The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Tragedy

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Tragedy

by Leanda de Lisle


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “Leanda de Lisle brings the story of nine days’ queen Lady Jane Grey and her forgotten sisters, the rivals of Elizabeth I, to vivid life in her fascinating biography.”—Philippa Gregory

Mary, Katherine, and Jane Grey–sisters whose mere existence nearly toppled a kingdom and altered a nation’s destiny–are the captivating subjects of Leanda de Lisle’s new book. The Sisters Who Would Be Queen breathes fresh life into these three young women, who were victimized in the notoriously vicious Tudor power struggle and whose heirs would otherwise probably be ruling England today.

Born into aristocracy, the Grey sisters were the great-granddaughters of Henry VII, grandnieces to Henry VIII, legitimate successors to the English throne, and rivals to Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Lady Jane, the eldest, was thrust center stage by greedy men and uncompromising religious politics when she briefly succeeded Henry’s son, the young Edward I. Dubbed “the Nine Days Queen” after her short, tragic reign from the Tower of London, Jane has over the centuries earned a special place in the affections of the English people as a “queen with a public heart.” But as de Lisle reveals, Jane was actually more rebel than victim, more leader than pawn, and Mary and Katherine Grey found that they would have to tread carefully in order to avoid sharing their elder sister’s violent fate.

Navigating the politics of the Tudor court after Jane’ s death was a precarious challenge. Katherine Grey, who sought to live a stable life, earned the trust of Mary I, only to risk her future with a love marriage that threatened Queen Elizabeth’s throne. Mary Grey, considered too petite and plain to be significant, looked for her own escape from the burden of her royal blood–an impossible task after she followed her heart and also incurred the queen’s envy, fear, and wrath.

Exploding the many myths of Lady Jane Grey’s life, unearthing the details of Katherine’s and Mary’s dramatic stories, and casting new light on Elizabeth’s reign, Leanda de Lisle gives voice and resonance to the lives of the Greys and offers perspective on their place in history and on a time when a royal marriage could gain a woman a kingdom or cost her everything.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345491350
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Leanda de Lisle is the author of After Elizabeth. She was educated at Somerville College, Oxford, where she earned a master of arts degree in modern history. A successful journalist and broadcaster, she has been a columnist for The Spectator, The Guardian, Country Life, and the Daily Express, as well as writing for The Times, the Daily Mail, the New Statesman, and The Sunday Telegraph. She lives in Leicestershire with her husband and three children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Frances, Marchioness of Dorset, prepared carefully for the birth of her child. It was an anxious time, but following the traditions of the lying-in helped allay fears of the perils of labor. The room in which she was to have her baby had windows covered and keyholes blocked. Ordinances for a royal birth decreed that only one window should be left undraped, and Frances would depend almost entirely on candles for light. The room was to be as warm, soft, and dark as possible. She bought or borrowed expensive carpets and hangings, a bed of estate, fine sheets, and a rich counterpane. Her friend the late Lady Sussex had one of ermine bordered with cloth of gold for her lying-in, and, as the King's niece, Frances would have wanted nothing less.  

The nineteen-year-old mother-to-be was the daughter of Henry's younger sister, Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, the widow of Louis XII and known commonly as the French Queen. Frances was, therefore, a granddaughter of Henry VII and referred to as the Lady Frances to indicate her status as such. The child of famously handsome parents, she was, unsurprisingly, attractive. The effigy that lies on her tomb at Westminster Abbey has a slender, elegant figure and under the gilded crown she wears, her features are regular and strong. Frances, however, was a conventional Tudor woman, as submissive to her father's choice of husband for her as she would later be to her husband's decisions.  

Henry-or "Harry"-Grey, Marquess of Dorset, described as "young," "lusty," "well learned and a great wit," was only six months older than his wife. But the couple had been married for almost four years already. The contractual arrangements had been made on 24 March 1533, when Frances was fifteen and Dorset sixteen. Among commoners a woman was expected to be at least twenty before she married, and a man older, but of course these were no commoners. They came from a hereditary elite and were part of a ruthless political culture. The children of the nobility were political and financial assets to their families, and Frances's marriage to Dorset reflected this. Dorset came from an ancient line with titles including the baronies of Ferrers, Grey of Groby, Astley, Boneville, and Harrington. He also had royal connections. His grandfather, the 1st Marquess, was the son of Elizabeth Woodville, and therefore the half-brother of Henry VIII's royal mother, Elizabeth of York. This marked Dorset as a suitable match for Frances in terms of rank and wealth, but there were also good political reasons for Suffolk to want him as a son-in-law.  

