I like to read about royal families usually before the 1800s. Royal families are a good source for stories about women succeeding despite the roles society placed them in. Women in royal families were usually educated to some extent providing more opportunity for them, and their lives were more likely to be documented. Henry VIII and his wives provides 6 popular examples of such women. I found this book in a used bookstore in Durham, and was eager to read another perspective on these women that have of late been popularized in fiction, tv shows, and movies.
Fraser provides an overview of each woman. There is not great depth in each woman's story because that was not the intent. If you only want to learn the basic facts about each wife, or are new to them, this is a great book. There are individual biographies by other authors that will give you all the details you could want about their lives. This book is also a good resource for other sources about them, or to figure out which wife you are more interested in reading a whole biography about.
A brief overview of the wives. Fraser begins the book with the rhyme: "Divorced, beheaded, died... divorced, beheaded, survived" that people use to keep what happened to the wives straight.
|*Catherine of Aragon|
Artist: Michael Sittow
The unique point in Catherine's portion for me was that her father obtained the wrong dispensation from Rome for her marriage to Henry. There is one if a marriage was consummated, and one if it has not. He obtained the former. This was later detrimental to her stance that she and Arthur had never had sex.
A common misconception Fraser addresses is the idea that Anne was interested in the reform of the church only because it furthered her case with the king. Anne was interested in reform separate from Henry, who was religiously Catholic but interested in what changing certain political aspects
of his religion could do for him.
|*Anne of Cleves|
After the situation with Katherine, the king pushed through a law that made it treasonous to promote a woman for his wife that had a questionable past. This made people think twice before encouraging family members to gain the king's attention in hopes of her becoming queen.
Artist: William Scrots
She survived the king. After his death she married Thomas Seymour. She had a daughter Mary with him, and died of child-bed fever.
King Henry's wives had a common ancestry with him and each other. They were all related in some way to the same kings of England. This was normal as royalty in Europe and the nobility would intermarry. His wives were all educated to some degree. Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Parr were the most educated among them. Each woman's education varied in topic and extent, but they could all read and write, which was more than most women of the time could claim.
What I find most fascinating is that none of these women objected to marrying Henry. Catherine Parr was likely the most resistant to the idea, but married him willingly considering it her duty to do so. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn sought marriage with him. It is doubtful that Jane Seymour or Katherine Howard resisted at all, and once they had the king's attention were quite willing. Anne of Cleves seems the most unclear in this area, although it was a common practice for women to marry men they hadn't met, and the king of England was an advantageous marriage despite what happened to his previous wives.
I always thought Anne of Cleves probably fared the best out of her marriage to the king. She had no children to fight for in the succession, so she accepted the offer of prestige, money, and her own home to annul her marriage. It seems a good deal comparing her outcome with the other wives'.
I thought that this was a fine book, although I was hoping for more details that I had not read elsewhere. On reflection that was probably an unrealistic expectation for a book only 430 pages with 6 women to cover. I did manage to learn a few new things which I always appreciate when I take the time to read a book. I would be willing to read other books by this author. Preferably one that went more in depth about the topic.
*All pictures are from the book: The Wives of Henry VIII by: Antonia Fraser with the exception of Katherine Howard. There was no picture included in the book of her, so her picture is from her wikipedia page. One was likely not included because of the uncertainty surrounding portraits that are said to be her. The one I chose people seem confident about because of the time period and the jewels she is wearing were inventoried as hers.