When I was a senior in high school I wrote my senior paper for Mrs. Holloway’s English Literature class on The Wives of Henry VIII. I have always loved history so this was a natural choice for me. And I guess I had never heard of anyone who had six wives!! Most certainly this was not a comprehensive report or it would have been at least a novel.
I came across a little rhyme that I have always remembered. “King Henry the Eighth to six wives was wedded, one died, one survived, two divorced, and two beheaded.” Makes it easy to remember the count. Recently I was talking with my granddaughter Rachel about it as we are both reading Philippa Gregory’s amazing novels about the Tudors and presently about the Boleyn girls.
Rachel said she learned “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” However you remember them those were their fates. Of course Henry’s quest was actually not for a woman, which was no problem, but for a legitimate son, which apparently was! His first and only long time love Katherine of Aragon gave birth to one child, the Princess Mary. He had at least two sons but not by a Queen so they were not heirs to the throne. In The Other Boleyn Girl I learned that Anne’s teenaged younger sister Mary was Henry’s mistress for several years and was the mother of one of the sons. Henry’s problem in dealing with this issue was the fact that he could not get permission from the Church to divorce Katherine so he could remarry. He eventually solved this dilemma by breaking away from the Church in Rome and establishing the Church in England. The most excellent thing about this new entity was that Henry was the head of it and so could direct its decisions. His first major decision was to allow himself to be divorced.
In the process of change monasteries and abbeys were converted into great houses for the wealthy, medicine gardens were dug over for flowers and the farms that fed the poor were converted into parkland for hunts. They tore down shrines, forbade the lighting of candles to remember loved ones and decreed certain wording for prayers.
Quickly he married Anne Boleyn and thus began his odyssey in the field of matrimony. Gregory makes all of this history come alive. At the books’ conclusions she has a “Conversation” pointing out the actual facts used in constructing each novel. Besides history it is obvious that she has also extensively researched the way people lived, behaved and spoke during the early 1500s. The court intrigue, the English castles and countryside, the elaborate dress and entertainment - are treated with such realism that you feel you are present.
I know of course how this story ended but found myself reluctant to put down the book before reaching the end. The Other Boleyn Girl focuses on the Boleyn family that also included a very attractive son. All upper class children seemed to have been used solely for “moving up” in the world. The more favor a child found with the court, the more titles and land and money the parents were awarded. And the more grandeur they experienced as favorites in the Court of Henry VIII. A favorable marriage meant a favorable life for all concerned. So the beautiful Boleyn offspring were shamelessly marketed.
Even as we reach the inevitable end of Mary’s and Anne’s favor at the court, other families are training their young daughters in the tricks of the trade and parading them before the court. ... and praying that they have infinite abilities to produce sons. By now Henry is getting old and enormously fat with an open wound on his leg that never healed, so romance is pretty much out of the question.
Gregory has written a number of these “compulsively readable” dramas depicting the Tudor court and mad King Henry VIII’s wanton destruction of his country and his killing of thousands of his subjects. Queen Katherine of Aragon (1) and Anne Boleyn’s (2) daughter, Queen Elizabeth each have their own books. The one I will read next is The Boleyn Inheritance, about Anne of Cleves (4) and Katherine Howard (5). Jane Seymour (3) is portrayed in The Other Boleyn Girl but Gregory has yet to depict Catherine Parr (6), Henry’s widow. Anyone who enjoys historical fiction needs to add Philippa Gregory to their list of authors to read. Completely captivating.
Margaret Partee can be reached at email@example.com.