Lady of Spain: A Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria

Country Life

This book plunges you into the dark, confusing mindset of a 16th-century Europe divided between two antagonistic belief systems. Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I were the first British women to rule as crowned monarchs in their own right, overseeing the brutal execution of hundreds of their own subjects for professing the rival faith. The principal difference between the Catholic and Protestant persecutions was slight: during Elizabeth’s reign, Catholic martyrs were hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn crossroads; during Mary’s reign, leading Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake at Smithfield’s meat market. The actions of the Queens’ various councillors and spy-masters remain fascinatingly opaque, although both fake conspiracies and real plots informed the final chill decisions of state. Which is why this life of an obscure Spanish duchess brings such unexpected enchantment.

Jane Dormer, who was English through and through, was one of those rare souls who rose above the murderous passions of her age. She clearly married her bluff Spanish soldier husband for love; their wedding was held in secret, after the death of Mary had removed any political advantage from the match. However, she had the good manners to take her formal leave of Elizabeth as she left England.

Sir John Hawkins in 1581, aged 44. (National Maritime Museum.) Jane Dormer helped him escape the clutches of the Inquisition.

Jane clearly listened to some mad plots in her long life, but was wise enough to never put anything down in writing. She concerned herself with getting hostages returned, releasing prisoners of war and delicately chiding monarchs into paying promised pensions. She was invariably more successful in getting things done as a genuine Catholic exile trusted by the King of Spain than any of England’s official ambassadors, but even with them she found something in common, if only how to liven up her Spanish kitchen with English cheese and butter, imported with the aid of a bureaucrat working for the Spanish Inquisition.

Simon Courtauld is the perfect narrator, intimate with both the landscapes of Spain and the dense tapestry of English dynastic politics.