Mary, Katherine, and Jane Grey - sisters whose mere existence nearly toppled a dynasty and altered a nation's destiny - are the captivating subjects of Leanda de Lisle's new book. The Sisters Who Would Be Queen breathes fresh life into these three young women, who were players and victims in the violent and vicious world of Tudor power politics and whose heirs could otherwise be ruling England today.
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We may all know the fate of Lady Jane Grey, the nine-days queen, but I, for one, knew nothing about her younger sisters, Katherine and Mary. Despite de Lisle's title, none of the three "would be queen" of her own accord. Their claims were promoted by others because their mother, Frances, was the only surviving child of Mary Tudor's second marriage to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. That made Frances, as Henry VIII's niece, a viable heir to the throne, since Henry had specifically excluded the heirs of his elder sister Margaret. When Edward VI died, many still considered his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, to be bastards. Frances gave up her place in line in favor of her daughter Jane (most likely as part of the deal to marry her into the prominent and ambitious Dudley family). And so began the fate of "the sisters who would be queen." Katherine Grey, a court beauty, was denied Queen Elizabeth's permission to marry the man she loved. They married in secret but were discovered when Katherine's first pregnancy began to show. She spent the rest of her life in the Tower--where her two sons were born. Mary Grey, the youngest sister, a tiny, unattractive, and possibly hunchbacked woman, suffered a similar fate by falling in love with and secretly marrying a man of inferior status.
De Lisle provides fascinating insights into power, intrigue, jealousy, and the conflicts between public and private lives in the Tudor era. What I appreciated most about the book was the way that it brought together many pieces of Tudor history that had been floating in my brain, fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. I hadn't realized, for instance, that the Grey family were descended from the first marriage of Elizabeth Wodeville, wife of Edward IV. And somehow it had escaped me that Guildford Dudley was the brother of Elizabeth's favorite, Lord Robert Dudley--strange indeed that she developed such an affection for one whose father and brother were executed for trying to shift the throne away from her sister Mary and herself.
The Sisters Who Would Be Queen is a must-read for any afficiando of Tudor England. It's filled with facts, but De Lisle's expert hand makes it an entertaining story as well.
After having read a half dozen books on Lady Jane Grey's extremely short reign as Queen of England, it's refreshing to finally come across one where her place in history is kept in its proper perspective. And the bios of her two much more interesting sisters is an added bonus. The narrator's voice is perfect for this kind of book, moving the story along at just the right pace. Almost nothing has been written on Jane's sister Kathryn and what little on Mary made more of her disability than the remarkable woman herself. The author provides a well-researched historical account of three tragic lives which is both informative and entertaining.