on 5 August 2004
I have always been fascinated by the story of the Tudor dynasty, and pride myself on having read most books currently available on the subject. I was somewhat apprehensive about reading Starkey's examination of the six fascinating women who were married (however briefly) to Henry VIII. But I needn't have been. This was historical scholarship at its best.
Starkey cannot be accused of romanticising history, and he successfully blows apart some of the more cherished romantic anecdotes surrounding Henry's queens. It transpires that Henry probably didn't nickname his fifth wife his "rose without a thorn" and that Catherine Parr, his sixth, certainly didn't act as a nurse to her ailing husband. Starkey is similarly unprepared to prop-up misconceptions and stereotypes. He refuses to present Catherine of Aragon as a saint, despite the best efforts of numerous other historians and novelists to present Henry's first wife as a perfect wife, mother, queen and Christian. Rather, Starkey shows Catherine to have been admirable, politically-important and dignified; but he also shows that she could be deceitful, incalcitrant and naive.
Anne Boleyn (to whom most of the book is devoted) emerges as a more likeable individual than she does in Alison Weir's narratives. Anne's political and religious impact is the main focus of Starkey's narrative but he also reveals Anne's charisma, intelligence and style (even if he also relates how she could be a temperamental drama queen when she wanted to be!) Starkey also manages to construct a new (and more convincing) timetable for Henry's affair with Anne, and persuasively argues that Henry had a much larger part to play in Lord Percy's enforced marriage than previously believed.
Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves do not occupy an inordinate a mount of space in this book (Starkey admits as much himself in the introduction, claiming that space is going to be given according to each wife's importance.) Jane emerges as a somewhat pretentious, haughty, cold and uninteresting individual; whilst Anne of Cleves seems pleasant but none too bright.
The weakest section is probably that on Catherine Howard. Although the book does shed new light on Catherine's legendary "romance" with Thomas Culpepper, it can at times become a bit silly in its attempts to react against Victorian values culminating in Starkey's view that we can see a kind of "virtue in promiscuity." It also seems that too much intelligence and cunning is accredited to Catherine who was, essentially, an ordinary if thoughtless young woman.
The section on Catherine Parr is illuminating and enjoyable to read. Catherine is shown to have been religiously-motivated, courageous and quick-witted; not the dull bluestocking of popular myth.
Politically, there hasn't been a study which explores the six wives' role better. Neither Weir, Loades, Lindsey or Fraser's books explore the impact Henry's wives had on society, religion and government to the same extent as Starkey does. Furthermore, Starkey also has a real feel for personality and the six queens are liberated from their stereotypes and emerge as far more believable human beings than they do in many other historical books. Starkey's narrative cannot be faulted on bias either, unlike the works of Weir or slipshod scholarship, like those of Carolly Erickson. The book is enjoyable, superbly written and illuminating. Both experts and new-comers to the Tudor era should read Starkey's wonderful "Six Wives".
on 8 May 2004
There is a certain fascination with the larger than life (and towards the end of his life, grotesque) figure of Henry VIII. Of all of the Kings of England/Britain he is almost certainly the most recognisable. And the Tudor era certainly seems to be one which fascinates on television lately. This book, however, was supposed to be about, not King Henry, but his wives. Although they are all here, along with their life stories (to a greater or lesser extent - for some their lives before becoming Queen seem to be shrouded in mystery) the figure of Henry dominates the book, very much as he must have dominated these women in life.
The most interesting stories are that of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Here the stories are most dramatic, and therefore most gripping. In audiocassette form, the first 2 (of 4) tapes are taken up with these two - more Katherine than Anne admittedly, though of course, their stories overlap by about 7 years. The final four wives make do with approximately a side of a tape apiece.
Although well written the final four wives seem almost two-dimensional characters in comparison with Henry and his first two wives, and it is easy to see why there are biographies of Anne Boleyn by the score, but very few of say Jane Seymour - you simply couldn't find enough to write a full-length book it seems.
As I have read a couple of David Starkey's books before and found them to have depth, as well as being amongst the most fast paced and readable of histories, I do wonder how much personal detail about the women, which would turn this from a history text into a collection of biographies, was cut in the abridgement. I suppose I shall just have to read the book to find out.
All in all this is well worth buying for a long journey to pass the time, but I did expect to enjoy it more - it dragged a little towards the end, but only a very little. I must say though that the narration is excellent.
The thing that perhaps proves most strongly that this book is about Henry rather than his wives is that Katherine Parr's story ends with the death of the King and not her own. I found this especially irritating, as, although I know a little about what happened to her after the death of the King, I would have liked to have had the chance to see her story through to its real completion.
