The Victorians Strike Again: The Tablette Booke of Ladye Mary Keyes

While checking something for a future blog post, I looked into David Baldwin’s biography of Elizabeth Woodville and found this discussion of Mary Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey: “In 1577, the year before she died, she compiled a memoir of the troubles that had beset her family, which was eventually published as The Tablette Booke of Ladye Mary Keyes. This provides a fascinating insight into her life at Bradgate (and the strict manner in which she, Jane, and [her sister] Katherine were brought up there), and is a unique, personal source of information for Jane’s last days in the Tower.”

Alas, David Baldwin was caught by that dirty trickster, the Victorian Lady Novelist. Like the purported diary of Elizabeth Woodville, The Tablette Booke of Ladye Mary Keyes is fictional, though, as Leanda de Lisle notes in her book The Sisters Who Would Be Queen, it has fooled other writers besides Baldwin. It was published in 1861 by Flora Francis Wylde, who also produced an “autobiography” of her own grandmother, Flora MacDonald, described by Hugh Douglas in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “so full of obvious inaccuracies that it could not have been written by the heroine.”

The Tablette Booke is, however, great fun. Here’s the splendid scene where the foster-mother of the very good Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, confronts the very bad John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, in his prison cell and tricks him into converting to Catholicism. (I’ve added paragraph breaks for the reader’s convenience.)

He was sittinge verie melancholie in his Pryson Roome, his Armes folded and Eyes bente downe, havinge sat in that Posishon for manie Houres. Truelie harte-broken was this humbled Man, for on that Afternoone had he taken Leve of alle his Familie, wiche painefulle Partinge over, he seemed like unto One deade to everie Thinge: his Faculties appeared benumbed. Wile in this State, at about eighte o’ the Clocke, the Doore was unbarred, wiche flowlie openninge, showed the rinkled Face of the ould Crone. He started from his Settel. “What com you for, Beldam, to disturbe my laste Houres? fain woulde I be alone and endevor to seeke a quiett Minde and Conscience.”

“Ha!” quothe she; “what saithe your Grace — a quiett Conscience? What shoulde give it to you? What have youre late Actes beene to merit suche a Bleffinge? aske youre nobel Harte, Monster!”

“Begone, Woman, tormente me no more; jeer not this at my miserabel Fate, but be satisfied, if youre bitter Wrathe and Malice can be appesed.” He waved his Hande: “Go, I dye To-morrow at Noone.”

“No, dye youre Grace wille not, if my Advice and Counselle be followed.”

“What Advice! what woulde you have me to do?” almoste scremed the franticke Man, the Love of Life springinge up in his Veines, overcominge the Hatred and Contempte for the humbel Beinge before him; “telle me quicke, what am I to do? Take alle I have—Howses, Landes, Monie, my Jewels, Plate, alle—alle,— but, oh, spare my Life!” What a wretchedde State for this prowde Nobel to be reduced to! he hid his Face and wepte aloude.

The oulde Woman eyed him withe a witheringe Looke of Scorne for manie Minutes. There was a deade Silence. At lengthe she did steppe quite close to him. “Duke of Northumberlande” saide she sternlie, foldinge her Armes, “let us speke of former Daies. Youre Spyte and Rancor was wreked on my Foster-Son, the Duke of Somersett; by youre eville Speche and more vile Counselle was that nobel Beinge put to Dethe; and it was to avenge his moste foule and cruelle Murder that I tookt a solemn Oathe to destroye you: nowe knowe, that had not youre owne Ambishon led you on, Steppe by Steppe, to worke oute youre owne Ruine, these Handes shoulde have dabbled in youre Bloud, for I woulde have stucke a Dagger in youre Harte. Naye, starte not, my prowde Duke; it shoulde have beene done: but holde, the same Lippes that saide the Vowe can unsaye it, and soe shalle it be, if you do as I shalle telle you.”