The period immediately before the arrangement of Frances's marriage had been a difficult one for her parents. The dislike with which Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, viewed her brother's then "beloved," Anne Boleyn, was well-known. It was said that women argued more bitterly about matters of rank than anything else, and certainly Frances's royal mother had deeply resented being required to give precedence to a commoner like Anne. For years the duke and duchess had done their best to destroy the King's affection for his mistress, but in the end without success. The King, convinced that Anne would give him the son that Catherine of Aragon had failed to produce, had married her that January and she was due to be crowned in May/June. It seemed that the days when the Suffolks had basked in the King's favor could be over, but a marriage of Frances to Harry Dorset offered a possible lifeline, a way into the Boleyn camp. Harry Dorset's father, Thomas Grey of Dorset, had been a witness for the King in his efforts to achieve an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He had won his famous diamond-and-ruby badge of the Tudor rose at the jousting tournaments that had celebrated Catherine's betrothal to the King's late brother, Arthur, in 1501. In 1529, the year before Thomas Grey of Dorset died, he had offered evidence that this betrothal was consummated. It had helped support Henry's arguments that Catherine had been legally married to his brother and his own marriage to her was therefore incestuous. Anne Boleyn remained grateful to the family, and Harry Dorset was made a Knight of the Bath at her coronation.  

From Harry's perspective, however, the marriage to Frances-concluded sometime between 28 July 1533 and 4 February 1534-also carried political and material advantages to his family. His grandfather, the 1st Marquess, may have been Henry VII's brother-in-law, but by marrying a princess of the blood he would be doing even better; and the fact that he had only the previous year refused the daughter of the Earl of Arundel may be an early mark of his ambition. Through Frances, any children they had would be linked by blood to all the power and spiritual mystery of the crown. It was an asset of incalculable worth-though it would carry a terrible price.  

Nearly four years later, sometime before the end of May, 1537, Frances's child was to be born. Harry Grey of Dorset was in London that spring, and Frances would surely have been with him then at Dorset House, on the Strand. It was one of a number of large properties built by the nobility close to the new royal palace of Whitehall. There was a paved street behind and, in front-where the house had its grandest aspect-there was a garden down to the river with a water gate onto the Thames. Traveling by boat in London was easier than navigating the narrow streets, and foreigners often commented on the beauty of the river. Swans swam among the great barges while pennants flew from the pretty gilded cupolas of the Tower. But there were also many grim sights on the river that spring. London Bridge was festooned with the decapitated heads of the leaders of the recent rebellion in the north, the Pilgrimage of Grace: men who had fought for the faith of their ancestors and the right of the Princess Mary to inherit her father's crown. For all Henry's concerns about the decorum of female rule, the majority of his ordinary subjects had little objection to the concept. That women were inferior as a sex was regarded as indisputable, but it was possible for some to be regarded as exceptional. The English were famous in Europe for their devotion to the Virgin Mary, the second Eve, who alone among humanity was born without the taint of the first sin, and who reigned under God as Queen of Heaven. It did not seem, to them, a huge leap to accept a Queen on Earth. Just as the Princess Mary's rights were under attack, however, so were their religious beliefs and traditions.  

When the Pope had refused to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the King had broken with Rome, and the Pope's right of intervention on spiritual affairs in England had been abolished by an act of Parliament on 7 April 1533. With the benefit of hindsight we understand that this was a definitive moment in the history of the English-speaking world, but at the time, most people had seen these events as no more than moves in a political game. Matters of jurisdiction between King and Pope were not things with which ordinary people concerned themselves, and the aspects of traditional belief that first came under attack were often controversial ones. Long before Henry's reformation in religion there had been debate for reform within the Catholic Church, inspired in particular by the so-called Humanists. They were fascinated by the rediscovered ancient texts of Greece and Rome, and in recent decades Western academics had, for the first time, learnt Greek as well as Latin. This allowed them to read earlier versions of the Bible than the medieval Latin translations, and to make new translations. As a change in meaning to a few words could question centuries of religious teaching, so a new importance came to be placed on historical accuracy and authenticity. Questions were raised about such traditions as the cult of relics, and the shrines to local saints whose origins may have lain with the pagan gods. It was only in 1535, when two leading Humanists, Henry's former Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, and the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, went to the block rather than accept the King's claimed "royal supremacy" over religious affairs, that people began to realize there was more to Henry's reformation than political argument and an attempt to reform religious abuses. And even then many did not waver in their Catholic faith. These "Henrician" Catholics included among their number the chief ideologue of the "royal supremacy," the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner. For the bishop, as for the King, papal jurisdiction, the abolished shrines, pilgrimages, and monasteries, were not intrinsic to Catholic beliefs, but the Holy Sacraments, such as the Mass, remained inviolate. Bishop and King argued that although the English Church was in schism in the sense that it had separated from Rome, it was not heretical and in opposition to it.  

