Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Starkey)

Author: David Starkey
Publication Date: 2004  
Number of Pages: 880
Cost: You can literally find this book for almost any cost these days--used copies go from about $2.00 up to around $10.00, and there is a Kindle edition available.  
Where Did I Hear About It: Well, it's almost impossible NOT to have heard about this book somewhere if you're a fan of Tudor history. I purchased this book years ago, and I used it as a reference for a long time before actually reading it cover to cover.  

The Backstory

I think we've all heard it: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. Henry VIII is England's much-married monarch, and the story of his relationship with each one of his wives is enough to make a book of its own (and, in some cases, it already has). However, there's something about treating Henry's wives all together that makes the story particularly interesting to the reader. This approach allows the author to draw conclusions about the similarities and differences from wife to wife and relationship to relationship that only a book a of this kind can do.

In case anyone is unclear, Henry's six wives were: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Katherine Parr. His marriage to Katherine of Aragon was the longest of all and perhaps the most dynastically significant given her impressive Spanish royal descent. Anne Boleyn, the woman who supposedly "stole Henry's heart" from Katherine, produced the famous Elizabeth I but quickly lost Henry's love and ended her days prematurely on the scaffold. Jane, dutiful, quiet, and brief, was the mother of Henry's only living son, Edward (and her significance in history pretty much ends there). Anne of Cleves was the product of a second foreign marriage (Katherine of Aragon being the first), but Henry's lack of attraction to her quickly ended the marriage on favorable terms for Anne, who remained in England. Katherine Howard was the much-younger woman who invigorated an ageing Henry, but whose indiscretions landed her the same fate as her unfortunate cousin, Anne Boleyn. Katherine Parr was perhaps more a companion than the others, save perhaps Katherine of Aragon, whose attachment to religious reform nearly ended her life. It's debatable how successful each of these relationships truly were. Eventually, something went wrong somewhere along the line, and, to Henry, if he had to end a marriage that fell into that category, he was always the victim. Some of this story makes for a more interesting read, naturally, than other parts. Katherine of Aragon had a pretty conventional dynastic marriage to Henry for some time, and, under most circumstances, the story would have began and ended there. Anne Boleyn's part is probably the most exciting and interesting. Although Katherine Howard offers a splash of color a bit later down the line, the rest of Henry's marital history is a bit duller than might be expected. However, as a whole story, it is a fascinating, and unusual, one.  

What About The Book?

 David Starkey is a great historian. There is no question that he consulted a long list of applicable sources to write this book. Whenever he offers analysis of a detail that has been long accepted or interpreted by other historians in a different light, I would definitely trust Starkey's assessment on that point. However, I am not sure this is the book that Starkey truly wanted to write.

How much Starkey actually focuses on the "six wives" varies from wife to wife depending upon his interests in the characters and how much new analysis he can offer on the topics. His section on Katherine of Aragon was a very enlightening read, for example, as is his treatment of Katherine Howard, using some of the original documents that are rarely included by other historians. However, I really think Starkey was more interested in some of the other figures of the day than Henry's wives--figures like Stephen Gardiner, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, and, above all, Thomas Wolsey, figure too prominently and often replace insight on the stated subject(s) of this book. The most prominent example of this phenomenon is how Starkey treats his section on Anne Boleyn. He offers a very lengthy analysis of the divorce proceedings in which Thomas Wolsey has a starring role but Anne is only an afterthought. It may be that Starkey felt other historians had covered Anne's relationship with Henry in enough detail and had not gone over the divorce with as much description. There is no question that I would use his discussion of the divorce as a reference for the chronology involved. However, this is advertised as a book about Henry's "six wives." As a reader, I want to know more about Anne and Henry's relationship pre-marriage and how it fell apart later. I am not as interested in Cardinal Wolsey's fall from power as a result of that process. In fact, in order to learn more about Henry's relationship with Anne, I had to pull out author Alison Weir's book of the same name and read the two side by side. Weir almost entirely focuses on Anne and Henry's relationship, whereas I'm not sure Starkey was very interested in it. Starkey seems to fall into the same trap I see a lot of (primarily male) Tudor historians fall into--he loves the men of the age, but he knows he can't write a book about Thomas Wolsey and hope to sell it, so he inserts him rather annoyingly often into a book that is about the more popular topic--unfortunately for his readers.

A big bright spot in this book is his treatment of Katherine Howard. His is the most detailed analysis of Katherine, where she came from, and what really happened to bring about her fall, that I have seen anywhere, even in Katherine's own (fairly poorly written) biography. For example, he uses an inventory of the many jewels Henry gave Katherine to ascertain that a well-known portrait claimed to be Katherine actually must be her. He also includes documents about Katherine's previous relationships with other men that were too vivid to be printed in Victorian histories on the topic.

This is a massive book--or, it feels massive to the reader (Weir's book is of similar length, but I feel it is a faster read). And, it suffers from it's ups and downs, focusing rather too little on the overall subject at times. Starkey has a little bit of a showman-oriented writing style that can both excite interest and annoyance in the reader. However, you can't beat his bibliography, and I don't think you'll find a better analysis of anything he does focus on anywhere else.  

Rating: With such a long book, it is very hard to give this a rating. Instead, I'll rate the different sections by wife: Katherine of Aragon: 8, Anne Boleyn: 4, Jane Seymour: 7, Anne of Cleves: 7, Katherine Howard: 9, Katherine Parr: 7.5 (probably the most balanced section)  
Buy It or Borrow It: You can't beat the price on the many used copies available out there. If you're a Tudor historian and you want a really good reference for primary sources or to double-check information in either other books or in TV specials/movies, it is definitely worth having a copy of this around.

1 comment:

laura said...

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