Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor tells the story of Lady Jane Grey, who may or may not have been the first Queen Regent of England, depending on which historian you cite. What’s interesting about it is that Weir has chosen to tell the story from a dozen different perspectives, only one of whom is a man. In a period of history where women had very little power, Weir found several women whose voices she used to tell history, including: Jane Grey; her mother, Francies Brandon-Grey; Queen Consort Katherine Parr; Queen Regent Mary and Queen Consort Jane Seymour. The dominant use of female voices in Innocent Traitor sets the tone of the story where men were all-powerful and if women wanted any say at all, they had to be discreet and manipulative, and even that tactic offered no guarantees if the man in question was determined to have his way.
Jane Grey, as the great-niece of Henry VIII, has a strong claim to the throne, especially given only one of Henry’s children – Edward – has a strong claim to legitimacy. Growing up, she is an introverted, studious girl who has little interest in anything but her books and promoting the Protestant faith. Her childhood is spent in the twilight years of Henry’s reign, and when the sickly Edward inherits the throne, there is concern of power falling to his older half-sister Mary, a devout Catholic, on his death. At this point, a plot is formed by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, the sole male voice in the story, to marry his son, Guilford, to Jane, and engineer Jane’s ascension – and by extention, Guilford’s – to the throne. At no point does Jane get a say in this and even though she is personally against Mary as a Catholic, she believes Mary has a greater claim than her and wants no part of the plot. She is overridden by the ambitious Dudley and Jane’s equally ambitious parents. The scenes of Jane and Guilford’s marriage consummation clearly depict rape, no matter what it was called in the 1500’s.
The plot to install Jane as Queen quickly loses momentum, and Mary is at first forgiving, understanding that Jane is a mere pawn in the games of ambitious men. Despite the two women’s differing religious beliefs, they have respect and understanding for one another. Unfortunately, Dudley and other Protestant fanatics are determined to see Jane on the throne, and another attempt is made, with Mary realising that while Jane is alive and a Protestant, she will be a threat to Mary. She offers Jane a pardon if she converts to Catholosism, which Jane refuses, believing her immortal soul is worth more than her mortal life, so with deep regret, because she knows that Jane has no desire to be Queen, Mary orders Jane’s execution.
There were several things I liked about this book. Firstly, the amount of women’s voices in it was awesome, and kudos to Weir for incorporating so many real-life women into the story. I found it interesting that the sole male voice was the dastardly Dudley (that just had to be said!), with all the female players, even Francis Grey, showing themselves to be sympathetic and victims of male manipulaton. I wonder if Weir was making a statement about women of the time being victims and men jerks, or about power corrupting (how corrupt can you be if you have no power?) or just that Dudley was a first-class asshole.
Secondly, I liked that Mary was written as being compassionate, rather than the ruthless, religious fanatic that she is often portrayed as being. (She kind of earned her name ‘Bloody Mary’, although both her father and sister did worse.) I liked that, for all that compassion, she was pragmatic enough to realise if she let Jane live, it would be Jane or her; the fact she had an unambitious teenager beheaded is a lot more understandable in that context. I liked that even though she regretted ordering Jane’s death, she did it anyway, rather than potentially plunge the country into civil war over which Queen had the greater claim.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Weir certainly knows her history and has brought to life several women that little is known about. I’ve already reserved more of her books from the library – including one about another vilified woman, Mary, Queen of Scots.