As the wives of Henry VIII been the subject of numerous books both together and separately, one would presume that yet another book about them would be more of the same old same old. One would be wrong. Six Wives by David Starkey does a miraculous job of bringing together the lives, loves, scandals and suspicions of all six of the merry wives and their mercurial and maddening husband the King.
Part of the reason this book is a vibrant accounting of each of the ladies' marriages to Henry is because the author wisely chose to devote an amount in the book proportionate to what his exhaustive research uncovered. The result is substantially more information about Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and necessarily less about Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr.
Particularly intriguing is the revelations that paint a far different picture of the first Catherine. Previous books and subsequent movies portray her as a pious, almost simple woman. Starkey’s research divulged evidence that in fact she was much more complex. Even the most avid Anglophiles probably do not know that Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, actually led troops into battle for God and King as did her mother, the legendary Queen Isabella of Spain. In addition, the evidence makes it difficult to dismiss the long hushed-up possibility that Henry’s seemingly trumped up reason for divorcing her, that she had lain with her first husband Arthur, actually has a strong probability of being true. Kudos to Starkey for having the courage to put into print what most other scholars conveniently ignore.
Anne Boleyn has been a much-maligned individual throughout the years and, unfortunately, even Starkey’s amazing research does not much improve the impression one has of her character. There are, however, some revisions to be made to her tale. For instance, the long-suppressed story of Henry ordering Wolsey to break up the impending marriage to Anne is given new credence by the fact that Percy’s marriage to Mary Talbot took place at least a year and perhaps two after the date that has been insisted upon for years. This story also gives credence to the idea that this is when Anne developed her intense dislike of Wolsey and used her influence to secure his downfall. Also generally left out of mass propagation is the fact that Anne was having a affair with Henry for seven years before her infamous marriage of a mere thousand days.
Jane Seymour’s marriage to King Henry was relatively brief -- eighteen months -- and is best known for the fact that she secured the favor of the King by playing up the idea that she was the opposite of Anne Boleyn’s radical opinions and actions. Also revealed is that Jane perpetually hoped to remarry Henry and was distraught by every successive marriage of his until his death.
Catherine Howard’s story has been glossed over in previous books because of her far less-than-puritanical ways. She would have fit in well in the hedonistic 60s, for she was an enthusiastic participant in premarital relationships. However, the alleged affair with Thomas Culpepper, which caused her ignominious end on the block, is revealed through Starkey’s scrupulous review of the transcripts of Catherine’s trial as not including actual sexual intercourse.
Finally, we come to Catherine Parr -- the only wife not divorced or killed by King Henry VIII. Starkey does something very admirable in this telling: he admits the need to revise his previous portrayal of her in his book Elizabeth. Revisionists had cast aspersions on both her education and her religiosity. It emerges that she indeed was well-educated and a religious radical pre-Henry. An interesting fact about Catherine Parr is that she was a bestselling author.
With a defined attention to detail and an ability to paint a picture with words, David Starkey makes Six Wives an effortless, enjoyable read. The obvious voluminous research pays off handily in allowing the past to breathe again. Don’t let the length of this book put you off; every page offers morsels of enthralling descriptions that transport the reader back in time.
Six Wives is a glorious read for anyone who is fascinated with regal history. Starkey has created a classic.