The six wives of Henry VIII - Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr - have become defined in a popular sense not so much by their lives as by the way these lives ended. But, as Antonia Fraser conclusively proves, they were rich and feisty characters. They may have been victims of Henry's obsession with a male heir, but they were not willing victims. On the contrary, they displayed considerable strength and intelligence at a time when their sex supposedly possessed little of either.
As subjects, Henry's wives make for excellent reading. The overwhelming feeling for them is certainly pity--here were six women living in an unstable court with the most unstable of husbands (who had no qualms about offing a wife for things she couldn't control) trying to survive and (sometimes) attempt to be politically relevant in a male-dominated world. Their stories are fascinating and worth knowing about.
Fraser writes extremely sensitively about each of the six women - telling their tales from birth to death and using contemporary sources as far as possible. The research is impeccable and allows Fraser to consider many of the myths that have grown up around one or other of the wives and decide whether they might be true or not.
I loved the fact that each woman was presented as being courageous and spirited - they each had some good quality that Fraser explored in her quest to discover why that particular woman caught the eye of the king.
A great deal of learning can be achieved from this novel. For instance, I did not realise that it was Henry's desire for a male heir that drove him so thoroughly to move from woman to woman. I also was not aware of how he had each time lined up the successor to the queen he wanted to rid himself of. Again, it was new to me the fact that Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon for over 20 years, while the sum total of years of his other five marriages numbered just ten. It presents an entirely different view of Catherine - of a royal princess whom the king cast off reluctantly, but whom also did not go quietly.
Another point that both amused and horrified was the reputation that Henry VIII (and, by extension, England) developed thanks to his mistreatment of wives. England was universally laughed and sneered at by the other countries in Europe, and it might well have caused many of the European princesses to be withheld from Henry for fear of how they might be treated (thereby changing the course of history?)
My one real fault of this book is its density. It is extremely well-written and as gripping as a non-fiction historical novel can be but there are still dry passages which take a while to read through. In addition, there are a great many notes that add to the reading but necessitate flicking back and forth within the book which disturbs the narrative flow.
I have great admiration for the fact that Fraser managed to present an impartial viewpoint on each of the six wives and strove to reach understanding as to their motives. I did come away from the book with a sneaking suspicion that she preferred Catherine of Aragon and decried the actions of Katherine Howard - it would be interesting to know if I had correctly identified her most and least favourite of the six wives.
There is a current trend at the moment (in fiction, led by Phillippa Gregory, and on television, including series by David Starkey) for exploring anew the Tudors and the "tyrant" who epitomises the lineage. This book should be read by anyone who has been interested in this period of history - in summary, it is a well-rounded and sympathetic look at the six wives of Henry VIII.
Catherine of Aragon especially. It was her refusal to allow Henry to simply move along that created the schism with the state religion. Heady times.
Book Season = Winter
I liked this book, but to be really frank, if I had written something like this as a grad student, my advisors would have told me to cut it back and organize it better. She is a bit overly wordy, and there are a lot of things that fit better under different sections other than where she placed them. Also, I have to wonder when historians purport to know the mind of their subjects, and there are several places where the author makes judgments based on what she things Henry VIII would have thought. This was a bit off-putting. Also, in some cases where she makes a statement that somebody said something or something was thought, there were no footnotes that I could reference. However, overall, there is a wealth of information here, and the woman has definitely done her homework. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has a serious interest in the topic and wants a good reference work. Hang in there...it's long, but it's worth it in the end.
It's a long old book, but filled with 6 very different characters. At the start, the author sets out to explore the women who were married to Henry VIII, to get behind the rhymes (Katherine, Anne Jane, Anne, Katherine, Catherine - Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived) and the stereotypes to look at each one as an individual. It deals with the youth an upbringing of each lady, as well as how she interacted with the others, the court and the King. it's interesting that 3 of them were ladies in waiting to their predecessor.
She also makes clear that while we know Henry married 6 times, he never did. To him each match was the last and the progression from wife to wife was driven by many complex factors.
It's a good read, full of facts, but not at all dry. There are anecdotes and where evidence is suspect, the balance of probability is presented. There is even a review of their final resting places, which are wildly different in state. As the epilogue makes clear it's ironic that a man so obsessed with his heirs should have no descendants beyond his children.
I've recently read several books from this period written by Alison Weir. While I found many of these to be revisionist and quite dry in their style, I thought Antonia Fraser did a superior job in detailing the history of the era in a style more friendly to the reader.
Most readers are familiar with the history of Henry's first two wives (Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn). Far more obscure are the backgrounds and life histories of the next four Queen consorts. As Fraser points out, each of the wives have been neatly pigeonholed, however the truth and the entire story is never as simple as the legend. Most interesting to me was the story of Anna of Cleves, Henry's fourth wife and the only one married for political advantage.
Divorced (Catherine of Aragon), beheaded (Anne Boleyn), died (Jane Seymore), divorced (Anna of Cleves), beheaded (Catherine Howard), survived (Catherine Parr) is the old school child rhyme utilized to keep the various queens straight. The story of each is fascinating in themselves and even more so when read through the prism of 16th century English politics and royal intrigue.
None of them deserved Henry as a husband although some of them thought, or were persuaded by ambitious family, at least for awhile, that they wanted to be his Queen.
The author reveals how each was a female person in their own right, capable of intrigue, entertaining & fawning on the most powerful and fear inducing man in England & Wales, however, ultimately none of them could compete with Henry's energetic, self-indulgence & his fears & beliefs for his own & the nation's destiny.
The abiding impression is that Katherine of Aragon & Henry, betrothed in their early teens, were for a time at least the only real married couple in King Henry's riotously wilful, politically corrupt, scandalously louche & lengthy reign.
Of them all I think I liked Anna von Kleve best - I admired Catalina de Aragón for her spirit and tenacity, and Nan Bullen was probably the most interesting as a person, but Anna is the one I'd like to be friends with.
Flibbertigibbet Katherine Howard is definitely the bottom of this league :)