On Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle

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I have always been fascinated in the forgotten lives of women in history and Sisters of Treason (the second in my Tudor trilogy) exposes the lives of three such women. The novel is set during a period when the only heirs to the English throne where female and my protagonists the Grey sisters, Lady Katherine and Lady Mary, are two overlooked figures who were at the heart of the struggle for the Tudor succession. They live their lives in the shadow of their sister, the deposed Queen, Lady Jane Grey, who had been executed for the threat she posed to the crown. This put Katherine in the perilous position of being, in some minds, the Protestant alternative to the Catholic Mary Tudor, whose grab for the throne saw their sister toppled. Of course, another formidable young woman in the equation was Elizabeth Tudor, who narrowly avoided the block herself during her Catholic half-sister’s bloody reign. But many felt concern over the blot of illegitimacy that Elizabeth carried and believed Katherine Grey to be a better candidate. It is the enthralling power play between these women, and those who sought to manipulate them, which provides the focus of the novel.

Though a queen regnant was constitutionally possible in sixteenth century England it was culturally problematic. It was ingrained in society, from top to bottom, that men held dominance over women and so in order to accommodate a female in power there was a necessary, and sometimes very awkward, shift in the structures of power. The continuum through my Tudor trilogy is the political backdrop in which we see the female monarchs, Mary I and Elizabeth I come to the throne and provides an exploration of the ways in which they managed to hold onto their power in a world that struggled to understand the possibility of a woman in authority. It also allows a view of these queens that is human and seeks to understand some of the brutal acts they were responsible for in the context of their time and circumstance.

But the core of the story lies in the hearts and minds of Katherine and Mary Grey and also the court painter Levina Teerlinc. For me in order to imagine a plausible sixteenth century world it is vital to look outside the lives of the privileged classes and in the character of Levina, a Flemish artist who came to England under the patronage of Katherine Parr, I am able to shine a light on one such outsider and thereby show a greater spectrum of women’s lives in the period.

The more famous sister,
Lady Jane Grey, engraving by
Willem de Passe, 1620

Only the barest facts are known about Levina and sadly little of her work has survived: she was the daughter of an illuminator of some renown, Simon Bening, and learned her craft in her father’s workshop.  We also know that she served as court painter to four Tudor monarchs Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, and contributed to the rise of miniature portraiture, all of which is remarkable given that she was a woman. I became fascinated in her story when researching Queen’s Gambit and discovered her links to the Grey family through three of her miniatures, one of Katherine as a girl, another of her with her baby, who might have been a King of England, and a third depicting a young woman who some believe to be Lady Jane Grey. For me this established a definite link between Levina and the Greys, which is something I expanded upon in the novel. I have made Levina an important cog in the girls’ lives, thereby allowing me to take the story out of the confines of the court and into the streets, dwellings and ordinary lives in Tudor London at a time of great instability.

Another perspective comes from the youngest Grey sister Lady Mary. Mary is an interesting figure because she was a court insider and yet being unusually small of stature and hunchbacked was also, in the sense of her physical difference, an outsider. At the time the medieval belief, that any disfigurement was considered the devil’s work and physical perfection equated to goodness, still held sway making Mary all the more remarkable. As an intelligent and accomplished, yet overlooked, young woman, with an extraordinary story, Mary offered me a unique opportunity to uncover Early Modern attitudes to disability, something that is usually brushed under the carpet of history and also to describe a more nuanced view than the familiar crook-backed villain found in literature. Indeed it is rare to find a disabled protagonist in contemporary fiction, historical or otherwise and Mary is a woman who ultimately refuses to have her life curbed by her physical circumstances so I feel the true heart of the story lies with her.

Katherine is Mary’s opposite in temperament and the figure who embodies the tragic in the novel. She is headstrong, wild, devastatingly impulsive and seeks to be desired by all in order to forget the perilous position she holds in the succession. She unwittingly becomes the focus of schemes to overthrow Elizabeth and her imprudent nature plays into the hands of the plotters making her story one of constant danger, heightened tension and ultimate heartbreak. For me these three extraordinary women provide a prism through which we can observe a distant past that is deeply disturbing, and more so given that the foundations of our modern culture were laid in that time.

The first part of the trilogy, Queen’s Gambit, tells the story of Henry VIII’s last wife Katherine Parr and her maid Dorothy Fownten. The final (as yet unnamed) part is set in the final years of Elizabeth’s reign and focuses on Penelope Devereux, the sister of the Earl of Essex, and her nemesis, the Queen’s closest advisor, Sir Robert Cecil.

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Sisters of Treason will be published by Penguin in May and reviewed in the next edition of Shiny New Books. Queen’s Gambit is reviewed here.

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Elizabeth Fremantle, Queen’s Gambit (Penguin, 2014) 496 pages.

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