectively.
It is not difficult to see the appeal of the Tudor period for historians and writers of historical fiction. At the time, the international picture is complex with Spain and France vying with Britain for European power. British politics are fraught with divisions between England and Scotland. Religious dispute is at its theological and physical height between Protestants and Catholics. And of course the one thing that was essential for stability in that era, a monarch by divine right, was entirely lacking with no male heir to succeed Edward VI. No wonder Martin cites the Tudor era as raw material for Game Of Thrones.
The Last Tudor opens with three pages of family trees, the first for the Houses of Tudor and Stuart in 1550, the second for the Seymour Family and the third for the Dudley family.
I am not afraid to say that the sight of this would normally be enough to put me off reading any further but Gregory proves a kind, if sometimes clumsy, narrator, spelling out who is who and how they are related to someone else. This will annoy people who already know the period well but I suspect the rest of us will be grateful for the help.
The book is divided into three parts corresponding to the three Grey sisters, Jane, Katherine and Mary. Of these, Jane is by far the best known as the Nine Days Queen. As depicted by Gregory she is pious, scholarly and an unbearably sanctimonious prig.
Here is a random snippet of a conversation with her sister Mary: “If God calls me to a great place in the world then I will be a model for those who look up to me. And when your turn comes I will show you how to behave if you will do exactly as I tell you.” And on and on this tone goes, with Jane convinced of her superiority and rightness.
When called upon to be queen, a position she does not covet, her reign is short lived when the Catholic Mary Tudor is declared queen by the Privy Council and her end is dignified. Convinced that her father has raised a force to restore her to the throne, she is broken hearted to learn that both he and she are to be taken from the Tower of London (where high-ranking prisoners were kept) and executed.
Katherine is a very different personality to her sister. Jane was a reluctant queen but a fervent Protestant with a deeply held faith. The beautiful Katherine is far more interested in the pleasures of life, with a love of fine clothes, precious jewellery and the glittery trappings that the power of the crown could bring.
She shares, however, some of her elder sister’s confidence: “It’s not so much that I think I should be queen – I wouldn’t want to displace Queen Mary – but I do want to be her heir. I just can’t see that anyone else is fit for the crown.”
She is a faithful court servant of Mary and then Elizabeth until she makes an error that ultimately proves fatal – she marries for love without the queen’s permission. Her relationship with Ned Seymour is her undoing as Elizabeth cannot risk any union producing a male heir and a potential threat to her position. Her end is inevitable despite her optimism that she will be forgiven.
In many ways Mary is the most interesting of the Tudor Grey sisters but it is worth referring to the author’s note at the end of the book: “Mary Grey is almost unknown but I think she is of great interest – a Little Person, said to be under four feet high, she does not even appear in the specialist histories of little people.” This, I suspect, is author speak for “I made it all up”.
Nonetheless, Mary is a feisty, courageous character who proves better at surviving than her sisters – until she too marries for love. Thomas Keyes, her illicit husband, is a gatekeeper and one of the tallest men in court as well as one of the most genuine. Neither quality keeps him out of the Tower.
And what of Elizabeth in all this? Gregory’s negative portrayal of her is relentless and remorseless, almost shockingly so. Brazen in her scandalous love affair with the married Robert Dudley, she is portrayed as paranoid, devious, manipulative, intolerant, unscrupulous, cruel, volatile and vain. There is nothing appealing about her except her resilience.
Gregory appends a long list of sources to her narrative but I suspect that historians with a Tudor focus would have a field day with her interpretations. But then this is not history for historians, it’s eminently readable historical fiction for the general reader and the success of Gregory’s earlier work would suggest that the general reader does not very much care about accuracy.
The Last Tudor
Author: Philippa Gregory
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, historical fiction