Book review: The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory
The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory
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For 16 years Philippa Gregory has been enthralling readers with her Tudor and Plantagenet novels… stories that give a fascinating fictional voice to some of this tumultuous period’s leading players.

But now the ‘queen’ of 15th and 16th century royal women is bowing out to discover writing pastures new, and leaving us with a captivating final chapter… the moving and dramatic tale of the three tragic Grey sisters, archetypal pawns in the ruthless, real-life game of thrones.

The three young women – great-nieces of the powerful Henry VIII – were all ‘children of the royal family of England’ but, as fate would decree, all victims too of their Tudor bloodline in a world full of deceit and danger.

Lady Jane Grey, the eldest of the siblings, famously ‘stole’ the Crown from her cousin Princess Mary and paid the ultimate price. After just nine days on the throne, she was arrested for high treason, imprisoned, and beheaded seven months later.

Her two younger sisters – Katherine, noted for her beauty, and Mary, who suffered from dwarfism – were left behind to face not just the fall-out from the scheming of their over-ambitious parents, but also the wrath of Queen Elizabeth I.

In The Last Tudor, Gregory portrays an insecure, spiteful Elizabeth guarding her throne with jealous zeal and determined to prevent her Grey cousins from marrying and producing potential Tudor heirs… but how far will Elizabeth go to stop the sisters finding love, and are they brave enough to defy her?

The three Grey sisters, brought up at the family’s grand home, Bradgate House in Leicestershire, have a direct line to the English throne. Their mother Frances is the niece of King Henry VIII, and they never forget that they are part of ‘the most important family in England.’

Eldest daughter Jane is a learned girl, raised in the reformed Protestant religion and a favourite of the late scholarly Queen Kateryn Parr, Henry’s last wife. Studious, devout and priggish, Jane regards her Tudor family as ‘lustful’ and ‘born tyrants’ but is ‘borne up’ by her faith.

Katherine, three years younger, is the beauty of the family but, in the eyes of Jane, ‘unbelievably silly’ and ‘quite beyond hope.’ Katherine longs for marriage and her perfect looks catch the eye of handsome young men.

Mary, the youngest of the Grey girls, has stunted growth and is barely four feet tall but is a clever observer and has the sharp wits and confidence needed to survive the machinations of the Tudor court.

But when the teenage King Edward VI dies in 1553, Jane is faced with the choice of death or denying her faith after being forced on to the throne of England by her scheming parents ahead of the young king’s Catholic half-sister Princess Mary.

When Jane refuses to betray her Protestantism, she dies on the block and it is left to Mary’s successor, Queen Elizabeth, to measure the threat posed to her by the remaining Grey girls. Alternately befriended and snubbed, the two girls thrive as the queen’s companions, learning to judge her moods and avoid her temper tantrums.

But they each have a secret… Katherine is in love with Ned, an heir to the great Seymour family, and Mary with the queen’s sergeant porter Thomas Keyes. They come to realise that Elizabeth will never allow either of them to marry for fear of them producing a Tudor heir.

When Katherine’s secret marriage is revealed by her pregnancy, she is sent to the Tower. ‘Farewell, my sister,’ she writes to Mary. But Mary is determined to command her own destiny and be the last Tudor to risk her life in matching wits with her unforgiving cousin Elizabeth…

Through boundless research and her intuitive skills, Gregory has mastered the royal power play of the perilous Tudor era, reimagining the lives of women whose destinies were chiefly decided by political expediency, and allowing them to take centre stage in their own – often marginalised – histories.

In The Last Tudor, the Elizabethan world of vaulting ambition, scheming, rivalry and betrayal springs to vivid, colourful life as the three very different Grey sisters play out their parts in a shocking story of dynastic malice and brutal manoeuvring.

In Gregory’s hands, the siblings – two of them relegated to footnotes in history until feminist-inspired research raised them to public view – become real women with palpable hopes, fears, loves and losses as they dare to become mistresses of their own destinies.

It’s an intriguing and compelling account, and one that will seal Gregory’s reputation as a master storyteller…

Gregory now plans a new series of novels… The Fairmile Series will open in the mid-1600s and follow one English family through 300 years of history. The first book is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in September 2019.

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £20)