The tempestuous, bloody, and splendid reign of Henry VIII of England (1509-1547) is one of the most fascinating in all history, not least for his marriage to six extraordinary women. In this accessible work of brilliant scholarship, Alison Weir draws on early biographies, letters, memoirs, account books, and diplomatic reports to bring these women to life. Catherine 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.
A well-researched, very readable book–I’ve been meaning to get to this one for quite some time now, and was thrilled when it went on sale on Audible. I’ve had the print version for ages; it was nice to be able to listen to the book while marking passages, glancing at the chronology and family trees, and paging through the pictures as I did so. I’ve long found this period of history fascinating–my late-elementary school-age years were the start, because my favorite (non-fiction) ghost book in the school library told about the Tower of London’s ghosts, two of whom are supposedly Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. Naturally I needed to know why a king would have two of his wives executed. I really enjoyed Ms. Weir’s style of writing; I’ll definitely be reading more from her in the future–and yep, I’ll probably do so with both audio and print versions on hand. I like the convenience of being read to but to also be able to pick up the book at will and find what I need in an instant–plus, you really do need all the extras the audio, unfortunately, just can’t give you.
I enjoyed how Ms. Weir gives some insight into the process of discovering history by explaining things like how they figured out (or tried to figure out and what their current best guess is when definites are unknown) when people were born and what portraits exist of each of the women and how they can tell. Reading this book makes me want to return to England so that I can see their portraits, visit their graves, and go to the all places she describes myself.
The narrator did a great job–though (and this is not his fault, that’s how it’s written) when something is a direct quotation it’s sometimes hard to tell, seeing as how you can’t hear the quotation marks. Those bits often at first sound like they’re grammatically incorrect and frequently threw me for a loop, until I realized that a source was being quoted. Really, though, that is the only issue I had with the entire book.
This book did not, however, make me like Henry VIII any more than I already did (which was pretty much not at all. I muttered “rat bastard” to myself a lot while listening; I think the dog was starting to worry that I had developed Tourette syndrome). I can see why Henry was so well liked in his lifetime and do understand some of his motivations better than I did before, but still.
And as always, I am immensely grateful that I was not around in Tutor England, “an age that believed that teaching women to write would encourage them to pen love-letters.”
Oh, the horror.
Rating: 4 1/2 stars / A