Newest Review: ... for them not to, but this is not a biography of Henry VIII or of the Tudor period, so the focus is on the wives. The first section ... more
The women that made the man
The Six Wives of Henry VIII - Alison Weir
Member Name: eilidhcatriona
The Six Wives of Henry VIII - Alison Weir
Advantages: Thorough, fascinating and an enjoyable read
Disadvantages: None for me
I apologise for the lengthy and waffley introduction, but I wanted to make it clear that I really did approach The Six Wives of Henry VIII with no prior knowledge. I chose this book over the many that are available on this subject thanks to positive reviews, and previous experience of the author, Alison Weir (her book, Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of the monarchy).
The life of Henry VIII and that of his predecessors was full of danger, intrigue and plots. He was a very complex man, and throughout his time on the throne he became increasingly like a tyrant, ruling with an iron fist. In the midst of all this were his six wives, who were all dispatched as it suited him when he wanted to move on, with the exception of Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth and with whom Henry is buried. The book focuses on these six women, their lives before and with Henry, and of course their relationships with him. Politics and the role of the monarchy do of course come into it, it would be impossible for them not to, but this is not a biography of Henry VIII or of the Tudor period, so the focus is on the wives.
The first section of the book is a Chronology, starting with Henry VII usurping the throne in 1485 and leading to the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. These four pages are absolutely invaluable. With such a complex story and with all the people involved, I found myself regularly flicking back to check on a date or an event.
This is followed by an introduction, which for me provided a lot of important background information. My previous reading about monarchy has been mainly limited to nineteenth and twentieth century, with the exception of Mary Queen of Scots, and so I had absolutely no knowledge about Tudor England. The introduction told me how women lived and were expected to behave, and of course what was expected of a Tudor Queen. It also covered information on clothing, hobbies and activities, religion and medicine, all of which was very useful when reading the main text.
The main body of the book is split into three sections: Katherine of Aragon, The 'Great Matter', and How Many Wives Will He Have?. As Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon was his longest by many years, this does require a long section to cover their story. This section ends in 1527, which was when Henry began to seek an annulment in order to marry Anne Boleyn. I really enjoyed reading about Henry and Katherine's marriage. He was still pleasant then, and they made a good team for many years.
The second section, The 'Great Matter', covers Henry's relationships with and marriages to Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. I know there are a lot of strong opinions about whether Anne Boleyn was evil or not, but I haven't really formed my own. From what I read in this book I am inclined to think that she was a manipulative woman, and that she is to blame for what Henry VIII became, but then conversely it doesn't appear that she deserved her fate in the slightest. Weir is good at causing these mixed feelings, certainly for someone like me who came to the book with opinion formed of Anne Boleyn except a vague notion that she may have been scheming. I left the book uncertain what to think of her - at first she is portrayed as clever but manipulative, thinking of her own gains. Yet I felt sympathetic and sad at her fate, which appears was unjustified - after all her carefully laid plans, she surely would not have been so stupid as to commit adultery.
The impression I took from the book about Jane Seymour was that she was the wife who Henry VIII continued to love, as she died in childbirth and he never tired of her. There is also the fact that he left instructions that he was to be buried alongside her, and following her death, even when he had another wife, he commissioned a family portrait in which she appeared posthumously. However Jane was also scheming like Anne Boleyn, and she knew what she wanted. But she was better at it - she was able to be a good obedient wife, unlike Anne. I did feel genuine sadness when I read about Jane's death, as she had seemed like a good wife for this now rather scary and tyrannical king.
The final section, How Many Wives Will He Have?, covers the remaining three marriages, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr. I must admit I found the story of Anne of Cleves both funny and satisfying. Henry VIII was unable to consummate the marriage as he found her both unattractive and smelly, but she was so na´ve that she had no idea there was anything missing! When he ended the marriage, she was very well provided for and proceeded to live a life of leisure, which really was a happy ending, certainly the happiest any of the wives had. Katherine Howard, on the other hand, seems to have been a very silly little girl. Evidence suggests she was merely 15 when she married Henry, and he was completely besotted with this beautiful and lively young girl. However it soon came to light that she had had lovers and a betrothal prior to marriage, and likely committed adultery after marrying Henry. She met the same fate as Anne Boleyn. Henry's final marriage, to Katherine Parr, was a last ditch attempt to have another son, a second heir to the throne. This did not happen, and he died four years later.
Alison Weir's style was straightforward and authoritative. I had no problem believing the facts she presented me with, particularly as she often outlined her reasons for stating something. One example is that it seems the year of Anne Boleyn's birth is not known for certain, and there have been a few possibilities discussed over the years. Weir discusses this, and her reasoning for the conclusion she reaches (1500/1501). This made me trust Weir as a writer and researcher. Her writing is accessible, and everything is clearly phrased and explained, and importantly for me, prior knowledge of the subject is not pre-supposed.
I found The Six Wives of Henry VIII to be a fascinating and enjoyable read. I really liked learning about these women and their influence on this all-powerful monarch. I now feel like I know all about them, and intend to read further on the subject. I am also intending to visit the National Portrait Gallery, as the book mentioned that the best known portrait of Anne Boleyn hangs there (and of course there are plenty more to see!). I would certainly recommend this to those interested in reading more about Henry VIII and his wives. It is an excellent book for those new to the subject, and I imagine it would be an enjoyable read for those who already know about it and would perhaps provide them with further insight to these fascinating lives.
Summary: A very interesting read
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