Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII

Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, by David Starkey

I will admit to a bout of “Tudor fatigue.” A small sampling of recent delightful books includes Thomas Penn’s The Winter King, Philippa Gregory’s The King’s Curse, Leanda de Lisle’s Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder, Anna Whitelock’s The Queen’s Bed, and Chris Skidmore’s The Rise of the Tudors. Individually, each one a treat but, collectively, an intimidatingly high Tower of Tudor!

I found, however, the perfect antidote in a slightly older book, one that cleansed the palate and reinvigorated the appeal – David Starkey’s Six Wives.

David Starkey is not to everyone’s taste. He is highly opinionated, mixes slang into his prose with sometimes disconcerting effects, never admits to uncertainty or ambiguity, and is not above leaping into unsupported conclusions for the sake of the fine turn of a phrase. He is also, however, ever and eternally, passionate, intelligent and vivid.

When opening a Starkey book, prepare yourself for a roller coaster ride! He will enthrall, excite and annoy in equal quantities. Even when the reader concludes that Starkey has gone completely haywire, the resulting mental debate (I wouldn’t dream of engaging in any other kind with Dr. Starkey!) is energizing.

Six Wives is not divided into six tidy portions. Instead, the women are given the weight they had in Henry’s life, with Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn receiving the most attention.

We meet Katharine as she arrives to marry, first, Henry’s older brother Prince Arthur. We then follow her journey – from bride, to widow, to bride again, and to queen. While Katharine learns and grows at each step, it is particularly after she becomes queen that we see her becoming stronger and more accomplished. By the time of the long drawn-out divorce process, the reader is firmly in Katharine’s corner. Starkey brings the embattled queen’s often-overlooked subtlety and keen sense of diplomatic strategy to the forefront. Even knowing that Katharine’s resistance to Henry will ultimately prove futile, every small victory she wins seems a matter for celebration.

Throughout Katharine’s story, she remains its prime focus. The divorce from Henry looms front and center but a key player, Anne Boleyn, long remains offstage. When Anne does come onto the scene, her impact is lessened by Starkey’s lengthy repetition of the minutiae of the politics of the divorce (albeit, from a different angle). His adherence to an extended metaphor of Anne as “huntress” also disguises Anne’s individuality. Anne Boleyn, as the stereotypical and one-dimensional predator of gossip, is not very interesting. Neither is Jane Seymour. This, at least, is simply the result of the almost complete lack of information about Jane as a personality. Starkey’s vivid prose does effectively enliven the “Seymour chapters,” as when he points out that Jane, publicly meek and gentle, “showed no compunction in stepping to the throne over the headless corpse of her rival.”

Starkey’s perfunctory treatment of Henry’s next two wives, however, does justice to neither of the women (Anne of Cleves and Katharine Howard), nor to his own undoubted abilities. He badly underrates the intelligence of Anne of Cleves, the great survivor, who outlived not only Henry but her two successors as well. He is also too quick to characterize Katharine Howard as a “good-time girl.” He redeems himself, however, and brings the book back to an enthralling close with his more attentive and subtle analysis of Henry’s last wife, Katharine Parr.

If my rating were based on only Wife Number One (Katharine of Aragon) and Wife Number Six (Katharine Parr), Six Wives would rate five stars. The erudition, charm and humor Starkey shows in those two stories is, however, far less evident in the stories of Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves and Katharine Howard. Four stars it is!