Monday, December 21, 2009

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

from the publisher:

"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 throne and thereby changed the course of British history."

my thoughts:

I selected this collective biography of the wives of Henry VIII in order to brush up on my knowledge of Tudor history. One of my reading goals for 2010 is to explore the historical fiction series of the Tudor wives by Jean Plaidy, so I wanted a scholarly source to use as a reference book. I never intended to read it cover to cover, but once I settled in with the saga of Katherine of Aragon, it began to read like a novel and I couldn't put it down.

Weir's fascinating and meticulous research is based on biographies, letters, diaries, archives of diplomatic papers, church documents, as well as a host of other sources and presents a balanced view of each of the women who captured the King's attention. As Weir states in her introduction,

"What were they really like, those six wives? Because of the nature of the source
material for the reign, nearly all of which has a political or religious bias,
a writer could come up with very different assessments of each of them,
all of which might be equally valid. But this would be abdicating some of the
responsibilities of an historian, whose function is to piece together the
surviving evidence and arrive at a workable conclusion. What follows are the
conclusions I have reached after many years of research into the subject,
conclusions that, on the weight of the evidence, must be as realistic as
anything can be after a lapse of 450 years."
(p. 2)

Weir weaves an interesting tapestry of the life and times for royal women during this period, giving vivid descriptions of fashions, customs, education, entertainment, arranged marriages, dowries, and royal customs; the glittering pagentry and privilege of being a royal wife is contrasted with the harsh reality: the absolute necessity of producing a male heir to continue the dynasty. The political and religious ramifications of this fact makes Henry VIII's reign so unique in history.

Perhaps as important as producing a male heir, in the midst of plagues, wars, political intrigues, church politics, and the hardships of childbearing and affairs of the king, the royal wife was expected to set a high moral standard for court and become "a model of wifely dignity and virtue."

The Six Wives of Henry VIII is a fascinating exploration of one of English history's most intriguing monarchs and the women who captured his heart.

Title: The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Author: Alison Weir
Publisher: Grove Press
genre: biography; nonfiction
643 pages

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