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really liked it
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,
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.
it was amazing
I read this non-fiction account of the six wives of Henry VIII because my interest was piqued by the television series The Tudors and the historical fiction novels Tudor Court by Philippa Gregory. Prior to these two sources, I had no real knowledge of the women Henry married; of course, I knew their fates were “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded and survived” as that little ditty goes although I had not heard that particular ditty. So where better to go to now than a non-fiction accoun
As Fraser says: “It is seductive to regard the six wives of Henry VIII as a series of feminine stereotypes… [but] Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr possessed real intellectual ability, …[ ] during those fraught months of 1536, Jane Seymour’s comportment was a model of discreet wisdom, …[ ] Anna of Cleves behaviour during her bewildering short marriage … displayed a touching dignity” and poor Katherine Howard “…a charming amoral butterfly.” But there is more depth to the women who featured in Henry’s marriages as he was driven to provide an heir for the English throne.
Fraser provides you with so much interesting information; she sources documents, written accounts, letters, bills of fare and much more. She quotes ambassadors at the court, in particular ( and my favourite ) Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador who provided a link to home for Katherine of Aragon, later a link to Katherine for Mary.
I particularly liked how Fraser gave you a history of the women, their family connections and how they, somewhat unfortunately I think, came into Henry’s radar. It was refreshing, for me, that she did not impose emotions on the wives, rather she says “would/might have felt”, “could have imagined” when relating the women’s perspective. I have not read any other Historical Biographer’s work of this topic so I cannot make any comparisons. I will say I tremendously enjoyed this comprehensive account of six women who are distinguished in history by their fate. 5★
Having read a book called the last queen which details the life of queen Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit her country’s throne, her sister Catherine of Argon was the first wife go King Henry VIII. I came across when it was reviewed by a Goodreads member I decided to give it a try as Tudor history has not been high my radar and I wanted to learn more about Catherine’s time in England.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book as it is well written and well researched