Jacketed in royal purple, SIX WIVES: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey also has a majestic heft befitting its subject --- and its status as the latest PBS history series. Anglophiles, amateur historians, and monarchy watchers alike will have a field day with this latest attempt to stuff Henry's six brides between two covers.
Popular historians Antonia Fraser and Allison Weir have both written biographies of Henry's wives, both of which contributed to the scholarship on the Tudor women. Fraser, whose previous books like 1984's THE WEAKER VESSEL put paid to the idea of passive Englishwomen, brought a feminist slant. Weir chronicled Henry VIII's metamorphosis from vibrant young prince to despotic old king through his marital history.
Starkey takes the subject and makes it his own by shining his historian's lantern on each of the queens in turn, combined with the stuff and sense of her context. The bulk of the book is devoted to Henry's first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, which makes sense given the importance of those marriages to Henry and to history. However, Starkey grants each queen her place, taking special care to define how her particular character, background and circumstances influenced the course of events.
Thus, readers learn how Catherine of Aragon's innate stubbornness and devout Catholicism ("I am Queen and Queen I will die") influenced not only public awareness of Henry's attentions to another woman, but also her fanatically pious daughter "Bloody Mary." Proceeding from Anne Boleyn to Jane Seymour to Anne of Cleves to Catherine Howard, Starkey never forgets the primacy of religion to English society at this point in time, and unlike some previous biographers of Henry's wives, does not neglect the important role Henry's final queen, Catherine Parr, played in the Church of England.
Starkey does not cover any extraordinarily new ground, although he has a few surprises up the sleeve of his academician's gown, such as a careful consideration of whether or not Henry's inability to consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves led to their divorce. He also provides some little-known images in the sixteen pages of photos included. Since Starkey is the editor of THE INVENTORY OF HENRY VIII, a massive cataloging project, it stands to reason that he would consider places and objects important, and those objects include documents. The letters that the six queens wrote --- to their fathers, courtiers and husbands --- are fascinating.
Starkey has made a sort of dual career for himself as academic specialist and media consultant, and that duality is reflected in his writing, for good and ill. SIX WIVES occasionally gets bogged down by historical detail. Still, this most outspoken and combative of English academics, noteworthy for his provocative lectures, uses his theatrical talents to good effect and keeps readers turning pages as he connects the historical dots with erudite flair.
By book's end, the portraits of the six queens form one of their king that is at odds with the idea of Henry VIII as lascivious philanderer --- yet the six women can still be viewed individually. That is no mean feat and, for history buffs, a real treat.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 23, 2011