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The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Book Reviews

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A dozen or more books have been written about Henry VIII and his six wives. We have reviews on two of them.

bulletThe Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
bulletSix Wives of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir

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The Six Wives of Henry VIII

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Was Henry a one-woman man?
A study laying bare the truth about the only English king to have had six wives (so far)

By Paul Johnson
23 Aug 1992
The Sunday Telegraph, London; Page 113

The Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Henry VIII is one of the few historical characters who is real to ordinary people. All over England, pubs hold "Henry VIII nights" of a pseudo-Rabelaisian kind with food served on "platters" by "wenches". What interests the patrons, of course, is not the many important things Henry did - he left his heavy mark on almost every aspect of our national life - but the fact he had six wives.

Antonia Fraser has thus picked a wonderfully popular subject. She has succeeded Cecil Woodham-Smith and C. V. Wedgwood as our leading historical entertainer, a writer whose command of sources, eye for detail, perception of character and shrewd judgment enables her to bring the past truthfully to life. In this book she lays bare the battle of the sexes among the early Tudor ruling classes in a way that has never been done before.

The fact that Henry had six wives was what struck his contemporaries too. As Martin Luther put it: "Junker Heinz will be God and do whatever he lusts." But Antonia Fraser tells us his sexual appetite was not remarkable. She authenticates the old saying, beloved of tour-guides, that he was the only king who had more wives than mistresses, since she can find only three of the latter for sure.

She says rightly that he was driven more by political-dynastic motives than sexual ones. After all, as she points out, he was married to his first, true wife, Catherine of Aragon for nearly 20 years, seven times as long as to any of his other spouses.

Anne Boleyn, "never one to mince her words" as Fraser puts it, claimed Henry was incapable of satisfying a woman, having neither "vertu" (skill) nor "puissance" (staying power). He may have suffered from premature ejaculation when aroused.

He was certainly no stud. He informed his physician, Dr Butts, that he could not make love to Anna of Cleves. He had been excited by her portrait but found the reality disappointing. Worse, as he sharply told Thomas Cromwell, who was foolish enough to enquire on the morrow of the wedding-night how things went - the Tudors were down to earth in many ways - "I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse." He complained of Anna's "loathsomeness" and gave Butts horrible details of the "hanging of her breasts and looseness of her flesh". He tried repeatedly but it was no go; and, he added to Butts, there was nothing wrong with him since during this period he had "dues pollutiones nocturnas in somno" (two "wet dreams").

What his wives thought of him is not on the whole recorded. He was a big, handsome and active man in youth but once his chronic varicose ulcers, or osteomyelitis, or whatever it was (caused by jousting falls) forced him to give up exercise, he put on weight quickly. By his mid-forties he had a 54 inch waist and 57 inch chest, rather like a run-to-seed rugger player. His face, says Fraser, was "a vast potato marked with eyes and mouth to resemble a man".

He was undoubtedly cruel, as was shown by his execution of the elderly Lady Salisbury - he could not get his hands on her son, Cardinal Pole - an atrocity made worse by an incompetent axeman who "hacked her head and shoulders to pieces". Some have compared him to Stalin, and he certainly spent a lot of time reading the detailed confessions of his victims while keeping well clear of the trials and judicial murders. He had a cowardly streak - his valiant daughter, Elizabeth, got her courage from her redoubtable mother, Anne Boleyn.

I have often thought that the key to Henry lies in the fact that his father intended him, as a second son, to be Archbishop of Canterbury and guided his education accordingly. He had the nit-picking self-conceit of a half-trained theologian, who thought he knew all the moral answers and had a direct line to the deity. It is no accident then that he ran in effect a theocracy, which turned him into a monster but gave him also a terrible self-righteousness which was his strength.

Fraser deals severely but justly with Henry and she is fair to all the wives. She is an industrious ferreter-out of details. She tells us that the coffin of the last wife, Catherine Parr, was 5 foot 10 inches, so she must have been tall for the age; that a lock of her hair, still showing "chestnut and golden lights", survives; that she was slow to pay her dressmakers, and was spotted nursing Henry's painful, ulcerated leg on her knees - indeed Henry married her as a nurse as much as a wife.

Fraser's eye for details is helped by Henry's marital life involving him in so much litigation, with long, sworn statements for trials and dissolutions - Archbishop Cranmer acting like a specialist divorce-solicitor.

