The Last Tudor is the story of the three Grey sisters, Lady Jane Grey who was Queen of England for only nine days, and her two forgotten sisters Lady Katherine Grey and Lady Mary Grey. The Grey sisters were granddaughters of Henry VIII’s younger beautiful sister Mary Tudor who married Henry VIII’s best friend Charles Brandon who was given the title of 1st Duke of Suffolk. Mary and Charles’ daughter was Frances Brandon who is the mother of the infamous Grey sisters. The Grey sisters had close claim to the line of succession for the English throne and were only preceded by Henry VIII’s own children in his will, but because Henry VIII declared his daughter Bloody Mary by Katherine of Aragon and his subsequent daughter Elizabeth by Anne Boleyn both bastards, when his son Edward VI was King, there opened a vacancy on who would succeed the young king. The poor innocent Grey sisters were caught up in the power plotting at the time.
The author writes all three characters in the first person present tense and the book starts off with Jane’s story as a teenager who was betrothed by her parents initially to Edward (Ned) Seymour, Earl of Hertford while simultaneously her younger sister Katherine was betrothed to Henry Lord Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Jane was arrogant in her intellectual superiority and overbearing piety and righteousness. Almost a combination of Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth I in character, Jane considered herself more intelligent and more pious than Elizabeth her Tudor cousin and despaired over her silly empty-headed sister Katherine and stunted baby sister Mary. The book cleverly portrays her lack of knowledge about the power plotting of her parents and the Duke of Northumberland, John Dudley to put her on the throne. Suddenly Jane finds her betrothal broken and a new marriage taking place to John Dudley’s son, Guildford Dudley, a teenage mummy’s boy.
One night Jane is suddenly taken across the river Thames to Syon House and told the teenage king Edward VI has died and Jane was now Queen. Jane refuses the crown saying it is Bloody Mary’s crown by right, but the powerful old men force the crown on her and she accepts reluctantly believing it is her duty as ordained by God, rather than a coup. Within a week the powerful men of the land who crowned her by force, just as suddenly disappear and switch sides when they hear Bloody Mary has amassed an army and was welcomed into London by the people. Jane finds herself alone and trapped in the Tower of London. Her father begs Queen Mary’s forgiveness and then goes and plots to dethrone this papist queen with her younger sister Elizabeth. Queen Mary issues the order to behead him. By Jane’s father’s actions of double plotting, Jane was condemned to be beheaded as well. It’s likely that if the father hadn’t plotted the second time, Jane would have lived the rest of her life a prisoner in the Tower or at the least under house arrest in exile in some country house. But her life was cut short and she was executed at only sixteen years of age. Too young and too naive to ever have been a plotter for the throne, but simply a pawn used by ambitious men. She died a martyr to her faith and the people afterwards considered her a Protestant saint.
The second third of the book is Katherine Grey’s story. She receives a cold analytical ‘goodbye’ letter from Jane and is appalled that there was no warmth or sentiment towards her in Jane’s last thoughts before her execution. Katherine is a diametrically opposite character to Jane, she’s sentimental, loves animals, longs to be in love, be married and living in comfort. She has no ambition for the throne though she is aware of her succession because of her highly ambitious and proud mother.
At the time Jane was married to Guildford Dudley, there was a joint marriage and Katherine married Henry Herbert, a weak boy who did whatever his father said and didn’t have a mind of his own. At Jane’s death, the Herbert family annulled Katherine’s marriage and pretended it never happened. They wouldn’t even look or speak to her at court.
Katherine’s mother worked hard after the family beheadings of her husband and eldest daughter, to worm her way into favour at Queen Mary’s court as a Lady in waiting. As Queen Mary’s death looms, the Spanish ambassador tries to use Katherine in a plot to marry Mary’s husband and snatch the throne of England and let the country remain catholic. The Scots meanwhile also consider Katherine for a marriage to keep the Scottish throne from falling into papist Queen Mary of Scots hands. Katherine, like most others switched religions from protestant to catholic to please Queen Mary, even though they were really still Protestants. Katherine remembers how her sister Jane was used and dissembles to the Spanish ambassador to avoid getting caught in the trap. The Spanish continue to target Katherine in the new Queen Elizabeth I’s court as the catholic focal point for usurping the throne. While Queen Elizabeth plays her ‘marriage game’ pretending to consider proposals from princes to keep her cabinet happy, she enjoys adultery with Robert Dudley and never marries. She can’t stand Katherine and Mary Grey who are younger and prettier than her and she can’t stand any young lady in her court getting married, especially if they are a cousin. Elizabeth is constantly paranoid and feels threatened by her cousins who she believes are after her fragile throne. At some point due to pressure from her cabinet, Elizabeth considered making Katherine Grey her successor, as the alternative was Margaret Douglas, a catholic cousin.
