In 1554 Lady Jane Grey was executed on Tower Green, her last moments spent blindfolded fumbling on her knees for the block, watched by hard men, other men who may have secretly wept and a mother held up by a friend. It is quite possible that Queen Mary Tudor hadn't wanted to kill her cousin, so young and used, but these are paranoid days and there are none more suspicious than these Tudor Queens.
Sisters of Treason tells the story of Jane's two surviving younger sisters, Katherine and Mary, both of whom were to live lives spoiled beyond all understanding by the whim of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. It is the curse of the Greys that should either Queen die childless many would favour them as next in the royal line. Katherine is a beauty, married and divorced in quick succession during the brief supremacy of her sister's controllers, and now she yearns for her handsome lost husband. To Katherine, Jane left a bible with a message to give her strength. Nothing, though, was left to Mary, the youngest and the wisest. Jane believed Mary needed no help. But Mary's spine is twisted, her growth is stunted, and for that she has been given the role of Queen Mary's monkey. Sat on Mary's lap, stroked like a pet, the Queen thinks nothing of cursing the treachery of the Grey clan over the head of her tamed Grey monkey. All Katherine and Mary want is to be free of the court but Mary has to keep them close. They might have thought that matters would improve once Elizabeth came to the throne. But Mary Grey knows best. Nothing will change. Elizabeth might be even worse.
The opening chapter of Sisters of Treason is such a powerful draw into the novel. It gives us the execution of Lady Jane Grey through the experience of her mother Frances and her friend Levina, an accomplished painter of miniatures. It's not often I start a novel with misty eyes, normally it takes time to give an author your trust, but with Sisters of Treason we are instantly taken to the heart of the drama, to the event that hangs like a black curtain over the rest of the novel and over the lives of Jane's sisters. Frances is to find love in a second marriage, to a household servant with no illusions of power, and it's easy to see why her daughters would envy her. But Katherine and Mary are watched evermore, kept from potential suitors, with the aim of keeping them childless, like the Queens who can't let them out of their sight.
The novel is told in present tense throughout but from changing perspectives. While Levina is featured in third person chapters, events in Katherine and Mary's lives are told in the first person by the sisters themselves. While this could be confusing and distancing in other hands, ELizabeth Fremantle masters this style, giving us in the most immediate way the contrasting experiences of beautiful, love-seeking Katherine and the physically small and wisely aware Mary. Both voices are very different and their characters also contrast in the paintings that Levina does of each. Katherine is a likeable girl, fragile in some ways although probably stronger than she thinks she is, but Mary Grey, for me, is the heart of Sisters of Treason. She understands better than anyone what is going on at the courts of Mary and Elizabeth, she is deeply sympathetic and is prepared to take risks. And she does.
Much of Katherine's tale is a love story. Her romance with Edward Seymour provides the light for the novel. In its early days, I found myself losing a little bit of patience with the love-stricken Katherine, but as the story develops and we see just how much danger Katherine is prepared to tempt in order to have a marriage of her own making that she is allowed to keep it becomes a truly powerful, poignant tale - a genuine love story, all the more remarkable because it's a true story. While Mary's story is the most fascinating, privy as she is to many of the plots, conspiracies and secrets that coloured the courts of the Tudor Queens, and it too features its own dangerous love story, it is Katherine's tale that had me crying my eyes out.
Levina's narrative provides the historical context to the novel, just as she provides motherly comfort to the Grey sisters. Dabbling on the fringes of conspiracy, Levina gives us a taste of the dangers while also holding the stories of Katherine and Mary Grey together. It also contributes to the portrait of the Tudor Queens, the monstrous and corrupt Mary and Elizabeth. Just think of Mary Grey on the lap of Mary Tudor, petted like a dog. I can't think of any other image that brings Mary Tudor alive like that one.