Those who disagreed, and opposed Henry's reformation, felt his tyranny to full effect, as the heads displayed at London Bridge and other public sites bore silent witness. One hundred and forty-four rebels from the Pilgrimage of Grace were dismembered and their body parts put on show in the north and around the capital. Even if Londoners avoided the terrible spectacle of these remains, they would not miss the other physical evidence of the King's reformation. Everywhere the great religious buildings that had played a central role in London life were being destroyed or adapted to secular use. Only that May, the monks from the London Charterhouse who had refused to sign an oath to the royal supremacy were taken to Newgate Prison, where they would starve to death in chains.   Inside Frances's specially prepared chamber at Dorset House, however, the sights, sounds, and horrors of the outside world were all shut out. She was surrounded only with the women who would help deliver her baby. When the first intense ache of labor came it was a familiar one. Frances had already lost at least one child, a son who died in infancy, as so many Tudor children did. Nothing is recorded of his short life save his name: Henry, Lord Harington. Contemporary sources focus instead on the children born to Anne Boleyn: her daughter, Elizabeth, born on 7 September 1533 (at whose christening Dorset had borne the gilded saltcellar),* and the miscarriages that had followed-the little deaths that had marked the way to Boleyn's own, executed on trumped-up charges of adultery on 19 May 1536. The King's second marriage was annulled and an act of Parliament had since declared both the King's daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, illegitimate and incapable of succession. This raised in importance the heirs of the King's sisters in the line of succession, and both King and kingdom had already shown sensitivity to the implications. The rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace had expressed their fear that on Henry's death England would pass to the foreigner James V of Scots, the son of his elder sister, Margaret. Meanwhile, her daughter by a second marriage, to the Earl of Angus, Lady Margaret Douglas, a favorite of the English court, was currently in prison for having become betrothed without the King's permission. Her lover, Anne Boleyn's uncle Thomas Howard, would die in the Tower that October. But while Frances's child would, inevitably, hold an important place within the royal family, the King remained determined that his own line would succeed him. The pressure on her to produce a male heir was therefore of a different order to that placed on Henry's wives. Dorset wanted a son, as all noblemen did, but he and Frances were still young and, when a girl was born, their relief that she was strong and healthy would have outweighed any disappointment in her sex.   A servant carried the newborn child immediately to a nearby room and handed her to a nurse. It was usual for fathers to be at hand when their children were born and Dorset would have been one of the first to visit the dimly lit nursery where his daughter was being fed and bound in swaddling, to keep her limbs straight and prevent her from scratching her face. Her spiritual welfare was of still greater concern to her parents and her christening was arranged as soon as possible, though this meant Frances could not attend. New mothers were expected to remain in bed for up to a month, and some did not even sit up for a fortnight. Frances played a role, however, in helping choose as her daughter's godmother the King's new wife, Jane Seymour, after whom the little girl was named.   With her pursed lips and sandy eyelashes, Jane Seymour seems a poor replacement for Anne Boleyn, whose black eyes, it was said, "could read the secrets of a man's heart," but like her predecessor, Jane Seymour was a ruthless seductress. Her betrothal to Henry was announced only the day after Anne was executed. Having gotten her king it was her performance as a broodmare that was now important. In this too, however, she was showing marked success. A pregnancy had been evident for weeks, and on 27 May the rumors were confirmed with a Te Deum sung at St. Paul's Cathedral "for joy of the Queen's quickening with child." It remained to be seen whether Jane Seymour would give the King the son he wanted, but in choosing her as godmother to their new daughter, Frances and Harry Dorset had offered a vote of confidence, and although they could not know it, the Seymour family would remain closely linked to their own, one way or another, thereafter.  

