Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Wives of Henry the VIII by Antonia Fraser

King Henry the Eighth liked to have sex. Let’s just get that out of the way.


He thought himself the cat’s meow, a stud muffin, God’s gift to women even after his weight increased dramatically and a sore on his swollen leg reeked of disease. After all, he was King of England. But unlike other monarchs at the time whose spouses were selected from political standpoints and strategic alliances, King Henry in all cases but Anna of Cleves and even then he liked her picture, picked his own wife based on his heart. Forget the fact that he’s famous for treading over corpses; King Henry thrived on being in love. He wanted to control someone. He wanted an object of desire.

Towards the end of his life, for the women in court this was a scary business, especially as the list piled on from his previous wives…divorced, beheaded, died…divorced, beheaded, lived. No one was exactly lining up for the job. This is why I admire his last choice Catharine Parr so much. She must have been very brave considering his track record.

Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry the VIII is a faithful, exhaustive gathering of information on the political goings on at the time, the religious fervor in England, and how this played into the stereotypes and backgrounds of his six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Did they really fit the profile that has descended down through history: The Betrayed Wife, The Temptress, The Good Woman, the Ugly Sister, The Bad Girl, and The Mother Figure. By the end of this book you have a pretty good idea.

A quick overview –
Catherine of Aragon. The most royal of all of his choices, a descendant of Spain and England (both were related to John of Gaunt), Queen Catherine truly was the betrayed wife. And she wasn’t going to go quietly. He was horribly mean to her and their daughter, and her life could’ve been so easy, if she’d just have agreed to a divorce. She refused over and over again. I wanted to cheer at the end of that chapter, “You go girl!” Fraser and many others asked the question, how would things have been different in England if she’d had a son? Would the religious reformation have taken place? Fraser and other scholars agree, probably eventually yes. The conditions were ripe at the time for change. The people wanted more of a voice in their own religion, scripture in English, etc. It was inevitable.

Anne Boleyn. One of the smartest women on her age. Her story is a well-chronicled one. One of desire, one of love, one of temptation. Was she really as calculating as some believe? Fraser says probably not. Her main mistake was not having friends in the right places like Catherine did, and most of all not producing a son. Is it any wonder these women had miscarriage after miscarriage? I can hardly imagine such pressure to procreate as that.

Jane Seymour. Lucky girl, she died quickly. She was Henry’s new fresh start. A clean slate. He always claimed she was his one true wife. Why? Because she gave him his only living son. Does she deserve the title of The Good Woman? Fraser speculates she was probably just as human and paranoid as the rest of the women in his life.

Anna of Cleves. King Henry was in a very bad mood when he married her. His first choice had laughed him off. This daughter of Cleves was his second choice, based on liking her portrait, and merely a convenient political alliance. When he saw her he changed his mind, not thinking she was the least bit pretty. This was his reasoning for a quick divorce – that she was not able to rouse him. But unlike Catherine of Aragon, Anna agreed almost immediately, perhaps fearing for her neck, as long as she could stay in England. He rewarded her with her own house and money. She was still alive and rich. Not too bad I say.

Katherine Howard. Half his age, and a cousin to Anne (that should’ve been the first bad sign), Katherine was not too bright, but she must’ve been very pretty – according to Fraser we're not sure if there's a picture of her. It’s widely guessed that the king was quite taken with her, but therein lies the thorn on the rosebush: He wasn’t the only one. This rose had been plucked before, poor girl. I believe Katherine’s only crime was being so young and naïve. Whom would you pick between if you were nineteen: an old, really large man with a smelly leg and a general air of importance, or a young dashing rogue who told you everything you wanted to hear? Not too tough of a choice.

Catherine Parr. Finally an older (she was in her mid-thirties), wiser widow. No more questions about whether or not she’s had sex before. This woman was safe. She definitely spoke her mind on occasion, was a stand in mother for his children and probably just as Protestant as Anne Boleyn, but knew her limits. She wasn’t stupid after all. Nothing was worth death.

So, along with this being a fascinating read, there are wonderful pictures of the king and his wives and offspring, as well as key political figures and places at the time. I recommend this to anyone interested in this period of history and women studies.

I’ve seen The Tudors on Showtime and have often believed, besides the fact that the casting of Henry was way off base as far as looks go, they made some of the storyline up. It’s just too much of a soap opera to be true. I don’t think that anymore. What came around really did go around. Who would’ve thought? I loved it, but I love the National Enquirer too, so it wasn't much of a stretch. 4 stars


Amanda said...

Do you really think he picked women based on his heart? I always had the impression it had more to do with his attractions more than anything. That's of course different than the traditional political reasons. King Henry VIII was a fascinating person.

Serena said...

this sounds like a fascinating look at this time period.

hamilcar barca said...

"...King Henry thrived on being in love.".

you see? this is why more guys aren't romantic. dudes like Henry giving our gender a bad rap. i bet he read chick-lit in his spare time. probably composed sonnets too.

L said...

Amanda - For Henry attraction and heart were probably the same. Who knows what he thought love was, since real love is not losing interest over time, which he did with his first two wives. Based on his behaviour, he must've been highly emotional. Thinking himself in love when it was really lust, and the same on the other end with his anger. He could be highly volitale, very changeable, or at least that's the impression I got from this book.

Serena - I learned alot about each of the queens and their backgrounds. And the pictures were really interesting as well. Probably my favorite part of the book. Some scary ones of Henry that made me shudder. All were copies of original portraits from the time period.

Hamilcar - It's so funny what you said because King Henry hated to write letters, except to Anne Boleyn. He wrote her some really sappy, I'm talking Gov. Sanford type love letters. There's a photo copy of one in the book.

hamilcar barca said...

zut alors! il a écrit ces lettres en français!.

for anyone interested in reading a translation of Henry's passionate prose :


i like him signing his name "H. Rex".