Her Highness, the Traitor by Susan Higginbotham

As Henry VIII draws his last breath, two very different women, Jane Dudley, Viscountess Lisle, and Frances Grey, Marchioness of Dorset, face the prospect of a boy king, Edward VI. For Jane Dudley, basking in the affection of her large family, the coming of a new king means another step upward for her ambitious, able husband, John. For Frances Grey, increasingly alienated from her husband and her brilliant but arrogant daughter Lady Jane, it means that she—and the Lady Jane—are one step closer to the throne of England…

 The story of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Day Queen, and her tragic end, often overshadows the story of her mother Frances and mother-in-law Jane Dudley. In the same year the two women lost both husbands and children and had to summon the strength to go on, struggling to keep the remains of their families’ intact while at the mercy of the very Crown who tore their families asunder.

Susan Higginbotham’s portrayal of these two women demands the attention they deserve, two mothers trying to raise their families in a turbulent political climate as their husbands gain power in one of the most dangerous and treacherous courts in Europe. There are a lot of traditional views of the people surrounding Jane Grey, the power-hungry, manipulative and abusive parents, the ambitious Dudley’s and their weak and selfish son. The author casts aside these conventions and brings us a richly detailed account of the events of 1547-1555 through the eyes of two women at the centre of it all.

There are no one-dimensional characters that fade quietly into the background of Jane Grey’s story here.

Jane Dudley’s portrayal as a happily-married mother to a large brood of children is a touching and personal account of a woman slightly ill at ease with all the pomp of court and fiercely devoted to her large family. Her husband, John Dudley, is introduced at the beginning of the book in the aftermath of the execution of his father, Edmund Dudley, just as soon as Henry VIII came to the throne. John becomes a ward of Jane’s family and they grow up together. We watch their relationship grow and strengthen with the birth of children and John’s rise through Henry VIII’s court to Duke and Northumberland at Edward VI’s court. Accompanied by a detailed account of their relationship with the Somersets, Edward and Anne Seymour, the story follows the rise of their families to great power and both men’s tragic demise at the hands of their peers.

In contrast, Frances Brandon, the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor and his best friend Charles Brandon, is more than comfortable being close to the Crown, and has a somewhat less fulfilling relationship with her husband and eldest daughter Jane. Jane is presented here in a more realistic fashion than is usual, a headstrong and fiercely intellectual teenager with a rebellious streak, coupled with the arrogance and romanticism of youth and all the overzealousness of someone introduced to a new religion and new learning. It is an interesting portrayal, one in which she scorns her mother for being unable to match her in learning. Being emotionally and intellectually closer to her father causes an uneasy relationship between mother and daughter. Frances is presented as a vulnerable woman, often feeling left out in the cold, this planting the seeds for her relationship with Adrian Stokes, her husband’s Master of the Horse and future-husband until her death.

The women are the key players in this tale, Jane Dudley, Frances Brandon, Anne Somerset, Catherine Willoughby, and through the eyes of these mothers and wives and daughters we see the real peril of being close to the crown and the true cost of ambition. Extensive Author Notes on sources and a bibliography will satisfy both historical fiction and history fans alike. Flawless, compelling storytelling.

Rating: ★★★★★

Thanks to Source Books for providing me with an advanced reading copy. Her Highness the Traitor will be available from June 1st 2012.

 

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