Friday, May 1, 2015

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

Title: The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Author: Alison Weir
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic
Rating: WORTHY!

This is one of a dozen books with the same or a similar title. I've read only this one and I can recommend it for its great detail and thorough coverage. Indeed, it may be a bit too detailed and too dense for some readers, but it worked for me. The only issue I had with it was with the Kindle ebook version, which I read on a smart phone. The formatting was questionable at times. Words which would normally be hyphenated were often missing the hyphen, but instead of sporting a space in its place, they were run together to make one word. A spell-checker would catch this, but what I suspect happened here was that the original typescript was fine - it was the conversion to kindle format which screwed it up. This is just my guess.

The other Kindle issue I had was that the location tracker, which monitors how much reading you have left to do and displays it as a percentage, was totally screwed-up. When it shows page 396 of 571 at the bottom of the screen on the left, it should then show 69% completed at bottom right. Instead, as you can see in the image on my blog, it shows only 50% completed! That's quite a discrepancy. Now there were end notes and a bibliography, but if this is included in the page count, then the percentage is still wrong. If it's not, then the percentage is reflecting the entire book, not what's left to read. It's misleading at best.

On top of that, sometimes I would start a chapter and the screen would tell me I had a minute left to the end of the chapter, then I swipe to the next screen, and it would adjust to show five minutes or fifteen or whatever. A couple of times I started a new chapter and it would tell me I had an hour's worth of reading, which was never the case, and the estimate would drop precipitously as I swiped the screens as I read. Clearly something was not working properly here!

There were a couple of other minor errors, too, such as misspelling 'curtsies' as "curtsys", and telling us (of Anne Boleyn watching workmen build her death scaffold): "On the green outside her window she could see workmen erecting a high scaffold, for which they would be paid £23. 65. 8d." Given that there were only twenty shillings to the pound, you can't have 65s in the middle like that! The most you could have is 19, and I'm wondering if it should have been either just the 6 or just the 5, but I can't find any on-line account which records this sum. Google doesn't help. It just ignores the pound symbol and returns any result containing 23, for instance, if I run a search for £23 connected with Anne Boleyn.

That said, I enjoyed the book immensely. It was very readable and painted a clear picture of these poor women who had to put up with this ruthless dick-head of a king. That said, a couple of the women were quite as ruthless as Henry himself was, and these were the ones he tended to behead. Katherine of Aragon, or to give her her much more beautiful Spanish name, Catalina de Aragón y Castilla was first in line, and her marriage was needed to cement a relationship with what we now call Spain, as a bulwark against the French. Of course at other times Henry would seek to marry into the French royal family to cement an alliance against Spain.

Katherine was rather aged (by fertile bride standards of the time), being in her mid twenties, and she failed to produce Henry a male heir (at least none that survived more than two months after birth), which of course, back then, was the only heir worth having. This made it quite ironic that Henry's sole male heir from all his marriages died young, and thereby brought two successive queens to the throne (three if you count Jane Grey), one of whom, Elizabeth, presided over what has come to be called England's golden age.

Since Katherine was initially married to Henry's older bother Arthur (until Arthur died young), Henry used this as an excuse to ditch her, claiming the marriage was not legal because the Bible says you can't marry your brother's wife. Throughout her life, Katherine resolutely maintained that the marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, but Henry was hypocritically religious (as far too many people seem to be even today), and though he dissolved the monasteries, this was for no other reason than to fill the royal coffers. He never abandoned the Catholic church and was dead-set against the protestants (although nowhere near as set against them as was his daughter by Katherine, who became known as Bloody Mary when she came to the throne). He had no qualms about using religious excuses to change wives. Katherine was lucky and got off lightly, although she felt robbed and was indeed badly treated both before and after the marriage.

Henry had become enamored of a scheming little vixen, one of the ladies-in-waiting, by the name of Anne Boleyn - who I used to feel sorry for, before I read this. Henry had already bedded Anne's sister Mary, but Anne was not about to be as free with her body as Mary evidently was. She schemed her way onto the throne very expertly, holding her virginity, if indeed she retained it, as a prize, but ironically, she didn't know when to be satisfied, and she continued scheming and running merciless vendettas even as queen. That and her failure to produce a male heir (like Katherine before her, she produced only one daughter, this one named Elizabeth) was what brought her down and meant that there was no one to speak in her favor. Anne was even more 'antique' than Catherine had been when she married Henry, but Henry was so blinded by her charm and enticement, and his own unbridled lust that he really didn't consider whether she could actually produce him an heir.

What I still feel sorry for is how Anne was rail-roaded by Henry before there even were rail-roads. She was sent to the chopping block with trumped-up charges of adultery (which was probably not true and certainly not a capital offense, even then) and treason, which was indeed a capital offense, and probably not true either in this case. Her ladies-in-waiting had to pick up her severed head and drop it and her lifeless body into a basket so it could be carted off like offal.

Henry had of course already set his eyes on his third bride before Anne ever climbed those stairs, and Jane Seymour, only a few years younger than Anne, actually did provide him with a male heir, who was named Edward before going on to have a great acting career (I might have made-up that last bit). The truth was that she died within a week or two of Edward's birth.

Henry perhaps actually loved Jane, and pined for her, but nevertheless he felt compelled to marry again because he had only one male heir and the attrition rate for children (and indeed adults) back then was stupendous. Every year in the summer, Henry and his court absconded from London because of plague outbreaks. They also moved almost continually from one residence to another because each palace became so filthy and stinking after a while, that it had to be aired out and thoroughly cleaned before it was fit to occupy again.

Enter Anna von Kleve, better known as Anne of Cleves. She came from what is now Germany and was once again chosen to cement an alliance, but Henry, having received her sight unseen (apart from an evidently over-flattering portrait), rejected her from the off, although he could not be seen to openly reject her because of the alliance. He claimed she smelled funny, which is hypocritical at best, because by this time Henry was suffering a weeping wound in his leg which plagued him for the rest of his life, gave him a nasty temper at times, and smelled something awful by all accounts. Anna went easiest of all, the marriage being annulled and she being treated and addressed as the King's sister, and living in comfort the rest of her life. She was not the longest lived of Henry's wives (that being Catalina), but she was the last to die.

Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn were first cousins, which makes it darkly interesting that these were the two he accused of of adultery and treason, and beheaded. Catherine failed to produce an heir, and really was (more than likely) guilty of adultery. The treason charge was simple trumped-up so they could behead her. An act of parliament made it a treasonable offense for a new queen to fail to disclose to the king, within twenty days of the marriage, a previous affair, and evidently this was retroactive. Catherine was nineteen when she was beheaded.

Finally there arrived a queen who out-lived Henry while she was still queen. Catherine Parr was almost twice her predecessor's age and Henry was, at this point, perhaps marrying for comfort having given up on everything else. Catherine also married almost as many times as Henry did - four in all, including her last one in secret, just six months after Henry died. Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.

After Henry's death, Edward 6th, his son by Jane Seymour, came to the throne at the age of nine, but he died in his mid-teens, the very kind of thing of which Henry had been afraid, having had only one male heir. Edward nominated Lady Jane Grey - the well known actor (just kidding again) as his heir. She was Henry 7th's granddaughter and was "queen" for nine days, but was overthrown by Mary, Henry 8th's daughter, and beheaded at the Tower of London. Mary became queen and slaughtered a protestant a week until she died, whereupon Elizabeth came to the throne, the third of Henry's children to rule England legitimately.

I recommend this book. it;s full of fascinating detail about Tudor life and court intrigue, and disturbing detail about how cheaply life was held five hundred years ago.