I'm a student of Ancient History and Egyptology rather than British History. However, it is British History which has always been my first 'love'.
The first account I ever read about Henry and his wives was in the Horrible History series (Cruel Kings and Mean Queens - which, by the way, I would recommend to everyone, child or adult), when I was quite young (perhaps about 8yrs?). It was, by no mean, my favourite aspect at the time. I didn't have a favourite British monarch back then.
And I don't now.
However, I came across this recently and decided to buy it. I was intrigued by these women (amongst others in history) and thought to myself "why not learn more?"
I'm glad I made that decision, for while I have not read anything else other than this and some brief articles about Henry's queens, I found it very thorough. It deals with everything, from the personal intimate details to the fully political (and public) aspects of their lives.
It begins with Catherine of Aragon (I've decided to use the spelling in the book for all the names!), a strong Catholic woman (who you can't help but have some admiration for). Anne Boleyn follows - an equally strong 'Protestant' (who I really didn't like at first for her treatment of Catherine, but I did eventually). You may find yourself thinking of Anne's downfall before you get there in a kind of smug way, but then feeling a little ashamed when it comes to the crunch. These personalities and characteristics are reflected in their daughters (Mary and Elizabeth respectively). Starkey devotes over half of the book to Catherine and Anne.
Poor Jane who follows seems a bit boring in comparison to her striking predecessors, as does Anne of Cleves (who becomes Henry's 'sister'). Catherine Howard livens things up a bit as does Catherine Parr after her (who also goes a bit too far with her religious views for Henry's liking).
Starkey also peppers his work with eerie comments, such as "in a few months, she would be dead". (I don't know if that one is actually there, but you get the picture!)
I would thoroughly recommend this book to absolutely anyone who is even remotely interested in Henry's wives - you will not be disappointed!
on 13 April 2007
I found this hard going. While Starkey's research is admittedly admirable, what I found very strange about this book is that he completely compartmentalises each of the wives, as though they existed entirely separately from each other. For instance, in the section on Catherine of Aragon, there is NO mention of Anne Boleyn, even once you get to the parts about the divorce, etc. I found this frankly peculiar, and more than a little frustrating and irritating. Anne was a member of Catherine's court; Catherine knew exactly who she was, and that she was the one her husband was leaving her for. I don't see how you can explore Catherine's story with any humanity and depth without going into these relationships, which were of such wrenching impact at the time.
Similarly, I felt that while the political aspects of each wife's reign were gone into in great detail, there was a lack of the personal which for me made the book much duller and dryer than expected. I greatly preferred Antonia Fraser's treatment of this subject.
on 14 May 2012
Before I bought the book I read quite a few of the existing reviews and decided I might discover some new nugget or gem of information or at least a new interpretation of the received wisdom. I didn't mind that it was 'compartmentalised' - which it wasn't completely, but I was shocked at the lack of analysis by such a famous popular historian. As others have said, most of the book is about Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, but I don't mind that as there is far more known (or at least written) about them than the other wives (except perhaps Catherine Parr).
But Prof Starkey seems merely to regurgitate the usual stuff with little new analysis as to how it came about,why, etc. Again, undue reliance is placed on the writings of Eustache Chapuys, which are trotted out as if gospel (Chapuys said) , apart from the odd reminder that Chapuys is for Catherine of Aragon and against Anne Boleyn. Surely it is much more than this? Chapuys was writing for the Emperor's consumption, nothing else, (and certainly not for English posterity), and would write what his Emperor would like to hear, rather than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. For example, according to Chapuys, all the bad things that were done to Catherine were done by Anne, not by Henry. But how could that be? Henry was King and didn't do anything he didn't want to. Contrast with the French Ambassador who said that Anne did nothing that wasn't agreed by the King. 'All that the Lady does is by the king's order.'
In my opinion Chapuys was fooling both himself and his Emperor, and was possibly even misled by other English courtiers feeding him stuff he wanted to hear. I do not understand why Prof Starkey did not question more of Chapuys' output - perhaps because if he ignored it there would be so little material?
I did find it easy enough to read (apart from the sheer size/weight of it), although there was a wealth of detail (mainly from Chapuys) that I had read several times before. So why did I read it?- Because I had heard so much about Prof Starkey's new interpretation of history that I sincerely believed that this was worth a try. After reading it, perhaps a better question would be 'why did Prof Starkey write it? I didn't find anything new here,so I think that, in the end, this is just an average '6 Wives'. So 3 stars.
