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

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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)