Henry VIII is perhaps England’s most infamous monarch, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. He was married to six distinctly different women, and in this richly detailed and meticulously researched history, these remarkable, often misunderstood queens come to life once again: Katherine of Aragon, stubborn and devoutly Catholic; Anne Boleyn, proud and fiercely ambitious; Jane Seymour, deceptively strong-willed; Anne of Cleves, unappealing and uncomplaining; Katherine Howard, young and foolish; and finally, Katherine Parr, brave, practical and intelligent. Their full histories and personalities emerge at last, giving voices to the six extraordinary women who left their distinctive marks on the English thrown and thereby changed the course of British history.
Alison Weir’s book is just fantastic. Instead of applying today’s moral standards, today’s laws, rules, views etc. onto the events that happened almost five hundred years ago Weir, at the beginning of her book, gives such a detailed outline of what life was really like back then. She talks about the roles and responsibilities of women, the expectations of Queens and mistresses and of those at court who all played a role in some way or another in the life of Henry VIII. You get an idea of what life was like back then and why Henry and those around him did the things they did. By today’s standards the events that happened five hundred years ago might sound appalling – such as beheading a woman he believed had betrayed him. Or even ridiculous, by not accepting a great offer given by the King for a better life. But those were the morals and standards of the day and what was considered ‘normal’ by today’s standards was VERY different back then.
What I instantly adored about this book is that Weir gives us a wonderful insight into the roles, responsibilities and loves of women of noble blood during the Reign of Henry VIII. We get to see how men of the day truly believed that women were of a lesser class then themselves and their main function in life was to produce heirs… mainly sons. Girls were accepted, but male issues were of extreme importance; and women were not just expected to have one or two children, they were expected to have many, many children! As though these poor women, even though they were from rich, well to do families, were expected to be nothing more than poor breeding machines.
As well as this it appears that in the Tudor period women were supposed to be seen and not heard. They were expected to dress in the highest fashion adorned with beautiful jewels, materials and furs, appearing nothing but clean and virtuous. There was not supposed to be a hint of slander against them, pure, innocent, honourable, moral and knowledgeable about issues related to women – needlework and the likes. They were not expected to have their own thoughts and views on matters. They were not allowed to speak out and say what they believed, and heaven forbid if they challenged a man. And yet on the complete opposite side of the coin, it appears that men, especially Henry Tudor were attracted to women who challenged them, who had their own thoughts, opinions and beliefs on matters. But as soon as they were married these poor women had better shut up and provide lots of babies! My heart breaks for the poor women struggling to be who they are while being everything they were expected to be by the social rules of the time.
Through Weir’s wonderful and detailed description of the expectations and pressures of women during Henry VIII’s reign it gives me even greater love for Anne Boleyn. This woman was not only bold, vivacious and intelligent, she was also a woman born hundreds of years before her time. I can only imagine all the remarkable things she could have achieved if she lived during today’s times.
Speaking of Anne Boleyn, Weir does not shy away from who Anne was. She does not try and paint her as some holy figure that supported Henry in the reformation – she tells the world what Anne Boleyn was really like. There is a LOT more to Anne Boleyn than just her fall and her involvement in the Reformation. To think that this was all that was her life is a grave underestimation. While she was a strong, vivacious, brave, intelligent woman she was also a woman prone to jealousy, fits of rage and anger, scorn and tremendous hatred. (I can see so much of myself in Anne Boleyn at times that it’s not funny!) Weir states the facts and I felt as though she let the reader decide their own views and opinions on Anne.
Everyone knows my feelings about Anne Boleyn; she is after all my favourite of Henry’s wives and for many reasons. Weir just summed up all the reasons why I admire and love Anne. Yes she most certainly had her faults and perhaps she should not have encouraged Henry to advance and follow his love for her, perhaps she should not set her sights upon the throne and becoming Queen – we see what a price Catherine had to pay for these ambitions. But I do believe that Anne had many good intentions. Weir notes that Anne wanted the money from the dissolution of the monasteries and Abby’s to be given to the poor, charities and to the advancement of the universities. Anne also truly believed that she could have given Henry a male heir. I love how Alison Weir gives both sides of the coin that is Anne Boleyn, the good and the bad. She dedicates a great section of the book to outlining the life and the facts about Anne and lets the reader make up their own mind about this woman. A woman who in the words of Cromwell had - intelligence, spirit and courage.
While I Catherine of Aragon has never been my favourite wife, I did gain a powerful insight into the life of this incredible woman. I will never be a strong supporter of the women - personally I think when everything fell down with Anne Boleyn, the annulment of their marriage and the Reformation - I think Catherine should have accepted Henry’s offer to go to a nunnery. He offered her the same comforts and leisure’s that she currently had, including visiting and spending time with her daughter. Yet she chose to remain strong to her faith and her beliefs, which one has to give her admirable credit for. She certainly was a strong woman. It’s a shame that she was still madly in love with Henry and could not accept that he no longer loved her, nor was in love with her but had fallen madly in love with someone else. For the first time in his life Henry VIII was in love, it is just so very sad that Catherine of Aragon had to suffer for this new found love.
