A rich account of the six long-celebrated women who, for better or worse, shared the throne with the ax-happy Tudor king.
Legend has treated Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr as the hapless victims of a murderous and adulterous blowhard, but Cambridge University fellow Starkey (Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne, 2000) shows that almost all of them were as involved as Henry VIII in the problems of governance in a tumultuous time—and thus, in many ways, helped sow the seeds of their own destruction. Henry’s first wife had been brought to England as the wife of his older brother Arthur, the intended heir of Henry VII (“Henry [VIII] was only the spare”), in order at least in part to seal a Spanish-English alliance against France; alas for poor Catherine, who took an activist role as queen, her commitment to Inquisition-style Catholicism and failure to produce an heir led to one of the messiest divorces in recorded history—and one, Starkey gamely writes, in which she had the better lawyers. Though Catherine’s successor, Anne Boleyn, has come to be known as “Anne of a Thousand Days,” she served concurrently with Catherine as a de facto royal for more than ten years until she, too, got caught up in the tangled politics of Henry’s administration, personified here largely through the person of Cardinal Wolsey, who would himself suffer the king’s wrath; Boleyn, Starkey writes, was as much a religious activist as Catherine, but this time in the service of Reform. Jane Seymour pleased Henry, though she too sympathized with rebels against the crown; alas, she died after giving birth to his long-sought heir. Allies and enemies, Henry’s subsequent wives pressed their various causes, sometimes openly defying his edicts. They were strong women all, Starkey argues in this eminently interesting if sometimes overly detailed chronicle, and all (save Catherine Howard) were politically important figures in their own right.
A boon to fans of English royal history, full of murder and mayhem, but also of solid analysis of a maddeningly complicated era.