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Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII

Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII

4.1 39
by David Starkey

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No one in history had a more eventful career in matrimony than Henry VIII. His marriages were daring and tumultuous, and made instant legends of six very different women. What could make him marry six times? In this remarkable new study, David Starkey argues that the king was not a depraved philanderer, but someone seeking happiness -- and a son. Knowingly or not, he


No one in history had a more eventful career in matrimony than Henry VIII. His marriages were daring and tumultuous, and made instant legends of six very different women. What could make him marry six times? In this remarkable new study, David Starkey argues that the king was not a depraved philanderer, but someone seeking happiness -- and a son. Knowingly or not, he empowered a group of women to extraordinary heights and changed the way a nation was governed.

Henry took his first bride, Catherine of Aragon, when he was seventeen. They lasted twenty-four years together, but Catherine suffered through many miscarriages and failed to produce a male heir. Henry then fell in love with Anne Boleyn, the mother of Elizabeth I. Their relationship transformed England forever, but Henry had Anne beheaded and married his next wife, Jane Seymour, on the very day of Anne's execution. At last, Seymour gave birth to Henry's longed-for son, Edward VI. What followed was a farcical beauty contest which ended in the King's brief marriage to the "mare of Flanders," Anne of Cleves. Finally, there were the two Catherines: Catherine Howard, the flirtatious teenager whose adulteries made a fool of the aging king and who was the second bride to lose her head; and Catherine Parr, the shrewd, religiously radical bluestocking who outlived him.

Six Wives is a masterful work of history that intimately examines the rituals of diplomacy, marriage, pregnancy and religion that were part of daily life for women at the Tudor Court. Weaving new facts and fresh interpretations into a spellbinding account of the emotional drama surrounding Henry's six marriages, David Starkey reveals the central role that the queens played in determining policy. With an equally keen eye for romantic and political intrigue, he brilliantly recaptures the story of Henry's wives and the England they ruled.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The author of Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne turns his attention to the matrimonial saga of Henry VIII. Antonia Fraser and Alison Weir covered much the same ground in the early 1990s. While they expressed particular interest in 16th-century women and marriage, Starkey dwells at greater length on political and religious subtleties, and develops an imposing cast of supporting characters. The bulk of the book inevitably deals with Henry's first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Accounts of the remaining queens are fleshed out nicely to suggest their personalities, their place in the family networks and religious currents at court and the overall patterns of the king's infatuations and disillusionments. Mildly railing at historians who have not reached the same conclusions as he, Starkey claims to counter old stereotypes about his main characters, but cheerfully repeats those of other figures and nations, including Catherine of Aragon's "machiavellian" father and "the Spanish talent for turning sadism into spectacle." His tendency to modernize personalities gives Anne Boleyn more autonomy than seems plausible, making her the major formulator of policy in Henry's first divorce. Our understanding of Henry's rejection of Anne of Cleves, however, benefits from modern willingness to examine whether the king's inability to consummate the marriage led to the break. Caught between scholarly work and storytelling, the book gives us high drama at a languid pace, with overwhelming detail often slowing the narrative. For readers who are not put off, this is a strong, entertaining and occasionally audacious interpretation. An associated PBS series in July may make this book a popular buy. 16 pages of color photos not seen by PW. (July 10) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Fraser's scrupulously researched recuperative study of Henry VIII's six queens makes a major contribution to feminist scholarship. Illustrations. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Fraser here attempts to provide a fuller view of the six women who unenviably danced around the maypole that was the corpulent King of England. Fraser, the distinguished author of many historical studies, including The Weaker Vessel ( LJ 8/84), portrays in fascinating detail the women who sought to be included in and were sometimes destroyed by the power structure of the times. Inevitably, more time is spent on Catherine of Aragon (after all, Catherine and Henry were married 24 years, whereas all five of his other marriages only totaled a little over ten years), and although Fraser claims to have tried to avoid any bias, she betrays a lingering sympathy for Henry's first queen. One cannot help but speculate, as the author does, what history would have been like if Catherine had provided Henry with a male heir. Not only were Henry's wives prisoners of their biology, but also Henry himself. Fraser's readable style, empathy for her subjects, and piquant use of historical details and anecdotes make this a satisfying addition to the history shelves. Recommended for all public and academic libraries. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/92.-- Katherine Gillen, Denver P . L .
Brad Hooper
British schoolchildren remember the matrimonial sequence by learning this little rhyme: "Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived." Thus were the fates of the six women who--unfortunately, for most of them--entered into legal matrimony with the great Tudor king, Henry VIII. Esteemed British biographer Fraser brings her considerable talent for blending impeccable research, fresh interpretation, and an easy-flowing style to bear on a collective biography of Harry's half-dozen queens. That "the six women have become defined in a popular sense not so much by their lives as by the way these lives ended" is Fraser's point of departure; in the end, she has reconstructed cradle-to-grave portraits of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr as individuals dynamic in their own right, aside from the manner in which each was dispatched. Contrary to popular notion, King Henry was no bluebeard simply out to satisfy a gargantuan sexual appetite; Fraser's Henry is a husband who married five times for love and once for reasons of state. It's an aspect of English history--Henry and his wives--that can and has been treated either as silly or salacious. Fraser's tack is to see it in its personal and political seriousness.
Kirkus Reviews
A rich account of the six long-celebrated women who, for better or worse, shared the throne with the ax-happy Tudor king. Legend has treated Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr as the hapless victims of a murderous and adulterous blowhard, but Cambridge University fellow Starkey (Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne, 2000) shows that almost all of them were as involved as Henry VIII in the problems of governance in a tumultuous time-and thus, in many ways, helped sow the seeds of their own destruction. Henry's first wife had been brought to England as the wife of his older brother Arthur, the intended heir of Henry VII ("Henry [VIII] was only the spare"), in order at least in part to seal a Spanish-English alliance against France; alas for poor Catherine, who took an activist role as queen, her commitment to Inquisition-style Catholicism and failure to produce an heir led to one of the messiest divorces in recorded history-and one, Starkey gamely writes, in which she had the better lawyers. Though Catherine's successor, Anne Boleyn, has come to be known as "Anne of a Thousand Days," she served concurrently with Catherine as a de facto royal for more than ten years until she, too, got caught up in the tangled politics of Henry's administration, personified here largely through the person of Cardinal Wolsey, who would himself suffer the king's wrath; Boleyn, Starkey writes, was as much a religious activist as Catherine, but this time in the service of Reform. Jane Seymour pleased Henry, though she too sympathized with rebels against the crown; alas, she died after giving birth to his long-sought heir. Allies and enemies,Henry's subsequent wives pressed their various causes, sometimes openly defying his edicts. They were strong women all, Starkey argues in this eminently interesting if sometimes overly detailed chronicle, and all (save Catherine Howard) were politically important figures in their own right. A boon to fans of English royal history, full of murder and mayhem, but also of solid analysis of a maddeningly complicated era. Agent: Michael Carlisle/Carlisle & Co.
Booklist (starred review)
“Truly, this is history made as fluent and compelling as excellent fiction.”
Sunday Telegraph
“Acute and imaginative. ... [Starkey’s] communication of subtle points in simple and vivid language is masterly.”
Sunday Times (London)
“Extraordinary. . . . With each queen, Starkey offers a vivid character study.”
Daily Telegraph (London)
“Brilliant. ... Six Wives provides an intriguing new perspective on this key period in English history.”
Mail on Sunday
“Exciting. ... Very acute. ... It is so gripping that one finishes it wishing it were even longer.”
"Truly, this is history made as fluent and compelling as excellent fiction."

Product Details

Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
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6.46(w) x 9.53(h) x 1.97(d)

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Six Wives
The Queens of Henry VIII

Chapter One

Parents: a power couple

Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, was born on 16 December 1485. Her mother, the warrior-queen Isabella of Castile, had spent most of her pregnancy on campaign against the Moors (as the still-independent Islamic inhabitants of the southern part of Spain were known), rather than in ladylike retirement. Only after her capture of Ronda did she withdraw from the front, first to Cordoba and then to Alacala de Henares to the northeast of Madrid, where the child was born. The baby was named after Catherine, her mother's English grandmother, who was the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. She took after the English royal house as well, with reddish golden hair, a fair skin and bright blue eyes.

The Englishness of her name and appearance proved prophetic. After a happy, secure childhood, Catherine's life was to become a series of struggles: to get married, to have a child and, above all, to protect her marriage and her child against her husband's determination to annul the one and bastardise the other. And the scene of these struggles was England.

Catherine's parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, were the most remarkable royal couple of the age. They were both sovereigns in their own right: Isabella of Castile, Ferdinand of Aragon.

Castile formed the larger, western part of what we now call Spain, stretching from the Bay of Biscay in the north to the marches of the Islamic kingdom of Granada to the south. It was a country of torrid, sunburned mountains and castles and high plains roamed by vast flocks of sheep. The territories of Aragon lay to the east. They were smaller, but richer and greener, encompassing the foothills of the Pyrenees, the fertile valleys of the Mediterranean coast and the great trading city of Barcelona. The traditions of the two kingdoms were as distinct as their landscapes. Castile was insular, aristocratic and obsessed with the crusade against the Moors in which lay its origin and continuing raison d'être. Aragon, in contrast, was an open, mercantile society: it looked north, across the Pyrenees towards France, and east, across the Mediterranean towards Italy.

To a striking extent, the two sovereigns embodied the different characteristics of their realms. Isabella was intense, single-minded and ardently Catholic, while Ferdinand was a devious and subtle schemer. But he was much more: a fine soldier, who won more battles, both in person and by his generals, than any other contemporary ruler; a strategist, with a vision that was European in scale and grandeur; and a realist, who had the wit not to let his numerous successes go to his head. Understandably, Machiavelli worshipped him as the most successful contemporary practitioner of the sort of power politics he himself recommended: 'From being a weak king he has become the most famous and glorious king in Christendom. And if his achievements are examined, they will all be found to be very remarkable, and some of them quite extraordinary.'

Catherine manifestly took after her mother. But, I shall also argue, there was more in her of her father's qualities, both for good and bad, than has been commonly realized.

Neither Castile nor Aragon had belonged to the front rank of medieval powers. And their standing was diminished further by a particularly bad case of the disputed successions and civil wars which afflicted most European monarchies in the fifteenth century. In both countries, under-mighty kings had bred overmighty subjects and the two royal houses had fissured into a tragi-comedy of divisions: brother was pitted against brother and father against son. Only the royal women seemed strong, leading armies and dominating their feeble husbands. It was a Darwinian world, and none but the fittest, like Ferdinand and Isabella, survived.

They married in 1469, he aged seventeen, she a year or so older. Immediately Isabella was disinherited by her brother, Henry IV of Castile, in favour of his doubtfully legitimate daughter, Joanna. After the death of Henry IV in 1474, a civil war broke out between niece and aunt. This resulted in Isabella's victory and proclamation as Queen of Castile, and Joanna's retreat into a nunnery. Five years later, Ferdinand succeeded his father in Aragon. Ferdinand was the son of John II by his second marriage, and only after two deaths, both rumoured to be by poison, was he delivered the throne. Having fought everybody else to a standstill, Ferdinand and Isabella then threatened to come to blows themselves. He was determined to be King indeed in Castile; she was equally resolute to preserve her rights as Queen Regnant.

Finally their quarrel was submitted to formal arbitration. This established the principle of co-sovereignty between the two. Justice was executed jointly when they were together and independently if they were apart. Both their heads appeared on the coinage and both their signatures on royal charters, while the seals included the arms of both Castile and Aragon. And these were quartered, as a gesture of equality, rather than Ferdinand's arms of Aragon 'impaling' Isabella's arms of Castile, as was usual between husband and wife. Such power-couple equality was unusual enough in a medieval royal marriage. But, in fact, Isabella was the first among equals since, with the exception of the agreed areas of joint sovereignty, the administration of Castile was reserved to her in her own right.

Not surprisingly, Ferdinand jibbed. But he soon submitted and, united, the pair carried all before them. For, despite Ferdinand's four bastards by as many different mothers, he and his wife were genuinely, even passionately, in love. But even in this there was rivalry. 'My Lady,' one of Ferdinand's letters to the Queen begins, 'now it is clear which of us two loves best.' But they were in love with their growing power even more than with each other. Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain, surrendered in 1492 ...

Six Wives
The Queens of Henry VIII
. Copyright © by David Starkey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

David Starkey is the Bye Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and winner of the W. H. Smith Prize and the Norton Medlicott Medal for Services to History presented by Britain's Historical Association. He is best known for writing and presenting the groundbreaking and hugely popular series Elizabeth and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. He lives in London.

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Six Wives 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
First of all a warning, this book deals heavily with Henry's first two wives. However, this detail allows the reader to see into the forces behind the Reformation of the Church of England. It also paints an evenhanded picture of the people involved in the events of the time. While not as much attention is devoted to the other four wives, the author does not short-change their stories either. Their effects on history are smaller as his is coverage of their lives.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's entitled 'Six Wives' but should have been called 'The Divorce.' This book deals too much with the divorce proceedings and not enough with the characters. Excellent book for someone studying the history of English Divorce & Marriage law - otherwise I suggest one of the other fine books on Henry VIII's wives.
Kirconnell More than 1 year ago
This history of Henry VIII and his wives is nicely done. I loved Starkey's book on the young Elizabeth and thought that I'd try this one. There are areas at the start where the story gets bogged down in all the political events and becomes tedious, but once past this the story moves more quickly. Excellent research and some new data that Starkey has uncovered.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this was a great book. I'm the kind of person who really likes to read about the English monarchy. I thought this was a great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well researched and written book. Goes into depth on first 2 wives, but most of Henry's life was with these two women . Highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I so enjoyed the fresh viewpoint of Mr. Starkey. Great insight and research.
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