The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory (Touchstone, 2017)

Yesterday my cousin, the daughter of my mother's sister, called me from California where she lives, and hit me up for money. This is not the first time she has asked me for money, and not the last, I am sure. She grew up the daughter of a privileged family and cruised to Europe frequently when she was a child. Her wardrobe came from Saks Fifth Avenue and her parents gave her a yellow Corvette convertible with air conditioning when she was seventeen. My cousin was movie star beautiful, sultry and blond; she had it all. Today she is destitute, toothless, alienated from her children, and living in seedy motels along the Pacific coast. I'm scared for her. I fear that someday she will end up dead, abandoned by family and friends, and she would make a great subject for me to write about in a novel someday.

Think for a moment about the cousins in your life. Are you close with them? Do you see them often? Do you ever contemplate locking them up in a medieval tower, or chopping off their heads? I doubt it. But the subject of Philippa Gregory's latest novel, The Last Tudor, is the twisted relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her first cousins, Jane, Katherine, and Mary Grey, whose mother Mary was a sister of King Henry VIII, Elizabeth's infamous father. Throughout this impeccable historical novel, the reader questions, whom does Gregory deem “the last Tudor,” which doesn't become clear until nearly the book's end.

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Gregory, who is best known for her breakaway novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, has been studying and writing about the Tudor period for a long time. What Gregory does so magnificently is transport the reader back to Renaissance Britain, getting into the psyches of these complicated, passionate, and proud women, and putting a contemporary spin onto their 16th century existences. Gregory's prose is rich; her attention to detail in description of Tudor London, the woods and country side of England, the famous court of the Tudor kings and queens, is so delicious that it becomes real to the reader in a way that most authors never achieve.

The Last Tudor is divided into three sections, each narrated by a different Tudor cousin. The first is the fanatically devout Lady Jane Grey, who father pushed her onto the throne after the death of her young cousin, Edward VI. Usurping the throne from Henry VIII's first daughter, Mary, Lady Jane reigned for a mere nine days before her Catholic cousin marched into London with her army, and bloodlessly deposed the sixteen year old Jane. Locked in the Tower of London, Lady Jane Grey studied and prayed endlessly, refusing to deny her faith in the new religion. For her steadfast clinging to the Protestant faith, Mary had her cousin beheaded and buried in pieces, a thought which haunts Jane's two remaining sisters, Katherine and Mary for the rest of their lives.

As cruel as Bloody Mary was during her fruitless five year reign, the true villain of Gregory's story is Queen Elizabeth I. Having read many biographies and historical novels about Elizabeth, interpretations of England's long reigning monarch are as unique of every twist of a kaleidoscope. In some books, Elizabeth is a heroine, overcoming the tragic loss of her mother at the age of three to her father's jealousies, only to face a daunting childhood, fighting to escape the many plots to kill her as a threat to the throne. Always one of history's most complex women, Gregory chooses to portray Elizabeth as a monster, whose petty whims and need to have her enormous ego continually massaged, cost many people stability, happiness, and even their lives.

The second part of the novel is narrated by the second sister, Katherine. A woman of passion and ambition, Katherine knows that she has greater claim to Elizabeth's throne as Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate by Henry VIII. Far more beautiful than her martyred sister, Jane, Katherine falls in love with a Seymour, another powerful family in Tudor times. When Elizabeth will not sanction a marriage between Ned and Katherine, the couple sneak off and are wed with only one witness, by a dubious clergyman whom is provided by Ned's sister, Janey. The wrath of Elizabeth when she learns that not only has her rival married without the queen's permission, she is eight months pregnant by the time the truth is revealed, shows the monarch's pettiness and belief that her happiness must come before that of any other subject in her land. Katherine is taken away to bear her child in the Tower of London, and her husband is imprisoned in a room directly above her.

The third section of the novel is narrated by the youngest Grey sibling, little Mary, a diminutive dwarf. Although beautiful, Mary is neglected for the most part, and not counted as a serious threat to the crown by Elizabeth, whom Mary serves as a lady-in-waiting. Often the subject of cruel jokes about her stature, Mary watches with an eagle eye as Elizabeth becomes increasingly vain and demonic, dashing Mary's only hope for conjugal happiness as she has done to Katherine before her. Like her sister, Mary ends up imprisoned and separated from her loved ones for years as Queen Elizabeth continues to drive her Privy Council crazy by her refusal to name an heir.

Jane, Katherine, and Mary Grey are not the only cousins to irritate the great Elizabeth by their very existence. Mary, Queen of Scots, daughter of Henry VIII's other sister Margaret, is a continual thorn in Elizabeth's insecure reign. Once ensconced on the Scottish throne, Elizabeth is infuriated by stories of her Catholic cousin's youth and beauty. The constant threat of the Scottish queen knocking on the borders of England, combined with reported plots of Queen Mary's desire to take the English throne, drive Elizabeth nearly to madness.

As always, it takes me a while to savor the time that I have spent with these fascinating figures of British history. In the Author's note Gregory reveals, “Mary Grey is almost unknown but I think she is of great interest---a Little Person, said to be under four feet high, she does not even appear in the specialist histories of little people. She was a woman of persistent courage, showing a powerful instinct to survive where her sisters did not; and while this novel narrates her life as a fiction, her marriage and the dates and places of her confinement are historically accurate.” (p. 516)

Gregory also states that The Last Tudor may, indeed, be her last novel about a Tudor woman. However, she promises that she is onto a new series about which she is excited. I suspect, however, it will be even harder for Gregory to stay away too long from the Tudor court, than it is for me to refrain from seeking out novels about one of the most fascinating historical periods in history.