Here’s a review of Antonia Fraser‘s The Wives of Henry VIII (there also seems to be an updated version, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Women in History)), which the bookclub picked, partially because I’d read it before and thought it was interesting, partially because most of the bookclub members knew a little about that period but not much and wanted to learn more, and partially because one bookclub member will read anything and everything about the Tudors. Everyone enjoyed the book, but with some caveats.
To go with it, I read Alison Weir‘s Henry VIII: The King and His Court. Reading both books at much the same time was good, I found they complemented each other and helped me understand more of what was going on.
The Henry VIII book mostly concentrates on the King himself, what he was like as a young man (incredibly gifted, handsome, and strong, if the records are all to be believed), how the court functioned, what all the people around the King were meant to do, how much things cost, what the fashions of the time were. It then goes into the King’s life, and how, to quote Alison Weir,
Henry began his reign in a mediaeval kingdom, he ended it in a modern state. I found the first part of the book to be the most interesting, perhaps because I got rather lost with all the people who kept changing names as they were promoted and demoted, and the King himself became less sympathetic as he became more dictatorial and averse to being crossed.
The Wives book (and Alison Weir has also written one on that subject, which I haven’t read) concentrates on the wives themselves, their personalities and their histories. Antonia Fraser, unlike Alison Weir, generally uses the same name to describe the same person through the book, which makes following along who did what when much easier. I also found her family trees to be of more use. She brings up a lot of interesting points about the expectations placed on women in those times, that people genuinely believed that Henry ruled by divine right (which makes it easier to understand some of what happened), and that Henry towards the end of his life was driven by the need for a male heir (ironically) and saw his daughters, just like his sister, as pawns to be used to prop up his kingdom by means of alliances. Even though Henry saw that his own marriages should also be useful (politically and religiously), he had a great talent for convincing himself that God wanted him to do what he wanted to do anyway and thus he could always convince himself that the woman who currently attracted him was the one he had to marry.
It’s interesting to note the differences in the books. Alison Weir is obviously a fan of Catherine of Aragon, and doesn’t much like Anne Boleyn. Antonia Fraser is sympathetic to Catherine, but seems to admire Anne, despite her sharp tongue and lack of discretion. They both sympathize with Henry’s predicament, though not with how he chose to solve it.
The main problem with both books is that there is a lot of detail, and they mostly seem to be aimed at an audience that already knows something of the era and the people involved. So those of us who didn’t study history at school in England are at a bit of a disadvantage. Overall, however, both books are worth reading, you might just need to have some reference material at hand (or be prepared to skim a bit in the long confusing passages).