The Last Tudor (Plantagenet and Tudor Novels), by Philippa Gregory

Lady Jane Gray is one of the more amazing though less-known figures in history. Her mother was the sister of Henry VIII. She was taught Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and Italian from an early age, requesting to learn Hebrew so that she could make better biblical translations. She was an ardent Protestant. She was also queen of England for nine days. All this by age 16. She was executed at 17.

Philippa Gregory presents a fictionalized view of her life, imagining a journal where we see the highlights of her life from her perspective. Lady Jane was an unwilling part of a plot which, in part, intended to keep a Protestant as the monarch. In part, also, to increase the political power of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland.

Henry VIII  left a clear line of succession in his will, which was make public and approved by Parliament before he died. First young son Edward (son of Henry and third wife Jane Seymour, became Edward VI.) Then Mary (daughter of Henry and first wife Catherine of Aragon, became Mary I.) Finally Elizabeth (daughter of Henry and second wife Anne Boleyn, became Elizabeth I.)

Mary still held to her Catholic faith, Elizabeth was Protestant, and both were initially declared illegitimate by Henry VIII when he divorced or executed their mothers. Dudley saw his chance, as Edward VI was dying, to marry his son to Lady Jane, then to overthrow the will of Henry VIII by declaring Jane next in line to the throne. The plot fell apart. Lady Jane was placed in the Tower of London and was executed for treason and conspiracy by Mary I, who earned her nickname of “Bloody Mary” honestly.

Gregory is a scrupulous historian as well as an excellent fiction writer. There are minor differences from other historical accounts. Gregory’s version has Lady Jane argued into her marriage. Other accounts say that the girl was beaten by her parents until she submitted to the marriage. Gregory, in fiction, is able to try to get into the mind of this victim of history through her feelings about the marriage, her religion, and taking on the crown. It makes it a very human and emotional story.

Gregory goes further, however. Along with the story of Lady Jane she tells the stories of Jane’s sisters: the animal loving and frivolous Katherine and her tiny sister Mary who never grew above 4 feet tall. Each sister takes up a near third of the book. Both were imprisoned by Elizabeth I (the reign of Mary I lasted only four years), both for marrying without permission.

Paranoid from living a life where execution was constantly possible, childless, and with a grant of execution from the pope Elizabeth saw plots everywhere. Both sisters posed a threat to her if they could produce a male heir.

As with Jane’s story, both sisters write their own accounts of jailing without trial, being separated from the men they married for love, and held as “guests” of loyal peers who were forced to act as their jailers. Only Mary would ultimately see freedom when Elizabeth died. Katherine died a captive. These additional stories offer some balance to Jane’s story. Jane was intensely religious as only a teen sure of her knowledge and intelligence could be. While the reader can sympathize Jane is still hard to like. Emotional Katherine and outsider Mary make the book more complete and compelling than Jane would have alone.

It’s one of the most interesting and documented times in history, with more intrigue than nearly any writer could invent. Gregory has used her fictional accounts to fully document the lives of the Tudors and the Plantagenets before them. This is her 14th book in the series about two royal families and, she says, her last.