Kelly's Reviews > The Wives of Henry VIII

The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
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Mar 09, 09

bookshelves: history-british, history, owned, 1500-1700, grande-dames, mawwiageiswhatbringsustogethertoday
Read in March, 2009

While this would be a quality history by any standard, I've decided to judge it by exactly the standard that Antonia Fraser sets for herself right at the beginning of the book. She says that her mission is to rescue the six wives of Henry VIII from the sterotypes that have plagued them for centuries (not to mention the horrid singsong of "divorced, beheaded died..." etc). The stereotypes in question are, in order: "The Betrayed Wife, The Temptress, The Good Woman, the Ugly Sister, The Bad Girl, and The Mother Figure." I should note that she does admit that of course there is an element of truth to the stereotypes, but it isn't all as presented. So, does she accomplish this task?

The answer to that is a (mostly) unqualified yes. This is my first Antonia Fraser history, and I am so delighted that this is the one I chose. I highly respect her methods, her voice, and her manner of presentation. If I can become half the historian that she is I will consider myself quite accomplished. She's utterly meticulous, and obeys the rule of "cite cite cite," several times a page, using as many primary documents as possible, and notifying the reader when an account of a story comes from someone who was not present, or who hadn't been born yet, or who had a reason to write with some kind of bias. She goes out of her way to note even the slightest possibility of error, giving us footnotes even on the origin of various paintings, or the craftsmanship attribution of the Queen's badges. Things that might not even seem important- she makes it a point that every fact is important, and the historian doesn't get to decide which ones to give and which ones to withhold. It is for the reader to decide that. While one historian might simply state an event, Antonia Fraser goes through several different versions of an event, drawn from different eyewitness accounts, analyzing the likelihood of one story or another being true. She makes it a point to address our most prominent myths about the Queens, and tell us either why they're untrue, or leave the question open. I really liked that- it shows a respect for the reader's intelligence that was very appealing. All of this gave her writing a very reassuringly evenhanded, fair, measured tone that would hardly ever lapse. I think there were only a few occasions when the author allowed her opinions to be known- usually through a snide comment, but she was always careful to make sure that she wasn't presenting it as fact, just a possibility. Honestly, it didn't bother me because most of such opinions were after chapters of dealing with the same nonsense from a particular character until I wanted to scream at them- and Antonia Fraser just allowed herself a Jane Austen, ladylike sarcastic sideswipe. I liked that too- showed there was a bit of a person behind there, no matter how hard she tried to keep up the facade.

Okay, right, onto the actual queens themselves and the stereotypes:

-Catherine of Aragon, "The Betrayed Wife"- Honestly, I think that it is this stereotype that is the most true. It is sort of hard to deny after reading all of the crap that Henry put the poor woman through. But she does rescue her from being "merely" a wife very handily- Catherine is seen to have some power, her own opinions, a fantastic sense of drama when necessary. Not to mention we see just how happy their marriage was for a time. Also, the first section contains a lengthy description of the diplomatic conditions of the time period, sets up the rivalry of the Three Kings, and explains just why it was such a coup for Henry VII to get Catherine in the first place and how her status changed. It was a fascinating lesson in the diplomatic ways and means of the period, and just how unstable this Europe was in many ways, even before Luther and his door nailing party.

-Anne Boleyn, "The Temptress,"- I acquit her of this one, mostly. After all, she did wait seven years for the guy to marry her, and didn't sleep with him until well into the sixth year. Also, Henry seems to have been rather singleminded about his loves, so. Antonia Fraser did a good job of pointing out the situation she was in and how limited her options were once she attracted the attention of the king. Also, interesting discourse on her Lutheran tendancies- it appears she was a geniune reformer. Had intellectual interests other than catching men. However, I don't acquit her of being an utter bitch at times, especially to Mary. Though I do now have more understanding of her insecurity and why that may have happened.

-Jane Seymour, "The Good Woman"- The poor girl didn't live long enough to judge. Turns out she may have been kind of a prude, and definitely was interested in protecting her position as Queen- some jealousy towards the pretty girls around her. She was also probably not particularly Protestant, which was interesting.

-Anna of Cleves, "The Ugly Sister"- This was, oddly, probably the most interesting bit of the book. Her story is a fascinating stumble of mistakes and miscues, rash decisions followed by waiting periods. Girl got totally screwed over by her relatives and Henry, though he did pay for her upkeep after the "divorce." She seems to have been well meaning at first, and probably wasn't ugly at all. Tried really hard to become English. The interesting part is that she succeeded, stayed on at the court, etc. Seems she felt more rejected when Henry didn't remarry her after the death of Katherine Howard- and she had the capability to be just as much of a bitch as Anne Boleyn. Also, she survived the longest of the wives. Interesting personality. I'd like to read a novel of her life- someone should write that.

-Katherine Howard- "The Bad Girl"- Nope, not particularly evil. Just dumb and shallow- your basic girl from a small town goes to the big city for college and loses her head a little bit. Flighty, kind of dumb.

-Catherine Parr- "The Mother Figure"- Not really. Yes, she was a pretty good nurse. She was chosen for her maturity. But I don't think it was to "mother" him necessarily. Henry just always needed a woman next to him- to oppress them, sometimes. Also to take care of him and adore him. He likes dominating women and loving them about equally for most of his life, the balance tips to selfish domination and getting his own way towards the end. She had interesting religious opinions, and definitely a mind of her own. Probably the most Protestant Queen, next to Anne Boleyn. I loved the portrait of her after Henry died, how she sort of overflowed with the repressed life that she'd had to hide as Queen. Some bad things went on then, but it was heartbreakingly understandable. I think I liked her best of all the Queens, except when Anne Boleyn was at her earthiest and most honest.

Overall lesson? As Fraser tells us herself, women were truly helpless to the whims of their male relatives, strong personalities or not, and doubly so if this person was the king. It sucked to be a woman ... and yet women were fighting back against it in small ways all the time. In small ways. In the ways open to them. Some of them were wise enough not to try, tried to work within the system. Some of them said "fuck that"- Anne Boleyn being among those.

Also, as many others have said about this book- these women were women, not symbols. Henry VIII was a man, not a monster. Granted, he did terrible things, but Antonia Fraser is able to break those down, tell us why they may not have seemed like terrible things at the time. She's able to try to give us some psychological insight as to why he might have felt himself justified, or why he became the person that he did. It doesn't give you sympathy with him, per se, but it did succeed in lessening the vitrolic disgust a bit. Context always helps with that, of course.

Anyway to wrap up this loooong review (oops), I will say that I recommend this to those interested in the Tudor era, women's studies, Tudor foreign affairs, or anyone willing to sit through a bit of history for some good psychological profiles.
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Reading Progress

02/19/2009 page 80
16.6% "I really both enjoy and respect Fraser's voice. It seems measured and fair without being dry."
02/23/2009 page 130
26.97% "Onto Anne Boleyn. Fraser is so careful to seperate fact from fiction/rumor. Anne benefits."
02/26/2009 page 220
45.64% "Oh, how the world changes when there are no men around."
03/06/2009 page 280
58.09% "Anne is dead, Jane is dead- Henry is wondering why nobody wants to marry him. Really? REALLY?"
03/07/2009 page 300
62.24% "The Duke of Cleves was actually a threat to Charles V, so he's pissed about the Anna of Cleves marriage."
03/07/2009 page 320
66.39% "Wondering if the Henry-K Howard relationship is the origin of the term "May-December romance""
03/08/2009 page 393
81.54% "Catherine Parr held evangelical bible study groups and liked radical preachers- at least until her husband brought up his headless wives." 2 comments
03/08/2009 page 420
87.14% "Anna of Cleves lived on and on long after everyone was dead, until one year before Elizabeth's coronation. An odd survivor."

Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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message 1: by Kelly (last edited Feb 18, 2009 12:54PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly Her books were recommended to me recently, particularly her "age" histories, like the one she wrote on the War of the Roses, which I plan to read soon. I've read two or three Alison Weir books, and I liked them because they were all readable, flew by fast, and seemed well researched. I have heard that she has certain biases, though, like favoring the Lancasters over the Yorks- so don't read her Wars of the Roses. Also, I'm told she went into The Princes in the Tower ready to convict Richard, and wasn't particularly objective (possibly also due to said bias), but I don't know if that's true. I thought it was reasonably objective, given the evidence (ED NOTE: still read as kind of biased)- but then again, I read it when I was sixteen.


Melody I like Weir's historical work. I even like her fictionalized books. I don't know that I ever noticed any particular bias, though.


message 3: by Kelly (last edited Feb 18, 2009 12:54PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly As I said, I like it as well. At least, I like her storytelling style. However, I definitely noticed some bias in at least one book. I don't know if it is true of the others.


Melody *nod* I liked Fraser too. I don't think I read Tudor history with an especially critical eye- I get to involved in the characters. :-)


Wealhtheow This was either my first or my second history book EVER. I loved it so! I'm interested in what a less jejune reader thinks of it.


Jammies I loved this book. Of course, I'm also a long-time fan of Fraser's, but I really liked this one because, as Kelly said, Fraser is so careful to keep to the realm of history rather than myth. My copy is currently on loan to a friend who wondered about the accuracy of The Other Boleyn Girl.


Kelly I'm glad you liked it, Abigail. Truly, that means a lot to me coming from someone whose reviews I find so clear eyed and incisive about getting to the real point or opinion that matters. It makes me happy that you say that. *hugs*


Kelly The Tudors are a new interest of mine, but I can certainly see why one could be obsessed with them. :) There's certainly enough going on to fascinate you for a good long time.


Kelly That's definitely one of the books on my list, thanks for reminding me of it. :)


Wealhtheow Wow, this is a really great breakdown of the book.


Kelly Thanks, I appreciate you saying that! I knew that this was one of your favorites, so I was nervous about what you'd say. Makes me feel better! :)


Madeline Wonderful review, Kelly. I need to find a copy of this book. I'm sort of obsessed with the Tudors.

And if you're interested in a novel about Anne of Cleves, you could always try The Boleyn Inheritence by Philippa Gregory. Fair warning, though: it's fluffy, sort of inaccurate, and generally not her best. I'm sure there are other, better Anne of Cleves novels out there; that's just the only one I know of.


Kelly Ooooh, thanks for letting me know. I'm a little iffy on Phillippa Gregory, but I'll definitely do a bookstore leaf through and see if it grabs me.

I do hope you find this book, especially if you are obsessed with the Tudors. Amazing goldmine of information even for people who already know the stories.


message 14: by Madeline (last edited Mar 11, 2009 09:26AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Madeline And how absolutely batshit crazy Henry was by that point, holy God.


Kelly Yeah, you know what's funny? Antonia Fraser mentioned that many people tried to blame the batshit craziness on the fact that he was super-fat, and had gout and his legs really bothered him all the time, so it made him crabby. And how ridiculous that is.

You don't cut off people's heads because you have a cramp in your thigh. Pretty damn sure!


message 16: by Sarah (new)

Sarah What a great review! And to echo basically everyone else, I have to read this!!


message 17: by Huma (new)

Huma I'm new to Fraser and Period Biographies but I just had to tell you how much I loved your review!


Kelly Thanks! This is a great book! Inspired me to read a whole series of histories after it. Fraser's a really intelligent, clear-minded writer.


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