The Wives of Henry VIII
by Antonia Fraser

November 27, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

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★ ★ ★ ★

The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser | October 1992 | Knopf | Paperback $20

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. Inevitably there was great rivalry between them, and there was jealousy too – the desperate jealousy of Queens who found themselves abandoned, but also the sexual jealousy of the King who discovered himself betrayed.

I picked up a cheap used copy of this book on an admittedly mead-fueled whim at the Ren Fest a couple of weeks ago — but I’m so glad that I did. I vaguely recognized the author’s name, but didn’t remember until I got home and was looking for some space on my bookshelves for this paperback that she’d written one of my all-time favorite biographies, Marie Antoinette: The Journey.

The Wives of Henry VIII exhaustively and more-or-less narratively covers the topic of — you guessed it — the six consorts of the early Renaissance reign of King Henry VIII of England: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Only 2 of these actually outlived their royal husband.

I liked that Fraser attempted to logically interpret the historical evidence and tell everyone’s stories fairly, perhaps with more compassion than a misanthrope/cynic like myself could muster. The lives of these women have been reduced to mere rhyme in the present day (“Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived”), but as usual with dramatic figures of the distant past, the nuances of their personalities and complications of their rises/falls from power are rather more complicated.

Henry, too, is afforded a fairly compassionate view of his actions — at least, up until the point when even the most ready-to-forgive modern reader has to admit that he started acting like kind of a spoiled, narcissistic jackass.

It was especially striking to me how very little control women (well, anyone who wasn’t King Henry, but women especially) had over their own lives at this period. Something as simple as a long-forgotten “engagement” arranged by her father could be used as an excuse to annul a marriage if a lady’s husband grew tired of her. Sad, too, was the thought of a father desperately trying for sons while ignoring his completely capable — and legitimate, whatever his claims to the contrary — daughters. And to have all of this drama wrapped up in the culture wars of Protestants vs. Catholics… it makes the head spin, really.

Have you read this book? How about any of the many other books on the subject of the Tudor wives and daughters? I’m always open to recommendations!


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Publication information: Fraser, Antonia. The wives of Henry VIII. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.
Source: Used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

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