The Wives of Henry VIIIth, by Antonia Fraser

The Wives of Henry VIII

What It’s About

The lives and deaths of the women who were, in some cases very briefly, queens of England under Henry the Eighth.

Why I Think You’d Like It

The aim of this book was to take these women out of Henry’s shadow and examine them on their own terms. This goal is met. Before this, I could barely name the six wives, even though they have only three names between them (spelling variations aside, there’s one Jane, two Annes and three Katherines). Now I feel almost as though I have met them; shook their hands, attended their weddings, been there to cry at their tragic ends.

It also does so much more. From reading this book, you learn about the state of women of their time, about medicine and childbirth and the compex politics of noble marriages. You get the full story of the social and political revolutions that lead to the formation of the Church of England. You gain insights into the future reigns of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, by understanding the turmoil they grew up in. Everything about this book will enrich your understanding of that moment in history where we transitioned from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, by better understanding the human beings who were right there at the turning of the wheels.

I especially appreciate the attention to source material. My biggest turn off, when it comes to history of marginalized peoples, is the desire to fill in the gaps with speculations flavored by modern ideas, especially when those create a more digestible interpretation of events. While many things stay the same throughout the twists and turns of history, so much is dependent on culture. If we don’t at least attempt to understand historical figures on their own terms, we will inevitably do them a disservice. Antonia Fraser keeps the focus, as much as possible, on the historical records, and on representing these women as they represented themselves. Where the records make room for multiple interpretations, she explains those as well. The result is a richer, more complex, more honest book.

If you’re interested in either feminism, history or politics, you’ll find this book detailed, well-researched and absolutely fascinating.

Content Warnings

I think in this case the content warnings are true trigger* warnings. The book’s tone is fairly clean and academic, but even so these women lived through some truly horrible events. Katherine of Aragon was gaslit during the divorce proceedings. Anne Boleyn was falsely accused of witchcraft and beheaded. Jane Seymour died from complications after childbirth. Anna of Cleves was bullied, manipulated and stranded in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language. Katherine Howard was groomed to be sexually appealing from a far too young age, and then that very behavior got her beheaded. Katherine Parr got off fairly well, but after Henry died she did marry an asshole who groomed Princess Elizabeth for sexual abuse, so there’s that. All the language is fairly academic and well below most people’s threshold for offense, but if you’re in a place where that might trigger a relapse, maybe put this on an “after I’ve done some healing” list.

*In case you haven’t read my rant, trigger warnings are not for people who are easily offended, they are for people with medical conditions, especially PTSD.

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