Alison Weir – Innocent Traitor

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.


  1. Erin says

    Interesting that both sisters faced the same choice – Elizabeth wasn’t thrilled about executing Mary Stewart, but as long as she was alive, even imprisoned, the plots would continue. Unlike Jane Grey, Mary was ambitious, but Elizabeth did make an attempt to avoid executing her.

  2. Scarlett says

    Nick, I’ve been really impressed by Wier as both historian and historical writer so far. I’ve read four of her books – two historical, two historical fiction – and she’s highly sympathetic to women of the time, fleshing out women who have been villified by history. I’d love to read something she writes on Mary Tudor. I think she’s really gotten a bum rap but her brother, sister and father all executed people on the basis of religious intolerance and none of them got to be known as ‘Bloody Whoever’.

    Erin, I assume you’re referring to Mary, Queen of Scots? Because it’s Stuart, not Stewart. And there’s actually theories that Elizabeth had no intention of executing her, and her councillors went behind her back. From what I understand, Elizabeth also executed at least one Grey sister herself?

  3. Dez says

    @Scarlett: You get a bit of Mary Tudor as a sympathetic character in The Queen’s Fool (by the same author).

    And I don’t remember Elizabeth executing a Grey sister. She banished one for a while (Katherine?), and forbade a marriage…it’s been a while since I read one of her biographies, and my Google-fu is weak.

  4. Scarlett says

    Dez, The Queen’s Fool is Phillipa Gregory, and yes, I agree with her that she does quite a sympathetic portrayal of Mary. If you’ve read my posts on Gregory’s work, you’ll know I find Gregory quite problematic from a feminist perspective. Some of her ‘characters’ lik Mary Boleyn and Mary Tudor, have been quite nuanced and sympathetic, and others, like Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth, have fallen heavily on the ‘bitch/slut’ trope.

    I was under the impression that Elizabeth had the middle Grey sister – Jane was the oldest, and Katherine was the youngest, and I *think* you had Charlotte in the midddle. But don’t quote me on that. I just find it interesting that ALL of the last four Tudors – Henry VIII, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth – killed people either for religious reasons or because they had too strong a claim to the throne, but only Mary is known as ‘Bloody Whoever’.

    • Dez says

      Oh duh I feel ditzy for forgetting the author! Yeah, she’s definitely problematic on a lot of counts, but she’s a rare one who allows Mary Tudor to be a person. Not just a crazy religious fanatic (as most authors do), but someone who loved her sister while still hating her.

      Okay, I gave up and Wikipedia-ed it (as my copy of The Life of Elizabeth I has gone missing); Jane had two sisters, Catherine (who married Edward Seymour, which the queen disapproved of and declared all her children illegitimate) and Mary (who also contracted an “unsuitable” marriage), but neither of whom were executed.

      • Scarlett says

        Yeah I think TQF was the best of her books in terms of women. It’s so uncommon to find a portrayal of Mary that isn’t as this crazy religious fanatic. I hated the way she portrayed Elizabeth as this reckless, simpering nymphomaniac who coudn’t do anything without Dudley in The Virgin’s Lover.

        For some reason, I had it in my head that Elizabeth had one of the Grey’s executed. I know she was never comfortable with their closness to the throne.

  5. CharlieM says

    It was actualy more than just religious intolerence. England had been a Catholic country until Henry V111, somewhat reluctantly at times, gave way to his reforming minister Thomas Cromwell. The Protestant movement was still young and had a great many enemies. The Catholic church was a very powerful political, not just religious force, and remained so until Guy Fawkes failed attempt at reinstating it in 1605.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *