Antonia Fraser's 'The Wives of Henry VIII' is a wonderful account of the lives of the six women who married the controversial Tudor king. Fraser has written extensively on many subjects, but is particularly interested in British royal history. Her writing is clear and accessible, and almost invariably interesting.
Fraser says 'the six women have become defined in a popular sense not so much by their lives as by the way these lives ended.' Largely, they became identified (as most historical figures do) as stereotypes. Fraser's stated intent in the book is to examine the real women behind the stereotypes, to find the human strengths and frailties behind the historic labels.
Divorced, beheaded, died...divorced, beheaded, survived
-Catherine of Aragon-
Stereotype: Betrayed Wife, bigoted Catholic
Reality: a learned woman, politically astute, perhaps not entirely blameless in the break-up (but then, what can one expect? Divorce was presumably out of the question given religious and political considerations, so might she have felt safe to be more forward than anyone should be with the formidible Henry?)
Stereotype: Temptress, Protestant activist
Reality: she was more Protestant because the Catholic church wouldn't recognise or grant the divorce. She played a demur and devout character in court, but then, could she have publicly appeared as anything else, given the unprecedented events going on about her and because of her? She didn't have a chance to build up a power base, and suffered greatly for it. Indignatio principis mors est. Little known fact: Anne was actually divorced from Henry on the eve of her execution.
Stereotype: the Good Woman, Protestant yet Catholic
Reality: 'Jane Seymour was exactly the kind of female praised by the contemporary handbooks to correct conduct; just as Anne Boleyn had been the sort they warned against. There was certainly no threatening sexuality about her.' Henry would look back on Jane as the wife with whom he had been uniquely happy. She died as a result of the stress of childbirth (a not uncommon fate of women of any class), Henry's only legitimate male heir.
-Anna of Cleves-
Stereotype: Ugly Sister, Lutheran and Catholic
Reality: an interesting and difficult marriage to put together. 'Paradoxically, the King in his last forties, gross, no likely object of desire, was far more difficult to please than that handsome boy of 1509, ready to fall in love where policy directed him, whom any girl might easily love in return.' By this time, of course, Henry had a reputation of being at the least an unlucky husband. Solemn, looking older than her age, Anna was almost instantly disliked. Perhaps this saved her from a worse fate, if Henry had come to know her and then fall out of love with her.
Stereotype: the Bad Girl
Reality: Katherine was expected to produce the 'spare' to the heir produced by Jane. 'Katherine was, on her own admission, one who knew how to "meddle with a man" without conceiving a child.' Her affair with Culpeper not discreet enough, Katherine suffered the fury of Henry, who blamed his Council for forcing on him 'a succession of such ill-conditioned wives.'
Stereotype: the Mother Figure
Reality: not well educated but not unintelligent, a caring but politically astute person. 'As for the King himself, it was remarked that as Bishop Gardiner pronounced the now familiar words of the marriage service, an expression of real happiness crossed that bloated face.' She had taken as her motto 'To be useful in all I do.'
Fraser goes into detail about the lives, and the aftermath, what became of these women, even to the extent of recounting the period neglect and restorations of their graves. Speaking of Catherine of Aragon, she writes: 'It is rare to find the Queen's grave without fresh flowers placed upon it. Nothing is known about those who over the years have performed this touching act of respect. One can however safely assume that, whatever their own religious view, they agree with this estimate of the character of Catherine of Aragon: loyal, pious, courageous and compassionate.'