Leanda de Lisle (Sisters Who Would Be Queen)

Leanda de Lisle’s, ‘The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The Tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey’, will be published by Harper Collins on January 26th 2009.

Many thanks to Leanda for answering my questions.



Your previous book, ‘After Elizabeth’, concentrated on the end of the Tudor era and the beginning of the Stuart. What made you choose to write about the Grey sisters for your new book?

‘After Elizabeth’ told the story of the succession of the Stuart King, James VI&1, on the death of Queen Elizabeth. This was not the done deal I had always imagined. The Stuarts were excluded from the succession under English law. The Queen’s heir was, in fact, the son of Lady Katherine Grey, one of the younger sisters of the famous ‘nine days’ Queen, Lady Jane Grey. I realised that Katherine’s life, and that of the youngest sister Mary, were incredibly romantic and interesting: stories of lovers divided and of political quarrels that reveal Elizabeth in a fresh light. I wanted to learn more about them and hoped that other people would too. I intended to use the story of the famous ‘nine days’ Queen, Lady Jane Grey, as an introduction to these younger girls, assuming that there would be little knew to say about Jane herself. As I began my research, however, I discovered that much that has been written about Jane is untrue.


What does your book add to the existing works about Lady Jane Grey?

I show that many of the traditional descriptions of Jane’s family life – from her birth to her death – are inaccurate. The traditional October birth-date was a deliberate invention, as is the story that Jane’s mother was a female Henry VIII who dominated her husband. Jane was, for much of her life, a pawn of her father’s political and ideological ambitions, but eventually she grew beyond them. Her brief reign and her death have been treated as isolated tragedies. But I show that the shock waves of the events of 1553, when she succeeded to the throne, and her death in 1554, had profound effects on the reigns of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. I place the myths that gained credence after her death in the context of contemporary – and current – attitudes to women and power.


Does your portrayal of Jane differ from previous versions?

In stripping away many of the myths about Jane, I have endeavoured to reveal the lively, flesh and blood teenager, that she was. Here was no plaster saint. Jane was a firebrand who could be arrogant, moody, and down right rude. She was much more interesting a character than the meek and mild girl she has often been depicted as. And in the end she died a leader and not merely a victim.


Katherine and Mary have largely been ignored in recent years. What led you to write about all three sisters rather than just the more famous Jane?

What must it have been like to be nine and thirteen years old; to have seen your sister, father and an uncle executed; to lose your home; to be obliged to give up your religious beliefs, and to live in the household of the Queen who ordered the deaths of your family? It is quite a beginning for a story. And what stories Katherine and Mary Grey have to tell! Jane died when she still only in her teens – Jane’s sisters grew into adulthood. Their lives were, in many respects, as dramatic and tragic as hers, but where she died for God they each risked everything for the love of man. That is something we can, perhaps, more readily understand. But I think it is also important to see Jane’s life in context – and you can’t do that without also learning about what happened to her sisters.


What surprised you most researching this book?

I was – rather naively – amazed by how Jane’s image as a powerless victim has been fed by the erotic appeal (to some) of an innocent young female destroyed. The extent to which a reputation (that of Jane’s mother) can be traduced on the basis of nothing but prejudice also shocked me. Frances Grey/Brandon may not have been the perfect parent but she was a long way short of being the lustful, cruel monster of myth.


What sources did you find most useful during your research?

Ooh – so many: Brewer’s letters & papers from the reign of Henry VIII; the BL’s transcriptions of interviews concerning the marriage of Katherine Grey…difficult to pin down favourites.


Which was the easiest sister to write about?

Katherine. Such a great love story and plenty of primary source material.


In the ‘Author’s Note’ you say that Mary Grey is your favourite. Why?

I was worried how to approach the story of a midget who married a giant. It sounds close to farce. But Mary was a real person with real feelings and a real life. I was determined to put do my best to ensure that she came across as more than just some amusing footnote in history – and I hope I have succeeded. I like Mary because she had many of the best qualities of both her sisters: bright and full of character like Jane, but also affectionate and a passionate romantic like Katherine. She must often have felt overshadowed by her sisters, but she was loved in her own right.


Why did you include the ‘Teerlinc’ rather than the National Portrait Gallery painting?

I included the Teerlinc miniature because it was painted by someone who knew Jane, and what she looked like. Teerlinc was at court with Jane and painted at least two miniatures of her sister Katherine. It was done, I believe, in the winter in 1561/2, less than eight after Jane’s death. We know Katherine’s husband owned a miniature of Jane. This may have been it. The National gallery painting is a memorial portrait painted between forty and fifty years after Jane’s death, and very likely by someone who had never met her. But if we want to imagine what Jane really looked it is best to read the description of her being processed to the Tower in 1553: we cannot wholly trust any of the portraits.


You are giving a talk on ‘The Sisters Who Would Be Queen’ at the New Walk Museum, Leicester at 2.30pm on January 25th. What aspects of your book will you focus on?

I focus on Jane’s life – there is simply too much to say to fit all the sisters in a one hour talk and you can’t really understand the lives of the younger sisters without knowing something about Jane.