Wednesday 6 January 2010

The Six Wives of Henry VIII - Antonia Fraser

As Fraser points out at the start of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, most people only know them by either the rhyme "divorced, beheaded, died... divorced, beheaded, survived" or by the female stereotypes attributed to them: "the Betrayed Wife, the Temptress, the Good Woman, the Ugly Sister, the Bad Girl and the Mother Figure." Fraser sets out to debunk myths and present an unbiased view of the six women who came to share Henry's life. Unlike other books of this nature, Henry is not focused on at all - we merely see glimpses of the man he is at the time of each of his marriages.

Fraser writes extremely sensitively about each of the six women - telling their tales from birth to death and using contemporary sources as far as possible. The research is impeccable and allows Fraser to consider many of the myths that have grown up around one or other of the wives and decide whether they might be true or not.

I loved the fact that each woman was presented as being courageous and spirited - they each had some good quality that Fraser explored in her quest to discover why that particular woman caught the eye of the king.

A great deal of learning can be achieved from this novel. For instance, I did not realise that it was Henry's desire for a male heir that drove him so thoroughly to move from woman to woman. I also was not aware of how he had each time lined up the successor to the queen he wanted to rid himself of. Again, it was new to me the fact that Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon for over 20 years, while the sum total of years of his other five marriages numbered just ten. It presents an entirely different view of Catherine - of a royal princess whom the king cast off reluctantly, but whom also did not go quietly.

Another point that both amused and horrified was the reputation that Henry VIII (and, by extension, England) developed thanks to his mistreatment of wives. England was universally laughed and sneered at by the other countries in Europe, and it might well have caused many of the European princesses to be withheld from Henry for fear of how they might be treated (thereby changing the course of history?)

My one real fault of this book is its density. It is extremely well-written and as gripping as a non-fiction historical novel can be but there are still dry passages which take a while to read through. In addition, there are a great many notes that add to the reading but necessitate flicking back and forth within the book which disturbs the narrative flow.

I have great admiration for the fact that Fraser managed to present an impartial viewpoint on each of the six wives and strove to reach understanding as to their motives. I did come away from the book with a sneaking suspicion that she preferred Catherine of Aragon and decried the actions of Katherine Howard - it would be interesting to know if I had correctly identified her most and least favourite of the six wives.

There is a current trend at the moment (in fiction, led by Phillippa Gregory, and on television, including series by David Starkey) for exploring anew the Tudors and the "tyrant" who epitomises the lineage. This book should be read by anyone who has been interested in this period of history - in summary, it is a well-rounded and sympathetic look at the six wives of Henry VIII.

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