Book review: Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle

Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle
Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle

When the deposed nine-day English queen Lady Jane Grey was executed at the Tower of London in 1554, she left behind two younger sisters to face a lifetime under the shadow of treason.

For years, Katherine and Mary Grey were forced to play a deadly game of cat and mouse under the suspicious gaze of two wilful Tudor queens... ‘Bloody’ Mary who burned heretics at the stake, and Elizabeth, clever, distrustful and ruthless.

The Grey sisters, who both inherited the ‘curse’ of royal blood, had to decide whether to put love before obedience, risking not just the wrath of a jealous monarch but their freedom – and their heads.

Sisters of Treason is the second novel by former fashion editor Elizabeth Fremantle, a powerful new voice in historical fiction who has joined the likes of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir with her gripping tales of power, politics and passion set in the poisonous and irresistible heart of the Tudor court.

Here she does a brilliant job of pitting the ill-fated, treason-tainted Grey sisters against Mary and Elizabeth, their capricious regal cousins inside a court brimming with fear, menace and a palpable sense of tension.

Overseeing the action is the fascinating real-life Flemish painter Levina Teerlinc who served as an artist at the Tudor court and is known to have painted portraits of the Grey sisters and Queen Elizabeth I.

Still reeling from the executions of their sister Jane and over-ambitious father, Henry Grey, the Duke of Suffolk, Katherine and Mary Grey are serving at the Catholic court of Queen Mary but tainted by the stain of family treachery.

Until Mary produces a son to her Spanish husband Prince Felipe, the succession is by no means assured, and both the Grey girls, with their ‘veins of Tudor blood,’ could yet be a rallying point for Protestant rebels.

Neither sister is suited to the hazards of court life. Katherine is flirtatious, recklessly outspoken and spends her days ‘buffeted by grand passions.’ Mary, with her crooked spine and stunted stature, is wise beyond her ten years and already aware that her deformities are a source of fear and suspicion.

Contracting a marriage is their only means of escape but both know that it would be a fatal political act without royal permission.

When Queen Mary dies and her hot-headed, malevolent sister Elizabeth inherits the crown, life becomes increasingly dangerous for the Grey sisters. Helping them to chart a course through court politics is royal portrait painter and family friend Levina Teerlinc who has observed that ‘royal blood and a functioning womb is all that most care about in a princess.’

Katherine desperately needs to love and be loved and, like any teenage girl, Mary’s thoughts are turning to romance. ‘My shape only makes me different on the outside,’ she says.

Ultimately they must both decide how far they will go to defy Elizabeth, and whether they are prepared to risk all for love...

Fremantle, who has a sharp eye for contemporary detail and a superb grasp of 16th century politics, deals a clever hand in this compelling portrayal of some of the leading women characters of the dynamic Tudor dynasty.

Levina’s account, which runs parallel to those of Katherine and Mary, provides insight, background and drama to the unfolding story of the ill-fated Grey family who paid a heavy price for the Duke’s bid to usurp the throne.

Through her artist’s eye, we witness not just the scheming but the very human presence of the principal players... Queen Mary small, sallow and ‘crushed’ by expectation; Elizabeth forceful and proud, ‘a helmeted Athena’; the gregarious, resilient and beautiful Katherine; and ‘crookbacked’ Mary with her cynical intelligence and hidden vulnerability.

Haunted by the execution of their sister, Katherine and Mary define their own thoughts, desires and fears through the medium of Jane’s unwavering faith and self-assurance whilst facing the harsh reality of their lives shrunk to out-of-favour ‘nobodies.’

Sisters of Treason is a thrilling evocation of the perilous Tudor court, poised so precariously at a fascinating juncture in English history when it was women – and not men – who had everything to play for... and everything to lose.

(Michael Joseph, hardback, £14.99)