Sunday, November 1, 2009

By Leanda de Lisle
Ballantine, $30, 384 pages

Learning to die was a crucial part of life for children of power-hungry noble families who grew up too close to the throne in Tudor England. Lady Jane Grey and her sisters, Katherine and Mary, were the daughters of the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, highly ambitious members of the English nobility. But it was the duke being named heir to the English throne by King Henry VIII and the short life of Henry’s son, Edward VI, that put all three sisters in the kind of danger that lasted as long as they lived. The strong-willed, intelligent and well educated Jane Grey was voicing outspoken and dangerous views on the establishment of Protestantism in England when she became queen at the age of 16. Her reign lasted nine days before she and her equally young husband were sent to the Tower of London, which often meant a death sentence.

Jane might have received more kindness at the hands of the new queen, Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII, had she not stubbornly and publicly proclaimed her Protestantism, which was anathema to Mary. Hours after her husband was executed, Jane’s brief life ended in the heart-wrenching scene of a blindfolded teenager searching with her hands for the executioner’s block on which to lay her head and wait for the ax.

There was a parallel between her tragedy and that of Anne Askew, a 25-year-old heretic and evangelical whose writings impressed the young Jane. Askew’s passion for speaking out in a religiously split nation resulted in her being brutally tortured on the rack before she was burnt at the stake. Jane Grey was reportedly heavily influenced by the philosophy of Askew, especially her prophetic advice that this was an age in which one had to “learn to die.”

Leanda de Lisle has called her book “a Tudor tragedy” and she cannot be accused of exaggeration. Cruelty and tragedy roll through her well researched pages, making clear that life in the Tudor days held more horror than happiness.

At especially high risk were those considered near the throne. Elizabeth I well knew the fear with which she lived during her own imprisonment as a teenager in the Tower. She was only 18 months old when she was bastardized by Henry VIII after he executed her mother, Anne Boleyn, on probably manufactured charges of adultery. Elizabeth lived under the threat of execution by her half-sister Mary Tudor, who snatched the throne from Jane Grey and became known as “Bloody Mary” as she set the skies of England afire with smoke from the burning bodies of those who dared defy Catholicism. Mary died after an unsuccessful and unpopular marriage to King Philip of Spain and Elizabeth was an admirable successor, proving herself an ultimate survivor.

Elizabeth showed brilliance, strength and courage as a monarch, but she never recovered from her distrust of anyone who might topple her from the lofty position that had cost her so much to achieve. And unfortunately, the wretched Grey sisters,with their position in two royal wills as heirs to the throne, became her target.

Elizabeth trusted almost no one, and spent much of her life worrying about the potential threat posed by the irresponsible and unpredictable Mary Queen of Scots, whose execution was the English queen’s final gesture of self- protection. What Elizabeth viewed as the sins of Katherine and Mary Grey was almost ludicrous. Their offense was to marry secretly, without royal permission, and have children. Their offspring made them more dangerous in the eyes of Elizabeth and she made their lives miserable. They were imprisoned in the Tower, in the same rooms once occupied by their late sister, Jane, and later were moved from house to house where they were held as impoverished prisoners. They were separated from their husbands and children and spent much of their time writing desperate and hopeless pleas for mercy to the Queen.

Even the sisters’ jailers importuned Elizabeth on their behalf, and as the author notes, Katherine in particular “had been reduced to little more than a name, barely a person at all.”

The queen maintained the position that she had to contain any potential threat posed by candidature to the throne, although she recognized the sisters were not personally dangerous, which makes her relentless harshness even more difficult to understand.

Aware that nothing would soften Elizabeth, Katherine simply faded away, dying in her 20s, echoing the words spoken by her sister Jane on the scaffold, and, the author speculates, perhaps recalling the bleak advice, “Learn to die.”

Mary Grey, who also risked the royal fury by a clandestine marriage, suffered almost as much as her sisters, Elizabeth went so far as to hold back Mary’s inheritance so that she lived on the charity of friends and relatives and under house arrest for seven years.The youngest Grey sister ultimately was rehabilitated at court and appointed a Maid of Honor to the queen.

Ironically, at that New Year, Mary Grey gave Elizabeth gifts of “two pairs of gloves, decorated with four dozen gold buttons, each studded with a seed pearl.” She received in return from the queen “a cup with a cover.” What she never received was Elizabeth’s acknowledgment of her marriage. But in her will, the dying Mary described herself as “Lady Mary Grey — Widow.”

In a final slap, Mary emphasized that she was dying in the Protestant faith. Ms. de Lisle emphasizes that the history of the Grey sisters, “stripped of literary debris, remain as tragic and poignant as any fiction could make them.” She recalls Jane, “a Protestant Joan of Arc,” calling for aid in her battle against Mary Tudor while her own generals betrayed her. She relates how Katherine risked her life to make love to her husband in the Tower and left him a ring inscribed, “While I Lived, Yours.” Mary died in a modest house in London but was buried in Westminster Abbey “surrounded by the Kings from whom she and her sisters were descended, and the Queens whose rivals they were.”

With the exception of Jane, the Grey sisters emerge as hopeless and hapless victims of a savage age that has been admirably recreated by the author.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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