Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle

Sisters of Treason This is Elizabeth Fremantle’s second historical fiction novel. I read her first book, Queen’s Gambit, last year and was quite impressed by it, so I’ve been looking forward to reading this one. It didn’t disappoint me – I actually found it a more compelling and enjoyable book than the first. Although Fremantle’s books are set in Tudor England, a very popular choice with historical fiction authors, it would seem that she’s trying to write about some of the lesser known female figures of the period, which is very refreshing. Queen’s Gambit was the story of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, who is usually given less attention than some of the other wives, while her next novel – due to be published next year – is going to be about Penelope Devereux and should be really fascinating.

This book, Sisters of Treason, is the story of Katherine and Mary Grey – the two younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘nine-day queen’. The novel opens in 1554 with Jane being beheaded, having been deposed by her cousin, Mary Tudor, after only nine days on the throne of England. Jane is dead before our story really begins but she remains a constant presence in the lives of both Katherine and Mary Grey who are unable to escape the taint of treason. Under the reigns of first Queen Mary and then Queen Elizabeth I – neither of whom have a child of their own to name as heir – the Grey sisters have a strong claim to the throne, which means they will never be allowed to live their lives in peace.

Following Jane’s execution, the family of Katherine’s husband, Henry Herbert, decide to distance themselves from the Greys. Katherine is heartbroken when her marriage to Henry is annulled but she does find love again with Edward Seymour, the brother of her best friend Jane (referred to in the novel as Juno to distinguish her from the other Janes in the story). Queen Elizabeth is furious when she learns of their relationship and Katherine soon discovers just how difficult life can be for those who go against the Queen’s wishes.

The youngest Grey sister, Mary, was born with a form of spinal curvature which has affected her growth and as she is unlikely to be able to have children she is seen as less of a threat than Katherine. However, she is forced to undergo degrading experiences such as sitting on Queen Mary’s knee and being treated as a sort of pet or baby. Later, when Elizabeth takes the throne, although Mary is not in as much danger as Katherine, she still finds that the Elizabethan court is not a pleasant place to be.

Sisters of Treason is narrated by both Katherine and Mary (my favourite character) in first person present tense. This is something I don’t usually like but I thought it worked well here. There’s also a third viewpoint character – Levina Teerlinc, a friend of Frances Grey, the girls’ mother. In her position as a portrait painter who produces miniatures of various important court figures, Levina gives us a different perspective on some of the things that happen in the book.

As well as being the story of the Grey sisters, the novel also takes us through some of the major events of Queen Mary’s and Queen Elizabeth’s reigns. While both Queens can be cruel and treat their Grey cousins very badly, they are not just portrayed as complete monsters with no depth to their characters. Instead, the author tries to give some possible reasons for their behaviour and shows us the pressures they are under as female rulers in a male-dominated society.

They sit in silence for a moment, and something occurs to Levina that she had not fully realized until she articulated it – that for Elizabeth politics come before everything. That is how it must be if you are Queen regnant, your passions shut away in a box buried deep beneath the ground. It makes her think of her predecessor Mary Tudor, who struggled so with that concept, and she surprises herself with a pinch of sympathy for these women who have to fashion a cold, hard face to show to the world.

I have read a few other novels about the Grey sisters (The Nine Day Queen by Ella March Chase and Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor and A Dangerous Inheritance) but I still don’t think they get a lot of coverage in historical fiction compared to other figures from the Tudor period. Many people will have heard of Lady Jane Grey but may not be aware that she had two sisters and something that I liked about this book is that by beginning with Jane’s execution, Elizabeth Fremantle avoids re-telling Jane’s more famous story and instead concentrates on the other Grey sisters. However, Katherine and Mary never forget what happened to Jane and her influence on their lives is still very strong; Katherine inherits Jane’s Greek New Testament in which she has written “it shall teach you to live and learn you to die” and Mary often asks herself what Jane would do in certain situations. As Mary says to Levina near the end of the novel:

“In the scheme of a life, it is not the duration of something but its impact that is important.”

