Formerly entitled Children of England, Weir’s biography of the children of this infamous king serves as a bridge between her book about the wives of Henry VIII (which I have read a couple of chapters from and own) and her biography of Elizabeth I. If you’re looking for a book about the “Virgin Queen”, this is not the book for you as this particular book covers the reigns of Edward VI, Jane Grey, and Mary I. Elizabeth is mentioned, of course, but this biography ends with her accession to the throne.
Before I read this book, I assumed the relationships between Henry’s children were dominated by jealousy. Mary, after all, was forced to be a lady’s maid to her half-sister and treated terribly by her stepmother, Anne Boleyn. Her father also labeled her a bastard and stripped her of access to her own mother. I thought her anger towards her sister stemmed from that but it was also due in large part to religion.
Mary was a Catholic; Elizabeth leaned towards Protestantism; Jane was Protestant; Edward was a rabid religious reformer hell bent on converting England to Protestantism. (Despite being credited with starting the Church of England, Henry VIII died still adhering to Catholic theology.) Henry’s heirs spent most of their lives trying to convert their siblings, heavily concerned about the souls of one another.
The life of Edward VI was of the most interest to me. Everything else I have read about the Tudors presented him as a puppet King (which he was) and dismissed this nine-year-old as trivial to history. He actually played a major role in religious reform in the country and I found the politics surrounding his court to be of particular interest. I also learned quite a bit more about Jane Grey and Mary as well as Edward than I had known before reading this book. For example:
- Mary and Jane were quite the feminist for refusing to allow their husbands, Phillip and Guildford Dudley, respectively, to be crowned king and reign in their stead.
- Jane Grey originally refused to take the throne. She actually fainted when told that Edward had named her his successor!
- “Mary, Bloody Mary” was a moniker added long after her reign and while not undeserved, it almost seems cruel to call a woman who so desperately wanted to be a mother this. Her desperation to become a mother might have also been the cause of her two fake pregnancies; Weir attributes them to a psychological disorder, pseudocyesis (also known as phantom pregnancy).
- Edward died an incredibly painful death that was the result of arsenic poisoning on the part of his closest advisor. He would have died regardless but his death was prolonged by the arsenic, which put him through agonizing pain all so Northumberland could marry his son to Jane Grey and rewrite the accession order.
I found most of the book to be quite interesting. There were a couple of parts that seemed to drag on unnecessarily, and it’s not my favorite biography by Weir. Still, it’s a straight-forward examination of this time period (even if the title is misleading; Jane was not Henry’s daughter but rather his grand-niece) that imparts a lot of information. I certainly will continue to pick up more books by Weir.
- Weir, Allison. The Children of Henry VIII. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997. Originally published 1996. Print. 385 pgs. ISBN: 0345407865. Source: Purchased.