Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

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


Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"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."

Beg to disagree. I do not know the details, but I do know:

Latin Church law allowed marriages from ages 14 (for bridegroom) and 12 (for bride), which are the mean ages of physical puberty (or some month below that).

Russian Church law was reflected in the grammatical fact that the word devushka (one diminitive of deva=virgin) is applied from age twelve to marriage or thirty (an unwed at 30 becomes stara deva=old maid).

Changes did not come about until XXth C.

Enbrethiliel said...


Elena, was the stress in Henry's first marriage due mostly to not being able to produce a male heir? Would he have felt less guilty if the union had given England a whole nursery of little Tudors?

And would a daughter reigning as queen have been so bad?

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Hans, even today, in some places a 14 year old can get married legally and canonically. The mother of St. Francis de Sales was married when she was twelve. I have written about many royal princesses who were married when they were on their early teens. But Katherine, when she became "sexually active" was NOT married, which means she was just being used by a man. That is an entirely different thing, even if she was compliant in the matter.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Bad as it is, I think she knew what she was in for.

elena maria vidal said...

Enbrethiliel, I think that if Henry and the first Katherine had had a surviving male heir, everything would have been different. What was so tragic is that they did have several boys but they all died as infants. It was very traumatic for them. All the same, Katherine saw no reason why Mary could not be the sole heir, and Henry went along with that for awhile, until he met Anne.

Enbrethiliel said...


Little girls in the slums know exactly what they're in for when they "become sexually active" at twelve or thirteen. That doesn't mean they're ready for it or that it doesn't hurt them.

elena maria vidal said...

And it's NOT sanctified by civil or canon law.

elena maria vidal said...

Now in Katherine's case, it was claimed that she was secretly betrothed to Francis Dereham, which would have nullified her marriage to Henry, and it was the grounds for her condemnation.

More info HERE:
To quote:
"Francis Dereham on the other hand, certainly knew how to play the game of courtship. He was a "Gentleman Pensioner" of the household. Therefore he had position but no title and may not necessarily have attended to the Duchess, but would have held some responsibility in running the household. Being a person of authority, he would very well have filled a gap in Catherine's desire for a strong male protector. He wooed her and they soon referred to themselves as "husband and wife". They exchanged gifts and a physical union did happen many times. This is a perfectly normal reaction of the situation to which Catherine found herself and no blame should surely be placed on her. There was no way she was to know her future and she assumed marriage to Francis based on the mutual agreement. At no time was she aware of any wrong doing and it should be stated again, Catherine did not know she was doing any wrong. If any blame is to be placed, however, it must surely be on the shoulders of the Duchess herself. It was to her care Catherine was placed and it was her responsibility to ensure Catherine was safe and taught in the correct way of a person in her position. What finally ended this relationship was Henry Mannox. Out of pure jealousy he left a note on the pew in the chapel for the Duchess to read explaining what was happening between Catherine and Francis. The Duchess did find them embraced and gave a beating to Francis, Catherine and Joan Bulmer. Joan Bulmer and Catherine became very good friends and each had a romantic involvement. Joan's partner, also from the household, was Edward Waldegrave. When the secret was discovered the Duchess sent Francis Dereham from the house in shame and he moved to Ireland and became involved in piracy and later is was assumed, killed. Once again, Catherine felt betrayed by those that surrounded her."

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

In that case she did not know what she was in for.

Betrayal after betrothal is one of the things twelve year old girls (or fourteen year old boys) do not count on.

Lucy said...

Thanks for this great review, Elena. I too am interested in reading this one...but I'll have to get through his autobiography first;)

Gareth Russell said...

I enjoyed this book so much, although I think now I slightly prefer David Starkey's work (Lady Antonia Fraser's treatment is also excellent, especially on the subject of Catherine Howard.) The only major downside with this book was that I felt Miss Weir quoted the Spanish ambassador far too much in the Anne Boleyn section. She relied almost entirely on his assessment of her character and motives when, by his own admission, he had never actually met her and the first words that passed between them were words of frosty greeting at Mass two weeks before she died. It seemed curiously myopic in terms of research, to me. Similarly, I did think that she was a little bit brusque with Catherine Howard, without ever really mentioning her kindess to Lady de la Pole or her successful attempts to free the imprisoned Catholic courtier, Sir John Wallop, alongside the imprisoned Protestant, Sir Thomas Wyatt (an act of early equal opportunities kindess! Ha.) Has anyone read the "sequels," Miss Weir's "Children of England" (UK title) and "Elizabeth the Queen," I thought they were fabulous reads and I also enjoyed her treatment of the death of Lord Darnley too. Her biography of Katherine Swynford was recently recommended to me. And I would recommend her second novel, 'Lady Elizabeth,' to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It was extremely accurate, powerfully moving and the only major inaccuracy was a plot-point in the reign of Edward VI (to be fair, an absolutely major inaccuracy), but Miss Weir gamely acknowlegded it in her author's note, which I think shows integrity. A very talented lady.

Catherine Delors said...

You make me want to read it, Elena! Agreed, a sexually active twelve-year old has no idea of what she is in for.

And I agree that sadly Katherine Parr would have followed in her predecessors' footsteps to the scaffold but for the sheer luck of Henry dying first. I guess wife killing has an addictive quality to it...

Stephanie A. Mann said...

Re: Katherine Parr--once she almost was arrested because of her Protestant tendencies; Henry agreed to have the Catholic faction at court proceed with arrest and trial. Katherine escaped that time by submitting to Henry and claiming that she only discussed religion to divert him as she cared for his absessed leg.
At one point, Henry also let the Catholic faction believe he would place Cranmer under arrest!

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, Gareth, especially about the reliance on the Spanish ambassador for the portrayal of Anne. I loved the book on the Mary Queen of Scots and murder of Lord Darnley and am looking forward to reading the book about Henry VIII's children.

Yes, Catherine, I think that Henry VIII became a sort of serial killer, especially when one thinks of all the other people he had killed in addition to two of his hapless wives. There was definitely something unhealthy at work in his psyche.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for the clarification, Stephanie!