Review by Julie Barham
Many people have asked Alison Weir about writing the story of Henry to go alongside her excellent Six Tudor Queens series (Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets reviewed here). At last, as the second book in her Tudor Rose Trilogy, she has published the book of Henry’s life. This is the story of a man of frequent obsessions, of deep loves and painfully aware of his need for a male heir.
This story is written from his point of view, full of the self-justification of a man who justifies his interest in women by his need for a male heir; one of the tragedies being that the daughter he nearly discarded, Elizabeth, proved to be a truly great ruler. The book is dominated by Henry’s reflections on his life, his image as a golden king, his position in Europe’s political hierarchy. It is also dominated by his relationship with his first queen, Katherine of Aragon, or Kate, with the novel reaching nearly halfway through before he spots Anne Boleyn. When we list the six wives it is easy to reel them off, forgetting that for most of his adult life he was married to Katherine. This is a book in which his wives, female conquests, and important advisors, especially Wolsey and Cromwell, pass in front of him, being of vital importance then rejected, often on the advice of the latest favourite. Weir has constructed a novel written totally from his point of view, his ego, his passions, ambitions, and problems. It seeks to evoke sympathy for a man who had a golden and indulged life, but also followed his whims and wishes above all else. He justifies some of his affairs with women by his need for a male heir, which was undoubtedly an obsession, but his self-justification always coincides with his attraction to a particular woman.
Another way that Weir chooses to gain sympathy for Henry as a man is by opening with a Prologue in which he lies in his final illness, acknowledging that ambitious men are already circling to rule through his young son Edward. This first part of the book, “Spring”, begins in 1503 as the young Henry is informed of his beloved mother’s death. As the second son he had not been given his household like his older brother, Arthur, and consequently had spent much of his childhood with his mother. The early death of Arthur had moved Henry, or Harry, into the spotlight as the heir to the throne, and left his young widow Katherine. Harry has become convinced that he will become a great king and marry Katherine, despite his increasingly difficult father’s vacillation on the point. Nevertheless, he comes to the throne and marries Katherine immediately, and they are crowned together under the watchful eye of his grandmother, the redoubtable Margaret. Her death leaves Henry with no guidance and therefore subject to the influences of favourites. He is portrayed as having genuine passion for Katherine, knowing her desperate awareness of his need for a healthy son, and choosing not to take a lover during her early frequent pregnancies. He always believes that it is his wife’s fault that he cannot father a surviving male heir; it seals his rejection of Katherine, it is part of his attraction to Anne Boleyn and his violent discarding of her when she has a miscarriage. Jane Seymour’s elevation to most loved wife is forever connected to her giving birth to Edward, even at the cost of her life. Anne Boleyn dies because he perceives that she has humiliated him. Anna from Cleves is discarded because she fails to fulfil his own fantasy. Katheryn Howard is a teenager pushed towards him by her ambitious family. When his “eye lighted on Lady Latimer” (Catherine Parr), he respects her for her virtue and her devotion as caring wife to her current husband. He has perhaps little consideration for her intellect and her own feelings for another; he is still the king, still able to demand exactly who he trusts, who he covets.
This is a big book which tackles head on the difficult questions surrounding Henry and his actions. I am not sure that I ended my reading of this book more sympathetic to this notorious man, but I think Weir has achieved so much in making a fair assessment of how he was unpredictable and at times easily led, that his political ambitions to be perceived as a great king did affect his decisions, and that he was genuinely concerned about the succession. His treatment of his wives and women in general was affected by his desires and the advice of others with their own agendas, which Weir does faithfully portray. This is a very great achievement as a book to sit alongside Weir’s six novels depicting each of his six wives, and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to read and review it.
Julie Barham blogs at Northern Reader
Alison Weir, Henry VIII – The Heart & The Crown (Headline Review, 2023). 978-1472278081, 625 pp., hardback.
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