As David Starkey comments in the introduction to his weighty account of Henry VIII's wives: "The Six Wives of Henry VIII is one of the world's great stories: indeed, it contains a whole world of literature within itself. It is more far-fetched than any soap opera; as sexy and violent as any tabloid; and darker and more disturbing than the legend of Bluebeard. It is both a great love story and a supreme political thriller." This is, indeed, an attention-grabbing paragraph with which to introduce the reader to his six protagonists - about whose fates many people will be aware, possibly with the use of the aide-memoire: 'divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived'; however, Mr Starkey takes this a step further, and refers to his six characters as: 'The Saint, the Schemer, the Doormat, the Dim Fat Girl, the Sexy Teenager and the Bluestocking'; and these descriptions (and many others) demonstrate how the author takes a more contemporary approach in his telling of the story of Henry VIII and his wives. So, although this is clearly a well-researched account and one where David Starkey has unearthed some new evidence and, in some places, reinterpreted what is already known, I do have to mention that it was a little surprising to read, for example, one character (Lady Margaret Beaufort) being described as: "the mother-in-law from hell"; another character as: "playing the Diana card" and someone else described as:"a bit of a goer". I haven't read any of David Starkey's books, other than this one, but I understand that Mr Starkey has a distinctive way of presenting his historical knowledge, and one which has been referred to as 'punchy' 'peppery' 'mischievous' and even 'salacious' in some of the critical reviews I have read. That said, Mr Starkey's technique draws the reader into his account of Henry's six wives and his sparky, well-paced narrative kept me interested throughout the book's 800 plus pages.
on 21 August 2003
Finally, a definitive book on those most famous and misunderstood women who comprise the myth of Henry VIII. Starkey has written a seminal volume that blows the lid off the "set-in-stone" images of the six women, most especially Katharine of Aragon, to whom the majority of the first half of the book is appropriately focused on-- after all, he was married (or not) to her for longer thajn all the others put together. Katharine's image as the pious, marble Madonna is smashed with Starkey's historical record, showing her to be quite well-informed, machinating and matching Henry's moves, often before Henry himself was ready to make a move. As a counter, little space is devoted to the "relatively unimportant wives," although I regret that more information does not exist about the secluded life of Anne of Cleeves-- but history does not provide for such desires. Starkey's book rivals, and indeed betters, all other books available that focus not only on the personalities of the women themselves, but Henry's manipulations, cuckolding, pressures and obsessions in dealing with them. Anne Boleyn emerges, not surprisingly, as a frenetic, shrewish, frightened woman, but the Catherine Howard legend takes a completely different, and often quite empathetic view, at least in modern terms-- perhaps Starkey's views are with a 21st century approach, but regardless, they bring these women to life in a a way never before available--or so deeply enjoyed--as this book does. This is not only a magnificent starting point for anyone interested in the topic, but a fantastic oppoortunity to examine our own taught or inherent beliefs about these six women. Needless to say, this is highly recommended.
on 2 June 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.
on 30 July 2003
This book is fantastic and gives appropriate weighting to each of Henry VIII's wives. As a result the bulk of the book is devoted to his first Queen, Catherine of Aragon. As with his book on Elizabeth I, Dr Starkey makes a gripping read out of real history and avoids making it seem like a boring history lesson. A trap too many historical authors fall into.
This is a magnificent book which draws the reader into the Tudor world. So well described are the scenes and characters that you can almost see and feel the times as if you were there. For me to have enjoyed this book so much it had to overcome two obstacles - the dreadfully boring teaching of the Tudor period at school, which i thought had put me off the period for life, and a rather negative impression of David Starkey, from television. The rudest man in Britain and all that...
Far from now seeing Tudor history as boring this book has so engaged me that i want to learn more and more of the period. And my preferred guide in further reading - David Starkey. This is a great book indeed, which although quite long at around 800 pages, is compulsively readable.
Starkey writes with flair and wit, and offers fascinating analyses of the motivations of the characters who made the history described in these pages. He draws heavily on contemporary accounts, and personal letters and testimony of the participants, some of which we are told are being considered here for the first time by any historian, and paints a very human picture of the key players.
Starkey provides a biographical section about each of Henry's Queens in chronological order, explaining something of their lives before meeting the King, and what propelled them to take the actions and roles they did as Queen. Ann Boleyn, and the events of her life, is given the greatest share of the book. Catherine of Aragon, who was forced to make way for Anne Boleyn, is also featured strongly, but all the Queens, and their children, are covered fairly and extensively. The times and lives of the participants are so brilliantly described here that I found myself seeing each of the characters as real people, rather than just historical figures - and sympathising with each of the them for the human dramas they lived through, and often created. How must it have been for the children...
This is magnificent - and I have already ordered two more of David Starkeys's books.
Highly recommended. 5 stars