About a fortnight after the christening, Frances had her first day out of bed and dressed in one of her finest nightgowns for a celebratory party. The royal tailor advised damask or satin, worn with an ermine-trimmed bonnet and waistcoat, allowing the wearer to keep warm as well as look good, for visiting female friends and relations. Frances had a younger sister, Eleanor, married to Lord Clifford, and an equally young stepmother. Frances's mother had died on Midsummer's Day in 1533, and her father had wasted little time before remarrying. The bride he had chosen was his fourteen-year-old ward, an heiress, Katherine Willoughby. He was then forty-nine, and the muscles of the champion jouster, like those of his friend the King, had begun to turn to fat. Frances would doubtless have wished her father had waited longer and made a different choice: the new Duchess of Suffolk had been raised alongside her like a sister since the age of seven. But Frances had accepted what she could not change and remained close to her childhood friend, who was now pregnant with the second of Frances's half brothers, Charles Brandon. After the party was over, Frances could venture beyond her chambers to the nursery and other rooms in the house, until the lying-in concluded at last when Jane was about a month old with the "churching"-a religious service of thanksgiving and purification that ended with Frances being sprinkled with holy water. "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean," she prayed, "wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." 

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Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Tragedy 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A fascinating true story about three sisters who were heirs to the Tudor crown
jms41 More than 1 year ago
Not knowing much about Lady Jane Grey or her family, I found this book quite interesting. It was sad that she only reigned as Queen for a few days, but that is history. I enjoyed learning about her other two sisters in the Grey family.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As can be said of all her books, Leanda de Lisle delivers nonfiction at its very best. She most certainly has dedicated countless hours of research in preparation of bringing this story in history alive. There is literally ZERO dry reading found in The Sisters Who Would Be Queen. The story of Jane Grey is fairly well known but that of her sisters, Mary and Katherine seems to have been pushed in to the dusty cob webbed corners of the history shelves.Thanks to Leanda de Lisle, these young women and the fascinating events of their lives are brought right into your home, library or school. Well done, Ms. DeLisle, and THANK YOU!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Sisters Who Would Be Queen is fairly interesting, particularly if you are into the history of England and its politics. Four Stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
well -- I don't agree with the reviewers who found this book dull or repetitive. I suppose one has to love reading about historical subjects, to enjoy this book. I found it exceedingly well-written and it held my interest over several OTHER books that I was reading at the same time. But then --I enjoy reading history!
marsap on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a non-fiction account of the story of Lady Jane Grey and her lesser known sisters, Katherine and Mary. All I can say is that I can't believe that I finished the book. I found parts of this book boring, confusing and too many characters were introduced without explanation or any real comment. Unless you are a real Tudor history nerd I wouldn't recommend this book. 1 out of 5 stars.
OregonKimm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the first audio book I¿ve ever listened to. I bought an iPod for Christmas and decided to try my hand at listening to books, in addition to reading them. I wasn¿t sure if picking a non-fiction book such as The Sisters Who Would Be Queen was the wisest choice, but it was available from the library and I already had it on my reading wish list. I listened to a daily segment and eventually worked my way through over ten hours worth of audio! Now, I celebrate that accomplishment!Lady Jane Grey is my favorite historical figure. Naturally, I took to de Lisle¿s book with great enthusiasm. I learned a great deal more than I anticipated, not only about Lady Jane, but also about her sisters, Catherine and Mary. de Lisle strips away the image of Jane as an innocent victim of political manipulation. Of course, political games were to be expected, even at her young age, Jane was in the game as well as everyone else and had her own agenda. She was intelligent, for exceeding today¿s standards. She was schooled in a multitude of languages and had a deep understanding of religion and its associated beliefs. She was an evangelical to the core, refusing to compromise her own beliefs, even in the face of death. Jane¿s sisters had their own resilient personalities. Both were locked up for displeasing the Queen (Elizabeth I) by secretly marrying men they had formed attachments to. This was a crucial faux pas in that each sister was still in consideration as an heir to the throne¿seeing as how Elizabeth refused to name a line of succession until years later when she was dying. Whom they married and what children they bore only increased their chances of getting the crown. After all, England was still seeking a male heir and their children could ¿upset the apple cart.¿ Both sisters married for love and each lost their love during imprisonment. It seems that Catherine starved herself. She never could get over losing her husband and eldest son (they had two sons together). Mary lost her husband after he gained his freedom, but she had yet to do so. After his death, she was eventually released and went on to serve in Queen Elizabeth¿s court once again. ¿ I don¿t know how I could have done that myself, but I suppose it came down to survival in uncertain times.The book covers a great deal of information and is an essential read for those who have an interest in The Tudors. We learn about the Grey family (as well as several other families whose histories are intertwined with them) through their relationships with the monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, (Jane), Elizabeth I and finally James I. Quite a bit of historical information to be gleaned for sure! I think I¿ll be searching for more of de Lisle¿s writings¿
