I bought Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII to read at the beach one summer. I thought it would be helpful to have a refresher course on Henry VIII and his ladies from one of the best popular historical writers and scholars. I could hardly put it down. It surpasses most novels in readability and intrigue. Since Henry was married to Katherine of Aragon the longest, there is more about her and I learned more than ever before about that stubborn, passionate, implacable queen. The loss of so many of their children cast a pall upon their once joyful union. Henry seemed to have so much guilt attached to his marriage with Katherine; one wonders if it was because she was, as Henry himself testified, "buxom" in the bedchamber. Katherine was a saint but also a woman. Even when he was trying to have her annulled he would still visit her; I think that deep down he loved Katherine, which makes his obsession with Anne Boleyn seem all the more unwholesome and unhinged.
When Anne Boleyn enters the story, one tragedy unfolds after another. Weir does not spare Anne; neither did the Spanish ambassador, who is quoted in copious doses. In addition to her wit and charm, Anne possessed enough knowledge of Scripture and theology so that Henry was convinced he was doing a holy deed in turning the world upside down in order to marry her. It is disgusting, but not surprising, how quickly he tired of Anne and cast her aside. Most people do not realize that the marriage with Anne was annulled; it made killing her unnecessary but Henry had her killed anyway.
I got more of a sense of Jane Seymour's personality from Weir's book and Anne of Cleves as well. Jane was a friend to Princess Mary and devoted to the old faith; reading about her death in childbirth is always sad. It never ceases to intrigue me how Anne of Cleves loved England and wanted to stay there even after her own annulment. She, too, got along with Princess Mary who helped Anne convert to Catholicism.
I thought the treatment of Katherine Howard a bit too conventional, with the same old story of the slutty adulteress. Weir claims that Katherine became sexually active at age twelve or thirteen. I would not call that being sexually active, I call it being molested or raped. She was a very young girl, and whatever happened to her, it may have contributed to her eventual doom. It is noted that Katherine Howard compassionately sent food and blankets to the Catholic martyrs imprisoned by Henry, including Blessed Margaret Pole.
I felt sorry for Katherine Parr, who survived Henry only to be made to suffer by the man she loved, Thomas Seymour. The last Katherine had much about her to admire; she was a scholar, a writer and kindly stepmother. If Henry had not died first, he would surely have had her executed, since she was such a fervent Protestant and Henry did not like Protestants.
Weir does not explore all of the sufferings the English people experienced due to Henry's dissolution of the monasteries and break with Rome. But then, it would take another book to do so adequately; the focus of the present work on Henry's marriage debacles easily runs into a 600 page tome. Extremely well-documented, it offers a many faceted view of Henry and of the six fascinating women who each became his queen. My impression is that Henry was always searching for the contentment he had experienced as a young man with Katherine of Aragon in their early years together, before so many babies had died. He never found it again. Share