The Six Wives of Henry VIII Thrice – David Starkey, Antonia Fraser and Alison Weir

I’ve spent the last month reading three major modern books on Henry VIII’s wives. I had initially planned to just read David Starkey and Alison Weir’s books but someone on a Tudor History forum I’m a member of recommended I try Antonia Fraser’s book as well.  I did have it, but I might have thought it too “old” to read (although it was actually published a year after Weir’s so I was incorrect there) It might be because I’ve seen so many of Fraser’s books around I assumed they’ve all been in print for more than 20 years. I read some absolutely terrible books on Anne Boleyn last year that were published in the 1970’s and had decided I’d stick to more modern ones at present.

In my defence, one of the 1970’s history books stated that Satan was Anne Boleyn’s “Dark Master” so you may understand where I am coming from.

Now Alison Weir’s and Antonia Fraser’s books were published in 1991 and 1992 respectively, and Starkey, while making note of their “considerable merits”, claims they “stick to Strickland’s tried and tested formula”. Agnes Strickland wrote the Lives of the Queens of England, published in twelve volumes from 1840 to 1848, and while Starkey says it’s an enormously influential work he does accuse her of being sentimental. I haven’t read Strickland but I wouldn’t accuse either Fraser or Weir of being overly-sentimental, quite the opposite.

There is a major difference, besides their unique writing styles, in the gap between publication. Starkey’s was published in 2003 and has a lot of new information. If I were to pick one to read I would have to choose Starkey’s for the more recent information. But I’m not going to pick one. I’m going to pick two to recommend if they’re the only works on Henry VIII’s Six Wives you’re going to read.

Now Weir’s book I read last. It’s safe to assume she pretty much went over the same material that was used for several hundred years prior to the publication of her book. Unfortunately she also sticks to the tired old stereotypes. The book has no citations in 570 pages, for those who get annoyed about that sort of thing (as I do). She also makes some flagrantly sexist remarks, which I cannot abide in a female historian.  For example calling Anne Boleyn a “sharp-tongued virago” which she attributed to sexual frustration. Generally she didn’t form too many firm opinions on the book and stuck to “safe” popular opinion. This is of course, perfectly readable, Weir is a good writer, but there is certainly nothing ground breaking revealed in it.

I must point out that this book was written over a decade ago, and I have read more books by Alison Weir which I have thoroughly enjoyed, and have quite a few more to get through. So while I didn’t enjoy this one I would still recommend other books she has written. But you could give this one a miss.

Starkey’s book I read first, immediately followed by Fraser’s.  Fraser’s, again, sticks to more traditional material, but less of the sensationalist storytelling, in fact she will often point out how many of the old assumptions are highly unlikely. She uses an altogether gentler treatment than that of the sharp and witty Starkey, and I found her a little cautious, but very detailed. It’s often said Starkey was the first historian to really criticise Katherine of Aragon, but you’ll find Fraser simply uses subtler methods where she may be considered to be treading on controversial ground.

There is a lot of newer information in Starkey’s book, for example, while Katherine of Aragon’s first pregnancy was described by both Weir and Fraser as either a stillbirth or miscarriage Starkey shows us the miscarriage happened before she went into her lying-in (confined to bed for several weeks before the birth) and that they still thought she was pregnant due to her stomach still being swollen. It was a few weeks before they realised she wasn’t still pregnant. Katherine Howard is described as being 18 or 19 in the earlier books, later it was discovered she was actually much younger (probably fifteen), and a portrait of her had also finally been identified. Her age is crucial here, rather than dismissing her as an airhead, which Weir unfortunately does, her behaviour is far more easily understood as a young girl ill-suited and never groomed to be a Queen Consort.

Starkey does cover a lot of the political climate, and while he certainly doesn’t forsake more personal details, the chapters on the last three wives are quite short, and the book ends with Henry’s death. He does explain that he has already covered Katherine Parr’s final years in his book Elizabeth, and at nearly 800 pages the book is already more than formidable. It says something then that I would have liked to have kept reading.

One thing I really enjoyed about Fraser’s book was the small personal details, and there was a great deal of them. Things such as dress, personal badges, what sort of pets the Queens liked to keep. I was quite tickled to see Katherine Parr had a bit of a shoe fetish and kept pet parrots. She also did an amazing job on Anne of Cleves, finishing the major portion of the book off with the story of how Anne of Cleve’s fared after Henry had died. She then describes each of the final resting places of Henry’s wives. A very detailed and enjoyable read.

As always, when reading endless books on the same subject you’ll probably learn something new from each historian. For a good detailed overview of all of Henry VIII’s six wives, put David Starkey’s and Antonia Fraser’s books at the top of your list.