Lady Jane Grey
Anna Whitelock reviews three books about women of the Tudor court.
Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery
Eric Ives, Blackwell 392pp £19.99 ISBN 978 1405194136
Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen
Tracy Borman, Jonathan Cape 464pp £20 ISBN 978 0099548621
The Tudor Queens of England
David Loades, Hambledon Continuum 264pp £25 ISBN 978 1847250193
In a year which celebrated the accession of England’s notorious King Henry VIII it might be thought that there would have been little space on publishers’ lists for the women of the Tudor court. Yet these three books suggest that the popular appetite for the Tudors has yet to be sated. Each of the authors does try, with varying success, to enliven the field by writing an innovative form of biography. Together they provide a timely retort – should one be needed – to David Starkey’s irreverent dismissal of ‘feminised history’.
The most innovative of the three books is doubtless Eric Ives’ Lady Jane Grey. Written by a doyen of Tudor history, this is a predictably intelligent account of the often overlooked struggle for power between Mary Tudor and the ‘nine days queen’. It is at once forensically researched and told with the pace and dramatic verve of a modern whodunnit. It offers a radical reinterpretation of the events of July 1553 and explores the personalities, moves and motives of the key protagonists. Less a hapless victim, Lady Jane Grey is portrayed as a well-educated and determined young woman of fierce integrity who, through Edward VI’s will, had a strong claim to the throne. This is a thoroughly absorbing and ingenious book which will appeal to scholars and general readers alike.
Tracey Borman’s Elizabeth’s Women also seeks novelty by telling Elizabeth I’s story through her relationships with the key women in her life. Chapters focus on her mother, her governess, her stepmothers, her cousins and rivals and the maids of honour who attended on her in the Privy Chamber. It is a fascinating account but the narrative covers a lot of ground and so is at times stretched rather thin. The best chapters portray the sexual jealousy Elizabeth felt towards her women and the stories of clandestine liaisons which were played out at the heart of the court. Generally, however, Elizabeth’s Women is more original in ambition than in execution. The book promises to tell the hidden story of the Virgin Queen, yet there are no significant new insights. The book will doubtless attract readers – Elizabeth always does – but some will be disappointed.
David Loades, a prolific writer on the Tudor period, also attempts to write a novel narrative and to delve into the secret lives of the Tudor queens. Like Borman he does not entirely deliver and there are few fresh revelations. Moreover the ‘Tudor’ queens included are a puzzlingly eclectic mix. Loades starts with a discussion of Catherine of Valois, who became Henry V’s queen in 1420, Margaret of Anjou, consort to Henry VI, and Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward IV, before moving on to a discussion of the wives of Henry VIII, of Mary and Elizabeth and of Lady Jane Grey and Mary Queen of Scots. While the book is admirable in its attempt to be broad in scope it might have been more coherent to focus in detail on those queens who were actually Tudors. Loades writes with commendable clarity but at times his appeal to a general readership is rather contrived. Sexy titles such as ‘The Queen as Dominatrix’ (Margaret of Anjou), ‘The Queen as Lover’ (Elizabeth Woodville) and ‘The Queen as Whore’ (Katherine Howard) seem somewhat at odds with the otherwise sober account of their lives. The themes jar awkwardly against chronology so Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves (‘The Queen as Foreign Ally’) are dealt with together in one chapter before any discussion of Anne Boleyn or Jane Seymour.
The book is particularly interesting in its comparison of the roles, duties and characters of Queen Consorts with Queen Regnants. While consorts needed to be supportive breeding machines, ruling queens, particularly if they were married, faced the challenge of being at once a virile and martial ruler and a submissive and obedient wife. In this consideration of gender, power and monarchy, The Tudor Queens of England is a valuable and accessible survey and Loades is an immensely experienced guide.
Books on the Tudors clearly sell and are indicative of a growing market for popular history yet claims that this inevitably means ‘dumbing down’ are misplaced. The best popular history, as Ives’ book particularly demonstrates, is rigorously researched and authoritatively argued and it is this breadth of knowledge and eye to detail that really brings the past alive to the general reader.
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