The Sisters who would be Queen – The Tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey

Another great find in a charity shop.  I have always been fascinated by the story of Lady Jane Grey, especially after watching the completely historically inaccurate Trevor Nunn film Lady Jane as a teenager.  This history by Leanda De Lisle challenges the traditional historiographical view of Jane as an innocent pawn sent to the executioner’s block by others, but  instead presents her as a young woman willing to die for her faith.  Although I still think, she was only sixteen so it is hard not to argue that she was manipulated.   As De Lisle points out young noble daughters were expected to form favourable dynastic alliances through marriage and Jane was used in this way.  Unfortunately her marriage resulted in the death of herself, her husband, and her father and, later, house arrest for her younger sisters.

A brief recap for those who don’t know the history of Lady Jane Grey; basically the Protestant Edward VI died and the Protestant faction led by Northumberland married her to his son Guildford at the age of 16 and put her on the throne in order to prevent the accession of the Catholic Mary Tudor.   It was all a bit of a disaster and she reigned for only just under a fortnight (not 9 days as popularly said) and after another rebellion by her incompetent, stupid father, she was executed.  She was an extremely educated and pious woman, who was willing to die rather than become a Catholic (not that this was really an option).  Her self assurance is only lost in a moving scene just before her execution she cannot find the block and has to beg for help.

I have been teaching my year 8 students this year about the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century and they find it very difficult to comprehend why people were willing to die or kill each other over religion.  Although obviously my understanding is more developed than theirs I still find myself being shocked when I read the accounts or people’s zealous beliefs  or of the horrific executions.

An interesting aspect of this history book is that the author also focused on the lives of Jane’s younger sisters Katherine and Mary of whom I knew very little.  It was interesting to hear about Katherine´s imprisionment in the Tower for her secret marriage and the dynastic wranglings over who would be Elizabeth I’s successor. When reading Elizabethan history a great deal is mentioned about the claim of Mary, Queen of Scots but virtually nothing about the remaining Grey sisters.   You would have thought that after having your sister executed for treason that you might want to stay out of any potential court intrigue as far as possible but both Katherine and Mary obviously didn’t learn the lesson that it was essential to ask Elizabeth´s permsiion to marry if you are a potential heir to the throne.  When reading Tudor histories it seems as if having your family executed is as normal as having a cup of tea today.

It is interesting that in the epilogue De Lisle argues that both historically and today (Margaret Thatcher being an example) there has been an unease of women with power and they have often been masculinised.  She has tried to rehabilitate the reputation of Jane’s mother Frances, but Elizabeth emerges as a paranoid and vengeful ruler.

This is a very readable history.  The blurbs have the great Tudor historian John Guy praising it but so does the Downton Abbey bloke, to obviously give it a populist touch.    My only criticism would be that some of it skims the surface and is a bit flimsy, for example the main part of Mary´s reign is dealt with in a very short chapter of only ten pages .  One of the  problems  De Lisle must have faced is the lack of contemporary evidence, for example, we do not even really know what Jane looked like.  Overall an interesting read about three extremely tragic stories, and a good history book for those who find huge history books a bit scary.

A Victorian view of the execution of Lady Jane Grey

Katherine Grey

Mary Grey


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