Queen's Gambit, Elizabeth Fremantle's novel about Henry VIII's last Queen and widow Katherine Parr, was one of my top reads of 2013. It's no easy task to have to follow a book like that. However, Elizabeth Fremantle has, I believe, surpassed it. The complicated structure with its different perspectives is confidently accomplished while preserving the emotional response of the reader to these characters. The story of the three Grey sisters is one of the most tragic of the Tudor period and it deserves the pen of a fine writer. Elizabeth Fremantle is such a writer. The Tudor period is not my favourite but in Sisters of Treason we are given a less familiar story but one that is made unforgettable.
The hardback finishes with a full and very useful cast of characters which gives a paragraph on each of the personalities who walk through these pages. I'm grateful for the review copy.
An excellent example of the genre. I haven't read much historical fiction, but loved Fremantle's first (about Katherine Parr) and also some of Philippa Gregory's series about the Cousins War.
Sisters of Treason is absolutely fascinating. Who designs the school history curriculum? They need to try and include more of the minor stories in schemes of work because they are riveting. We have all probably heard of Lady Jane Grey, Queen for nine days then beheaded by Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII. This book picks up at the execution and then follows on the skirt-tails of Jane's sisters, Katherine and Mary, and family friend Levina, real-life portrait painter to the court.
It's as readable as any fictional thriller. Mary suffers from a condition that has left her the size of a five-year-old and with a deformed spine. Katherine is a renowned beauty. Both fear that Jane's fate will also befall them as others plot around them to raise a new Queen. And this doesn't end with the death of Mary as her sister Elizabeth takes the throne and proves just as brutal in her way.
The three-way narrative works well, moving the action from place to place in Tudor England. I don't think I've learnt so much history in terms worth of lessons at school. Even knowing that the conversations are all fictitious, the endnotes give a useful potted biography of almost every character in the book and show just how closely Fremantle has kept to history. There is also a lovely family tree at the front showing just how closely related the Greys, Tudors, and Stuarts are, and why it is that there was such a skirmish for the throne of England.
Mary is the most sympathetic character, being both intelligent and sneered at. Her enviable (in some ways) position at the very centre of court life was both permanently a threat but also an amazing position of influence of observation. Katherine's story is in some ways more shocking for its ultimate direction. She grows up through the story from lovesick teenager to world-weary woman. Veena (Levina), their family friend, offers us insight into professional working women of the period and another perspective on Tudor politics.
Some shocking stuff happens to the Greys. I couldn't believe it was real but a check showed, lo and behold, it was. And Levina's painting is also real, and quite beautiful. The Elizabethan Age may have been a golden one for literature and discovery but it was still very much the dark ages if you were any sort of threat to those who ruled.
Begging to be televised. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it if you like historical fiction. Amazing story of real women and how power is used.
Review of a Goodreads giveaway copy.
The lack of a surviving mail heir, after six different wives, leaves Henry the Eighth's legitimate bloodline and succession firmly in the hands, or rather the veins, of his female children and relatives. When his teenaged son King Edward dies, male power is not exactly relinquished, rather it passes to the men around the throne, men who will scheme and manipulate their way through a system of female rule that most of them detest, or at best represents their religious preference for the realm of England. Jane Grey was a protestant and therefore very attractive to the religious reformers as a sympathetic monarch, and to be honest through her Tudor descent from Henry's sister, she would have been a legitimate and possibly more stable monarch than Henry's eldest daughter Mary who was as fanatically Catholic as her mother Catherine of Aragon.
The author opens her excellent tale with the unbearably sad execution of seventeen year old Jane Grey after a reign lasting a mere nine days, heartbreakingly blindfolded and trying to locate the block on which she will lose her head. She has been manipulated into marriage with Guildford Dudley by their ambitious fathers, but Mary Tudor secures sufficient support to mount a successful coup d'etat thus condemning both fathers, the son and the daughter-in-law to death for treason. The beheading of Jane Grey is a poignant and defining event. This happens almost immediately in the narrative and is wonderfully well written, showing how the state sponsored brutality of ambitious men was ruthlessly carried out : the shadow cast by this event compromises the lives of her mother Frances, and her two sisters Katherine and Mary. Frances, supported by her friend the court painter Levina Teerlinc, must watch her child die, the beautiful and romantic Katherine is forbidden to marry as she might produce male children who could destabilise the queen, whilst the youngest, little hunchbacked Mary Grey is brought to court to act as kind of human pet for Queen Mary Tudor and treated disgracefully. Queen Mary's swift marriage to King Philip of Spain consolidates religious persecution and Jane Grey's judicial murder has been the bride price demanded by the Spanish negotiators.
