The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII

The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII, by Amy Licence

I do enjoy Amy Licence. Her previous books, including biographies of Elizabeth of York, Anne Neville and Cecily Neville, have been models of detached, rigorous, and yet fascinating historical analysis. Licence does not hesitate to ask speculative questions. She then answers, when possible, by considering in detail the actual evidence.

Licence’s new book is almost as good as the preceding ones. Unlike many other biographers of Henry’s queens, she never hesitates to say what cannot be known or definitively proven.

In Six Wives & Many Mistresses, Licence explores Tudor attitudes towards love, romance, marriage, courtship, seduction, flirtation and sex. She also, of course, investigates the specific relationships between Henry and the wives and lovers in his life.

Her premise, that Henry was deliberately private in his dealings with women (witness the lack of “state weddings,” beginning with his very quiet wedding to Katherine of Aragon) changes the way the reader views Henry and his liaisons, both proven and possible. Henry’s interactions with his wives were highly individual and, of course, over time Henry did change. Nevertheless, License makes it possible to trace a consistency in Henry’s attitudes.

Licence also offers some interesting new insights and raises new question about some of the more mysterious aspects of Henry’s intimate life. Perhaps her most dramatic question, all the more surprising because it is both so obvious and yet never asked, is: Who was in Henry’s bed during the seven years when Anne Boleyn was supposedly holding herself aloof? In Licence’s own words, “Did King Henry VIII not have sex at all between the ages of thirty-four and forty-one? If we reject this as unlikely, even ludicrous, considering the medical [yes, sex was good for you] and cultural mores of his day, then just whom was the king sleeping with?”

No definitive answer can be given, but License examines the possibilities and, simply by asking the question, opens new ways at looking at the relationship between Henry and Anne. It also upends our ideas of “romance” and brings home the point that the 16th century was a very different place indeed (or so we hope!)

Six Wives & Many Mistresses does have some drawbacks. Licence sometimes strays far afield into thorough explanations of events such as the diplomatic history surrounding Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon. These events occurred and influenced Henry’s marriages, and are essential to the story. The in-depth treatment given to them, however, sometimes distracts from Licence’s stated purposes. In a similar fashion, Licence’s occasional lapse into overwhelming and exhaustive lists of payments, provisions and fabrics, complete with their monetary value in Tudor currency, left this reader feeling dazed and stunned. A summary by the author, with SOME detail left, would have been a kindness.

These are, however, drawbacks arising from the author’s total immersion in her subject. They are easily forgiven as the same immersion and fascination with Tudor history is shared with the reader.

Rather less forgivable is the ancillary bias to which most biographers of Henry VIII fall prey. Licence’s chapter detailing the fall and execution of Katherine Howard is titled “An Old Fool.” That is undoubtedly true! It masks, however, the true terror of being married to Henry Tudor. This is a man who, not content with divorcing a long-time loving spouse, then did his best to humiliate and hurt her. This is a man who cut off the head of his second wife, a woman he had seemingly adored and pursued for years. This is a man who beheaded his fifth “trophy wife” and then threatened the life of a sixth. “Fool” is far too kind.