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The One Remaining Rose: Philippa Gregory on The Last Tudor

Posted on 8th August 2017 by Martha Greengrass

"This is, I think, going to be my last book on the Tudors and so I will leave a family and a history that has deeply engaged me for nearly twenty years."

A mainstay of contemporary historical fiction, Philippa Gregory’s immersive novels have been bringing historical characters to life since she published her explosive bestseller The Other Boleyn Girl. Through her novels, kings, princesses, queens, courtiers and commoners, all those drawn into the orbit of the Tudor court, have become players in Gregory's own precarious and dangerous game of thrones. As she presents her final Tudor novel, The Last Tudor, Philippa Gregory discusses why she chose to close her Tudor chronicles with the mystery of the Grey sisters.

When I called my latest novel The Last Tudor I was thinking of the way the novel had showed me the great dilemma of Elizabeth I – that she knew that the heart of her duty was to give the country a stable leadership for all her life and beyond it. But she simply could not tolerate the thought of an heir.

She told the Scots’ ambassador: ‘Think you that I could love my winding sheet? Princes cannot like their own children …’ She meant that she thought of her heir as a shroud, to wrap her dead body. And the cold-hearted statement ‘Princes cannot like their own children’ came from a woman who was a child of only two years old when her mother was executed on the orders of her father, and who grew up to see him deny his daughters and heirs, including herself.

Elizabeth was the last Tudor, since her refusal to name a Tudor cousin or to marry and bear her own heir, gave the throne to the son of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots and the Stuart family took the throne of England.

The Virgin Queen had Tudor cousins that she could have named, and most people would have supported them for their Protestant faith. The heir apparent was Katherine Grey, granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Queen of France, sister to the famous Protestant saint Jane Grey, and married to royal kinsman Edward Seymour. The famously beautiful young woman had impeccable connections and her line had been nominated by Henry VIII himself to succeed after his own children. It is extraordinary that Elizabeth not only denied her inheritance but arrested and imprisoned her. Extraordinary, too, that history has almost forgotten her. But she was not the last Tudor for Elizabeth outlived her, letting her die in prison for no greater offence than marrying without permission for love.

Once I had finished the novel, I found that there was another sense to the title The Last Tudor. This is, I think, going to be my last book on the Tudors and so I will leave a family and a history that has deeply engaged me for nearly twenty years since the publication of The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001. In that story I looked at the lesser-known sister of Anne Boleyn and traced her story from Henry VIII’s lover and leader of the court, to a woman who chose her own husband and life. That novel led me to think about the queen who was betrayed by the Boleyn girls who were her ladies-in-waiting, Katherine of Aragon, and so led me to the novel The Constant Princess where I was able to describe a Katherine that almost no-one considers: the young woman who grew up in the glamorous court of Granada, and who came to England to marry Prince Arthur. Researching the relationship between Katherine and her first husband led me to the old scandal that Arthur’s mother, Elizabeth of York, had been forced to marry Henry Tudor when he won at the Battle of Bosworth, but had in fact been in love with Richard III. I did not get to that story, nor to that extraordinary royal line – the Plantagenets – until I had written a number of Tudor novels, but now I have done so, and followed the leads from her to her wonderful mother, the subject of The White Queen, and her extraordinary grandmother, the subject of The Lady of the Rivers, and so I find myself at a pause. I have explored the lives of many Plantagenet women, many Tudor women, and now I am interested in writing a different sort of historical fiction, set in a different time

What I want to write now is a story of fictional characters in a realistic historical setting: a series of novels tracing one family’s rise from harsh poverty, through the opportunities of the eighteenth century, to their prosperity in Victorian times. If I can, I might even take the story on to modern times, reflecting my deep interest in the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times. Most of us can trace our way back through family stories to a forgotten and sometimes hidden past, and reality is often much more interesting than anything an author can invent. This work will be based on the histories of real people, it will take me from the Tudors, and from the royals, but keep me in the area that I love: people’s history and especially women’s history which has been so neglected and is only now being researched and explored.  The history of women matters so much to me that, at the same time as I am writing this series of novels, I am writing non-fiction, a history book, and already I am finding that my thoughts about one are informing the other.

It is a luxury to be taking two years over a novel;  previously I have published one a year, but I think it is going to be worth the wait for all of us. I am sorry that this will be my last Tudor, it is a wrench to leave the period and especially these wonderful characterful courageous women, but I think I am leaving it with perhaps my best book – a study of Jane Grey as a very realistic teenager facing an unimaginable challenge of the throne of England, her sister who should have worn her crown, and their little sister who survived them and, behind them all, the brooding presence of the last and perhaps greatest Tudor of them all: Elizabeth.

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