The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

The Six Wives of Henry VIII is a book I’ve had in my possession for more than 20 years but never read. In fact, I had given up hopes of reading it and put it and several other books about Tudor England in the donate pile. I recently read Weir’s soon-to-be released historical fiction novel about Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife (read my review of that book here) so I was primed to read more and find out the real story of Henry and his many wives. Then, not too long ago, had a sale on a variety of non-fiction titles and this book was on the list, so I gladly bought it because I am able to listen to audiobooks at work.

From “Either annulled, executed, died in childbirth, or widowed, these were the well-known fates of the six queens during the tempestuous, bloody, and splendid reign of Henry VIII of England from 1509 to 1547. But in this “exquisite treatment, sure to become a classic” (Booklist), they take on more fully realized flesh and blood than ever before. 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 woman who jumped at the chance of independence; Katherine Howard, an empty-headed wanton; and Katherine Parr, a warm-blooded bluestocking who survived King Henry to marry a fourth time.”

“Katherine of Aragon was a staunch but 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-humoured woman who jumped at the chance of independence; Katherine Howard an empty-headed wanton; and Katherine Parr a godly matron who was nevertheless all too human when it came to a handsome rogue.”

There you have it in a nutshell, according to Weir. Some reviewers have complained that The Six Wives of Henry VIII is a bit dry, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. I’ve seen a few documentaries on Tudor England, and I loved the film Anne of the Thousand Days starring Richard Burton, plus my high school and college history classes, so I knew the basics, but I had no in-depth knowledge of the scheming and machinations of Henry VIII to try and secure the thrown with a male heir. As Lucy Worsley so aptly put it when describing the wives of Henry VIII, “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Each woman is given her due in this tome, with much time spent on Katherine of Aragon, given the fact that she was married to Henry VIII for more than 20 years. I had no idea that it took seven years before Henry even married his brother’s widow, or that there was an actual affection between the two even though the marriage was arranged.

Alison Weir does an adept job of capturing the time and place and the personalities of all of Henry VIII’s wives. It’s amazing how much documentary evidence is used. Frequent quotes from contemporary sources and historical writings make up a fair section of the book. I’m so glad a paper trail exists for this time period, as Henry’s life was fascinating in a morbid sort of way. I mean, he’s the original fat bastard whose obsession with having male heirs led to the destruction and deaths of so many. Henry was in many ways an excellent king, but he was a terrible spouse.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII is excellent scholarship, but it should be pointed out that since the book was written, some new information reveals that Weir’s facts were wrong, such as Katherine Parr’s first marriage, which in this book is thought to be a 67-year old man, when after the book was published, it came to light that Parr married the grandson of the family, not the grandfather. And Weir does, at times, reveal her prejudices against various people by the way she describes them. She’s no fan of Anne Boleyn or Katharine Howard, nor is she of Thomas Seymour. Perhaps it is justified, perhaps not, but her opinions come through.

I’ll definitely be listening/reading Weir’s other books on Tudor England to learn more about this important time in British history.

This is the 43rd Audiobook I’ve listened to as part of my 2021 Audiobook Challenge.

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