Katherine is also bound to the court so that she can be closely watched, and must fake her adherence to the old faith, whilst all around her so called heretics are burned alive for their beliefs. The aging Queen believes herself capable of bearing an heir, but when her symptoms eventually prove to be those of disease rather than pregnancy, a disillusioned Philip departs and leaves her to her fate. On her death, the protestant Princess Elizabeth ascends the throne to (not quite!) universal acclaim, but it is little crippled Mary Grey who senses that while outwardly everything has changed, for them nothing ever will. How right she is: the new Queen shows no inclination for marriage and children, thus leaving the Grey sisters as exposed as ever to those who would manipulate their lineage and Tudor blood. Levina is a constant support to the Greys, despite her own demanding career and a marriage that is becoming ever more troubled amid religious tensions as Veena's husband and son leave for a safer haven, whilst she will not abandon her friend's two vulnerable daughters.
The lives and struggles of the two remaining Grey sisters are vividly imagined by this absolutely excellent author as they try to forge lives for themselves in a climate of suspicion with the unremitting fear that they might share their sister's destiny.
No-one who loves historical fiction will be disappointed in this superbly constructed book. Great stuff.
on 2 June 2014
Very much enjoying my latest trip to the Tudor Court.
I liked elizabeth's first book too - looks like I need to make a space for a growing collection!
We follow the story through a friend of the Grey family who is also female and the Court artist, a rariety at the time.
My admiration of Queen Mary for choosing Levina for this role got a bit of a knock as we hear of Mary's treatment of the younger disabled sister of jane and Katherine Grey.
Mary Grey was referred to as the Queens monkey, and had to sit on the Queens lap like a pet dog. Not a pleasant position for Mary Grey but she had no choice.
Still reading, and loving it. Give this novel a try!
on 2 August 2014
Elizabeth Fremantle writes historical fiction set in the Tudor era. In a market where one would expect every aspect of this family's turbulent reign to have been mined to exhaustion, Fremantle approaches it through avenues that have been lightly travelled, if not missed entirely. In her first book, Queen's Gambit, she focused on Henry VIII's often overlooked last wife Katherine Parr and in her second novel, she focused on the similarly neglected Grey sisters. Having read Karleen Bradford's The Nine Days Queen in the Dutch translation when I was about ten or eleven, Jane Grey has always fascinated me. When I saw the synopsis for Fremantle's Sisters of Treason, the story of Jane's younger sisters, I knew I had to read this book. Katherine and Mary Grey make for compelling leading ladies and the book was a fantastic read.
The titular Sisters of Treason are Katherine and Mary Grey, the younger sisters of Jane Grey. We only meet them after their sister has met her fate on the executioner's block and they are ensconced at court as ladies of the Queen's Chamber. We follow them through the next two decades and see Northumberland's bid to keep the throne in Protestant hands after the young King Edward's death haunts their lives and how by dint of their blood they will always be regarded as a threat to the throne. But while a story of court politics and conspiracy what stands out most is their humanity. These are just two girls, different as sisters can be bound by love and blood.
Katherine is beautiful, impetuous, and impulsive; the spitting image of her beloved, treasonous father she has his passionate heart and loves boldly an unwisely. It's hard not to love Katherine as a character, as she's complex in unexpected ways and has some of the most interesting relationships in the narrative. I loved her close friendship with Jane `Juno' Seymour and the mischief they get up to together. But Katherine takes some very dangerous decisions and it's hard to see her go down that road knowing where it'll end. I loved Katherine's indomitable optimism and loyalty though, she's steadfast in her love, whatever it may bring her.
