6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
Starkey in advance 600 page skirmish with his main project, 2 Jun 2003
Historian and Tudor specialist, David Starkey, has made - and perhaps enjoys - a public reputation from his TV and radio appearances in Britain as a combative, quarrelsome and idiosyncratic free thinker who does not suffer fools gladly. Noone doubts the sharpness of his intellect but, say his detractors, he is sometimes just a little too opinionated and cocksure for his own good.
That is a shame, since as this latest work on the Six Wives of Henry VIII shows, away from the TV lights, Starkey is also a first class historian of clear perception, astute psychological insight and mature judgement.
For sure there are some early 'Starkeyisms' to be found here: Richard III, we are told 'almost certainly' killed the Princes in the Tower. Well, maybe he did and maybe he didn't. Or even let's say, conceding Starkey's case, that "although still disputed by some, the balance of evidence suggests strongly that Richard killed the princes." But, though the word 'almost suggests he may be mellowing, Starkey is not usually given to such weaselly shades of grey in his contempt for the pre-Tudor English establishment. Strange, because he is very capable of subtlety, refinement and moral ambivalence when it comes to his favoured dynasty.
Here, his portrait of Catherine of Aragon, for example, is freshly original, balanced and credible: his Catherine is 'saintly' for sure but also shrewd, calculating and not averse to the darker arts of political intrigue and spin. Further Starkey brings a novelist's gift of enabling us to empathise, at one and the same time with both Catherine and her arch enemy, and replacement as Queen, Anne Boleyn.
And it is in his careful, compelling and judicious portrayal of Henry's 'Great Matter': the divorce of Katherine and the blind, slow but insistent stumbling towards the break with Rome and the resulting Reformation that Starkey is at his very best.
The trouble with all accounts of Henry's wives is that the first half is so much more dramatic and exciting than the second. That applies in terms of both the purely human interest: the painful conflict of Catherine and eternally charismatic Anne Boleyn, with its superb support roles in Wolsey, Cromwell, Gardiner and Cranmer, resonates down the centuries and in the political interest: the birth of the English Church and the Reformation.
After Anne B is beheaded, the drama dies (not least because we know and they didn't) that the true destiny for England lies in the already born daughters of Katherine and Anne: the future Queens Mary and Elizabeth respectively.
First, we have meek, mousy (if admittedly enigmatic) Jane Seymour, followed by the bathos of Anne of Cleves. Then a comparison of 5th wife Catherine Howard's pathetic story with that of Anne Boleyn reminds us of Marx's dictum that everything happens twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. As for Katherine Parr, not without importance to the viability of the Reformation, well - we all unfairly dismiss her as the one 'survived'.
To be fair, Starkey recognises this fact by allocating far more space to the first two wives and bundling the rest rather more hurriedly together. And if he just about carries it off, it's thanks of course to the continuity of his Henry notwithstanding that it is the Wives, not Henry, who is the supposed subject of the book.
The life journey of Henry never fails to fascinate: from the glorious idealistic, handsome, intelligent cultured hero of Christendom of his youth to the bloated, self pitying, egocentric (if still capable of charm and generosity) wife bully and 'destroyer of monasteries' of later times. Starkey picks his way carefully, and not without considerable sympathy, through the personal and political minefield that is Henry's life.
No doubt much of it as an advance reconnoitre for, what Starkey suggests in his preface, will become his main and crowning mission: a biography of Henry himself.
It should be worth waiting for.