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Books (re)Read in 2016: ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ by Alison Weir (audiobook read by Simon Prebble)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Six Wives of Henry VIIIThe Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Audiobook read by Simon Prebble
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Original review from 2013:

Audiobook read by Simon Prebble. This was really less about the women and more about the general history of Henry VIII’s marriages. Still in all, it was a fun listen and, even with as much as I thought I knew about these women, I learned some new tidbits–with the exception of Anne Boleyn and the only thing I learned about her is that Weir did not like her AT ALL.

Updated review in 2016:
This is the second time I’ve listened to this twenty-two-and-a-half-hour long audiobook. Alison Weir is something of a go-to author for me when it comes to Tudor nonfiction (not so much with her fictionalized versions—she’s too much of a historian/biographer to do a good job with novelizations/historical fiction). I’ll reiterate my original reaction from three years ago that this is less about exploring the internal lives and journeys of these six women and more about the simple history of Henry VIII’s six marriages.

There is a good amount of historical background on each of the women—Weir does a great job of digging up and documenting what is known about their origins and experiences before their lives fatefully intersected with Henry’s. I will also stick by my earlier assertion that Weir isn’t the biggest fan of Anne Boleyn. Though she does a good job of presenting most of the information in the book in a relatively objective manner, most of what is included about Anne Boleyn presents her in the worst light possible. Even Catherine Howard—who was actually guilty of adultery which Anne was innocent of but still executed for—gets a kinder portrait painted of her than Anne Boleyn.

As with most media, fiction or nonfiction, that focuses on Henry VIII and his wives, the majority is given over to Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and the king’s Great Matter—his desire to divorce Katherine and marry Anne.

My reading update from 01/29/16, at 60.0%:

      “Off with her head! (Part 1) Although I know they were part of his life longer and had a huge impact on history, I think it’s sad that Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn get 60% of the book, while Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Kathryn Parr are relegated to the remaining 40%.”

Throughout the first part of the book, we get the life history of KA—with more details about her parents (Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand) and siblings (and her siblings’ marriages) than we get about anyone else. As the only person of royal birth that Henry married, there is much more documentation about her family than any of the others. A lot of focus is placed on the negotiations between Henry VII (Henry Tudor) and KA’s parents on the marriage contract between KA and Prince Arthur—including all the haggling over the dowry, when it would be paid, how it would be paid, etc. And it takes quite a while for the book to actually get to the point at which KA and Henry VIII finally get married.

Then, once they do marry, it quickly glosses over the twenty-four years of their marriage to get as quickly as possible to Anne Boleyn. Yes, it is hard to give Anne Boleyn’s backstory without cutting into the ability to focus on KA and her marriage to Henry; however, given that he was married to her for twenty-four years, and the other five wives all fit into the last fourteen years of his life, it might have been nice to have less of a focus on KA’s childhood, extended family drama, and dowry issues before her marriage and more information on what KA and Henry were like as King and Queen of England before he decided to get rid of her.

Then, pretty much everyone knows the story of Anne Boleyn, the woman who made Henry break England away from the Roman Catholic church and the dictatorship of the Pope, and who was the center of one of the greatest scandals of the early Renaissance era. (If you aren’t familiar with her story, just watch Anne of the Thousand Days, A Man for All Seasons, Wolf Hall, or even The Tudors.) Again, while this book purports to be about Henry’s wives, this part of the book really focused more on everything going on around Anne than Anne herself. Of course, most of Anne’s letters, writings, or those of people close to her were most likely destroyed after she lost her head.

Reading update from 01/29/16, at 66.0%:

      “Another wife (Jane Seymour) bites the dust.”

One of the tidbits of history that is adjacent (but not about) Jane Seymour that I’d either forgotten or missed the first time listening to this is actually about her brother Edward (played with great effect by Max Brown in The Tudors)—and that is that he was married twice. His first wife bore two sons, but it was almost certain that his own father had actually sired the two boys; and when Edward’s wife died when the boys were still very young, he disowned them and was estranged from his father for many years. And it’s likely one of the main reasons why Henry didn’t lavish titles and estates on Jane’s father the way he did with Anne Boleyn’s father. It’s also probably why Jane did not attend her father’s funeral once she was Queen.

Jane . . . is boring. She was probably much more intelligent and educated than most historians/novelists give her credit for. But unlike Anne (or perhaps because of Anne’s example—after all, she was a maid of honor/lady in waiting to both KA and AB), she’d learned to hold her tongue lest she incur Henry’s wrath. (There is one recorded instance of her speaking “out of turn,” when she spoke up on behalf of men who had participated in the traitorous Pilgrimage of Grace—for which Henry reminded her of the fate of her predecessors, who had also meddled in his affairs.)

Most of the gloss-over histories we’re told about JS make it sound like she married Henry, got pregnant, had the baby, and then immediately died. They were married for about seven months before she got pregnant. Then, she was in labor for three days before finally giving birth. However, it took her twelve days to succumb to the fever that eventually killed her. It is believed that due to the difficult birth (most likely caused by a breech birth position), she died either of an infection from tearing in the perineum or because of a retained placenta. Either way, it was painful and unpleasant.

