Jane Grey was queen of England for nine days. Her father and his allies crowned her instead of the dead king’s half-sister Mary Tudor, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her throne, and locked Jane in the Tower of London. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block, where Jane transformed her father’s greedy power-grab into tragic martyrdom.
“Learn you to die,” was the advice Jane wrote to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and fall in love. But she is heir to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and then to her sister Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a Tudor son. When Katherine’s pregnancy betrays her secret marriage, she faces imprisonment in the Tower, only yards from her sister’s scaffold.
“Farewell, my sister,” writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary keeps family secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After seeing her sisters defy their queens, Mary is acutely aware of her own danger, but determined to command her own life. What will happen when the last Tudor defies her ruthless and unforgiving cousin Queen Elizabeth?
About the Author
Date of Birth:January 9, 1954
Place of Birth:Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa
Education:B.A. in history, Sussex University, 1982; Ph.D., 18th-century popular fiction, Edinburgh, 1984
Read an Excerpt
The Last Tudor
I love my father because I know that he will never die. Neither will I. We are chosen by God and we walk in His ways, and we never swerve from them. We don’t have to earn our place in heaven by bribing God with acts or Masses. We don’t have to eat bread and pretend it is flesh, drink wine and call it blood. We know that is folly for the ignorant and a trap for papist fools. This knowledge is our pride and glory. We understand, as more and more do in these days: we have been saved once and for all. We have no fear, for we will never die.
True, my father is worldly: sinfully worldly. I wish he would let me wrestle with his soul, but he laughs and says, “Go away, Jane, and write to our friends the Swiss reformers. I owe them a letter—you can write for me.”
It is wrong of him to avoid holy discourse, but this is only the sin of inattention—I know he is heart and soul for the true religion. Also, I must remember that he is my father and I owe obedience to my father and mother—whatever my private opinion of them. God, who sees all, will be the judge of them. And God has seen my father and forgiven him already; my father is saved through faith.
I fear my mother will not be saved from the fires of hell, and my sister Katherine, who is three years younger than me, a child of nine years old, is almost certainly going to die and never rise again. She is unbelievably silly. If I were a superstitious fool, I would really think she is possessed; she is quite beyond hope. My baby sister, Mary, was born into original sin and cannot grow out of it. She is quite tiny. She is as pretty as a little miniature version of our sister, Katherine, tiny as a doll. My lady mother would have sent her away as a baby to be raised far from us, and spare us the shame, but my father had too much compassion for his last stunted child, and so she lives with us. She is not an idiot—she does her lessons well, she is a clever little girl—but she has no sense of the grace of God; she is not one of the elect like Father and me. One like her—whose growth has been blighted by Satan—should be particularly fervent for salvation. I suppose a five-year-old is a little young to renounce the world—but I was studying Latin when I was four, and Our Lord was the same age as I am now when He went to the Temple and preached to the wise men. If you do not learn the ways of the Lord when you are in the cradle, when will you make a start?
I have studied since I was a child. I am most probably the most learned young person in the whole country, raised in the reformed religion, the favorite of the great scholar and queen Kateryn Parr. I am probably the greatest young scholar in Europe, certainly the most educated girl. I don’t consider my cousin Princess Elizabeth a true student, for many are called but few are chosen. Poor Elizabeth shows no signs of being chosen, and her studies are very worldly. She wants to be seen as clever, she wants to please her tutors and exhibit herself. Even I have to take care that I do not fall into the sin of pride, though my mother says, rudely, that my principal care should be that I do not fall into being completely ridiculous. But when I explain to her that she is in a state of sin, she takes me by the ear and threatens to beat me. I would gladly take a beating for my faith, just as the saint Anne Askew did, but I think it more pleasing to God to apologize, curtsey, and sit down at the dinner table. Besides, there is a pie of pears with burnt cream for dinner, which is my favorite.
It really is not easy to be a shining light in Bradgate. It is a worldly house and we are a big household. It is a great building, a brick-built house as red as Hampton Court, with a gatehouse that looms as large as that palace and set among the huge forest of Charnwood. We have every right to royal magnificence. My mother is the daughter of Princess Mary, who was Queen of France, the favorite sister of King Henry VIII, so my mother is heir to the throne of England after the late king’s children, my cousins the princesses, Mary and Elizabeth, who are heirs to their younger brother, King Edward. This makes us the most important family in England, and we never forget it. We keep a houseful of retainers, more than three hundred, to serve the five of us; we own a stable filled with beautiful horses and the parkland all around the house, and farms and villages, rivers and lakes at the very heart of England. We have our own bear for baiting, kept caged in the stables, our own bear pit, our own cock-fighting ring. Our house is one of the biggest in the Middle Lands; we have a great hall with a musicians’ gallery at one end and a royal dais at the other. The most beautiful countryside in England is ours. I have been brought up to know that all this land belongs to me, just as we belong to England.