When Katherine falls for Ned Seymour, her sister Jane’s former fiancé, she knows that Queen Elizabeth will never give her permission to marry, so she marries Ned in secret and manages to keep it secret from the court for eight months after which her pregnancy starts to show and she needs medical attention for giving birth. Silly Ned Seymour soon after the marriage spends the eight months on a Grand Tour travelling Europe with William Cecil’s son, leaving his young pregnant wife all alone and isolated in a hostile plotting court. When Katherine finally tells a family friend, Bess of Hardwick and her maid she is bewildered that they immediately tell her that they don’t want to know and they abandon her. So in the middle of the night she goes to the Queen’s lover, Robert Dudley who also tries to get rid of her as quickly as possible. When Queen Elizabeth finds out the following morning that Katherine has married in secret and will give birth to an heir to the throne while Elizabeth remains unmarried and barren, Katherine gets thrown into prison and Ned is recalled under arrest. They get thrown into the Tower of London and any consideration of succession to the throne is forgotten. Katherine has lost her marriage papers and there are no witnesses she can prove she’s married, so Elizabeth declares that the marriage is illegal and that Katherine’s son is a bastard. Ned is in a different area of the prison while Katherine and her son are in another room. The people of London feel sorry for them and send them presents. The guards accept bribes and allow Ned to visit Katherine’s cell at night. This results in another baby boy being born in The Tower. Queen Elizabeth is spitting furious and she splits Katherine and her younger son into house arrest in one part of the country and Ned and their elder son into another house under arrest in another part of the country. The family and husband and wife are never reunited. They remain under house arrest till Katherine’s death at only age 27. Katherine dies of a broken heart, despair and she stops eating. She was a prisoner for eight years.
The last third of the book is from Mary Grey’s perspective. Her personality is again completely different from her sisters. She’s feisty and a survivor. She is my favourite character. She is under four feet in height, inconsequential, beyond notice and should not have been a threat to Queen Elizabeth at a time dwarves were considered disabled.
There were no plots by any party to put Mary Grey on the throne, unlike her two sisters. Mary understands that Elizabeth will never give permission for her cousins to marry and the only kind of cousins Elizabeth likes are dead cousins who she orders elaborate funerals for and makes a public show of mourning and recognition that she never shows to those cousins in real life. Mary’s cynicism of Elizabeth turns to disgust over the years. She falls in love with the Queen’s Sergeant Porter, Thomas Keyes, an ordinary uneducated man, who is seven feet tall, twice her age and widowed with many children. The marriage was unsuitable for those reasons. But it’s the only offer she got and she loves him so she marries him in secret with witnesses to prove the marriage is legal, unlike her sister Katherine’s secret marriage. She knows she is doing the same mistake that her sister Katherine made five years before, but she refuses to live a half-life in solitude and denial to satisfy Elizabeth’s paranoia of plots to take her throne. The married couple is only together for maybe a fortnight, before they are discovered and both arrested. Mary is sent away under house arrest and Thomas is sent to Fleet prison and put in a tiny cell where he can’t stand or stretch horizontally and which has cold and damp conditions and bad hygiene. He is eventually released after some years, but dies soon after release because of his broken health during imprisonment.
After eight years of imprisonment in several houses, Mary Grey is released and she lives a fairly impoverished and simple life in her own house in the City, and that is where the book ends. In reality she only enjoyed five years of that freedom before she died during a plague outbreak at age 33. She was perhaps the prettiest of the Grey sisters. Queen Elizabeth gave her a grand funeral and recognition only after her death.
The Grey sisters’ stories are tragic and their lives short. How Queen Elizabeth I treated Katherine Grey and Mary Grey was cruel and went beyond reason. Their cousin Margaret Douglas plotted against the queen and was imprisoned in her turn but was always released and pardoned, but then she was older, ugly and already married. It was Margaret’s son, Lord Darnley that secretly married Mary Queen of Scots without Elizabeth’s permission and it was their son, King James I, who succeeded the English throne from Queen Elizabeth I in the end.