But the honest truth is that she was one of the lucky ones. Had she lived, she might have given Henry additional children; however, he probably would have quickly tired of her, and she would have spent what was left of her remaining years watching as her husband bounced from mistress to mistress while she aged prematurely from multiple pregnancies, poor healthcare, and stress.

Reading update from 01/30/16, at 75.0%:

      “Queen down! Queen down! Anne of Cleves (my favorite of the six) makes it out with not only her head, but also three major estates, a huge annuity, and the favor of the king and his subjects.”

Because not much is known about Anne of Cleves’s early life, not much is included here. So most of this part of the book focuses on the political machinations of Cromwell and Cranmer and those in the reformist movement around Henry to convince him to ally openly with the Protestants by marrying one. There are several well-known anecdotes about the first meeting between Henry and Anne that, surprisingly, Weir did not include here—I’m not sure why; they’re represented in every other piece of fiction or nonfiction I’ve ever read about AC.

And the most disappointing thing to me about Weir’s treatment of AC is that once Henry’s marriage to her is annulled, she pretty much disappears from the book, even though she remained part of Henry’s, his children’s, and his subsequent wives’ lives. It is mentioned that when he was in the process of getting rid of Catherine Howard (the next one), that there were very hopeful rumors in England that he was going to remarry AC—and even that Anne was pregnant with Henry’s child. Apparently, shipping isn’t a new phenomenon!

Reading update from 01/31/16, at 84.0%:

      “Off with her head! (The Sequel). ‘She hath done wondrous naughty.’ ~Francis I of France about Catherine Howard.”

Catherine Howard was an idiot—who didn’t deserve to be sacrificed by her ruthless and ambitious relatives to a lecherous, murderous old narcissist like HVIII.

Henry was an idiot for marrying her. Sure, he was going through a massive midlife crisis and wanted to feel young and vigorous and desirable again. But let’s face it: He wasn’t. And he likely knew that a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girl like CH was most likely only flirting with him because he was King. And that she couldn’t refuse him or her family might lose their positions, land, and wealth—and she might lose more than that.

I mean . . . the only good thing about this part is that she at least managed to find a little bit of happiness with Culpepper before they were both executed.

And then there’s Kathryn Parr.
The caretaker wife. The one whose marriage to Henry was probably never even consummated. Again, she was someone who wasn’t allowed to say no to his advances. That’s how much power Henry wielded. She was someone who’d been around in the Tudor court for many years, as part of the aristocracy. She’d even been part of Jane Seymour’s household for a time—so Henry already knew who she was when their paths intersected after the debacle with CH. But this time, there was something about her—perhaps the reputation she had as a woman of high moral character who’d been a loyal wife to both husbands (she was still married to the second when Henry started to pay court to her). While nursing her second husband through a long, mortal illness, she fell in love with Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother, and they planned to marry as soon as her husband died and her mourning period was over.

But as soon as her husband died, Henry decided he wanted to marry her, so he sent Thomas abroad and put on the full-court press with KP, and he made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Literally.

Of course, as a woman who’d seen two husbands through their final years, she may have realized that Henry wasn’t long for the world and she could bide her time until he died and then she could still marry the love of her life.

Kathryn, after Jane, was one of Henry’s most honored and respected wives. He even made her Regent, ruling England in his stead, when he went off to war in France during their marriage. She was also one of the most highly intelligent and educated of his wives, publishing two books while Queen.

However, because of her intelligence and education, KP loved to debate—and she loved to debate theology with Henry. And as a secret Protestant, her theology didn’t always match up with his. The Catholics in England were regaining power at this time and wanted to get rid of KP, so that she wouldn’t have an undue effect on Henry and hurt their cause. So they managed to convince him to let them arrest her and have her tried for heresy. However, one of KP’s attendants found the warrant and told her about it. KP managed to convince Henry that the only reason she debated him—and disagreed with him on so many points—was so that he could educate her. After all, he was the supreme head of the church, and of her as her husband, and she depended on him for her spiritual education.

After Anne of Cleves, Kathryn Parr is the luckiest of Henry’s wives. He died before anything bad could happen to her (like the Catholics coming after her again or Henry getting tired of her). And then she was able to go on and marry the love of her life. Which story we get in brief at the end of this book (because, after all, it ties in with several key events in the life of the young woman who would become Queen Elizabeth I).

Weir is an expert at finding and making readily accessible the extant documents and records of the Tudor era and bringing them entertainingly to life for the modern reader. (See the quote from Francis I about Catherine Howard in my status update above for a prime example.) Because she has also done some novelizations of these historical events/people, she brings that creativity and style into her nonfiction prose; however, at times, I do have the same problem with her nonfiction that I have with her fiction: she tends to get sidetracked by her fascination with minor historical details . . . which she wants to describe and/or explain in full, even when it’s not really all that pertinent to the forward movement of the events she’s relating. But, then again, because of this, there are the interesting historical tidbits, like that of Edward Seymour’s first marriage and the reason for the estrangement from his father. I guess as a reader/listener, one must be in just the right mood at the moment for it to be an interesting tidbit instead of an uninteresting tangent.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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