Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Six Wives of Henry VIII ~ Alison Weir

Guys!  I'm done!  The semester is over and, while I like school, I couldn't be happier!  It's such a relief to not have to worry about all that stuff for three months (not counting the online statistics class I'm starting in July).  AND that means time to read!  Things of my choosing!  That I chose!  Woot.  I've already managed to read nearly 100 pages of The Marriage Plot and I have thoughts.  I also finally finished The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which I've been working on for the last six weeks and which will kick off my blogging catch-up.  I have four other books to review and some other ideas for posts, so I should probably get started.

For a 571 page biography which was by no means a quick read, The Six Wives of Henry VIII was incredibly engaging.  I'm probably biased, since I've been obsessed with this royal family for a while now, but historian Alison Weir also manages to make this period of history really accessible.  She hits a nice balance between describing people and places, presenting the facts, and establishing the context.  I was able to look at the events she described from within the historical context without letting my 21st century biases get too much in the way, which I think says a lot about Weir's skill as a biographer.

My biggest takeaway from this biography is by far the characterization of Henry VIII.  Gone is the image I had of a crazed, biologically inept monarch who beheaded his wives for not bearing him sons, developed from a five-minute lesson in high school.  In its place is a man of incredible complexity, who would go amongst the common folk but saw himself as supreme, who had sex with anything on legs but loved deeply, who cared above all about the well-being of his country but could fly into a tirade at the merest suggestion.  As awful as he was to so many of his wives, you really get the sense that Henry was a romantic at heart, capable of feeling love but also of having his heartbroken.  Henry is hateful at one moment, pitiable the next, and often inspiring empathy.  He was singular only as a ruler, but multi-faceted in every other aspect of his being.

My only complaint about the book was that while Weir would often back up her facts, by telling of the source and conflicts in their accuracy, sometimes she would give details that fully contradict other sources I've been reading without justification.  She also tends to seem a little too confident in the accuracy of her portrayal.  This may be sound like an odd complaint, but keep in mind that this is the 16th century - there were no computer back-ups or hard-copies or ever-present cameras and recorders to catch every detail.  This is a world long gone, of which only fragments remain.  It's bound to be patchy and often inaccurate, which the reader must remember, and the biographer can never forget.

If you have even the tiniest interest in this time people or the Tudor family, or are just interested in learning about something new, I would definitely recommend The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  It's fascinating, thought-provoking, and easy to come back to if graduate papers keep you away for a while.  Six thumbs up!  Pun intended.


  1. Jennifer,

    One of my friends read this ages ago and I remember hoping to do so as well. Sadly, I never did. It sounds really interesting. I'm currently reading Massie's Catherine the Great biography and it sounds really similar. He states that most of his information was based on spotty letters from Catherine and those around her. However, most of the chapters are about Catherine's feelings and I wonder how he actually knows all that. Don't get me wrong, it's been really informative and I'm really enjoying it, but I understand your complaints!

    1. Sometimes I accidentally pick up biographies Catherine the great, initially thinking they're about one of Henry's three wives all named Catherine! If I ever get over this obsession, I might read about her too.

  2. "It's bound to be patchy and often inaccurate, which the reader must remember, and the biographer can never forget." I love this line and it's so true whenever reading any biography. Modern ones included but certainly old ones. (Shakespeare biographers really need to keep this in mind.)

    I'm not a huge Henry VII/Tudor fan but this sounds interesting. At least something to flip through at the bookstore & see if it's my cup o' tea.

    Yay for the semester being over and you can get back to reading for pleasure

    1. I wasn't a fan before either! I only got into the subject because a need for an audiobook, any audiobook, had me pick up a Phillipa Gregory novel that got me interested. And I'm not going to lie, though she has her inaccuracies, you'll get most of the facts from her novels too.