The Six Wives of Henry VIII; & The King’s Mother
Two new books on the Tudor dynasty
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
by Antonia Fraser (Weidenfeld and Nicolson xiv + 479 pp.)
The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort
by Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood (Cambridge University Press xxvi + 322pp.)
That Antonia Fraser's Six Wives of Henry VIII is available in paperback as well as on library shelves should guarantee circulation to the only current account of Henry VIII's wives and by far the best of its kind. It has all the Fraser virtues: liveliness, enough but not too much detail, a grasp of up-to-date scholarship and an eye for the memorable – I shall treasure St Bernadino of Siena's remark that the mother who fails to tell her daughter what to expect on her wedding night 'sends her to sea with no biscuit'. Above all imaginative sympathy; the past lives as is too rarely the case in academic history today. After half-a-century Eileen Power's quip still remains true: 'Once upon a time there was a historian who was so dull that all the other historians began to notice'. The dullness of academics is partly fear of being wrong, and it is the case that the Fraser method does take risks. Points are sometimes missed.
The evidence suggests that Henry divorced Anne Boleyn not on grounds of precontract to the Earl of Northumberland but on grounds of his own previous intercourse with Anne's sister (macabre consistency). Feel for a good story sometimes overcomes proper scepticism. The tax collector whom the Lincolnshire rebels in 1556 sewed in a cowskin to be eaten by dogs is a fiction. Occasionally connections are jumped at too readily; William Herbert's advancement antedated his sister-in-law's becoming queen in 1543.
There are also errors. For example, the ambassador to France in 1542 was not John Paget but William; Thomas Seymour was not Lord Admiral in 1544; the illegality in torturing Anne Ascue was not that she was a gentlewoman but that she had already been condemned; the misprint on p.572 of 'progress' entirely distorts the sense. So, too, with the illustrations. These are plentiful, well-chosen and varied but 'Thomas Boleyn' is probably 'James Butler' Anne's intended husband; the Horenbout miniature captioned 'Anne Boleyn' is improbable, so too the Holbein drawing at Windsor; the sixteenth-century view of the Tower is a Victorian redrawing; the Wyngaerde of Richmond Palace is actually of Hampton Court. But such matters are rarely more than venal. The importance is the overall interpretation. Here, of course, any writer has a problem of balance. Katherine of Aragon – and quite clearly that was how Tudor Englishmen spelt the name – was involved with Henry for thirty-four years and Anne Boleyn for ten, but the next three wives for under two years each and the last for less than four.
The temptation to skimp after Anne Boleyn's death is strong, especially as political considerations suggest that it was the first two wives who mattered and that the only significant thing about the others was that Jane had a son and the rest remained childless. Antonia Fraser, however, resists this, treating each woman at a decent length. In consequence, although there are full-scale scholarly biographies to set alongside her accounts of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, her treatment in depth of the last four wives gives the book a unique value. Lady Antonia claims that she has no favourites but she certainly tries to redress some balances. One example is Jane Seymour, portrayed as a serene and submissive creature, not the schemer I made her. Not that I am persuaded – nobody who had been around a Tudor court for as long as Jane could possibly have been so unaware.
The Fraser rehabilitation of Anne of Cleves is, by contrast, very convincing. Anne is shown to have been by no means ill- favoured – the 'Flanders Mare' sneer dates from the eighteenth century – and once settled in England as an independent and wealthy woman she enjoyed life (particularly alcohol) and some popularity. I am not, however, like Antonia Fraser, 'mystified' at Henry's disappointment with her. Anglicised, Anne was one thing, Anne arriving in England for the first time was another. Completely naive, wholly unsupplied with the 'biscuit' of the facts of life, she understood no English and was totally ignorant of courtly etiquette and courtly devices. It is no wonder that she effectively ignored the complete stranger who burst in to give her presents and became totally bewildered when he changed costume and appeared as king.
Henry had expected a sophisticated woman only to have his chivalric gallantries fall flat before this repressed provincial hausfrau. Had he been available, a few lessons with Professor Higgins might have done the trick, but the forty-nine year old Henry had been made to look a fool and sulked at how badly he had been treated. Antonia Fraser's interpretations are worth listening to, whether one agrees or not. I would, for example, certainly want to question the notion that during the long years of waiting Anne Boleyn and Henry practised coitus interruptus. I agree that Katherine Howard probably did know the technique but it requires some male co-operation and while I can accept that in emergency she might be ready to force away a lover, I cannot imagine Henry VIII tolerating such treatment. Habsburg enemies called Anne 'the Concubine' but her determination to be more than a mistress and Henry's obsession to beget a son in wedlock must together have limited the intimacies they allowed themselves.
It is the twentieth-century reading history backwards to assume that chastity was not the preferred contraceptive option of past generations. In one respect, however, the book disappoints. It points out the links between the wives but deals only indirectly with what really united them – Henry VIII himself. What did he look for in them? Sophistication we have seen. Maturity? Apart from the least satisfactory of his wives, the nineteen-year-old and knowledgeable Katherine Howard, the remainder were well past youth, three in the later twenties and two over thirty. Was this because Henry wanted someone to manage, even mother him? There are certainly hints of this with both the Katherines and with Anne Boleyn. It is here that our knowledge of Henry's youth is so disabling. His mother died when he was eleven, but his even more formidable grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, survived to see him crowned and has been credited with the dominant role in the transition from father to son. Whether this was the case is, not, unfortunately, clear from the latest biography of her by M.K. Jones and M.G. Underwood.
In The King's Mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the authors make a valiant attempt to demonstrate that Margaret played an important political role from 1485, but data to enable a firm decision one way or the other is simply not available. One would like to believe in the Tudor matriarch who stood behind both son and grandson and there are some indications of this, but she comes out far more strongly as a. tough-minded Tudor widow, concerned with family, status and property but with a genuine concern for charity and above all her Cambridge colleges. It is nicely ironic that of all her grandson's wives it was Anne Boleyn who shared this enthusiasm!
Eric Ives is the author of Anne Boleyn (Basil Blackwell, 1986)
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