Of course, between my lady mother and the throne are the three royal children: Edward, the king, who is only twelve like me, and so he rules with a lord president, and then his older sisters Princess Mary and Princess Elizabeth. Sometimes people don’t count the two princesses as heirs, since they were both named bastards and denied by their own father. They would not even be included in the royal family but for the Christian kindness of my teacher Kateryn Parr, who brought them to court and had them acknowledged. Even worse, Princess Mary (God forgive her) is a declared and open papist and heretic, and though I am bound to love her as a cousin, it is a horror to me to be in her house, where she keeps the hours of the liturgy as if she is living in a convent and not in a reformed kingdom, for all England is Protestant now under King Edward.
I don’t speak of Princess Elizabeth. I never do. I saw more than enough of her when we both lived with Queen Kateryn and her young husband, Thomas Seymour. All I will say is that Elizabeth should be ashamed of herself and she will have to answer to God for what she did. I saw it. I was there during the chasing and the tickling and the romping with her own stepmother’s husband. She led Thomas Seymour—a great man—on to imprudence and then to his death. She was guilty of lust and adultery—in her heart if not in his bed. She is as guilty of his death as if she named him as a treasonous plotter and led him to the scaffold. She willed him to think of himself as her lover and her husband, and the two of them as heirs to the throne. She may not have said so much: she did not have to say so much. I saw how she was with him and I know what she made him do.
But—no—I do not judge. I will not judge. I never judge. That is for God. I have to retain a modest thought, an averted gaze, and compassion as from one sinner to another. And I am certain that God won’t think of her either, when she is in the fires of hell, praying too late for her unchastity, disloyalty, and ambition. God and I will pity her, and leave her to her infinite punishment.
At any rate, since Princess Mary and Elizabeth were both declared illegitimate, and are both clearly unsuited for the throne, these half sisters to King Edward have less of a legal claim than the daughter of King Henry’s favorite sister, Queen Mary, which is to say: my mother.
And this is the very reason, the very reason, why it is so important that she study the reformed faith and put aside brilliant adornment. She should avoid feasts and drinking, she should dance only with the most chaste ladies of her household and not ride around the country on that great horse of hers all day, hunting whatever is in season as if she were some sort of hungry beast of the field. The great woods around our house echo with her hunting horns, the meadows are flushed for game. Dogs die in the bear pit, heifers are slaughtered outside the flesh kitchen. I am so afraid that she is lustful (the Tudors are terribly lustful), I know that she is proud (all the Tudors are born tyrants), and anyone can see that she is extravagant and loves worldly show.
I should reprimand her, but when I say to my tutor that I am nerving myself to tell my mother that she is guilty at the very least of pride, wrath, gluttony, lust, and greed, he says nervously to me, “Lady Jane, truly: better not,” and I know that he is afraid of her, as is everyone—even my father. This only goes to show that she is guilty of unwomanly ambition, as well as everything else.
I would be as fearful as all the weakly others, but I am borne up by my faith. I really am. This is not easy if you follow the reformed faith. Courage is easy for papists—each fool has a dozen objects to instruct and encourage him: the icons in the church, the glass in the windows, the nuns, the priest, the choir, the incense, the heady taste of wine, which they convince themselves tastes salty of blood. But all these are vanity and emptiness. I know that I am borne up by faith because I go down on my knees in a cool white chapel in silence, and then I hear the voice of God speaking to me alone, gently like a loving father. I read my Bible for myself, nobody reads it to me, and then I hear the Word of God. I pray for wisdom and when I speak I know it is in the words of the Bible. I am His handmaiden and His mouthpiece—and that is why it is so very wrong for my mother to shout, “For the love of God, take that long face out of here, and go hunting before I chase you out of the library myself!”
