The Last Tudor

Written by Philippa Gregory
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

The title of Gregory’s latest novel is intriguing, given that its plot revolves around a great irony of history: Elizabeth I’s determination to subdue and destroy her rivals, her quest for absolute dominance ensuring that she will be the final member of her dynasty to rule Britain. Although she is the villain of the piece—and some readers might have a problem with her vilification—her presence is felt, rather than seen. Instead, Gregory brings three different Tudor heroines, the Grey sisters, to the center stage—Jane, Katherine, and Mary, who, together with their mother, Frances, are in line to inherit the throne. Actually, the eldest, Jane, briefly preceded Elizabeth in 1553, when Edward VI made her his successor, and she ruled for nine days, until she was deposed by Mary Tudor.

Jane’s is the first story to be told in this triptych, and the most compelling, since Gregory, to create a complex characterization, superbly balances the competing historical views of Jane as either a compliant martyr or a clever Protestant intriguer. After Jane is beheaded, the narrative switches to Katherine, and finally to Mary, as they defy their queen by marrying without her consent. While Katherine is exquisitely beautiful, Mary suffers from dwarfism; however, both sisters come across as strong-willed and intelligent observers of court intrigue—which sometimes makes it hard to tell their voices apart. According to Gregory, their motivation is not ambition, but love; even so, their wish for personal happiness collides with Elizabeth’s fear of a coup. Thus, Katherine and Mary are parted from their husbands and incarcerated; while the older dies from a broken heart, her younger sibling lingers on, longing for death and a magnificent funeral. By the end, the House of Tudor seems diminished and moribund. Despite the tragic subject matter, a fascinating read.