The wives of Henry VIII

by Antonia Fraser

Paper Book, 1993




New York : A. A. Knopf, 1993.


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member k8_not_kate
Fraiser is certainly the best royal biographer I've read, and she does a marvelous job following the vulnerable and uncertain lives of the consorts to England's matrimonially fickle monarch. Fraser does the best thing a popular historian can do--she edits the information. She realizes what
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information is trivial enough to leave out but doesn't skimp on the the interesting and colorful anecdotes that make a medieval or Renaissance history spring to life.

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.
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LibraryThing member konigindiva
Wonderfully readable history about the monarch who couldn't seem (or want) to hold onto a marriage. Fairly objective point of view, though certainly ends up on the side of the six wives.
LibraryThing member Wanderlust_Lost
This book is so easy to read. I love history but even I balk at really dry, scholarly works that you need a magnifying glass and a 360 IQ to understand. Antonia Fraser presents history in a really accessible way which made this history really enjoyable.
LibraryThing member Gold_Gato
Naughty, naughty Henry. He just couldn't keep his hands off the women, which is why he remains such a historic figure and overshadows his own spidery father. For anyone wondering why he kept moving from lass to lass, in the process of alienating himself from the Catholic Church, this is the book to
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read. I had always found the portraits of his wives to be bland, but in Fraser's hands, they really do come alive.

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 = Winte
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LibraryThing member MichelleCH
After having read several books focusing on the individual wives of Henry VIII, I was looking for a more complete sequence of events. In this book, Antonia Fraser provides the reader with that timeline. Another major difference in this book for me was the emphasis the author put on reviewing the
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myths/beliefs surrounding each queen. I particularly enjoyed the section on Anna of Cleves, and the care that the author took to examine the stereotypes given to the woman from Flanders. An excellent and engrossing read.
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LibraryThing member Helenliz
I've been on a bit of a Tudor kick recently, what with this, Alison Weir's Innocent Traitor (the life of lady Jane Grey) and a CJ Sansom detective piece set at the courting of Catherine Parr. They've all tied together quite neatly.

It's a long old book, but filled with 6 very different characters.
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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.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
The Wives of Henry VIII is well written, very well researched and offers more information than you can possibly hope for about each of Henry's wives. More than half of the book covers Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, with the rest dedicated to the other four. But wait ...there's's
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also a good examination of historical events, European court intrigue, the religious situation not only in England but elsewhere in Europe, and other people connected with the British court and beyond. Furthermore, Fraser ties it all up very neatly by examining in brief the lives of the queens that survived the death of Henry VIII, and poses the question at the end that gives the reader some food for thought: if Katherine of Aragon had delivered a healthy son, would there have been the same type of religious change in England?

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's long, but it's worth it in the end.
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LibraryThing member magemanda
As Fraser points out at the start of her novel detailing the lives of Henry's six wives, most people onl know them by either the rhyme "divorced, beheaded, died... divorced, beheaded, survived" or by the female stereotypes attributed to them: "the Betrayed Wife, the Temptress, the Good Woman, the
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Ugly Sister, the Bad Girl and the Mother Figure." Fraser sets out to debunk myths and present an unbiased view of the six women who came to share Henry's life. Unlike other books of this nature, Henry is not focused on at all - we merely see glimpses of the man he is at the time of each of his marriages.

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.
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LibraryThing member anitapotter
Good but boring when it came to Anne it still rolled on about Catherine of Aragon
LibraryThing member atheist_goat
Antonia Fraser and Barbara Tuchman are the best history writers ever, hands pretty much down. If I ran the world, or at least a bookstore, any customer requesting The Other Boleyn Girl would be given a smack on the knuckles and a copy of this instead.
LibraryThing member santhony
I've read numerous books on Tudor history and this is one of the best. The subject is difficult to follow at times, due to the nature of the family relationships, which can be hideously complicated by virtue of the inbreeding involved in 16th century European royal families. It is interesting to
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note that every one of Henry VIII's wives were related to him and to each other through ancestry dating back to Edward I.