Mary Grey was perhaps my favourite character in this book. The youngest of the three sisters, Mary is set apart by her crooked back and small stature. Even as a young teen, she remained small enough to comfortably be held on a lap, as Queen Mary often did, something that Mary Grey despised. Mary's voice is something special. While conscious of the way her back dictates how others treat her and understandably angry and bitter about this, she is a good and kind person, though quick of wit and sharp of tongue when provoked. It is this that attracts Elizabeth's attention once she becomes queen. Mary is also an astute observer of court life and it is through her that we learn of most of the plotting and politics going round at court. Mary has learned at a young age that people will overlook her and speak of things in front of her that should have been kept secret.
Mary is not the only character that is at once of the court and outside it. Our third narrator Levina Teerlinck -court painter and close friend of Frances Grey, the girls' mother - is also someone who moves through the court mostly unregarded. When sat in the queen's rooms to sketch scenes and draw portraits, people often forget to watch their words. Levina is also our clearest viewpoint of the religious strife that marked Queen Mary's reign. She witnesses the countless burnings and as a "reformed" Catholic is closely watched by Bishop Bonner's informers and even threatened into informing on their neighbours. She's also instrumental in the creation of Foxe's Book of Martyrs in this story, an element that adds an extra element of suspense to the story. Levina's viewpoint is also that of a more mature woman, one who is settled in a happy marriage, one that requires work but brings contentment, and as such is a good mirror to Katherine's youthful passions.
Mary and Elizabeth Tudor might not be central characters in Sisters of Treason, they are huge presences in the book and ones that hold huge and frightening power over the Grey girls, a fact that especially Elizabeth is wont to remind the sisters of regularly. Despite their fearsome presences Fremantle doesn't paint these two powerful women as ogres. For example, while Mary earned her nickname Bloody Mary to the fullest this didn't stem from being an awful person, but from desperation and the devout conviction that the Catholic faith was the one true faith and that for the good of her people she should bring them back to the Roman Church. Elizabeth is a hard young woman, one who knows what she must do to survive on the throne, yet at the same time she yearns for love and has to rein in her heart at each opportunity. Fremantle shows us two very human queens, marked by their awful, painful youths and by the pressures of the Tudor throne. In their portrayal, and indeed in much of the narrative, the reader finds a contemplation of the meaning of power, of what people will do to gain and/or keep it and how the whiff of a chance at it changes them.
Sisters of Treason is a remarkable book, one that I just couldn't stop reading. Fremantle's writing is clean and precise and conveys layers of depth in its narrative. I loved Katherine, Mary, and Levina and their story. I loved learning more about this family, who is so often relegated to the footnotes of Tudor history. With Queen's Gambit Fremantle suitably impressed me, with Sisters of Treason she's made me a fan. If you love Tudor-era historical fiction then Elizabeth Fremantle's Sisters of Treason is a must-read. I can't wait for her next book to see who she tackles next!
This book was provided for review by the publisher.
on 2 May 2015
Just couldn't get on with this book. It is written in the first person present by the characters in the story which is set in the times of Queen Mary and the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey. The trouble that I found was that all of the 'voices' sounded the same, and I had to go back on my Kindle to the beginning of the chapter to re read the heading and realise who was 'talking'
on 26 June 2014
This was a very readable book about the Grey sisters. However it does not add anything new and if, like me, you have read several other books about them, then the story will hold no surprises for you. The only difference with this book and others I have read is that the girls' mother, Frances Grey, is portrayed in a more sympathetic manner. The author explains in the notes at the end that the usual unflattering depiction of Frances is based only on a single claim by Jane Grey that she was beaten as a child. To sum up, a good read but nothing new
on 4 October 2015
The young Grey sisters witness the unsettled English court from within. Their royal blood makes them targets for bigger plots.
I won this book in a Goodreads First Read competition a while back, and I do feel a little guilty that I've taken this long to review it.
This is a very grey book about the Grey sisters.
It opens with the execution of Lady Jane Grey - the Queen who succeeded Edward VI for all of 9 nines day before Mary I's supporters took the crown.
