A couple of years ago when I worked at a well known bookstore I decided it was time to read more history and so I picked up The Six Wives of Henry VIII. And so it sat on my bookshelf for a few years and it took until I added it to my TBR Pile 2014 for me to pick it up. I was a tad worried about the size of the book and whether or not the subject matter would engage me and I pinpointed this as the book I was most worried about completing. Luckily I was wrong.
I decided the best way to read this book was to mix it up with some fiction and I originally aimed to read it a wife at a time, however around wife three I decided I would just read it when I wanted and if I wanted to read about them one after another then I would. This made slightly more sense as the book is divided into different sections however these aren’t clearly cut between different wives as obviously there are periods of crossovers between wives and some wives were married much longer than others. In fact Henry VIII was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon for longer than the other five wives put together.
Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was never originally intended for him. Married to his older brother, Arthur and destined to become Queen of England from a young age, it was a shock when Arthur died shortly after their marriage, thus leaving Catherine, with only part of her dowry paid, captive in England under the command of Henry VII. Although six years older than Henry, they married and had, as Fraser portrays, a happy and successful marriage, just lacking the birth of a male heir. Or at least it was happy until Anne Boleyn came on the scene.
Fraser’s chapters on Catherine of Aragon provide a detailed insight into her journey to becoming Queen of England and it is fair to say she is a woman to be admired; trained to become Queen of England from a young age, she survives the death of Arthur and what is essentially seven years in isolation as Henry VII’s prisoner in all but name. However there were times when I lost interest in the narrative. It was certainly interesting to read the facts, but I feel as though I already knew a lot of this information from my reading of Philippa Gregory’s The Constant Princess and the TV programme The Tudors. I know both are highly fictionalised versions of the story, but they do make it more memorable.
Next came Anne Boleyn, the woman who changed the face of religion in England and who tempted Henry VIII away from his wife of many years. Anne Boleyn is certainly an interesting woman and one who perhaps would have been better suited living in the twentieth century. She was a very determined woman and as everyone knows she had a tragic downfall as Henry VIII got bored of waiting for a male heir and his attentions wandered elsewhere…to Jane Seymour, the wife who gave Henry his much desired legitimate son. This birth did lead to Seymour’s death and yes Henry was devastated for a while and then he started looking for his next wife. Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, had the shortest marriage, as she wasn’t what Henry expected and his attentions soon turned to a 17 year old girl who sparked his interest and made a fat, old man feel youthful again. Unfortunately Katherine Howard didn’t stand a chance. She was a naive, foolish girl who fell in love with an attractive young man and thus had her head chopped off. Lastly, Catherine Parr, a widow who became more of a nurse than a lover to the ageing King.
That is clearly a very brief overview of what is a detailed and complex look at these women who often take a backseat to the tyrannical rule of Henry VIII. I have read a few historical novels based on this time period and have watched shows like The Tudors, which obviously portray a glamorised view of this time period, but I think it certainly helped my reading of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It was really interesting reading more about various people who I had come across previously and to develop my understanding of these six women from a more feminist style perspective. Fraser’s writing is engaging and she has clearly researched these women in detail and this helps make this an easy read that I quickly became absorbed with every time I picked it up. There were some parts that held my attention more than others, but I think this is bound to be the case in most non fiction books and particularly ones as dense as this. However this is a fantastic narrative of the wives and one I would certainly recommend to anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction set during Tudor times.
Reading the Twentieth Century – No it doesn’t as I already have a book for 1991!