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.
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LibraryThing member rohwyn
A very well-researched account of Henry VIII's court, this book is one of my favorite history books of all-time, not only for its vivid presentation of the time period, but because the author goes to such lengths not to play favorites.
LibraryThing member BoomChick
I knew that Henry the VIII had had many wives, and that was what he was known for, but this gave me a lot of information about the political goings-on of the times, and informed me about Henry's rise to power.I appreciated that the author informed the reader of where the information came from, such
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as letters between Henry and Anne, or bills paid by Henry to re-form the stone capitals on plinths to reflect a different letter for a different bride. Although much of the information is taken from minutiae left over from the times: bills, letters, news, etc, the author really paints a picture of the relationships of the king without it being a listing of boring clips of information. This is non-fiction at its best. I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member philae_02
A fabulous look at all 6 of Henry's wives (not much about Henry VIII himself) -- I have a new found respect for Catherine of Aragon, I felt sorry for her as Anne Boleyn usurped her place as Queen.
LibraryThing member NellieMc
I was inspired to read this after reading Wolf Hall, and it was a good antidote--in fact, if I had read it first, I would have known the characters better. Good sympathetic wrap up of the wives, and I enjoyed the courtesy she gave each one.
LibraryThing member Naberius
A lot has been written about Henry VIII and his wives, especially Anne Boleyn, and this book is so well-written that it really makes history come alive. I'm never disappointed by Fraser's books, but this is one that I've read more than once because it's just that good.
LibraryThing member briannad84
Good book but some of it was a bit boring to read through I thought.
LibraryThing member threadnsong
I am so very, very glad I re-read this book this year. Thank you to Hillary Mantel for inspiring me with her books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies with their excellent evocations of the age and the many Thomas-es who influenced this time in English history as well. What makes this book important
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to me is the intent with which Ms. Fraser researched and wrote it: who were the women who married this monarch? What were their stories? She quotes the short poem, "Divorced, beheaded, died/Divorced, beheaded, survived" as her inspiration for getting behind the lives of these six women. Catherine of Aragorn was 6 years older than Henry VIII and had married his older brother before Henry ascended the throne. Fraser points out that Catherine and Henry were married 20 years. It's so often forgotten, this part of her story. Or young Katherine Howard - a beautiful, ditzy 19 year old who was effectively left to her own devices when her adultery was found out. How many of us could have argued for our lives when we were 19 and scared to death, literally? And many of the queens were educated and intellectuals, musicians, and interested in the world around them. They studied Latin, French, and Anna of Cleves was married to Henry with very little knowledge of the English language (her older brother, you see, was the educated member of her family).

As Fraser says in her epilogue:

"It is seductive to regard the six wives of Henry VIII as a series of feminine stereotypes, women as tarot cards. . . . There are elements of truth, of course, in all of these evocative descriptions, yet each one of them ignores the complexity and variety in the individual character. . . . [A] remarkably high level of strength, and also of intelligence, was displayed by them at a time when their sex traditionally possessed little of either."

Even if you are not an enthusiast of the time, or think that you know very little of the Tudor era, I still recommend this book. It is readable, Fraser does a good job of reminding readers who Norfolk is, or the relationship of the Howards or Parrs to the crown, or Cardinal John Fisher, or Cardinal Wolsey, or any of the other myriad names and courtiers who appear, rise, fall, and either rise again or disappear from the decades-long story of Henry VIII and his six wives. And she brings them to shining life in these pages.

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LibraryThing member princesspeaches
Very interesting and filled with soooo much information that it eventually drug on too long.
LibraryThing member sloopjonb
I had actually read this before, it turned out, but didn't finish it then. It was a very readable account, centred as it should be on the six women, and not the old swine who, one way or another, victimised them all. I think it has been somewhat overtaken by recent research, and Fraser's biases did
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show up now and then, but it was largely fair and mainly objective.

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 :)
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5485. The Wives of Henry VIII, by Antonia Fraser (read 15 Jul 2017) This is a1993 book which I read because I had read 7 books by Antonia Fraser and liked them and thought I should read this one, even though I read Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII on 4 Aug 1994. This book by Antonia Fraser
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is excellently researched and maybe includes detail a bit more than needed--at least at times I found it not real interesting. But it does a very good job detailing how each wife came to marry and came to her end, two (the 2nd and the 5th) having their heads chopped off, the third dying after giving birth to Henry's son, Edward VI, the fourth, Anna of Cleves, being divorced because Henry did not think she was good-looking (all he saw of her till she was brought to England to marry him being a painting), and even the sixth was almost cast off till she sweet-talked Henry into keeping her. All in all, the book is as good an account of the tyrannical Henry's matrimonial life as I suspect one can find.
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LibraryThing member tommi180744
Excellent detailed account of each one of the unfortunate females the greatest predatory hedonist of his age took legally to his bed.
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.
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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.
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LibraryThing member KayCliff
Many superb illustrations!
LibraryThing member spinsterrevival
I think Fraser treats these women much better than Weir did, and I’m kind of fascinated that the two books were only published a year apart (this one second); I feel as though a book could be written about the race between Weir and Fraser writing about the six wives at the end of the 1980s (they
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had to have been crossing paths throughout their research).

Anyway I love having this one too for my reference as Fraser doesn’t gloss over the politics but also doesn’t drag the reader down by all of it either. The epilogue was amazing and really did a good job of wrapping up all the “what might have beens”; now I kind of do want to pilgrimage to all the different resting places.
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LibraryThing member leslie.98
I found this too much like reading a textbook, so gave up after 90 pages... Although Fraser clearly has researched her subject thoroughly, she failed to make at least Catherine of Aragon interesting.


LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — Biography — 1993)


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