“Oh, I wille do anie Thinge, everie Thinge,” exclamed the wretchedde Man; “what is it?”

“Simplie this,” saide the Crone; “youre Life is spared, and youre Pryson Doores open, if you wille forsweare your vile hereticke Noshons, and become a faithfulle Member of the Holie Romijhe Churche: all that is required is, that youre Recantashon be mayde in a publicke Manner.”

Northumberlande becam whyte as the Plaster on the Walle; his Face was ghastlie to beholde; and when his Emoshon allowed of Speche, he indignantlie rejected the demon-like Proposal. Even this harde-harted, bad Man was shocked at an Idea wiche moste certainlie did com as a Temptashon from the Eville One. “What!” cried he, “woulde you have me selle my Soule to save my Bodye? No, — leve me, I wille dye a true Protestante.”

“Then farewelle, stiffe-necked, obstinate Foole! dye in youre Sinnes.” She mayde a Stryde to the Doore.

“Yet stay,” gasped the miserabel Man, “is there no other Waie to save me?”

” None; soe you perishe To-morrowe. See,” continued his Tempter, taking a Parchemente from under her Cloke —”see you this Seale, my Lorde? It is that of the Councille, withe Quene Mary’s Signe Manuel; it wantes youre Name writt under youre Hande, with mine as a Witnesse, to save youre Life, to restore you to Freedom and Happienesse, to Honour, Welthe, and Stashon, and to the Bosom of youre owne nobel Familie. I see you waver; com, here is a Penne, my Lorde Duke: no longer delaye, for Time is preshous.”

Withe a Looke of Agonie, and a Grone eskapinge from his overwroughte Harte, he seised the Penne and affixed his Name. Moste truelie had Satan got Holde of a Victim. The Conteste in the Minde of the poore Man was dredefulle; but he yielded to the dire Necessitie of the Momente. The Love of Life was stronger than the Force of Religion in his Soule. The oulde Crone clutched the Paper, and truelie did her Eyes glisten. “Duke of Northumberlande” saide she, “youre Life is nowe safe; yet true it is, that for Forme’s Sake, you wille have to appeare on the Skaffolde, and after redinge of this Paper, you wille be free as the Aire you Brethe. By To-morrowe’s Lighte wille oure Holie Catholicke Churche have gained a truelie nobel Converte. Gardiner shalle heare youre Expresshon of Repentance, wiche for oure Triumphe muste be mayde in Publicke, and on an ignominious Skaffolde. Heare you that, moste prowde and hawtie Duke?” She lauffed ironikallie when she did leve the Chamber, and Northumberlande shuddered at the sinister Looke she did caste on him . . .

5 thoughts on “The Victorians Strike Again: The Tablette Booke of Ladye Mary Keyes”

  1. I know there's clear cultural and historical differences between the Victoria age and Medieval times, but does the appeal of fiction differ that much?

  2. christine-hartweg

    Finally found your site … This is great fun ideed. Incredible those Victorians, still more incredible how anyone could have swallowed it! lauffed ironikally; emoshon; Monster! If only non-fiction writers would be as thourough as some novelists! Re JD and Gardiner in the Tower etc., you might be interested in
    (I apologize that comments are closed, something is not working as it should).

  3. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Christine! I really enjoyed your post. I'm torn from day to day as to the motives for Northumberland's religious conversion. Some days, I think it was motivated by a desire to save his sons and his brother from execution, but on other days, I'm inclined to think it was entirely sincere. I'm more inclined to believe the latter, because as he said, he was "in no case" to lie, and he had had weeks to do little but ponder upon spiritual matters.

  4. christine-hartweg

    I absolutely agree! Plus, after what he had been through with Knox and the like fellows I can't blame him … Apologies for this late reply, but I've been browsing your site, and you've got some amazing posts here. Also saw the ad for your upcoming novel: great idea to let the mothers speak … oh dear me … irresistible!

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