Nonfiction — print. Grove Press, 2000. Originally published 1991. 656 pgs. Purchased.
Known either as an infamous bunch or through the way they died, the six wives of Henry VIII are examined as individuals in Weir’s collective biography. As the back cover states, Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, emerges as a staunch though misguided woman of principle; Anne Boleyn, an ambitious adventuress with a penchant for vengeance; Jane Seymour, a strong-minded matriarch in the making; Anne of Cleves, a good-natured and innocent woman naively unaware of the court intrigues that determined her fate; Catherine Howard, an empty-headed wanton; and Catherine Parr, a warm-blooded bluestocking who survived King Henry to marry a fourth time.
I purchased this book when it was first released in paperback in 2000, read the section on the wife I’m most interested in, and shelved the rest to read at a later date. I have recently become interested in the lives of Henry VIII’s other wives, particularly Katherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr, and decided to use Weir’s book as a starting point for learning about these two illustrious women. (I say illustrious because Katherine of Aragon was held up as a paradigm of Catholic sainthood and Catherine Parr was a major figure in Elizabeth I’s Protestant education.)
As odd as it may sound, the only way to review this book is start at the beginning and address the conclusions Weir makes about each woman’s relationship with Henry VIII. It makes sense as to why Weir devotes much of her book to assessing each woman’s relationship with Henry VIII; these relationships did make them queen and are why their names have not been lost to history.
On that aspect, Weir starts that “the deepest, most abiding passion in his life was for Anne Boleyn, yet it was a destructive one, souring with familiarity of marriage and leaving the King embittered” (pg. 531). Yet Weir asserts that for all his ill-treatment of four of six wives, it was Anne Boleyn’s ambition and Katherine of Aragon’s stubborn refusal to acquiesce to his request to a divorce that turned him into a tyrant.
I do not particularly agree — or, even like — this assertion as it places the onus on mistreated and abused women for his treatment of them. It might have been a correct assessment for the time period — women were blamed for the lack of a male heir or infertility — and, certainly, being raised as a prince with the divine right to rule contributed to his belief that people should bend to his will, but there have been additional medically-based theories proposed as to why he was a tyrant that Weir does not address.
Individually, I learned a tremendous amount about each of the six women Henry VIII married, particularly the often overlooked wives like Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. It is clear that Weir carries the same soft spot for Anne Boleyn that I do given the number of pages dedicated to her, although it is understandable given the length of her relationship with Henry VIII.
Her assessment of each wife is very academic in nature; she draws on reports from court at the time and assessments of each women from both biased and unbiased sources whilst largely shying away from presuming the dialogue or the personal thoughts of each wife. Occasionally, the text becomes overwhelmed during events where Weir has too much information on hand and not enough space to include it. Overall, though, I found her book to be largely well-research possessing the same readability I have found with her later works.