I'm afraid to say that this scene was the only interesting one, and it all drags along from there. At only 60 pages in, I was bored of the constantly being told that Katherine was pretty; Mary was insightful; they both had to hide their religion.
It's very dry and unimaginative how it is always done - with whatever third party is in the scene, commenting to said sister how lovely they were in their way. And the sister would treat us to yet another musing of, "why yes, I suppose that I am beautiful/insightful."
Which kinda leads on to the fact that the book's narration is split between Katherine, Mary and Levina (a portrait painter of the time, and friend of the girls' mother). But there is no difference in voice - it wound me up: that a nine year old girl (no matter how mature and intelligent) should have the same thought and speech patterns as a 40 year old woman.
As for the supporting characters... I love reading about the whole Tudor period. The politics, the danger, the intrigue, women that must balance their strength against the ambitions of men.
This felt like a high school drama. Queen Mary is constantly displayed as weak, blinded by faith and an obsession with having a child. Instead of being well-schooled and controlled, Queen Elizabeth is the bitch who flaunts her power and wears her heart on her sleeve. I have no interest in reading these versions.
I had been looking forward to the "dangerous romantic liaisons" and the "maze of treachery, suspicion and danger" the book promises.
Instead, those bits were cut out, and we got what was left. With the exception of Lady Jane's beheading, we weren't present at any major event. Seriously, we hang about in the background, where they talk about what has happened. They talk about Queen Mary's death; they chat about Queen Elizabeth's coronation and the dress she wore. Even the minor plot points, like the engagement of Mary Grey's best friend Peggy; or the marriage of Katherine's best friend, Jane Dormer - we hear about them afterwards.
Instead we're treated to repetitive non-plot.
I got over 200 pages in, but have other books that I'm keen to move onto.
on 26 June 2014
I really liked this book. The characters were well written and the descriptions of the times and events were very good. I especially liked learning more about the other Grey sisters - Mary and Katherine
I read the first book by Elizabeth Fremantle, Queen’s Gambit, which was about Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last and surviving wife. It was an enjoyable historical novel.
This second novel is about the Grey sisters – Jane is briefly mentioned, executed in 1554, and then the story continues in the narratives of her sisters Katherine and Mary. All three daughters of Frances Grey, who had been born Frances Brandon, daughter of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk and his wife Mary Tudor, sisters of King Henry VIII. Thus all three Grey daughters had royal blood of direct Tudor descendancy, a dangerous business when Edward VI died young and unexpectedly. Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon succeeded in making herself Queen, but the fear of uprisings and plots to place someone who the Protestant or lordly factions would consider more worthy on the throne kept Mary busy throughout her reign. She attempts to secure the succession of her own body by marrying Philip of Spain, and is soon pregnant with what she hopes will be her triumph, a Catholic son to succeed her.
In this Court intrigue, the lives of Mary and Katherine are told, and that of their mother who tries to secure a peaceful life by a second marriage to a man below her in rank. We also see life at Court, and in Tudor England through the viewpoint of Levina Teerlinck, who is a trusted confidant of the Grey family, and has access to many of the Court through her work as an artist. The three viewpoints that the reader is offered – those of Mary, Katherine and ‘Veena’ – allow us to see much that the author wants us to see, and it is a rewarding read.
I noticed with some surprise that the character of Frances Grey, usually written as a scheming and hard woman to her daughters, is softened so that she is a delightful woman and mother, trying only to preserve her family as best she can. The characters of Katherine and Mary are also somewhat driven by their destinies – Katherine the pretty, self-centred one, Mary the crook-backed learned one. But any slight superficialities of character is forgiven, as the reader is taken on an engaging journey through Tudor England from 1554 at the height of Mary’s suspicions and plots around the Greys and Elizabeth Tudor, through to 1572. It is a matter of fact that Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey all led tragic lives, circumscribed by their birth and circumstances. There’s no escaping that tragedy in this book, but it is an enjoyable read all the same; one that touches well upon Tudor England and the people who made up the Court and nobility. This is a stronger read in its mature writing than Queen’s Gambit, and is warmly recommended. I look forward to more books from this author.