The Sisters Who Would be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Tragedy - Leanda de Lisle, Wanda McCaddon According to the title of this book, there were three Grey sisters- Jane, Katherine and Mary- all of whom played an important role in Tudor history. According to the bulk of the narrative, there was Lady Jane Grey and two sisters who served as an epilogue to their elder sister’s tragedy. I don’t think this is the fault of de Lisle so much as it is the fault of history; few people recorded their thoughts on the two younger Greys, even though they were possibly more important than Jane in the grand scheme of English succession. Or, if they were important in their day, the grander and more romantic demise of Jane soon overshadowed their (only slightly) longer and less dramatic lives.

A lot of rumor and mythmaking surrounds Jane Grey, and it can be hard to separate the truth from the legends; the “Nine Days Queen” has been many things to many people (and she is the only monarch since 1500 to have no surviving portrait). For the Victorians, she was an innocent led to slaughter by the ambitions of her family- an image exemplified by the painting of her execution by Paul Delaroche. For those displeased by the Catholic rule of monarchs like Mary Tudor and James Stuart, she was a brave martyr to the Protestant cause. Some thought she was merely a tool being manipulated by her husband to maneuver himself onto the throne, and a small minority even considered her an overzealous evangelical looking for a heroic death. So, which is it? Martyr or pawn? Leader or follower?

In reality, drawing a distinction between two opposing labels in this instance will not work. Like any human being, Lady Grey was more complicated than a single label can capture. In The Sisters Who Would be Queen, de Lisle provides shade to better delineate Jane from the bright, lamblike innocent of her later mythology. While her parents were of royal blood and may have been ambitious, her early education and court life don’t indicate the training of a monarch so much as the training of a religious leader. De Lisle focuses often on the Great Chain of Being when discussing the decisions made for Jane- who she married, how she would function at court, and eventually who she would be-all things that would be determined by the fierce hierarchy of Tudor society. In many ways, just being born the relative of a king decided Jane’s fate, and it would determine the lives of her sisters as well.

In de Lisle’s opinion, which is supported with very good research, the middle sister Katherine was really more “important” in the grand scheme than her elder sister. When Mary Tudor died and her half-sister Elizabeth took the throne, Katherine Grey became the de facto heir to the Virgin Queen. Since many were unhappy with the way the succession seemed to be devoid of heirs male, pressure fell on Katherine from both sides- those who wanted a king to supplant Elizabeth were hoping for her to marry and procreate, while Elizabeth did everything in her power to keep Katherine single and out of the limelight. Katherine defied the queen, was married (to someone with similarly strong royal claims, even) and gave birth to not one but TWO sons. But Elizabeth never gave her royal consent, so poor Katherine was locked away in The Tower, like her unfortunate sister, and died there after her children were falsely declared illegitimate.

And then there is Mary, perhaps the least known of the sisters. Not only diminutive in biographical detail, she was apparently very small physically, and possible even deformed. This didn’t keep her from defying Elizabeth just like her elder sister Katherine and marrying without royal permission, and like her sister, being imprisoned and dying away from her husband before the age of 40.

While Katherine and Mary did not end so grandly as Jane, I found myself much more interested in their half third of the book than Jane’s story, which was interesting but felt a rather drawn out by political detail and frequent reiteration of how everyone else has gotten Jane wrong all these years. I found myself engaged with them in their simple desires- to be married and have a family while being thwarted at every turn simply because they were born into royal blood. De Lisle’s descriptions of their motivations and characters kept me interested and made me feel connected to them as people, and I often found myself furious with Queen Elizabeth, just as I would have been in a fictional rendition of the same material, which is an impressive feat in historical writing.

While Jane will always be the grand mystery of the Grey sisters- a mystery fueled by continuing fascination and romanticizing- I found the three sisters equally fascinating in their attempts to live normal lives in extraordinary circumstances, and I give de Lisle a lot of credit for bringing their stories together, even if she couldn’t resist giving Jane the lion’s share. I think it is simply this imbalance between the three figures in the narrative, along with a little unnecessary repetition, that prevented this from crossing from 3-star to 4-star quality for me.

(I listened to this particular edition in audio. The narrator Wanda McCaddon was excellent.)