Very wrong. I pray that God will forgive her, as I do. But I know He will not forget the insult to me, His handmaiden; and neither will I. I take a horse from the stables but I do not go hunting. Instead, I ride with my sister Katherine, a groom following behind us. We can ride all day in any direction and never leave our lands. We canter through meadows and skirt fields where the oats are growing, green and thick; we splash through fords and let the horses drink the clear water. We are children of the royal family of England, happiest in the English countryside, blessed in our inheritance.
Today, for some reason, my mother is all smiles and I have been told to wear my new dress, a gown of deep red velvet, which came from London last week, with a rich black hood and sleeves, as we have honored guests for dinner. I ask our lord chamberlain who is coming, and he says it is the former lord protector, Edward Seymour the Duke of Somerset. He was in the Tower for treason and now he is released, and returning to the Privy Council. These are the dangerous times that we live in.
“And he’s bringing his son,” says the chamberlain, and he dares to wink at me, as if I am some lighthearted girl who would be foolishly excited by the news.
“Oh, how exciting!” says my lighthearted sister Katherine.
I give a patient sigh and say that I will be reading in my bedroom until it is time for me to dress for dinner. If I close the door between my bedroom and our privy chamber, it may be that Katherine takes the hint and stays out.
Within a moment there is a tap on the linenfold-panel door, and she puts her fair head into my private room and says: “Oh! Are you studying?” As if I ever do anything else.
“Certainly, that was my intention when I closed my door.”
She is deaf to irony. “What do you think the Duke of Somerset is coming here for?” she asks, tripping into the room without any invitation. Mary trails in behind her, as if my rooms are a royal presence chamber and anyone can get past the sergeant porter if they have good enough clothes.
“Are you bringing that disgusting monkey in here?” I cut across her as I see him riding on her shoulder.
She looks shocked. “Of course I am. Mr. Nozzle goes with me everywhere. Except when I visit the poor bear. He is afraid of the poor bear.”
“Well, he can’t come in here and spoil my papers.”
“He will not. He will sit on my lap. He is a very good Mr. Nozzle.”
“Take him out.”
“Take him out, I command it.”
“You can’t make me.”
“I am the oldest and these are my rooms . . .”
“I am the prettiest and I am visiting you from politeness . . .”
We scowl at each other. She shows me his silver chain that goes around his scrawny black neck. “Jane, please! I will hold him tight,” she promises me.
“I shall hold him for you!” Mary offers, so now I have the two of them clamoring to hold the monkey, who should not be in my rooms anyway.
“Oh, just go!” I say irritably. “Both of you.”
But instead Katherine turns and hauls Mary up into a chair where the child sits, no bigger than a doll, smiling at me with all the charm in the world.
“Sit straight,” Katherine reminds her, and Mary puts back her shoulders and sits up tall.
“No! Just go!”
“I will, as soon as I have asked you this question.” Katherine is happy because she is getting her own way as usual. She is ridiculously pretty, and about as sensible as Mr. Nozzle.
“Very well,” I say sternly. “Ask your question, and then go.”
She takes a breath. “Why do you think the Duke of Somerset is coming here?”
“I have no idea.”
“Because I know. So why don’t you? I thought you were supposed to be so very, very clever?”
“I don’t want to know,” I say simply.
“I can tell you. All you know is stuff in books.”
“Stuff in books,” I repeat the words of an ignorant child. “Indeed. I do know ‘stuff in books’ but if I wanted to know worldly news, I would ask my father, who would tell me the truth. I would not go round eavesdropping on my parents and listening to servants’ gossip.”
She jumps up on my big wooden bed as if she is planning to stay until dinnertime, and then props herself up against the pillow as if she is going to sleep here. The monkey makes himself comfortable beside her, and runs his skinny little fingers through his own silky fur.
“Does he have fleas?”
“Oh, yes,” she says indifferently. “But not lice.”
“Then get him off my bed!”
In reply, she gathers him onto her lap. “Don’t fuss, because it is so exciting. They’re coming for your betrothal!” she announces. “There! I thought that would make you jump.”
I am jumping so little that I keep one steady finger in the book to mark my place. “And where d’you get that from?”
“Everyone knows,” she says, which means that it is servants’ gossip, as I predicted. “Oh, you’re so lucky! I think Ned Seymour is the most handsome young man in the world.”
“Yes, but you like anything in hose.”
“He has such kind eyes.”
“Certainly he has eyes, but they do not have the power of emotion, only of sight.”
“And a lovely smile.”
“I imagine that he smiles like anyone else, but I have not bothered to look.”
