BOOK REVIEW / Royal marriages in trouble: 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' - Antonia Fraser: Weidenfeld, 20 pounds

HENRY VIII's marital adventures have been discussed often enough, and Lady Antonia Fraser does not really say anything new. However, she has tried to look upon the events and the people involved from the point of view of the women in the story, an angle of vision which merits respect.

While she tries to be fair to them all, she comes up in the main with the traditional images. Catherine of Aragon remains the true and loyal wife who suffers her fate with patient strength and maintains her faith in God and her church. Anne Boleyn is once again the self-willed and reckless adventuress who loses the king's affection by her outbursts of ill-temper. (Here Lady Antonia treads delicately and with some success around the violent debates at present raging around the second queen's history and character.)

Jane Seymour remains as colourless as ever, but that image is interestingly explained as a consequence of her judicious management of her unexpected opportunities. (Lady Antonia notes the well-known fact that Jane remained in the king's affection until his death, but fails to allow for the likelihood that this was due to the queen's early death, which saved her from the wayward disillusionment which normally overtook Henry if his wives lived on.) Katherine Howard is the foolish and infantile sex kitten of whom we have heard before, and Katherine Parr once more comes across as the sensible wife who regularly humbles herself in order to escape her predecessors' fates. Only about Anne of Cleves does the author say new and interesting things, simply by taking seriously the one wife whom historians have usually passed over.

Lady Antonia clearly wishes to be fair to everybody and allows us to see some of the less attractive features even of the women she respects. She regularly emphasises male dominance in Tudor society, though one may question whether men's superior attitude to women deserves to be called misogynistic, a term here over-used. Unfortunately, she comes near to treating King Henry as typical. That he was not: from first to last he was a dangerous and appalling animal, and the physical decline from splendid adolescence to bloated and sick old age did not signify a similar decline in his character, which was deplorable from the first. Complete selfishness and the ruthless pursuit of private advantage always marked a man who invariably discovered that God and his conscience conveniently backed his desires.

True, the absence of an heir and the presence of rival claimants to the throne constituted a great political problem needing repeated attention, but only Henry VIII solved all his problems by killing - killing innocent wives and loyal servants - on the simple principle that the best way out of difficulties was to sacrifice scapegoats. The fact that he was handsome in his youth and intelligent all his life should not disguise a horribleness which piled up corpses in his day and problems for a century after.

Lady Antonia has read widely and energetically, though not always wisely: some of the works she relies on deserve less respect than she bestows upon them. In particular, she should have been less trusting in the face of the heavily biased and often quite unreliable reports of the imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys. Inevitably, she has missed some not unimportant writings, a gap which mainly affects parts of the book that deal with matters at best marginal to the wives' tale; she is poorly informed, for example, on such things as the Pilgrimage of Grace or the problems of Archbishop Cranmer.

Positive errors are few, especially if one allows that a reference to a mysterious 'day stamp' probably reflects a sub-editorial misreading of the familiar dry stamp. For the rest, erroneous statements predictably gather around Thomas Cromwell. He, who in his loyalty deliberately avoided leaving Wolsey's service before the cardinal's death, is made the king's servant ahead of that event; his father, a rackety alehouse-keeper and woolcarder, is called a wealthy citizen; and the author revives the old canard according to which he was the first person to suffer death by attainder without trial, a method supposedly invented by himself. Well, Cromwell has survived worse treatment, and at least we are spared the customary long denunciations of the man who destroyed the monasteries.

The chief trouble with this lavishly produced book is its inordinate length, which in great part results from repetition and a relentless description of court life and ceremonial, all tending to be treated in a somewhat gossipy manner reminiscent of the Tatler. However, a last chapter which carefully and feelingly traces the post mortem fates of Henry's unhappy wives restores a properly solemn note.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas