He began his reign as the dashing image of knightly chivalry. He ended it as a bloated, stinking whale, hated and feared across the land.
Dominic Sandbrook, The Six Wives of Henry VIII
In The Six Wives of Henry VIII Sandbrook tells us about the life of Henry VIII from dashing youngster to bloated old age, structured around the stories of the women who became his wives. It is also a gentle introduction to some of the other big names of the period such as Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More and Archbishop Cranmer.
Suitable for ages 10+
Like the rest of the books in the Adventures in Time series (such as the Fury of the Vikings which I reviewed last year) this book is aimed at 10 year olds who have moved on from the Horrible History books but who are not yet ready for Das Kapital.
With this in mind it is enjoyable to read, easy to remember but still has all the important info. This means it is also suitable for adults - and makes you wonder why all history books are not written on the same set of principles.
A good starting place
If you are a Tudor buff you probably won’t learn anything new1. I’m a Tudor novice: I have read Wolf Hall but still can’t quite remember which wife was which (no pun intended) and found it an efficient and entertaining way to get up to speed.
As I mentioned in my Fury of the Vikings review, Sandbrook’s Adventure in Time series is not historical fiction but rather tells you what actually happened - albeit with plenty of reimagined scenes. For example we have Catherine of Aragon meeting Henry the cheeky child prince when she is on the way to marry his older brother, or wife number six Catherine Parr begging a much older, fatter and meaner Henry to show mercy on her for answering back and not chop her head off.
A sacred monster
What I found shocking was the ease with which Henry VIII could turn against his closest companions, order their death, and then move on within days to the next one.
The downfall of Anne Boleyn is a good example of this. Here is the timeline which I have reconstructed from the book:
- Monday 1 May 1536 am - Anne attends the May Day celebrations with her husband who, enjoying the jousting, was “the picture of good-humoured generosity”.
- Monday 1 May pm - Henry gets a note telling him (falsely) that his wife is planning to kill him and rule England with another nobleman. He leaves the celebrations abruptly without talking to his wife or saying goodbye.
- Tuesday 2 May am - Anne is watching a tennis match. A messenger tells her the King’s councillors would like to see her. To Anne’s utter amazement and disbelief the councillors accuse her of treason.
- Tuesday 2 May pm - Anne is taken to the Tower of London and imprisoned.
It has taken just twenty four hours for Henry to go from happily (ish) married man to locking up his wife as a dangerous enemy. Things keep moving fast:
- Monday 15 May - Anne convicted as guilty and sentenced to death in a show trial.
- Friday 19 May - She is beheaded by a swordsman on Tower Green.
- Tuesday 30 May - Henry marries love of his life number three: Jane Seymour.
It seems incredible that Henry is willing to believe such serious charges against his wife and doesn’t even bother to ask her if they are true or not - he never saw his wife again since he left the joust in a huff on 1 May. This is a woman he previously loved so much that he was prepared to risk God’s wrath and war with the most powerful state in Europe to marry her. Or... perhaps it is more credible that Henry is able to convince himself that the most improbable things are true if it will help get what he wants, which in this case was a replacement wife.
I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want
This gets to one of the key take-aways of the book - on a personal level Henry VIII behaves like a petulant child who would be ridiculous if he wasn’t also a murderous schizophrenic. But these personal whims: to marry Anne Boleyn, to cock a snook at the Pope, to marry Jane Seymour and more seriously: to have a son, set in train massive changes in English life that we still live with today.
Without Henry’s tantrums we might still be a Catholic country. The Pilgrim Fathers of America might have banned the Bible (in the English translation). Merton Abbey, one of the great monasteries of England which is just down the road from where I live, might not have been converted into a Sainsburys hypermarket.
Drawbacks and omissions
I didn’t dislike anything that was in the book, but it is worth bearing in mind that there is a fair amount that is not in it. The clue is in the title: this is The Six Wives of Henry VIII, rather than Henry himself.
This means that the Henry that emerges here is Henry the romantic homicidal monster - which to his wives he certainly was. But Henry had other faces too - the soldier, the statesman, the charmer - which we don’t really get to see.
It’s also interesting that for the first twenty years of his reign Henry was happily married to Catherine of Aragon. For the twenty years before that he was a cheerful athletic young chap. It was only in the last decade and a bit of his life that he went fat and bonkers.
I will illustrate my point with emojis, each emoji representing a decade of Henry VIII’s life: 😀😀😀😀🤪🤒. (The last one should be half an emoji really because he died aged 55.) The history in this book is mainly the history of the crazy decade: the 1530s 🤪 rather than the full picture.
Overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable and very accessible account of Henry and told through the lens of the women he married.
But do you know the coronation mottos chosen by each wife? Of course you do! I didn’t though so it was fun to learn: Catherine of Aragon ‘Humble and Loyal’; Anne Boleyn ‘The Most Happy’; Jane Seymour ‘Bound to Obey and Serve’; Anne of Cleves ‘God Send Me Well to Keep’; Catherine Howard ‘No Other Will Than His’; Catherine Parr: ‘To Be Useful in All That I Do’. ↩︎
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The Six Wives of Henry VIII : Adventures in Time
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