Sunday, January 31, 2016

Alison Weir - The Six Wives of Henry VIII

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@Grove Press

Henry VIII ruled England from 1509 to 1547.  He was the second son of Henry VII and became the heir to the throne after the death of his older brother Arthur.  He also inherited his brother's wife, Katherine of Aragorn. His quest for a line up of male heirs for his kingdom led him to run through six wives.

Those were bloody times and the will of a king was powerful.  Courtiers scurried to fulfil the wishes of the King or lose their heads.  They were quick to sense where their Master was inclined and followed.

In those times, Pope was deemed a higher authority than the King.  He could not dare to go against the Church.  In such times, Henry VIII defied the Church and broke with it to deal with his marriages as he wished.  He even took over monasteries and abbeys, enriching himself in the process.

The book, however, chronicles the lives of his wives, starting with Katherine of Aragorn and ending with the death of Ann of Cleves.  Ann was the third wife of Henry VIII and the most sagacious of the lot.  She quickly assented to an annulment of  marriage and kept out of Court politics to enjoy a prosperous and quiet life.

Katherine was ostracised and kept in terrible condition for most of her life.  She was punished severely for not bending to Henry's will.  Anne Boleyn was partly a victim of court intrigue and partly a victim of her own impatience and arrogance. Jane Seymour died in childbirth. She did produce a male heir, so it is hard to surmise whether the count of the King's wives would have stopped at three had she lived.

Ann of Cleves jumped at the chance of an easy exit, which she perhaps also got she was the sister of an influential ruler.  Poor Katherine Howard was too young and naive to save herself and was beheaded.  Catherine Parr came at the fag end of Henry's career and was sensible enough to combat the court politics level-headedly.

The book is a biography of the wives of Henry VIII.  We learn in detail about the background of the queens and the events that led to their becoming the queens, also how they died or were done away with.  We get a detailed picture of the times, what they wore, what they did.  All of the information relayed to us is verified.  For instance, if is widely surmised that the children of Mary Boleyn, the King's mistress were his bastards.  But as it is not verified, we are not led down that path.

On the flip side, as the narrative depends on letters written by the King, Queens and courtiers, we get taken in by the lies they may have uttered.

Whatever the consequences, Alison Weir refuses to judge anyone in the book, choosing to merely relate the events.  The only time she passes a judgement is when she talks about how a 17-year-old Katherine Howard was first paraded before the king and after she became a queen, mercilessly done away with by the rival factions of the King's Court.

The book provides ample material to study the times of Henry VIII, how people perceived women, marriages, children and property.

The subject of the book is not a happy one, as we know the end the poor women come to eventually. In fact, it can be quite a depressing read.  The language is functional and not very elegant.  The book is meticulously researched and well laid out, for students of that particular phase in England's history.

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