Fascinating and informative (4.5 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published by Vintage, November 2007
I read the paperback which is 656 pages.
I’m on a bit of a Tudor history kick at the moment. It was ignited last year (or should I say re-ignited as I loved this time period in history at school) after I read a Philippa Gregory book I borrowed from a friend and loved it so much that I then read a few more from her back catalogue. Subsequently, after recommendations from my future sister-in-law, I’ve loaded up on other Tudor fiction, including some books by Jean Plaidy and of course, the eponymous Wolf Hall, which I am anticipating beginning soon. It’s safe to say that my list of books read this year will include A LOT of Tudor-related reads!
I wanted to read some non-fiction about this period too, though, in order to get a complete picture of Henry and his wives. Philippa Gregory is brilliant and her writing dramatic and compelling, but of course a lot of her writing is speculative and not all is grounded in fact. Alison Weir seemed like a strong place to start; her research is meticulous and her writing well-paced, albeit not necessarily unbiased. After finishing this book, I felt like I learned a lot more about Henry VIII and his wives, along with his children. I will definitely read more from Alison Weir in future based on my enjoyment of this one.
Weir brings the Tudor period vividly to life in this riveting biography, right down to the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of the era. I sometimes find historical non-fiction to be dry or tedious in places but this was certainly not the case here and I found myself gripped by the lies, treachery and backstabbing going on in Henry VIII’s court. I knew bits and pieces about each of Henry VIII’s wives before reading this, but Weir paints each wife’s identity in their own right- drawing forth their personalities and characteristics, so that consequently they do not remain in the shadow of their larger than life spouse. Some of what was divulged surprised me and I found myself changing my opinions on some of the women, as well as feeling increasingly sorry for some of their situations. I really enjoyed reading about Anne Boleyn; she is painted in a more sympathetic manner than in other books I have encountered about her previously and I found myself imbued with a surprising amount of compassion for her during the course of reading this. She is portrayed as strong, capable and honestly as a young woman who had the misfortune of probably being born a few centuries too soon. Katherine of Aragon too, I found myself struck by both her strength and her stubbornness- she was a remarkable monarch who was merely traded down for someone younger and more beautiful than her, yet clung on to her own self belief until the very end of her life. Weir manages to bring each of these six women artfully back to life amidst the pages of this wonderful biography.
There is no denying that Henry VIII was a complete tool- and that his court was a very dangerous place to be with all of the politics and betrayal. I enjoyed learning about his life though, which is juxtaposed against that of his spouses- and his progression from a handsome, naive king through to the gross, corpulent tyrant he later became. He had such an impact on religion in Britain and some of his actions, though undeniably questionable, were merely the norm for the times. Others however defy belief. This book isn’t sparing in describing Henry’s ruthless action towards his wives when he feels they have betrayed him, or when he so cruelly casts them aside.
If you want to be enlightened by Tudor history in all its graphic, poignant glory and learn more about Henry VIII and his wives, then please pick this mesmerising, fascinating book up. I’m so glad I read it!