The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser

“I have…attempted to deal with each woman in turn with the sympathy I feel they all deserve for having had the unenviable fate (to my way of thinking) of being married to Henry VIII. At the same time I have tried to practise the detachment which recognizes that this is an eminently modern judgement; not one of the King’s six wives married him against her will. I have also hoped to practise that detachment towards the King himself: the gigantic Maypole at the centre of of all round which these women had to dance. But of course this is not his story. It is theirs.”

I’ll open by stating the good aspects of this book: first, it’s obviously very well-researched, and Fraser does her best to stay neutral and not call Henry a stupid fat bastard with the emotional maturity of a toddler (you know it’s true). It’s all very in-depth and informative, and I would have no reservations about recommending it to someone who wanted to learn more about Henry VIII’s wives beyond the old “divorced beheaded died, divorced beheaded survived” thing. It’s not bad, is what I’m saying.

But I only gave it two stars – why? Simply because, in my mind, Antonia Fraser failed to deliver what she promised in the beginning of the book. She says that her goal is to show us these women beyond their respective stereotypes: the Betrayed Wife (Katherine of Aragon), the Temptress (Anne Boleyn), the Good Woman (Jane Seymour), the Ugly Sister (Anne of Cleves), the Bad Girl (Catherine Howard), and the Mother Figure (Catherine Parr). Fraser says she’s going to make us see that these women were more than their stereotypes make them seem, and that we shouldn’t think of them in these terms.

But you know what, Fraser? The stereotypes are true. Katherine of Aragon was Henry’s loyal wife for over twenty years and he betrayed her. Anne Boleyn seduced Henry and kept him interested for seven years until he married her. Jane Seymour was a good woman by Tudor standards because she gave Henry a son and didn’t cheat on him (possibly because she just didn’t have enough time). Anne of Cleves was not attractive, and after Henry divorced her she was treated as his sister. Katherine Howard cheated on Henry, which is both bad and stupid. Catherine Parr was a good wife and a good mother to her three stepchildren and needy immature husband. The stereotypes exist because they’re based on truth, and any extra information Fraser shares with us about these women’s educations or whatever doesn’t do much to convince me otherwise.

And maybe I’ve just read too many books about the Tudors, but I didn’t feel like I really learned anything from this. There was new information about the wives, sure, but none of it really shocked me or made me see them in a different light.

The ideal reader for this book is someone who’s recently become obsessed with that HBO show The Tudors, and is curious to see how accurate the show really is. If I knew someone like that, I’d recommend Fraser’s book without hesitation. It’s a good introduction to the real story of Henry VIII’s famous wives, but since I already knew the story, the book didn’t have much to offer me.

Verdict: two out of five stars


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