Cariola on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
We may all know the fate of Lady Jane Grey, the nine-days queen, but I, for one, knew nothing about her younger sisters, Katherine and Mary. Despite de Lisle's title, none of the three "would be queen" of her own accord. Their claims were promoted by others because their mother, Frances, was the only surviving child of Mary Tudor's second marriage to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. That made Frances, as Henry VIII's niece, a viable heir to the throne, since Henry had specifically excluded the heirs of his elder sister Margaret. When Edward VI died, many still considered his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, to be bastards. Frances gave up her place in line in favor of her daughter Jane (most likely as part of the deal to marry her into the prominent and ambitious Dudley family). And so began the fate of "the sisters who would be queen." Katherine Grey, a court beauty, was denied Queen Elizabeth's permission to marry the man she loved. They married in secret but were discovered when Katherine's first pregnancy began to show. She spent the rest of her life in the Tower--where her two sons were born. Mary Grey, the youngest sister, a tiny, unattractive, and possibly hunchbacked woman, suffered a similar fate by falling in love with and secretly marrying a man of inferior status.De Lisle provides fascinating insights into power, intrigue, jealousy, and the conflicts between public and private lives in the Tudor era. What I appreciated most about the book was the way that it brought together many pieces of Tudor history that had been floating in my brain, fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. I hadn't realized, for instance, that the Grey family were descended from the first marriage of Elizabeth Wodeville, wife of Edward IV. And somehow it had escaped me that Guildford Dudley was the brother of Elizabeth's favorite, Lord Robert Dudley--strange indeed that she developed such an affection for one whose father and brother were executed for trying to shift the throne away from her sister Mary and herself.The Sisters Who Would Be Queen is a must-read for any afficiando of Tudor England. It's filled with facts, but De Lisle's expert hand makes it an entertaining story as well.
meggyweg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An EXCELLENT book, one of the best Tudor histories I've ever read. I thought I knew quite a lot about Lady Jane Grey, but this book taught me many things and totally changed my perspective on Jane. I like my new perspective better -- Jane seems more real, more human now, than she did when she was just a poor innocent martyr with no control over her life. The stories of her sisters, Katherine and Mary (both extraordinary women in their own right) are tragedies of a most Shakespearean kind.I read the whole book, nearly 400 pages, in one sitting.
reginaromsey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am finding this book a facinating read. For once the book is really about the Period, the Families, and to a smaller extent about Jane's upbringing. I have been disappointed by the other book on Jane - Jane Grey a Tudor Tragedy since there really isn't a great deal of information available about a teen ager who lived 17 years over 400 years ago. This book concentrates on the times the personalities and the power struggles that surrounded Jane, Mary and Katherine. It denys old myths to include Jane's eyes being brown and several other later embelishments to her cult of stories.I haven't finished, but I'm definitely impressed. I need to do some more research on the author, but I do recommend this to all interested in the time and people of the English Religious revolution which so marks the Tudors, and the personalities around Elizabeth, Mary, Edward and the other rulers of this most studies dynasty.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. She dispelled myths about the Grey sisters and other Tudor courtiers including the Seymours and Dudleys. Jane is seen as a victim, and her mother as a monster and father as a dullard or the same as Frances. And Katherine as an idiot and Mary Grey is not given much thought too but Leanda deconstructs these pop stereotypes to give us the real Greys. What comes out is an active, staunch Protestant reformer as her cousin Edward VI who was encouraging rebellion in her last days before she and her husband Guildford were beheaded. Frances is tno the monster of Tudor myth but a strict and caring mother who pleaded to the last minute to save her husband and daughter's life. The same goes for the two younger Grey sisters who were the victim of the Tudor sisters' ambition and their fear of the claim they had. Katherine died, near mad, in 1568 and her sister Mary ent years later, also punished for marrying without the Queen's knowledge and for wanting to be happy. She was forgiven after a while and allowed to lice comfortably but she was never allowed to see her husband, and was criticized, ridiculed by the Spanish ambassador.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting and easy to read; a great look at life during such a historic time!
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dr5934 More than 1 year ago
The writing was good, however there is no need to denigrate other authors to prove the points you're trying to make.  I found this insulting to other historians/authors as well as myself.  Interesting subject matter, however this could have been better without the finger pointing and detailing of other's mistakes or lack thereof.
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editrixSM More than 1 year ago
Dreadful. An exciting family and subject rendered dull by repetition and rote facts - deleted early with extreme prejudice - don't waste your time or money. Unless you are an insomniac.
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