I did already know the bare bones of the stories of the six wives, but I’ve always been more interested in the reign of Henry VIII from the way in which events in his reign affected the social makeup of England. I think it would be hard to grow up in the North Riding and not be aware of how the dissolution of the monasteries changed the landscape of the country. From the hauntingly beautiful ruins of Rievaulx and Fountains Abbies and Mount Grace Priory, to the continued history of resistance through the pilgrimage of Grace, what I was brought up to believe was the greed of one man who had spent his father’s fortune was part of a series of events that changed a world.
But this book isn’t about that-Weir goes to admit that is a bigger topic that this book-which is already weighing in at about 700 pages, hence the weeks of reading on me Kindle. This is about the women who married Hal, the reasons why, and their lives after him (if they survived the marriage).
Often very very sad, this book made me so very very angry with a patriarchy that allowed the behaviour of one man and his whims (and a load of other men and their manipulation of the first man’s whims) to result in the completely unneccessary violence and deaths of so many people.
The end of the six women were, for the majority, unbearably tragic. Two died from diseases associated with child birth which would be preventable now. Two were executed after being used horribly by their families (Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, is currently the top of my shit list. Yes he might have sobbed when sentencing Anne Boleyn to death, but it didn’t stop him throwing his fifteen year old niece into the path of the beloved tyrant a few years later. A niece he’d previously abandoned as a child in the country to be groomed into sexual compliance by men in a culture that later made her out to be the harlot).
Parts of this book were just fascinating though. Anne Boleyn’s liveries basically read ‘Haters Gonna Hate’ for a bit. And the clothes they wore. No wonder England was broke, cloth of gold and caps covered in 523 pearls don’t come cheap. Bits of this book were a little like reading the societal pages in that they are very much about what the women looked like and wore, but that is what would have been important at the time. These were for the most part clever women, and yet their lives were dictated purely by men. Good job Henry liked women he could argue with (as long as they agreed with him eventually).
Perhaps the saddest thing though was afterwards when I was thinking about the lives of the women in context of the time. They had incredible privilege. They weren’t thrown out to live as beggars like the thousands of former nuns, who would have only been nuns because their families didn’t want them. They might have lived life on a precipice, but compared to most of the people in the country, they had some power, their own income (which could be taken away at any time) and they survived past childhood. And yet still, their lives could be so epically shit.
Then there is the positive of this book (which I loved, and made me want to read about the rest of the Tudors, and re-read Shardlake, and Bring Up The Bodies, but not Phillippa Gregory one little bit). Anne of Cleaves. She was a dude. Rejected by Henry, but loved and admired by everyone else, she ended up living the life of a royal, owning three houses, throwing parties and being a good friend to the other wives and Henry’s children. She made me happy, and I’m glad I finally got to know her.