Six Wives, the Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey. Chatto and Windus, London 2003. £25.00. pps 852.
Following his father’s passing in 1509, the 17-year old Henry Tudor, now King Henry VIII, married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon; she was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, sponsors of Christopher Columbus and more controversially of the Spanish Inquisition.
Then some 16 years later, one daughter and many miscarriages later, Henry laid eyes on Anne Boleyn–Anne, dazzling Anne, witty, beautiful, highly intelligent, musical, the perfect court lady according to the standard of the day. Henry was besotted. But this Anne was also an early convert to the new Protestantism which was sweeping Europe–a reform movement that favoured individual good works and piety over pilgrimages and papal tradition. The stage was set.
But divorce from Catherine was eight frantic years in coming. And that was only the beginning of Henry’s marital meanderings and the process that would sever England from the Catholic church and see Henry marry five more wives. For somewhere along the line, Henry also fell deeply in love with falling in love.
Now to be frank, I don’t like the Tudors. In fact, I scrupulously avoid them. Rather like stinging nettles. For their reigns were so brutal, so full of connivers and conniving–and their greed was so greedy. And power struggles against them were invariably and messily fatal. So I eschew them (in favour of the far calmer waters of the Napoleonic Wars.) Thus it came as a bit of a surprise to me (and when I say surprise, what I really mean is huge shock) to find myself entranced by David Starkey’s intimate biography, Six Wives, the Queens of Henry VIII.
My downfall started early, on page one, with Dr. Starkey’s style. His writing is so amiable yet intelligent, so conversational, so entirely engaging that my anti-Tudor avoidance mechanism was fully disarmed: he doesn’t drone on, he doesn’t witter, he doesn’t lecture.
Instead of the arid historical cant of previous generations of Victorian and neo-Victorian historians, he begins his magnum opus this way: “The Six Wives of Henry VIII is one of the world’s great stories: indeed, it contains the 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 that the legend of Bluebeard. It is both a great love story and a supreme political thriller.”
You see? This is only the first paragraph and I’m hooked! He muses, he speculates, he invites you to think, to consider and reconsider, to reason with him. His language is fresh, alive, current, intoxicating even–to quote Evelyn Waugh, it’s like “drowning in honey, stingless”. And it only gets better. Far, far better.
Because Dr. Starkey is also quite a sleuth. Or do I mean terrier? For there is no fragment of information too small, too foreign, too illegible, too out of sync to escape his notice. Whether it was an obscure letter from Catherine of Aragon to her father which proved, among other things, that she knew well how to be economical with the truth; or the illegible (and thus never bothered with) transcript of Thomas Culpepper’s ‘confession’ about his relationship with Catherine Howard (Henry’s wife number five) which sent her to the executioner’s block.
Whatever and wherever it is, Starkey ferrets it out and makes sense of it.
Possibly the greatest strength of Starkey’s work though is that he remains steadfastly focused on these six women–despite the lodestar of Henry’s dominating presence–revealing so much about them that was previously unknown and unfathomed, but also disproving many of the prominent myths. None of these women were the brainless ciphers that history has cast them as.
Anne Boleyn has always been portrayed as the vamp, which perhaps she was a bit; but she was also active in importing proscribed anti-clerical Protestant books from France and aiding in their distribution. Certainly, she was the driving force who saw Thomas Cranmer, the great reformer, installed as Archbishop of Canterbury.
And Katherine Parr (wife number six) was a highly devout and sincere Protestant, a gifted writer and translator who saw her own work Prayers Stirring the Mind unto Heavenly Meditations published (it was a best-seller) and encouraged her stepdaughters, Mary and especially Elizabeth, to follow her lead. (All of which suggests that perhaps the most important legacy of Henry’s reign was left us, not by Henry, but by these remarkable women.)
David Starkey is regarded as the pre-eminent Tudor historian here in England. But as this impressive biography demonstrates, that’s no media exercise. He has earned his position through his brilliant analyses, his perceptivity, his understanding and his unwavering determination to get to the truth–even when it means sacrificing his own previous theories.
And as for my anti-Tudor prejudice–well, it’s still mostly in place. But how can you resist a historian who writes with the punch of Robert Ludlum and the fluidity of P.G. Wodehouse? You can’t. (And yes, I will be reading Starkey’s next promised biography of Henry VIII; I’ll be among the first.)
(This review first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)