Jun 30, 2010

Book Review: The Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Loades

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Loades
ISBN-13: 978-1848683358
Amberley issue 2009; Reissue of earlier edition in 1994
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:Four stars!

The marital ups and downs of England's most infamous king. The story of Henry VIII and his six wives has passed from history into legend taught in the cradle as a cautionary tale and remembered in adulthood as an object lesson in the dangers of marrying into royalty. The true story behind the legend, however, remains obscure to most people, whose knowledge of the affair begins and ends with the aide memoire Divorced, executed, died, divorced, executed, survived. David Loades' masterly book recounts the whole sorry tale in detail from Henry's first marriage to his brother's widow, to more or less contented old age in the care of the motherly Catherine Parr.

Historian David Loades presents a convincing narrative as he summarizes the events of Henry VIII's six marriages in almost a conversational format. This work is a reissue in 2009 put out by Amberley with some updates to a previous 1994 title by the author. Most Tudor fans know the stories of each of the wives and like me, may have read many Tudor novels surrounding these women. I found interesting snippets of information in this summarized work, as well as it reading like a refresher for the times and nuance of Henry VIII. I enjoyed the introduction which explains the importance of the Royal marriage market and the process that was accepted among many to marry towards other Royal houses in order to increase land holding or some royal significance such as potential heirs to a throne. Which was not the way that Henry VIII operated, as he chose from his courtiers and fellow noble families when he was wife-shopping.

Loades presents the wives in chronological order, and I found Catherine of Aragon to be once again a formidable lady who put up with a lot from her King. Loades describes the failed pregnancies and how this disillusioned the King with each passing day. Their daughter Mary comes into play of course, and she is portrayed as extremely hostile once the 'Boleyn Whore' succeeds in her quest to the throne. Anne Boleyn's demise and therefore the chapter on her seemed to go by quickly, as Cromwell effectively removed her and her family from the courts of Henry VIII by the farce of a trial that sent her, along with her fellow accused, to the executioner's block. One particular sentence that peaked my interest was regarding Anne's sister-in-law, Lady Jane Parker Rochford: "Not a great deal is known about his{George's} trial, and the story that his wife testified against him may well be apocryphal. There is some circumstantial evidence that she later accepted his guilt, but that may have been the only way in which she could get a property settlement out of the King." He goes on to state that the homosexual references to George are probably more of a twentieth-century speculation. Anne's character was portrayed as a bit of a wild child who did not know how to control her tongue, and Loades stated that it was her wit and sexual attraction that appealed to Henry VIII from the start, but it was this exact wit and sexual attraction that created her downfall as well.  Most of the noble families were hateful of the upstart families of Anne, and they were eager to displace the Boleyns and the Howards from the peerage. The fact that Anne was innocent meant nothing to the jury.

Loades goes on to write that the day after Anne was executed, Henry was betrothed to Jane Seymour. Jane has always been an enigma to me. Was she truly the Plain Jane as contemporary novelists like to characterize her as, or was she eyeing the crown from the beginning of her royal courtship? Loades describes her as frumpy, so what did Henry see in this Plain Jane? The author surmises that she was almost an exact opposite of Anne Boleyn: no overt sexual traits, no outspoken mannerisms and her family was well liked, unlike the Boleyns and the Howards. If hereditary genes had anything to do with it, Jane also showed promise of being fertile, as she was one of nine children. And Henry once got his heir, Jane died, so onwards to wife number four and the first true marriage-for-the-good-of the-realm, which was a disaster in bed because she was not attractive to Henry.

Anne of Cleves is presented a bit different than I had expected; she was still the naive person when it came to consummation, but she was also annoyed with Henry when he later married Catherine Parr, the last wife.
She may have been annoyed when he married Catherine Howard after her, but it was probably too early for her to realize what was going on due to her foreign surroundings. But the flirty Catherine Howard had replaced the unseemly Anne of Cleves, reducing Anne to the status of the sister of the King. Catherine's character was portrayed as we typically imagine her, and she seems to have been simply to young to deal with the politics of the times and was extremely stupid in her need for boyfriends. The author goes into the political machinations that brought each of these wives in and out of the picture, and the major players in this function. Jane Parker is again mentioned, as she the one who helped Catherine illicitly meet with Culpeper. Loades does not state why Jane would help the young queen to do such a thing, but does note that she quickly gave incriminating information but was not spared execution. And soon Cromwell was also summarily executed in a quick timeline as Loades tells it, lacking the drama of what was going on behind the scenes to cause it to happen. Catherine Parr rounds out the tale as the last wife, yet for once Loades gives some more background information on her as she was once known as Lady Latimer and Catherine Neville. The factions of the families were explained and brought up; from the hated Boleyns to the tolerable Howards to the respectable Seymours.

Although I do enjoy Alison Weir's writing, the main difference I found in this text by David Loades is that he uses less "supposedlys" and sticks to facts and not conjecture. Those readers wanting a more detailed account of all the events relating to the wives and the times would not get much of a good taste in Loades summary, but this could be very much treated as a summary of the marriages of Henry VIII but not necessarily of the wives themselves. The writing style itself made this an easy read, as Loades never went too far into depth into the politics or religious topics, instead just touching on them as they related to the wives. I enjoyed the sporadic moments on when I felt I learned something new, but I would not recommend this for the very seasoned Tudor reader because of the lack of insight. Alternatively, this would be a fantastic non-fiction read for those who would like to learn a few facts about Henry VIII's wives without having to suffer through a five hundred page account such as the books by Starkey, Weir, and Fraser. At 240 pages which includes author's notes and bibliography, Loades successfully reviews the marriages while educating the reader, with a look at some interesting illustrations as well. Loades states that there were plenty of "Six Wives" titles on the market, and especially more recently, and he adjusted this work accordingly as to not saturate the reader with the same amount of facts that have been used and reused and reiterated. Which is why I feel this was an excellent work to read when wanting a quick look into the familiar stories regarding the six wives of Henry VIII.

This book is also perfect for entering my Tudor Mania Reading Challenge and I will include this review link there. I just may win my own contest!