“And he rides beautifully and he has beautiful clothes and he is the son of the most powerful man in England. There is no greater family than the Seymours. No one richer. They are wealthier than us. They are even closer to the throne than us.”
I think, but I don’t say, that the greatness of the family was no protection for Thomas Seymour, who was beheaded just a year ago because of Elizabeth, and not even his older brother could save him. Then the brother, the lord protector himself, was disgraced, and is now trying to scrabble back into power.
“The handsome son of the lord protector,” she breathes.
As usual, she is in a muddle. “He’s not lord protector anymore; his post has been abolished,” I correct her. “The council is run by the lord president, John Dudley. If you want an alliance with the coming men, it’s the Dudleys.”
“Well, he’s still the king’s uncle, and Ned is still Earl of Hertford.”
“Edward Seymour,” I correct her.
“Edward or Ned! Who cares?”
“And does everyone say that I am to be betrothed to him?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says simply. “And when you’re married, you’ll have to go away again. I shall miss you. Although all you ever do is complain that I am stupid, it’s much nicer when you’re here. I missed you when you lived with Queen Kateryn. Honestly, I was quite glad when she died—though very sorry for her, of course—because I hoped you’d come home to stay.”
“Don’t go, Jane,” Mary suddenly wails, following hardly any of this.
Despite knowing that the Bible says that a disciple must leave his house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, for the sake of the gospel, I am rather touched by this. “If I am called to a great place in the world I will have to go,” I tell her. “Our cousin King Edward has a godly court, and I should be happy to live there, and 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. Actually, I’ll miss you too, and little Mary, if I have to go.”
“Will you miss Mr. Nozzle?” Katherine asks hopefully, crawling down the bed and lifting him towards me so his sad little face is close to mine.
Gently, I push her hands away. “No.”
“Well, when my turn comes to be married, I hope he’s as handsome as Ned Seymour,” she says. “And I shouldn’t mind being the Countess of Hertford, either.”
I realize that this will be my new name and title, and when Ned’s father dies, Ned will become Duke of Somerset and I shall be a duchess. “God’s will be done,” I say, thinking of the strawberry leaves of a duchess’s coronet, and the heavy softness of ermine on my collar. “For you as well as me.”
“Amen,” she says dreamily, as if she is still thinking of Ned Seymour’s smile. “Oh, Amen.”
“I very much doubt that God will make you a duchess,” I point out.
She looks at me, her blue eyes wide, her skin, pale like mine, now flushed rosy. “Oh, pray it for me,” she says trustingly. “You can get me a duke if you pray for me, Jane. You know you’re so godly, you can surely get God to give me a duke. Ask Him for a handsome one.”
To give Katherine her due, I have to admit that Ned Seymour is as charming as all the Seymours. He reminds me of his uncle Thomas, who was the kindest man I have ever known, husband to my tutor Queen Kateryn before Elizabeth destroyed their happiness. Ned is brown-haired with hazel eyes. I have never noticed before that they are kind eyes, but my sister is right, he has a pleasing warmth and a quite irresistible smile. I hope he does not have sinful thoughts behind that knowing gleam. He was brought up at court, companion to my cousin the king, so we know each other, we have ridden together and learned dancing together, and even studied together. He thinks as I do—as we all do—all the clever young people are Protestants. I would call him a friend, insofar as anyone is ever a friend in the bear pit that is a royal court. He is a great one for the reformed faith, so we share that too, and behind his lightheartedness he has a serious, thoughtful mind. My cousin King Edward is scholarly and grave like me, so we love to read together. But Ned Seymour makes us both laugh. He is never bawdy—my cousin the king will have no fools around him—but he is witty, and he has charm; he has that intense Seymour charm that makes friends wherever he goes. He is a boy that makes you smile to see him, a boy like that.
I sit with my mother’s ladies at dinner, he sits with his father’s men. Our parents are seated at the head table on the dais above all of us, and survey the room, looking down on us. When I see the tilt of my mother’s overly proud chin, I remember that the last be first, and the first last, for many are called, but few chosen. She, in particular, I am certain can never be chosen; and when I become a duchess I will outrank her, and she will never be allowed to shout oaths at me again.
When the tables are cleared away, the musicians play, and I am commanded to dance with my mother’s ladies and with my sister Katherine. Of course, Katherine flirts her skirt around and lifts it too high, so that she can show off her pretty shoes and her twinkling feet. She smiles all the time towards the top table where Ned is standing behind his father’s chair. I am sorry to say that once he winks at us. I think it is for the two of us, and not directed at Katherine. I am pleased that he is watching us dancing—but I think less of him that he should wink.
