Friday, 2 May 2014

Book review: Alison Weir - The Six Wives of Henry VIII

I'm not much of a history buff. Like most people of my age who dropped history before degree level and went to state school I know a lot about the two World Wars, a bit about the Suffragettes and not a whole lot else. And when I use the word 'know' I of course mean 'have forgotten'.

Back in the bronze age when I was in primary school we also did a bit about the Tudors. Or to put it more accurately, we also did a bit about Henry VIII. I remember being fascinated then, and a raft of excellent BBC documentaries in 2012 (I think) rekindled that fascination. Last year I also devoured Hilary Mantel's amazing series of historical novels - Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies - that tell the story of Henry's marriages through the eyes of his right hand man Thomas Cromwell.

I noticed in Mantel's bibliography that the name Alison Weir kept cropping up. She'd also cropped up as an expert in some of the BBC docs. So when I spotted The Six Wives of Henry VIII, her collective biography of the six unfortunate women who married Britain's most infamous monarch, on a trip to the massive Foyles on Charing Cross Road I decided I'd give it a go.

My motivation in buying it was largely as a companion piece to whichever Mantel book I was reading at the time. I was interested to know how much of her narrative and her characters were fictionalised. But that does Weir's work a disservice. It's an excellent book in its own right and well worth reading whether or not you've read any of Mantel's books (and if you haven't then why the hell are you wasting your time reading my blog?!)

Everyone knows the story of Henry VIII and his succession of wives - divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. I imagine/hope most people know the story of Henry divorcing Katherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn and the resulting split with Rome and religious strife it caused. I guess most people won't know much more than that.

Weir's book concerns itself with telling the stories of all six of the women's lives as well as that of Henry himself and other key figures in the story, including Cromwell. It's told chronologically (so Katherine and Anne do take up more of the book than the other four wives) and researched from contemporary sources.

The quality of the research, to this untrained eye, is impeccable and the analysis offered - informed and balanced, particularly on the more divisive figures involved such as Anne and Mary Boleyn - is one of the major things that makes the book so good. It's also written in an incredibly straightforward and accessible way so that even an idiot like me can follow the story, with its huge cast of characters, and understand the analysis. There's also a refreshing lack of moral judgement of any of the characters too, something that the BBC documentaries and many of the articles analysing Mantel's books suggest is pretty rare on this topic.

For me, the book is at its best when talking about some of the lesser known wives. I particularly enjoyed the chapters about Katherine Parr (who I think is my favourite wife) and Catherine Howard who I didn't really know anything about before reading the book. Mary Boleyn also emerges from the book (and Mantel's) as an amazing character and I've bought Weir's biography of her too.

Overall it's a great read. Did I enjoy it more because of my love for Wolf Hall et al? Probably - it's fascinating to see Mantel's characters as real people, especially as many of the ones I assumed she'd made up are in fact real, especially Thomas Cromwell.

Is it a brilliant book anyway? Yes: it's accessible, interesting and I genuinely learned lots. Highly recommended.

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