One of my favourite quotes: ‘when thwarted Henry could, and frequently did, become cruel.’ (Weir 1995, p. 228). I think this sums up Henry VIII to a tea. When Henry had his mind set on something he wanted it and nothing would stop him - heaven forbid anything that got in his way! Poor Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn are true testament to this.
I really enjoyed reading about Jane Seymour… which I know will shock many people as they know that I have very little love for the late Queen. What I found extremely interesting was that Weir did not try to portray the woman as completely virtuous and innocent… in fact she laid out some very good reasons why Jane was perhaps rather quite the opposite. Weir talks about how Jane could not have been completely blind to Anne Boleyn’s plight. After all, just as Anne had done to Katherine of Aragon, Jane was pushing her way into Henry VIII’s view as a possible love interest. She was trying to gain the King’s favour and take his attention away from his Queen just as Anne had done to Katherine. Perhaps she was pushed by her family who saw the prospects of Jane becoming the next Queen and perhaps there was a little of Jane’s own ambition and goals playing a role. Whatever the case, be it one way or the other… or in my opinion a mixture of both, there is no way to say that Jane was completely innocent. She obviously knew what she was doing – trying to bring down the fall of Henry and Anne’s marriage and put herself into the position as the next Queen. Innocent? I think not.
I think the major difference between Jane and Anne is that when Anne caught the King’s attention there was a LOT of political and religious happenings going on. Anne did NOT first bring the idea of divorce to Henry, he had, for some years previously, been thinking how he could distance himself from Katherine of Aragon so that he may have a male heir to the throne. He had grown dissatisfied with poor Katherine and had not visited her bed for years. He wanted a new wife and when he fell in love with Anne he wanted something to be done.
What came with Anne was the Reformation and she has been wrongly blamed for the single cause of the Reformation. Yes I do believe that Anne supported Henry, nudged him to the idea that he could be the soul head of the English Church, but she was not the only one to play a role in this, nor was she the single reason why Henry wanted a divorce. She did not plant this idea in Henry’s head, it had already been there, she simply helped to water the seed.
But the English people did not know this, nor did they see it this way. They saw a Queen whom they deeply loved being cast off for a woman who they thought of as nothing more than a common whore. Divorce in these times had not been seen before, especially by a King and they did not like it. There was much anger and hatred towards Anne and unfortunately this carried on throughout her life and ultimately played a huge role in her downfall.
With the English people hating Anne, it was not hard for them to see Jane as a new fresh start for the Kingdom. They welcomed her with open harms while they cheered for the fall of Anne Boleyn. It saddens me that they could not see past this and see Jane for who she really was – another woman, pushing out a Queen to take the role upon herself. I do not think Jane is innocent at all, nor will I ever. The evidence is just to damning against her. And let us not forget that Jane, when she was Queen, only wanted to surround herself with those of equal status and had little friendship her interaction with her ladies in waiting.
And now moving on from Jane and her role in Anne’s destruction and downfall, Alison Weir goes on to speak of Anne of Cleves, the German Princess who was perhaps the only wife who have great success and joy from annulment of her marriage to Henry VIII. I think Anne was one smart cookie – she was an incredibly intelligent woman and I give her full credit to the way she handled the annulment of her marriage. It was not her fault that Henry declared: “I like her not!” nor was it her fault he could not have sexual intercourse with her. Unfortunately she was just another pawn in political alliances and she could have paid a very high price… but not only managed to get away with her head, but was greatly rewarded for how she handled herself.
I really admired the way that Weir portrays Anne of Cleves and her writings only made me fall more in love with the ‘sister to the King’. Instead of going down the same path that Katherine of Aragon went, Anne chose to accept her fate and to hold her head high. She accepted what was happening and took it willingly, glad to be annulled of the marriage and be declared the King’s sister. For this, and her agreement in all matters, she was rewarded well, with three houses, lands and an annual salary from the King. She even decided not to return to Germany, but to stay in England. Although this I can see as a personal reason – after all now with a new life, money, land, servants all spread out before her Anne had a new found freedom and a love of life that she did not have under her brothers ever watchful eye. (And let us not forget that Anne changed her religion when she married Henry VIII – a difficult thing to do, but one in which she took on gladly and willingly.)
I also love that Anne took little Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry under her wing and took great care and favour for her. She could see that Mary was old enough to look after herself and that Prince Edward was being spoiled and doted upon – as rightly should be due to the fact that he would be the next King of England! But she saw how ill poor Elizabeth was being treated and wanted to remedy this. Weir states how Anne invited Elizabeth to her home on many occasions and showed her great love. This warms my heart.
