Saturday, May 23, 2015

Antonia Fraser - The Six Wives of Henry VIII

This meticulous study of Henry VIII's six wives is a fascinating examination of the position and role of ruling class women in Tudor society. Traditionally we see these women as the passive victims of the increasingly irrational and tyrannical behaviour of Henry VIII, victims of his lust and violence. Antonia Fraser however challenges the cardboard caricatures of these women, suggesting that it is false to see them
"as a series of feminine stereotypes, women as tarot cards. Thus Catherine of Aragon becomes The Betrayed Wife, Anne Boleyn is the The Temptress, Jane Seymour The Good Woman; Anna of Cleves is The Ugly Sister, Katherine Howard The Bad Girl; finally Catherine Parr is the Mother Figure."
Instead, she argues, that "on thew contrary, a remarkably high level of strength, and also of intelligence, was displayed by them at a time when their sex traditionally possessed little of either."

Fraser takes us through the lives of these women, of whom we often know a surprising amount of detail from their letters and other documents. Catherine Parr for instance, who survived Henry, was first the resourceful wife of Lord Latimer who managed their estates at the time of the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. She championed her own religious beliefs , until they clashed with the king's when she was forced to make an abrupt turn.

Here is of course the problem for these women. Fraser brilliantly describes the way that the court revolved around Henry VIII, like planets orbiting the sun. Henry was the centre of court life, and through him extended wealth, privilege and the future of families. Thus the manoeuvres by families to position their daughters to catch the King's gaze were the cynical manipulation of a concrete situation. While Henry himself, in the words of Fraser,"a romantic man... [who] married four of his six wives for love and even managed to fall in love with Anna of Cleve's picture" was also trapped by the reality of his role as king. For him, and countless other kings, having a son to carry on the line was the key requirement of a marriage. Indeed Fraser points out that had Catherine of Aragon had a male child that survived, their divorce might well not have happened and the future history of England would have been radically different.

This is not to let Henry off the hook. He was a violent man prone to revenge and happy to murder and kill to protect his position. That multiple women could be discarded in the search of a male heir is testament to the unique, and somewhat irrational, role of the monarchy.

This is an enormously readable account of Henry VIII's life. At times it is like some sort of Tudor soap opera, though events are painfully real. There are moments of horror, such as Anne Boleyn's execution and the tragedy of Katherine Howard, and the sadness of the life of Anne of Cleves, abandoned by Henry and left to live out her days in what she seemed to think was extreme poverty (though the peasants of England might well have considered her large houses and considerable estates luxury). The life of the vast majority of the people of England is almost entirely absent from this book, but that doesn't make it invalid. Understanding the machinations of Henry and the consequences for wider society are important to both the history of the period and for years afterwards. That some of these changes were linked to Henry's marriages is a reflection of the nature of Tudor society and Henry's personality. By telling the story from the point of view of the women at court, Antonia Fraser gives us a fascinating angle on the period.

Related Reviews

Duffy - The Voices of Morebath
Moorhouse - The Pilgrimage of Grace

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