The Six Wives of Henry VIII

So, I just finished “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” last night, having picked it up after Michael recommended it the comments to my post about “The Other Boleyn Girl.” I read this because I wanted to know how much of the history in “The Other Boleyn Girl” was true, and what had been adjusted or left out for the sake of the story.

I first have to admit that I never took a world history course in college or high school. So, probably a lot of people already know how fascinating Tudor history is. I’m obviously not a historian, but it seems like the author (Alison Weir) has gone to a lot of trouble to look at every single source she could get her hands on, and frequently refutes commonly-held beliefs about the people and situations she talks about. She lets you know that she’s doing this — she’ll briefly say something like “X is the most widely cited source for this information, but it is known to be inaccurate and is in fact contradicted, in this case, by Y and Z.” Best of all, she manages to do this in a very reader-friendly way.

I never felt like her citations interrupted the work (there are no footnotes, but at the end of the book each chapter has a paragraph or two explaining what materials constituted her primary sources for the information). This is not a dry history book, nor is it a book that skims over details and invents conversations. She quotes from actual letters, diaries etc. and makes sure to remind the reader if something she mentions happened commonly at the time (girls married off at 12) or was extremely unusual (women being well-educated), so you don’t lose your sense of time and place as you read. She does do some extrapolation, but my sense was that it was based on an excellent understanding of all the sources relevant to her statements (this primarily occurred when she explained what someone might have been thinking as they did, said, or waited for something). Any extrapolation was, to my recall, always tempered with a “likely” or “probably.”

Her approach really appealed to me, and I also enjoyed the fact that she brought these people to life through her research, and that this wasn’t lost in her book. They were fleshed out, not simply sketches based on a few letters and notes.

This might sound silly, but this book showed me why people are so fascinated with history. My memory of learning history in school was repeatedly having to memorize dates of battles and number of war dead, electoral vote counts and the like. This was not particularly interesting, and didn’t leave me fired up to take a history course in college (and since it wasn’t required for my degree, I didn’t). I can’t specifically cite examples, but I also seem to remember feeling as though we started over every year that I took history — there was no building upon what you should have learned last year, and the closest that I ever got to contemporary history was junior year of high school, in AP US History. That being said, we got so bogged down in the pre-revolutionary and Civil War periods that I think we only made it as far as WWII in class, and were expected to read the textbook and handouts to fill in the blanks. (Needless to say, no one who took the exam that year did particularly well.) I know absolutely nothing about the Korean War, and very, very little about Vietnam. And if the US wasn’t involved, it’s safe to say I haven’t a clue.

Anyway, now that about half of this post isn’t even about the book, I’ll say that I definitely recommend it if you have ever wondered about Henry VIII or any of the women surrounding him, including his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, who are next on my list of English historical figures to read up on. Anyway, be warned that this is a very long book, and given its size is not convenient for a commuter read. (Also, I’m a fast reader with a lot of time on my hands right now, so you might need to renew this a couple of times if you, oh, say, have a life.)

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