Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Sisters of Henry VIII

Author: Maria Perry
Publication Date: 1998
Number of Pages: 224
Cost: This book doesn't seem to have been very popular, but I picked this up at a used bookstore in hardcover form for $5.00.  I suspect you can find used copies if you look online.  There isn't a Kindle edition available.
Where did I hear about it: I more or less just found this book.  I hadn't heard anything about it before I purchased it, and I haven't seen it referenced since.

The Backstory

Increasingly over the last decade, Henry VIII's two sisters (the two who lived to adulthood) have garnered an increasing amount of attention.  In the television series, The Tudors, Margaret Tudor was played by Gabrielle Anwar.  The details of her story are some of the most memorable in the series.  
Margaret was betrothed, against her will, to the aging king of Portugal.  Henry appointed Charles Brandon, who he creates Duke of Suffolk, to escort her to her new home.  On the way, Margaret becomes enamored of Charles and they begin an (extremely forbidden) affair.  Regardless, Margaret is married to the Portuguese king, but, when she realizes her English entourage is to return home, she smothers her husband.  On the way back, she insists that Charles marry her, which he does, incurring Henry's wrath.  Their marriage is portrayed as unfortunate--Charles engages in a number of affairs and leaves Margaret essentially alone in Suffolk where she develops consumption and unceremoniously dies on the floor in front of a set of servants.

Is any of this true?  Well, maybe some of it.

In reality, Henry VIII had two sisters: Margaret Tudor (1489-1541) and Mary Tudor (1496-1533).  The details portrayed in The Tudors are primarily from Mary's life, although Mary married the aging King of France, not the King of Portugal, and fully intended to remain in France as Queen for as long as he lived (from October 9, 1514 to January 1, 1515). 

Margaret Tudor, the elder sister, was married to James IV of Scotland in 1503 in an attempt at establishing peace between the two kingdoms.  Although he was infamous for his extramarital affairs, he seems to have truly cared for Margaret, and they had six children together in their ten years of marriage.  Unfortunately, only one of them survived to adulthood--the future James V.  His father, James IV, died in battle in 1513 leaving Margaret as regent, but infighting between the heads of various Scottish nobility made this task particularly difficult.  Scottish politics were dominated by competition between clans, and, to combat this (and probably because she was attracted to him), she married Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl Angus the following year.  This only exacerbated divisions between factions, and the earl further offended Margaret by living openly with his mistress on one of Margaret's properties.  Her enemies invited James Stuart, the Duke of Albany, back from France to claim the regency, which he did in 1515.  Margaret escaped into England and spent a year living in Henry VIII's court.  She later returned to Scotland, even working with Albany for a time, but Albany was completely removed from power by Margaret and her allies in 1524.  In the meantime, James V was almost fully controlled by his step-father, much to his dismay.  In 1527, Margaret was granted a divorce from Angus.  In 1528, she married her lover, Henry Stewart, but this marriage also proved disastrous.  However, James V came into his own throughout this process, and Margaret remained on the political stage until her death, probably from a stroke, in 1541.

Mary Tudor was destined for an equally brilliant future at the start.  Of his siblings, Henry VIII was closest to Mary, although his attempt to divorce Katherine of Aragon forced a wedge between them.  At first, her intended husband was the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but, when an alliance with France proved more desirable, Henry VIII arranged a marriage between Mary and aging King Louis XII.  It was at the prospect of this match that Mary supposedly exacted from her brother the fateful promise that she should be allowed to marry whom she pleased in the event of Louis's death.  She was well-received, and well-liked in France, although her tenure as Queen only lasted from her marriage on October 9, 1514 to Louis's death, possibly from over-exertion in the marriage bed, on January 1, 1515.  Then, she entered into a period of 40 days of mourning in seclusion in France.  Henry VIII sent Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk to France to bring his sister home.  Quite unexpectedly, perhaps to everyone other than Mary and Charles, Mary demanded that Charles marry her right away--which he did.  It dawned on Charles rather quickly that Henry would be livid, so he wrote to Cardinal Wolsey to ask him to intervene on their behalf.  As a result, Henry welcomed Charles and Mary, exacting a rather heavy fine on them for their marriage without his consent.  They had four children, but only two girls survived long into adulthood.  Frances Brandon, the elder, married Henry Grey and would become the mother of Jane Grey, the "nine days queen" who was executed at 17.  Mary disliked Anne Boleyn and often pled ill-health to absent herself from events at court.  Mary died in 1533, and her husband remarried within two months.

What about the book?

I'm not sure I read this book.  I think I "waded through it."

Honestly, there is a really good reason why this book isn't particularly widely known--it isn't very good.  The book is primarily comprised of well-known stories about these women interspersed between lengthy descriptions of events in Henry VIII's life.  The reader doesn't get a good sense of either Margaret or Mary, although it can be argued that Margaret is a bit better covered and described.  The author doesn't seem to know the difference between research worth including in a book like this and research that doesn't add anything to the theme of the book.

On the bright side, Margaret's life is fairly well described, even if many details are left unrecorded.  Her life in Scotland, her problems with her second and third marriages, Scottish politics, and Margaret's general movements while Queen of Scotland are described as is her correspondence with Henry VIII.  The only part of Mary's life that is covered as well is her marriage to Louis XII and her subsequent marriage to Charles Brandon.  Margaret's character does come out in the narrative, but Mary's character is not very well described, regardless of the abundance of information about her available.  Margaret's marriages and their results are also covered fairly well, but Mary's marriage to Brandon is almost completely absent from the work. 

There are a lot of negatives to this book.  First, the author has a very difficult time sticking to the topic at hand.  Probably as much as 40% of the book is really about Henry VIII and the political events of the day without any attempt to fix Margaret or Mary into these events.  I found myself skipping through parts that didn't seem to have any relevance to the topic.  I think that, for a careful researcher, there is plenty of information out there on both Margaret and Mary, and it wouldn't be a stretch to write a 200 page book just about them and nothing else.  In addition, Perry includes details that quickly grow tiresome to the reader--for example, she meticulously covers what anyone, at any time, was wearing at any state event.  If you digitized this text and entered "cloth of gold" into a text search, it would come up more times than any other phrase.  There may be a few people out there who are really interested in what everyone was wearing, but, most readers are more interested in who the subjects are rather than what was on them.  And, there are many biographies of Henry VIII--there was no need to include so much information about him unless the subjects of the book were directly related to the events in question. 

The epilogue is unforgivably short.  The author expected to sum up Margaret's and Mary's story in a mere two pages.  What happened to their families is particularly significant, but the mention is brief, if it isn't completely absent.  Margaret's descendants eventually assumed the English throne after Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth, died childless in 1603.  Mary's granddaughter, Jane Grey, was thrust into the national spotlight after Edward VI's death when someone--or someones--attempted to disinherit Mary, Henry VIII's Catholic eldest daughter.  Jane was a very temporary Queen of England, if she could actually be called that, and was executed.  If anything, the epilogue discussing the significance of these women and their families should have been somewhat extensive.

Rating: A 4 for the few parts of the book that actually covered the topic.
Buy it or Borrow it: Don't do either.  I'm not aware of a biography of Margaret Tudor, but there is a new biography about Mary Tudor entitled: The Tudor Rose: Princess Mary, Henry VIII's Sister by Jennifer Draskau due out on September 1 that may be worthwhile.

1 comment:

Leanda de Lisle said...

I have done quite a bit on the two sisters in my new book Tudor: The Family Story. I have just posted an excerpt on Margaret for my blog. http://www.leandadelisle.com/blog/ Happy to send you one on Mary if you would like it for your blog. Not sure if you do that? best wishes