The Last Tudor – Philippa Gregory

The Last Tudor is Philippa Gregory’s latest book published in 2017. Many of you will know who Jane Grey is; she was the granddaughter of Mary Tudor, one of Henry Tudor’s (King Henry VIII) sisters. Mary Tudor was queen of France for a hot second before her rather old husband croaked and she returned to England, a dowager queen, and married Charles Brandon and together they had a daughter named Frances who married a chap who’s last name was Grey.

Henry VIII also had another sister, Margaret, but she was sent off to Scotland to marry the king, James, who was actually killed in a battle against the English while Katherine of Aragon was still with us and married to dear ol’ Henry VIII. The son came into power and it led to Mary Queen of Scots, the niece of Margaret Douglas, both of whom Elizabeth I took issue with.

Now let us return to the book; The Last Tudor starts shortly before Edward Tudor dies, this is Henry VIII’s son who was king for about 2 years before dying at the age of 15 or so. Told from the perspective of Jane Grey at first, her family conspired to put her on the throne. Never heard of her? That’s ok: her queenship lasted for all of 9 days before it fell apart and those who supported her disappeared to beg the forgiveness of Queen Mary I. Jane was executed later; the book goes that it partially due to her refusal to relinquish her Protestant faith, since Mary was famously a hardcore Catholic who had tons of Protestants killed, but also, the poor girl was a rallying point for any possible future opposition.

The novel shifts to tell the story of Katherine Grey and Mary Grey, the two younger sisters of Jane Grey. Since the girls were next in line to the throne after Elizabeth, they couldn’t marry without the queen’s permission. However, Katherine just wanted to marry for love and have a happy life, which was going to be hard under the rule of Elizabeth I. I’m never quite sure how we’re supposed to feel about Elizabeth, maybe I don’t need to feel anything, she was what she was, there was no way she wouldn’t be a complicated and complex person, both a good ruler and a bit of a bitch. She never married and you hear different stories as to why, one of which is that she wanted to marry Robert Dudley but could not because he wasn’t good enough and it would’ve caused problems, or you hear that she knew marrying one prince or another from elsewhere would just create an enemy – a Spanish prince meant to be enemies of France, vice versa – and to marry a noble from within England meant picking sides in her own country, so she just played it safe and tried never to pick one person over the other. How is it a good strategy to constantly toy with people instead though? The way The Last Tudor goes, this definitely created a lot of resentment as her other family members were being imprisoned on what must have felt like a whim, all so that Elizabeth could presumably maintain some kind of control over an unstable throne.

Ultimately, Katherine is imprisoned for marrying a Seymour. It’s possible she was a bit of an idiot, as no one told her or her Seymour husband (who’s relative was the mother to King Edward) that their marriage might seem like a plot to take the throne and she couldn’t figure out that for herself – doing it for love was not going to be believed in the plotting English court. She dies. Her life kind of sucked; she lost her family.

The novel switches to Mary. Katherine was still alive for quite a bit, but she was in prison for the rest of her life, so I guess it got to the point where her story was over, she’s just under house arrest for ever, which is all very sad. Mary was a dwarf, supposedly. She didn’t learn from her damned sister though; she also married for love and had the wrath of Elizabeth fall down on her, was under house arrest for 2 years, and struggled financially for the rest of her life.

Until I read The Last Tudor, I didn’t even realize that there were other Tudor heirs alive at the same time as Elizabeth. I always thought that it was a huge problem for her, and England, that she needed to marry but didn’t want to because it was already hard enough being a woman ruler without making that political choice, and that she had to choose the son of her cousin whom she hated as the only choice (King James V of Scotland / I of England). It really shows how much history – or maybe even Elizabeth herself – didn’t really regard these women as heirs, even though Jane was queen for a few days, and even though Elizabeth could be bothered to have Katherine and Mary imprisoned for getting married without her consent, and even though these women belonged to the line of the family named as heirs by her father, King Henry VIII. It’s worth noting that all of the Grey girl’s died before Elizabeth, so they wouldn’t have inherited the throne any how, outside of an open coup (a la Jane Grey’s rule). I enjoyed learning about the fact that other heirs were even an option and that Elizabeth didn’t just wait until her “old age” to pick the young King James of Scotland (and England) to become her heir. I put old age in quotes because she died at 60, she wasn’t even old, but back then, anyone over 30 was practically ancient.

Reading this novel, I realized what an absolute pain in the arse Queen Elizabeth I must have been for so many people. I am sure people weren’t totally stupid and that many were very politically savvy, so they had to know that her refusal to marry and her refusal to name an heir was one of her ways to maintain control – it always kept the focus on her, since until she decided one way or another, people wanted to keep her happy, instead of her and some other future king or queen. You could view that as her being really self-absorbed, which she probably was, or really smart since it meant people weren’t squabbling about her decision or starting a civil war over it, or anything else. Although, if you ask me, her general indecision must have also created some discord if people thought they couldn’t trust her. It seems like she didn’t make a decision for damn well near 15 years (or more?); that’s a long time, especially in an era where seemingly healthy people died all the time, and the plague was a thing, and the so-called doctors thought that nonsense like blood letting was a good idea in situations where it was totally a bad idea.

Honestly, I feel like I have talked enough about the Tudor heirs to the thone now. If you struck with me this long, yay. If you also read this, let me know what you thought, if you so care to do so. I would highly recommend this book if you haven’t read it yet; as you can see, I have carried on a little longer than usual, so obviously I liked it and it would be worth reading.

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4 thoughts on “The Last Tudor – Philippa Gregory

  1. Pingback: Reading List ~ February and March 2018 | Always Fire and Honey

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