Ella March Chase (Three Maids for a Crown)

Ella March Chase is the author of ‘Three Maids for a Crown’ and ‘The Virgin Queen’s Daughter.’

Many thanks to Ella for answering my questions.

Why did you choose to write about the Grey sisters?

I have been fascinated with Lady Jane Grey’s story from the time I was in high school. What teenage girl could resist the tragedy of a sixteen year old being beheaded because her parents forced her to take the crown from her cousin? Jane’s effort not to become the puppet her supporters expected her to be was heroic, her courage as she faced death so moving. I did not realize she had sisters that also had their own political and personal dramas until I was researching Maids of Honor during Elizabeth’s reign. Both Katherine Grey, a renowned beauty, and Mary Grey, a dwarf called Crouchback Mary, served as maids of honor to Elizabeth Tudor. But what stunned me was the fact that the two sisters also served in the household of their cousin Mary I during the turbulent time after Jane’s fall from power and her eventual execution. All three Grey sisters were thrown into the Tower of London at some point. Jane and their father both were beheaded there. I imagined the horror the sisters must have felt seeing the site where Jane had died and not knowing if they would follow her to the block. There is a wealth of information about Elizabeth Tudor, much of it making her an icon rather than a flesh and blood woman and much about Mary Tudor, often vilifying her. Oddly, in spite of being half-sisters and having their half-brother Edward, Elizabeth and Mary Tudor were very isolated in the tide of England’s political climate. The Grey sisters fates would have affected each other as well as themselves.

In the novel you write from the point of view of Jane, Catherine and Mary. Which sister was it easiest to write as and why?

Jane was easiest in the beginning because she is the most like me personality-wise– the oldest child, serious and bookish, kind of an oddity in her family and trying very hard to be obedient to her parents and do the right thing. Her great challenge: when her personal code of ethics and her parents’ demands are in opposition. I was most familiar with Jane’s story as well so her point of view had been simmering in my subconscious for decades while Kat and Mary were much more recent discoveries. Interestingly, the sister most difficult for me to capture right away was Kat. It took multiple tries to capture her. In the beginning I jokingly called her my ‘cheerleader’ sister because she was the reputed beauty of the family, charming and highly attractive to gentlemen. She also showed the most marked character growth by the end of the book. I think in many ways the changes in the Grey family’s fate must have been hardest on Kat–to go from pampered and beloved to traitor’s daughter, from being considered as an heir to the throne by both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth to imprisonment in the Tower of London. By the end of the book I had come to love Kat and feel so much empathy for her.

Which was your favourite sister to write about?

Mary. I had first fallen in love with her character while I was writing The Virgin Queen’s Daughter – Mary was a Maid of Honor to my fictional character Nell. Mary thinks and says things that are honest, but irreverent, for example, being rather proud that she is an accomplished liar and adept at eavesdropping. She isn’t afraid of her bullying parents like Jane; her physical differences make her visibly an outcast in a court full of the beautiful and powerful so she isn’t as easily stung by rejection like Kat. Drawing a Princess of the Blood who was known as ‘Crouchback Mary’ gave me so much wonderful material to help bring her to life. Elizabeth I especially had a horror of deformity, ugliness and illness and people believed birth defects were caused by witchcraft, the parents’ sins or some evil on the part of the child. I added that historically accurate layer to Elizabeth’s dislike of her Grey cousins for even more tension between Elizabeth and Mary,

What gave you the idea to make Mary a witness to Jane’s execution?

Once it was obvious that the attempt to seize the crown had failed, Jane was deserted by her parents. In one of the most heartbreaking moments in her story she said she never wanted the crown anyway and asked ‘Can I go home now?’ Her parents rode out of the Tower of London, leaving her to face the wrath of her cousin’s supporters alone. History shows Mary Grey was willing to break the rules and take risks. Because I had drawn a close relationship between these two sisters, Mary insisted on going to the execution.(After two books with Mary in them, I had already learned Mary gets her way.) I gave her child-like faith that at the last moment their cousin Queen Mary would pardon Jane, which isn’t so far fetched. The queen would have if it weren’t for political pressure from Spain. Mary witnessing the scene gave immediacy to Jane’s death and the scars it left on her sisters. In addition, I wanted Jane to have someone who loved her enough to brave saying goodbye.

