Innocent Traitor

By: Alison Weir
Published by: Ballantine Books, 2007

I'm all awash in the Tudors lately.

The HBO-style Showtime series, The Tudors, detailed, provocative, and oh-so-slightly yet appropriately modern, has been my Sunday night activity of choice for several weeks now.

And it was sheer coincidence that I recently picked up a novel that takes place in the same general time period - with the same general outcome for the leading lady.

We like to think our government is scandalous - we don't know the half of what the English (not to mention the French, Italians, and Spanish) had to put up with in the 1500s. The only difference was that when someone went too far back then he was more likely to lose his head simply be impeached and get to write a book about it later.

The book, Innocent Traitor, tells the tale of Lady Jane Grey, also known as The Nine Days Queen . She was so known because that is the length of time she ruled. She still holds the record for the shortest rein in British history.

Here is a quick synopsis of the life of Jane, as told on the website "Jane Grey remains one of the most compelling and tragic figures in Tudor history. She possessed royal blood through her grandmother, Princess Mary Tudor, and this heritage brought her to the scaffold in 1554. Jane had been named heiress to the English throne in her great-uncle Henry VIII's will, but only if his son Edward and daughters Mary and Elizabeth died without issue. But Edward ruled for just six years and his ambitious advisor, John Dudley, was determined to remain in power. To that end, he persuaded Edward to write his own will and leave the throne to his pious cousin, Jane Grey. Though just fifteen at the time, she was known for her Protestant piety and learning; it was this religious devotion which persuaded Edward to alter the succession. Deeply pious himself, he could not leave the throne to his Catholic sister, Mary. Jane was quickly wed to Dudley's son and crowned queen of England in July 1553. But she ruled for just nine days, trapped and unhappy. Mary Tudor claimed the throne with great popular support and Jane was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Her subsequent execution was a political necessity for Mary Tudor. Despite her youth, Jane met her end with great dignity and courage."

Weir has chosen to tell the sad story of this young woman through a variety of feminine voices, among them: her mother's, that of Jane's beloved Queen, Katherine Parr, and of her nurse, Mrs. Ellen, as well as through the words of Jane, herself.

Each voice is unique, and each one supplies the details of life in Tudor England from a slightly different point of view - the whole providing a compelling portrait of the world to which these women were confined, and in which they struggled, schemed, and suffered.

By all accounts, Jane's was not a pretty upbringing. Female when her parents desired a boy, and accomplished rather than charming, Jane, by her own account, was not a pampered child: "I will tell you a truth which perchance ye will marvel at. One of the greatest benefits that God ever gave me is that he sent me so sharp and severe parents and so gentle a schoolmaster. For when I am in the presence of Father or Mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways (which I will not name for the honour I bear them), so without measure misordered, that I think myself in hell..."

Her one saving grace was her tutor, Mr. Alymer, who treated her kindly, and was no doubt at least in part responsible for her love of, and accomplishment in, learning.

Sent as a mere child of nine to attend the Queen (Katherine Parr, the final wife of an aging, bloated, and disease-ridden Henry VIII), she quickly becomes a favorite of the Queen, now a retired dowager (Edward VI has ascended the throne). Katherine has married - this time for love - Thomas Seymour. Seymour, it turns out, is dallying with the young Princess Elizabeth I. The pregnant dowager queen, discovering her husband and niece locked in an early morning embrace, has both the wit and the dignity to send the girl discretely away, avoiding a scandal, and maintaining at least a show of her marriage.

Jane is happy in Katherine's intellectual and Protestantly pious household, and when the Queen dies of childbed fever, she is broken hearted. She becomes something of a pawn in Thomas Seymour's scheme to use his dead wife's connection to the throne to his own advantage, though ultimately he is outfoxed by John Dudley, and Seymour is executed. Jane must go home to her parents.

The Greys learn that while a little girl had left their care, a poised, pious, even self-righteous young woman has returned. The Greys had much more in common with Henry VIII than with Elizabeth I. They preferred gambling, dining, hunting, and dancing to learning, reading, talking and intrigue. Ambitious, their approach to success was more likely to be hail-fellow-well-met than sly chicanery. Jane, devout, disciplined, and critical, found little to like in their lifestyle.

Edward VI, like Jane, is Protestant, and he and many of those around him are concerned that next in line to the throne of England is Mary Queen of Scots - a Catholic, and his half-sister. To prevent her ascension to the throne, Edward declares that she is illegitimate, by virtue of the way in which the marriage to her mother was obtained. But in doing this, he must also declare his Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, also illegitimate. This puts Lady Jane Grey next in line for the throne of England.

Thus the stage is set for Jane's ultimate end: the block at the Tower of London. Through apparently little fault of her own, other than a willingness to cooperate with the power-hungry around her, she becomes the target of Mary's supporters, and like many a woman in the Tudor Court before her, loses her head to an accusation that had more to do with politics than crime.

Weir, I have learned, is principally an historian. In this novel, she makes the transition to fiction, and she sets herself an ambitious task, having to give a voice to not one but several women, each of whom sees the world from a distinctly different set of eyes. She acquits herself admirably: even the dialog rings true, neither stilted faux-historical, nor jarringly modern. Best of all is her historian's knowledge of the period, its styles, activities, sights, sounds, and scents. These details give the story depth and truth - and we can be reasonably sure that the events are as they occurred, and not the fancy of an over-heated imagination.

By the time Jane is waiting in the Tower for her execution, we are truly shaken that so young and vibrant a woman can have met such an untimely and unwarranted end - and we can only be glad that our own leaders, however mendacious they may at times be, lack the power to lop of the heads of those who oppose them.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the review. Will want to search out this book to read.
Anonymous said…
I’m nonetheless learning from you, however I’m improving myself. I actually love studying every little thing that's written on your blog.Keep the tales coming. I loved it!

Popular Posts