Tudor court life was oddly intimate anyway. Fraser tells us that Henry, aged 10 but tall for his age, led Catherine of Aragon up the aisle for her first marriage to his elder brother, Arthur. In his younger days he shared a bed with Thomas Culpeper, whom he later executed as Catherine Howard's lover. Anne Boleyn was furious when she discovered that Henry was still sending his shirts along the corridor to the estranged Catherine, whose needlework was superb - but the two women still played cards together.

Anna of Cleves danced with her successor, Catherine Howard. All the wives were expected to wear their predecessors' formal gowns, which were royal property rather than personal possessions.

Jane Seymour was Henry's favourite wife because she was the only one to give him a son who lived (if Catherine of Aragon's son Henry, who died aged seven weeks, had survived, Fraser thinks Henry VIII would have been monogamous). Fraser thinks a further reason was that Jane conformed closely to the contemporary ideal of a wife.

Catherine Howard, however, was the opposite: silly, feckless, an impulsive adulteress, her only surviving holograph letter being an ill-spelt but loving scrawl to Culpeper.

Fraser's account confirms my view that the most interesting of the lot was Anne Boleyn, with her brilliant eyes - "the King's goggle-eyed whore" as her enemies called her - outspokenness, wit and laughter. Not exactly an Elizabeth Bennet, however, since she had a bluestocking streak she transmitted to her even more gifted daughter, Elizabeth, whom Fraser shows, aged 11, translating Catherine Parr's book of devotions into French, Italian and Latin.

It was Boleyn rather than Seymour who was the strong Protestant. Far from being promiscuous, she liked to talk about theology. The chronicler Latymer says she never dined with Henry "without some argument of Scripture thoroughly debated", and as early as 1529 she warned him he ought not to dispute with her, as she always won.

This was all very well at first and her brainy sharpness undoubtedly intrigued the king. But as Dr Johnson observed, "Supposing a wife to be of a studious or argumentative turn, it would be very troublesome - if a woman should continually dwell upon the subject of the Aryan heresy." Boleyn did not exactly do that but her dwelling on Protestant themes irritated Henry after she failed to produce a son - in his superstitious mind a sign of divine disfavour - and his growing distaste for disputatious women hurried her to the block.

Her execution, unlike Lady Salisbury's, was swift and professional, and Fraser tells us exactly how the expert from Calais, using a sword, carried it out. But no wonder Boleyn's daughter grew up to dislike theological rows.

Culpepper Connections Note: Amazon.com has this book listed, but shown as special order since it is out of print.

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From Kirkus Reviews
15 Jan 1992

Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir, Ballantine Books

Weir (the genealogical Britain's Royal Family--not reviewed) here uses the many public records and personal letters of the early 1500's to offer a comprehensive, factual version of the tempestuous private and public lives of Henry VIII and his six wives.

The story is dominated by Henry and the devolution of his character from an "affable," "gentle," and gifted (he wrote poetry) lover, soldier, and ruler into a porcine, paranoid, impotent old man who was exploited and manipulated by courtiers and women, some of whom he imprisoned, beheaded, or hanged.

Henry's brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, six years the king's senior, became at 24 his first wife. Thirty years later, she was set aside for the ambitious "virago" Anne Boleyn, who was in turn beheaded to make room for the gentle Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth and was replaced by the repugnant and scholarly Anne of Cleves. Soon, Anne was retired for Catherine Howard, a 15-year-old "empty- headed wanton" who, despite Henry's passion for her, was executed- -along with three alleged but innocent lovers--and replaced by the king's most "agreeable wife," Catherine Parr, who narrowly escaped execution herself for religious quarreling.

Vowing in marriage to be "bonair and buxom/amiable/in bed and at board" and to produce heirs, Henry's wives illustrate to Weir, through their pregnancies, miscarriages, and infants' deaths, both the profligacy of nature and the dependence of political power on sexual prowess. Yet Weir offers this sensational chapter in history in the cautious tone of a college term paper, doggedly and unimaginatively piling up facts and occasionally lapsing into naivet, as when Mary (whose mother, Catherine of Aragon, had been banished to die alone) and Elizabeth (still too young to understand that Henry had beheaded her mother, Anne Boleyn, in order to marry Jane) are invited to court: "At last the King," Weir writes, "was settling down to something resembling family life." (Sixteen pages of b&w illustrations; 74 pages of responsible bibliographical essays.) (Book-of-the-Month Dual Selection for May) -- Copyright 1992, Kirkus Associates, LP.

Culpepper Connections Note: A paperback reprint edition (March 1993) of Weir's book is available for $10.00 from Amazon.com (As of 9 Feb 1999).

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 Last Revised: 02 Jan 2015

 

 
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