I think for me personally, if I was married to Henry and knew that he was dissatisfied with our marriage and wanted an annulment, I would have handled the matter the same way that Anne of Cleves did. I do not think she sacrificed any of her dignity by agreeing to the annulment – in fact the people of England continued to love her even after she was no longer Queen. I do see Anne as a very strong, intelligent woman.
Next came Katherine Howard – poor naive Kitty Howard. Every time I read about this girl I feel more and more sorry for her and reading Weir’s writings was no exception. I do not think that there is anyone that would say what she did was not wrong – she had an affair while she was married. The extent of that affair is up in question as Weir points out at first Culpeper denied having sexual intercourse with Katherine, but then later changed his not guilty plea to guilty. Kitty however always plead that she was innocent of sexual intercourse. Either way she was having an emotional affair with Culpepper, as the letter she wrote to him when he was sick testifies how much she missed him and cared deeply for him. Henry, who doted upon his new life and lavished attention and gifts upon her, was made to look like a fool – and history tells us that no one makes Henry VIII look like a fool!
My heart breaks for this girl, given to the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk to live with other children of noble families whose parents could not afford to look after them. While she was taught the basics in education it appears that the Duchess did not take much interest in her upbringing and this had a huge impact on Katherine’s life as she grew up. Weir talks a little about how Kitty was a very warm and caring young woman and it would seem that people – especially men, used this quality against her. There is no doubt that she was a very sexual young girl, how much of that was what she wanted and how much of it was pushed on her by Dereham and Culpepper Weir leaves it up to the reader to decide.
I get the feeling that Katherine was so taken by her new lavish lifestyle, being totally and utterly spoiled by Henry, having gifts lavished upon her, given everything her heart could desire, being the centre of attention – I think it all went to her head. She must have known what she was going with Culpeper was wrong, and yet it seemed as though she was completely taken with him. A strong part of me still thinks that she was far too naïve and foolish to realise the true impact of what she was doing. If she had only agreed that she had been contracted to marry to Dereham then her marriage to Henry would have been declared null and void and she probably would have saved her life. Unfortunately her naivety cost Katherine her life.
Lastly Weir moves on to talk about the life of Katherine Parr. I felt an incredible amount of sorry for Katherine. Here is a woman who helped to revolutionize learning for women in the Tudor times and what was her reward? A devastating betrayal and a sad, tragic ending. She was very much aware of Henry VIII’s past and what he did with his wives and yet Katherine was put into a position where she could not deny Henry’s request for marriage. She was in love with another man (Thomas Seymour) and yet she had to push that love aside because her King wanted to marry her. It must have been terrifying for her.
Yet despite this knowledge she was a loving and caring woman who nursed Henry through great bouts of health problems. She was a secret Protestant and this in itself almost brought about her downfall when Bishop Gardiner informed the King of this and tried to have her sent to the Tower. Yet I love that Katherine was a strong woman and knew how to play her role well. Running to Henry she fell on her knees imploring him that she was his most faithful and humble servant, wanting nothing more than to learn from him and if she did argue or question him it was only in an attempt to help her learn. HA! Smart words and a wonderful way to play on Henry’s love of flattery and vanity! I think this moment in itself shows the great intelligence and strength of Katherine.
I also love how Katherine basically revolutionized learning for women during her time. She was an avid reader and loved learning. She published two books and encouraged her step children and daughters of noblemen to strive for greater learning and knowledge. After Henry died Katherine was very vigorous in continuing and encouraging the education of young noblewomen. She invited Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey into her home to give them the best education possible, and made it so that a woman’s education was just as important as a man’s.
And yet despite all of this, despite pushing her own love aside to marry Henry VIII, despite nursing the King through bouts of ill health, putting up with his temper, managing to avoid being sent to the Tower, Katherine still, I believe, had a sad tragic ending to her life.
She married the love of her life Thomas Seymour, only to find him flirting and trying to seduce Elizabeth and to learn that the love of her life perhaps did not love her as much in return. And then, after so many years without children she finally conceived… only to die a short while after giving birth. I think that’s such a sad ending to a Queen who did so much for women during the Tudor period.
I absolutely LOVED this book and found myself unable to get enough. Despite working, looking after a spirited two year old and running errands I found myself finishing this book in just over a week! I had to be careful because when I picked it up I had a lot of trouble putting it down again. I was honestly quite sad when I had finished the book because I just wanted to keep reading more and more. I just adore Alison Weir as an author. Her writing flows and creates beautiful and intriguing images in the mind, as though the words are flying off the page and coming to life. There is a wealth of emotion within her books and yet she still manages to leave it to the reader to make up their own minds about each matter and what happened to each wife.
If you only ever read one book about the wives of Henry VIII then I suggest, no implore you to read this book! The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir is a fantastic read, full of so much detailed information and I promise you that once you pick it up you won’t be able to put it down!
On a side note, I think this is the longest review for a book that I have ever written! (It’s five typed pages!)