Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir was my April book for the From My Bookshelf Challenge 2023
Quick Review (read on for full review)
Historical fiction chock full of historical detail, real events and real people. A gripping page turner. 5 / 5
Summary (from Goodreads)
I am now a condemned traitor . . . I am to die when I have hardly begun to live.
Historical expertise marries page-turning fiction in Alison Weir’s enthralling debut novel, breathing new life into one of the most significant and tumultuous periods of the English monarchy. It is the story of Lady Jane Grey–“the Nine Days’ Queen”–a fifteen-year-old girl who unwittingly finds herself at the center of the religious and civil unrest that nearly toppled the fabled House of Tudor during the sixteenth century.
The child of a scheming father and a ruthless mother, for whom she is merely a pawn in a dynastic game with the highest stakes, Jane Grey was born during the harrowingly turbulent period between Anne Boleyn’s beheading and the demise of Jane’s infamous great-uncle, King Henry VIII. With the premature passing of Jane’s adolescent cousin, and Henry’s successor, King Edward VI, comes a struggle for supremacy fueled by political machinations and lethal religious fervor.
Unabashedly honest and exceptionally intelligent, Jane possesses a sound strength of character beyond her years that equips her to weather the vicious storm. And though she has no ambitions to rule, preferring to immerse herself in books and religious studies, she is forced to accept the crown, and by so doing sets off a firestorm of intrigue, betrayal, and tragedy.
Alison Weir uses her unmatched skills as a historian to enliven the many dynamic characters of this majestic drama. Along with Lady Jane Grey, Weir vividly renders her devious parents; her much-loved nanny; the benevolent Queen Katherine Parr; Jane’s ambitious cousins; the Catholic “Bloody” Mary, who will stop at nothing to seize the throne; and the protestant and future queen Elizabeth. Readers venture inside royal drawing rooms and bedchambers to witness the power-grabbing that swirls around Lady Jane Grey from the day of her birth to her unbearably poignant death. Innocent Traitor paints a complete and compelling portrait of this captivating young woman, a faithful servant of God whose short reign and brief life would make her a legend.
A sentiment I think many of us will understand:
I’d prefer to be left alone with my books.
(From Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir, page 63)
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, in as much as one can enjoy a book that you know is going to end in the execution of a young woman. The period was brought to life very easily, though it took me a few pages to get into it in an immersive way. Yet as soon as I did, I struggled to put the book down.
The life of Lady Jane Grey is told through the eyes of some of the most well-known people from Tudor history, though some will seem a little obscure to those who do not know the era well. Chief amongst the notable names are Queen Katherine Parr and Lady Mary, as well as Lady Jane herself.
The one thing you cannot get away from in this story, as no doubt at the time, is the prevailing religious fervour. With a distance of centuries between now and then, it is impossible for us to really understand why some people would rather die than follow a different branch of the same religion, or even send someone to their death for believing something different to you. Yet this is the world these people inhabited; this is the world Jane had to live in. And it is dangerous, and it is deadly, especially when decisions are made for political advancement, and in attempts to manoeuvre closer and closer to the throne.
Naturally, given the author, there is much historical detail here and I appreciated how the religious struggles of the time were presented in a very fair manner. The Catholic Lady Mary (who would become queen after Jane’s short reign) brings balance in the narrative to Jane’s staunch Protestant faith. And where there is no historical record, I think the reader can rest assured that the author provides genuine historical possibilities to fill in the gaps.
Jane was well-known for her intelligence and love of learning, something that would have been available to precious few women at the time. In fact, it is worth noting that there is an interesting parallel between Lady Jane and Elizabeth in this regard.
My favourite character, probably because she is one of my favourite people from the time, is that of Katherine Parr. My least favourite characters, apart from the scheming Dudley, were Jane’s parents, Frances Brandon and Henry Grey. Were they as cold and as ambitious as this book would have us believe? You would like to think not, yet it is clear their daughter was not old enough nor influential enough to put herself in the position of vying for the throne. As for Lady Jane Grey herself, I’m not sure I can say I liked her (in the story), but I did pity her greatly. Her so short reign, and her eventually execution is perhaps one of the most tragic events in English royal history.
There is a lot going on in this story, and there has to be because we know of so much that was happening at the time, and it can’t be presented in a vacuum. So not only do we get the story of Lady Jane Grey, but also the story of Tudor England in the latter years of Henry VIII’s reign, as well as the legacy of the monumental events of his earlier marriages. Then, there is the reign of his son and heir, Edward VI, who is of roughly the same age as Jane…
It’s not perfect, (for example, Jane as a toddler sounds very much like Jane as an adolescent), yet I found it a gripping page turner all the same. Recommended to those who love historical fiction and those with an interest in Tudor history.