Then there is general dancing and my mother orders me to partner him. Everyone remarks how well we look together even though he is a full head taller than I am. I am very small and pale; none of us Grey girls are big-boned; but I am glad to be dainty, and not a stout thing like Princess Elizabeth.
“You dance beautifully,” Ned says to me, as we come together and wait for another couple to finish their part. “Do you know why my father and I are here?”
The movement of the dance separates us and gives me time to think of a dignified reply.
“No, do you?” is all I manage.
He takes my hands as we progress down the line of other dancers. We stand and make an arch with our hands and he smiles at me as the others duck their heads and wind their way through. “They want us to marry,” he says cheerfully. “It’s agreed. We are to be husband and wife.”
We have to stand opposite each other while another pair of dancers makes their way down the set, so he can see my response to this news from him. I feel my cheeks grow warm, and I try not to beam like an eager idiot. “It is my father who should tell me, not you,” I say stiffly.
“Shall you be pleased when he does?”
I look down so he can’t see what I am thinking. I don’t want my brown eyes to shine like his. “I am bound by the Word of God to obey my father,” I say.
“Shall you be pleased to obey him and marry me?”
My parents obviously believe that I should be the last person to be consulted, for I am not summoned to my mother’s rooms until the next day, when Edward and his father are preparing to leave and the horses are actually standing at the open front door, the scent of the English spring blowing into the house with the ecstatic singing of courting birds.
I can hear the servants taking out the saddlebags in the hall below as I kneel to my parents, and my mother nods to the servant to shut the door.
“You’re to marry Edward Seymour,” my mother says briskly. “Promised; but not betrothed in writing. First, we need to see if his father can get himself back on the council and work with John Dudley. Dudley is the man now. We have to see that Seymour will work with him and rise again.”
“Unless there is any chance of the other matter . . .” my father says, looking at my mother with meaning.
“No, he’s certain to marry a princess from abroad,” my mother says.
I know at once that they are talking of Edward the king, who has said publicly that he will marry a foreign princess with a queenly dowry. I, myself, have never thought anything different, though some people say that I would make a wonderful queen, and I would be a light and a beacon of the new reformed religion and speed religious reform in a country that is painfully half-hearted, even now. I make sure that I keep my head bowed and I don’t say a word.
“But they’re so suited,” my father pleads. “Both so scholarly, both so devout. And our Jane would be such a rightful heir to Kateryn Parr. We raised her for this; Queen Kateryn trained her for this.”
I can feel my mother’s eyes scrutinizing me, but I don’t look up. “She would make the court into a convent!” she says, laughing.
“A light in the world,” my father replies seriously.
“I doubt it will ever happen. At any rate, Lady Jane, you can consider yourself promised in marriage to Edward Seymour until we tell you different.”
My father puts his hand under my elbow and raises me up from my knees. “You’ll be a duchess, or something better,” he promises me. “Don’t you want to know what might be better? What about the throne of England?”
I shake my head. “I have my eyes on a heavenly crown,” I tell him, and I ignore my mother’s vulgar snort of laughter.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Last Tudor includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Philippa Gregory. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Bestselling author Philippa Gregory tells the captivating story of Lady Jane Grey, who held the throne of England for nine days, and her lesser-known but equally fascinating sisters—the beautiful and romantic Katherine and Mary, small in stature but not in spirit—all of whom defy their queen in pursuit of what is most important to them. When the young king Edward VI falls ill and is rumored to be planning his succession, a plot is hatched to marry off Jane, Katherine, and Mary Grey as quickly as possible in the hopes that one will bear a Tudor heir and bring the family closer to the throne. Indeed, Jane is named queen by the dying king; but everything goes awry when the dead king’s papist half sister, Mary, asserts herself as the rightful heir to the throne. Imprisoned and threatened with death, Jane refuses to speak the words renouncing her Protestant faith that might spare her from a ghastly end. Later, Katherine and Mary are also faced with grave decisions when they are imprisoned by their cousin Queen Elizabeth I after marrying their true loves without her permission. Will the queen show them the mercy that was denied to their sister or will they be forced to follow the deathbed advice of their sister Jane and learn to accept a tragic fate?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What role do faith and religion play during the time period represented in The Last Tudor? What is the relationship between religion and politics, and how does this relationship affect the cultural climate of England? Is the country mostly united in their faith or divided? What impact does this have on the royals of England?