I enjoyed the level of detail in the novel, e.g. Catherine saying that ‘Bess kept a small portrait of my dead sister upon the table beside her bed’ (p285) and Ned asking Catherine ‘What would you say if I commissioned a liming of the two of you’ (p360) referring to their son. Do you have any favourite details that you included in the novel?

The account of the Duke of Northumberland keeping the ailing King Edward alive by getting a cunning woman (folk healer) to dose the boy with arsenic. The King’s body was reputedly so marked by the poison that the Dudleys murdered someone who looked like the king to put in the coffin. I also loved the poem Ned had engraved on the puzzle ring he had made for Catherine’s wedding ring. A knot of secret might… Another detail that horrified me was learning that Elizabeth Tudor had giant Thomas Keyes put in a small cell on purpose to make his imprisonment more miserable. Elizabeth had many admirable qualities, but her behavior in the Keyes affair showed a far darker side.

You put a surprising twist on the identity of the person who warned Mary Tudor that Edward VI was dead. Without giving their identity away, what gave you the idea?

Part of the fun of writing historical fiction is filling in the blank spaces and playing with possibilities. I love the fact that no one knows for sure who warned Mary Tudor. Parr of Northampton claimed to do so, some think it was Cecil– but no one knows for sure. I took my cast of characters and imagined who would have the most personal motivation and experience the most impact from that warning once all was said and done.

The story includes a dramatic meeting between Queen Mary and Lady Jane. This did not happen historically, so what was your purpose for including it?

There is something poignant about the way the stories of these two women entwined. Both of them were badly used by parents who should have protected them. Both suffered because they attempted to stay true to their consciences. Neither wanted to do wrong, yet they were forced to do things contrary to their beliefs because of politics and religion. I wanted the emotional impact of one final encounter between these two women where the Queen makes her promise that Jane will eventually be pardoned and her life spared. I felt it made later scenes leading up to Jane’s execution more immediate and powerful. I liked the idea of showing all three Grey sisters at Queen Mary’s court. One of the facets of the story that most captured my interest was imagining what that must have been like. Historical records document Mary Tudor’s kindness to her cousins– even Lady Jane– until the second uprising (the Wyatt Rebellion). The sisters were daughters of a traitor Queen Mary’s supporters hated and would have been made to feel that wrath. It seemed to me that the real power of this story is taking five women of Tudor blood and showing the dangerous seas– both personal and political– they had to sail.

 Your portrayal of Queen Mary is much more sympathetic than that of Queen Elizabeth. Why?

This book is told from the perspective of the Grey sisters and because of that my portrayal of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth has to be colored by their points of view. As far back as the Grey sisters’ grandparents, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and Mary Rose Tudor, Henry VIII’s favorite sister, the family had chosen Katherine of Aragon’s side over Anne Boleyn’s in the famous divorce proceedings. The Greys considered Elizabeth a bastard, the Boleyn marriage invalid, and made no secret about their opinion that Elizabeth was beneath them– not a great way to endear themselves to Elizabeth.

The family’s loyalty to Queen Mary’s mother and Mary herself, during the bad times explains in large part why Queen Mary was so forgiving after the attempt to steal her crown. Though Queen Mary did ultimately sign Lady Jane’s death warrant because the Spanish required it before her betrothed, Philip, could sail for England, Mary Tudor understood that Jane was only the pawn of her ambitious parents and Northumberland. Queen Mary had been badly used by Henry VIII and remembered what it was like to be so young and helpless in the grip of a powerful parent. Elizabeth, on the other hand, had been slighted by her cousins, had had her place in the succession snatched by one of them in the Northumberland plot, and was aware that most of the powers of Europe thought Katherine Grey– with her unquestionably legitimate birth– was more suited to wear the crown of England than the bastard daughter of a Queen executed for adultery. Add to that Katherine Grey’s final insult– bearing healthy sons of Tudor blood when Elizabeth was being pressured to marry and have an heir– and it’s easy to see why Elizabeth would not look on the Greys favorably. History is written by the winners– that is how Richard III became a villain during the Tudor ascendency. Elizabeth Tudor out-lived and out-reigned her sister Mary, so in the past history has tended to favor Elizabeth. Both of Henry VIII’s daughters suffered neglect, abuse and out-right cruelty at their father’s hands and spent the rest of their lives dealing with the consequences. I admire both Queens for different reasons, but in this story, the story of the Grey sisters, Elizabeth must be the villainess of the piece.