Books: Keeping your head in the marriage stakes

Marrying a Tudor was a risky pastime. Amanda Foreman on a family that took the art of spouse disposal to new heights; Sisters to the King by Maria Perry Andre Deutsch, pounds 15.99
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Few people know that Henry VIII had two sisters or that, between them, they went through five husbands. Killed, divorced, died, separated (reconciled), survived: the sisters rival their brother in marital upheavals. Perhaps it was in their blood to run through spouses; or perhaps, after having dutifully played the royal marriage game once, Mary and Margaret Tudor were determined to find happiness whatever the cost. Unfortunately, the cost proved to be high.

Maria Perry's previous biography, The Word of a Prince, was a beautifully illustrated and unusual study of Elizabeth I. Her talent for primary source- based narrative - relying on contemporary letters and accounts to link the story - worked particularly well. Perry has a rare ability to convey 16th-century speech through the medium of 20th-century sense and grammar. Writing about Henry VIII's sisters, two much neglected characters, must have seemed an ideal choice.

Mary Tudor was the more beautiful of the two sisters. Tall, fair and athletic like Henry, at 19 she possessed an appetite for love and adventure which was hardly fulfilled by marriage to the aged Louis XII of France. Yet she set out for France in high spirits, buoyed, so the story goes, by the promise from her brother that when Louis died she would have his permission to marry for love.

The morning after the wedding, the old King boasted that he had "crossed the river three times that night and would have done more had he chosen". Mary submitted to his enthusiastic embrace for three more months without demur, and was rewarded for her patience with his sudden death. Fearing that Henry would go back on his word, she secretly married her true love, the Duke of Suffolk, before she returned to England. Henry was so furious that he ruined the couple by demanding huge compensation.

Margaret fared much worse than her sister. There were precious few moments in her life when she was happy. Married at 14 to the priapic James IV of Scotland, she bore him six children - of whom only one, the future James V, survived. Ten years later, in 1513, James IV was slaughtered at the battle of Flodden along with nine-tenths of the Scottish nobility. For the next 15 years, until James V came of age, Scotland was in turmoil. Margaret married again the following year, this time to the Earl of Angus - choosing for love, like her sister only with even less regard for the consequences. Angus alienated most of the remaining nobility and in less than year Margaret had been usurped by the Duke of Albany, a grandson of James II, who ruled in her place as Regent.

Henry VIII was furious at his sister's treatment, but he also blamed her as the architect of her own misfortunes. Although he supported her during her exile in England, he took her husband Angus's side when she discovered his adultery. Unlike Henry, Margaret had little difficulty in obtaining a divorce from the Pope. She promptly married Lord Methven, another Scottish noble.

However, Margaret never ceased to harass Albany and in 1524 the Regent admitted defeat and left Scotland forever. Margaret ruled relatively successfully as Regent until James V reached his majority in 1528. At first unwilling to give up the reins of power, she was gradually worn down by age, lack of money and loneliness. Although eventually reconciled to her third husband, it was a case of faute de mieux and Methven did not behave well towards her. She died in 1541, almost a pauper.

Margaret's struggle with the Scottish nobility is enough to warrant a biography. Although she was overshadowed by Mary's beauty during their lifetime, today it is Margaret who has emerged as the dominant figure. The only problem with this particular Margaret and Mary is that there are other Margarets and Marys - Margaret of Anjou, Mary Queen of Scots, for example - who compete more successfully for our attention. Perry sets herself a difficult task in trying to drag two minor actors to centre-stage.

There is much in Sisters to the King that a student of 16th-century history will appreciate. However, all history books ought to be accessible to the general reader. Perry's focus on testimonial reportage rather than analysis and explanation can sometimes let her down. Despite this, those who read the book from cover to cover will be rewarded.