2. What is “the true religion” according to Lady Jane Grey? Why does Jane believe that she and her family do not need to earn their place in heaven as others do? Does her faith ultimately serve her well? Discuss.
3. Consider the title of the book. Who are the members of the Tudor family? Which character or characters does the title of the book refer to?
4. Evaluate the roles and the treatment of women as represented in the novel. How are marriage and childbirth depicted? Is the education of women perceived as positive or negative? Would you say that the women of the novel are depicted as powerful or helpless? Do they garner much loyalty from the men in their lives? Discuss.
5. Katherine believes that “if you are a Tudor you don’t really have parents.” What does she mean? What does her statement reveal about family dynamics and the relationship between parent and child during this time?
6. Why does Elizabeth punish Katherine and Mary for their marriages? Why does she refuse to show the same mercy for the Grey sisters that she shows for some others? Do you believe that her actions are justified or were you surprised by her lack of mercy to her relatives?
7. What does Mary Grey believe is Elizabeth’s greatest fear? What does Mary say that she has come to believe is the greatest sin and what does this reveal about Elizabeth? Do you agree that this “sin” is Elizabeth’s greatest flaw? How does this same “sin” or characteristic affect the others in the novel?
8. How does each Grey sister respond to her incarceration? What is the outcome for each? What does Mary wear at the conclusion of the novel and what does she believe this clothing represents? Is her choice to do this surprising? Why or why not?
9. What advice does Jane leave for her sisters after she receives the news of her impending execution? Do Katherine and Mary follow her advice? How does each interpret their sister’s final words?
10. Consider the theme of loyalty. Which of the characters is loyal and to whom? What seems to be at the root of their allegiance? Conversely, who betrays another person and why? Does the novel ultimately suggest to what or whom one should be most loyal? Explain.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Choose one of the major characters and compare Gregory’s treatment to the historical accounts. Discuss what stands out in common among the texts and, alternatively, consider what the fictionalized account of this character may be able to reveal that historical accounts cannot or do not.
2. Consider The Last Tudor alongside film or television adaptations about the Tudors, such as the 2008 film The Other Boleyn Girl and the Showtime miniseries The Tudors. What common themes emerge and how do the representations compare?
3. Visit Philippa Gregory’s website at www.philippagregory.com to learn more about the author and her works including the other novels in her Plantagenet and Tudor Court series.
A Conversation with Philippa Gregory
Tell us about the origins of The Last Tudor. There are many stories about Lady Jane Grey, but why were you interested in telling the story of all three Grey sisters particularly?
I am always interested when I discover a woman who played an important role in history but whose story has been mostly ignored, or even forgotten. Jane’s story led me to her less famous sisters—which is a familiar route for me—and then I was fascinated by the two young women themselves. Katherine Grey was a major player at court, but, because she was successfully excluded from the succession by Elizabeth, imprisoned, and isolated, we have lost her from the historical record. Mary Grey is almost totally ignored.
Why did you choose to tell the story with three different narrators? Was there one voice that was easier for you to channel as you wrote?
I wanted to tell each sister’s life in her own voice, as they were separated so early, that no single narrator could have described the three lives. I find first-person present-tense narration very stimulating and effective in historical fiction, and I was relieved to find that moving from one character to another was quite smooth—as they were each so striking, and each had her own voice. The most difficult transition was from the famous Jane to the less known Katherine, and I was helped by Jane’s genuine letter to her sister which starts the Katherine section (in Jane’s voice) and then we realize that Katherine is reading the letter and responding to it. It’s a very powerful contrast for me between the famous letter and Katherine’s sense of outrage that it is so impersonal. In that one scene, I really felt the difference between the two sisters and a sense of their relationship.
Would you say that you felt more sympathetic to one of the Grey sisters than the others? If so, why? Is there one sister that you can relate to more than the others?
One of the experiences of writing in first person is that as the narrator’s point of view shifts, my interest and preference shifts too. I first felt this most strongly when, having written The White Queen from the point of view of Elizabeth Woodville, then I wrote The Red Queen from the point of view of her rival and enemy. I could not have completed the novel if I had not changed sides! In The Last Tudor, I felt the sisters succeed each other in my imagination, and I really welcomed each one as she “came” to me.
What did you think of Katherine’s and Mary’s decisions to marry their loves without the queen’s permission even after the tragic fate of their sister Jane?
As I make clear in the novel, they were legally free to marry without the queen’s permission, but they were definitely taking a risk. I don’t think Elizabeth would have ever given them permission to marry, so they had little choice but to defy her once they were committed to their husbands. Elizabeth’s cruelty to them is exceptional and borders on the irrational. I don’t think Katherine and Mary would have predicted that Elizabeth would have reacted to such an extreme. Their kinswoman Margaret Douglas did far worse and suffered far less.
Who are some of the novelists that you find most inspiring or compelling today and why?
I tend to read the classics of English literature for pleasure, so I love Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, E. M. Forster.
How does the story of the Grey sisters correspond to your previous works? Are they much like the main characters of your other works? If so, what unites them?
They should be like other characters of their time period, if I have done a good job of capturing the mind-set of the Tudor woman. I think that Mary’s blunt realism and humor is rather like me, and that comes out in other novels. I think Katherine in her prettiness and silliness is rather like my portrait of Katherine Howard, and Jane’s mixture of piety and childish pomposity is rather like Margaret Beaufort—another spiritual girl who sought religion to compensate for the lack of a family life. But the main inspiration for them is the record of their lives and my drawing their characters from that.
Do you have a favorite television show, miniseries, or film adaption of the story of the Tudors? Why do you think that they are such a compelling family?
I think that people love the production that introduced them to the Tudors, so my favorite film is Anne of the Thousand Days which I completely loved when I first saw it as a teenager. Of course, the Tudors are great material for novels and dramas because their personal life is lived so very large, and as tyrants, their feelings are so important to everyone.
What books would you say had a strong influence on you when you were a child?
I am very glad that I was given the run of a public library at a very early age so I was reading a lot very young. I loved The Jungle Book and The Just So Stories, all E. Nesbit’s children’s novels, The Secret Garden, Peter Pan, all the Heidi books, The Wind in the Willows and all C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books.
How did The Last Tudor change the way you write? Was there anything that surprised you in the course of writing the book?
I was surprised how smoothly it went! The transition from one character to another went very well; the history around Jane is very full, so it was possible to do an almost day-by-day description of her usurpation of the throne. There is less on Katherine but she was a very inspiring character, and Mary was a joy to imagine. The challenge of the book was to find a way to end it which was satisfying and not hopelessly sad: since it is the story of two girls who die in captivity because of the cruelty of their times. There’s no way that there could be a happy ending, but by closing it with Mary’s freedom and pride in herself I was able to end it like a novel with a shape to it, and not like a history you expect to end in the death of the subject. It seems to me that one of the points of writing a novel rather than a history is that you can make artistic decisions about the meaning and route of the story, rather than telling everything—which is the conventional history approach.
Can you please tell us a bit about what you are currently working on?
I am working on two projects at once and they are both equally fascinating. I am researching and thinking about writing a history of women in Tudor England, very much inspired by my research for the novels, and I am starting a novel, which is going to be the first of a series about a family who will rise from poverty in the 1600s.
In addition to your writing, you are also involved in charity work. Can you tell us about that? What causes are you interested in and how can your readers contribute if they are inclined to do so?
I should be very happy if any readers wanted to join with me in a wonderful project in The Gambia—one of the poorest countries in Africa. I have been paying for the digging of wells in the country’s rural primary schools for more than twenty years (ever since I went to The Gambia to research for my novel about slavery, A Respectable Trade). The wells are commissioned in The Gambia by Ismaila Sisay, a retired headmaster who has worked with me on this since the very beginning, and I am proud to call him my friend. He interviews the schools to make sure that they will teach sustainable agriculture and have the support of the village and then he commissions the well digger who comes out with a spade and a bowl and digs a well—it’s that simple. Then we provide a concrete liner for the well and a rope and bucket, and a safety wall and gate. Then the children create a market garden around the well and learn to grow their own food, and have water to drink and vegetables at lunchtime. We’ve done some big wells, but most of the wells go down about 50 feet and cost only $600. I send my money for new wells to be dug every quarter, and I am so happy when anyone helps me by making a contribution. You can see more about our work on my website—click on the Gardens for The Gambia button where you can donate online, or, you can send a check to Gardens for The Gambia, PO Box 165, North Yorkshire, UK TS9 7WX.