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

A Dangerous Inheritance The disappearance of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ (twelve-year-old Edward V of England and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York) remains a mystery to this day. Some believe that they were murdered by their uncle, Richard III, some suspect Henry VII or the Duke of Buckingham, and others prefer to think that one or both of the Princes managed to escape. My fascination with this mystery leads me to want to read everything I can find about it, even books like this one, written by an author whose views on the subject are entirely different from mine.

Alison Weir is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction and A Dangerous Inheritance is one of her works of fiction. I had enjoyed a previous novel of hers, Innocent Traitor, which told the story of Lady Jane Grey, so I thought I would try this one despite knowing that Weir does not like Richard III at all and I was unlikely to agree with any conclusions she might come to.

Actually, this novel is only partly about Richard and the Princes; at least half of the book is set eighty years later and follows the story of Katherine Grey, the younger sister of the ‘nine-day queen’, Lady Jane Grey. After Jane’s very brief reign as Queen of England comes to an end when she is deposed by Mary I and beheaded, Katherine herself moves one step closer to the throne. To her disappointment, Mary is followed by Elizabeth I, who refuses to acknowledge Katherine as her heir and treats her badly. When Katherine marries the man she loves against Elizabeth’s wishes, she finds herself imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Katherine Grey’s story alternates with the story of another Katherine – Katherine Plantagenet (referred to as Kate to avoid confusion), an illegitimate daughter of Richard III. Kate loves her father and refuses to believe that he had any involvement in the disappearance of the two young princes. After Richard is defeated at Bosworth in 1485 and Henry Tudor takes his place on the throne, Kate’s loyalty to her father and her determination to clear his name could be considered treason. Several generations later, Katherine Grey discovers some letters written by Kate, learns of Kate’s connection with the princes and decides to continue investigating the mystery from within the Tower.

On the subject of the princes, I do find it fascinating that different authors and historians can begin with the same facts and come to entirely different conclusions! As nothing has ever been proven either way regarding the disappearance of the princes and the other controversies surrounding Richard III, I’m happy for it to remain a mystery. Having read quite a lot on the subject over the last few years, I personally find the pro-Richard viewpoint much more convincing than the anti-Richard one, but I can accept that we’ll probably never know the truth and that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

For Alison Weir, although she states in her author’s note that she likes to keep an open mind, there is clearly no mystery: Richard was guilty of everything. As I was familiar with her views before beginning the book, I suppose I shouldn’t really complain! I was disappointed, though, that the main source Katherine uses in her investigations appears to be Thomas More (who was only seven years old at the time of Bosworth, is thought to have relied upon Richard’s enemy, Archbishop Morton, as his own primary source, and wrote his histories during the Tudor period, when it was obviously to his advantage to please the Tudor monarchs by discrediting their predecessors). However, as Weir explains in the author’s note, she could only use sources that would have been available to Katherine in the mid 16th century.

I did like the fact that this was a dual time period novel where both time periods were historical, rather than one being set in the present day, though I did sometimes feel that I was reading two separate stories that didn’t really belong in the same book. Apart from the fact that both main characters were Katherines and both suffered from being close to the throne, there was very little to link the two. It’s only in the final 100 pages of this 500-page book that Katherine Grey begins to investigate the mystery of the princes and parallels start to be drawn between the two storylines – some of them of a paranormal nature, which you may or may not appreciate!

Of the two, I enjoyed the Katherine Grey storyline the most. I found Katherine a much more engaging character, which is probably not surprising as she narrates in the first person while Kate doesn’t. Also, there is almost no historical information available on Kate Plantagenet, which meant that her sections of the book were largely fictional. I couldn’t help feeling that Katherine Grey’s life story would have been interesting enough to form the basis of a whole novel on its own without the addition of a second, imaginary storyline and without squeezing the Princes in the Tower into the same book as well.

Have you read anything about the Princes in the Tower? Who do you think was responsible for their disappearance?