The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, by David Starsky


Six Wives of Henry VIII

800 pages is more than enough for a deeply thought out biography… but this one covers six biographies spanning one of the most important periods in English history. The book gets boring only because the author insists on three points so often. 1) Religion is an effort to accumulate power where otherwise there is none; 2) fate is inescapable and people are 100% consistent in their motivations 100% of the time; 3) most historians have the Tudor chronology all wrong because of a lack of sources from the era; and thus, this version of events is in a different order with different motivations. The second point, ironically, is the most annoying, because we are reminded of it 100% of the time.

Plot: Biographical sketches of all six of Henry’s wives. Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Katherine, and Katherine. And even at 800 pages, it only skims the surface of most of these women. The author has a lot of “new” theories and twists on the historical chronology that make for a more spicy story (which reads like a series of dates-gone-wrong on “Saved By The Bell”). Also covers the political intrigue on the Spanish side of things, with many excerpts from ambassadorial letters (alongside tavern ballads).

Positive: Little details like badges and livery colors, plays, ballads, and court jousting tournaments, keep things interesting. And the constant referral to the Spanish ambassador’s perspective makes for a “Cinderella-as-told-by-the-stepmother” twist to everything that is funny, in a morbid sort of way. (okay, so he’s serious, and unlike the Disney reversal books, few people know enough about this story to find the differences. The reason that’s in the positive section; now I want to learn more, so that I can detect more nuances of error in the future!) And really, it IS funny to think of Anne of Cleves desiring to marry Henry again. She had land, money, power and a nice position in court for the first time in her life; he had just beheaded wife #5 for no good reason. No one wanted to marry Henry by then; not even wife #6! Also, most of his sources are not usually quoted in other works, so, again, to read another side of the story can be good.

Negative: Starsky insists that he has new research to break up the existing schools of thought regarding the Tudor era. Therefore, he claims, much of the chronology given to Henry VIII’s reign is wrong, due to partisanship of the historians and the lack of evidence from the period itself. So, the six wives are reinterpreted from David Starsky’s contemporary, atheistic, and “courtly love” (which in revisionist terms means a mix of the gothic ideal of pining away for a “true love” who is married and the hippie “free love” movement) perspective. Its pretty much a reversal of the history, right down to casting Henry’s 5th wife as the “normal” Tudor-era woman and the best wife of the lot. I disagree with all of the above, but on one point especially I would like to make a case; the Tudor period is one of the most well-documented eras in history. Journalism, journaling, record-keeping, and letter-writing all exploded as fashionable activity during the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign. All this correspondence and availability of records naturally saw an increase in espionage; so if English records aren’t enough, there are often French, Austrian, Spanish, and other countries whose spies recorded the same information in letters to their own country, each other, and often other countries as well via ambassadorial instructions and papers. Tudor history is so well known precisely because of the wealth of records available.

Overall: not recommended, except as a counterpoint to a better biography. I enjoyed the facts as a historian, but as a reader, his style is boring. He says what will happen in the beginning of the chapter, then forecasts it again and again and again with words like “inevitably”, and “a palatable feeling of doom”, etc. When the end of the chapter comes along, instead of giving more detail to make the “yeah-the-guy-was-right-again” part interesting, he gives less detail than even we’ve read so far. He needs some writing lessons, the guy does. E.B. White has a book on writing that’s so good its worth just plain reading (now that’s superior writing skills for you!)

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12 thoughts on “The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, by David Starsky

  1. My favorites are the Tudor trilogy by Mary M. Luke (“Catherine the Queen”, “A Crown for Elizabeth”, and “Gloriana”, very long). Also,
    “Catherine of Aragon”, by Garrett Mattingly, is a solid introduction to the era.

    I probably should find a good “basic Tudor history” book to recommend that is less than 300 pages long and not a biography of someone outside the era. 🙂 Mary M. Luke’s work is quite exhaustive, so, seriously detailed works are needed to challenge my understanding and broaden my veiws. I’m reading “King Henry VIII and the Reform-ation” (the religous aspects of the era, very interesting). Previously, it was “Elinor of Acquitane” (origins of court ettiquette), and “The Spider King”, (French history up to the first Tudor king, Henry VII). Its my favorite time period, in case you couldn’t tell.

    I have to say, I’ve read other books on the subject in general (“Two Histories of England”, by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen comes to mind), but none that were really “Tudor”. “Two”, for example, deals mainly with two perspectives on Mary Queen of Scots. There are some details about the era, but very sketchily presented. To make the little books worthwhile, to me, a broader framework to fit the facts into is important.

  2. …and the reason I reveiw only a few of these books for the site is because, I love the era, and once I get going its hardto stop. “Her Majesty’s Spymaster” is a pretty good one I forgot to mention. Other people with releveant historical biographies include: Columbus, Martin Luther (“Here I Stand”), Tyndale, Francis I, Charles V of Spain (if anyone knows of a good biography on him I’d love to find one), Thomas Cramner, and Oliver Cromwell.

    There is a four-person biography by John Piper that includes Cranmer and Calvin and Luther, but I forget the title. Its a good overveiw of the Reformation, and probably has the best one-page-overveiw of the Tudor period I’ve seen, from a reformation perspective anyway.

  3. I had forgotten about the Spymaster book. You had written a review about that before. Soon as I dig myself out of the reading hole I’m in, I’ll have to look up that material.

    Oh and if anyone knows any good books about the history of China and/or India, let me know. I’m looking for ancient history to quasi-modern (early 20th century). Both secular and religious histories.

  4. “Genesis and the Mystery Confucious Never Solved” was pretty good. Like “Two”, above, its incidentally historical (the focus is on the how the linguistics of Mandrin relate to the Old Testament, mostly religious history).

    And a “timeline of world history” book that I borrowed from the library. A massive tome, it had every time period in the world covered with relative accuracy (due to being from the 50s, even King Soloman was featured). That might be helpful for an overveiw that would let you compare Indian and Chinese developments. I was comparing Middle Eastern and European developments, and learned alot about other continents at the same time. Sparse about the details, but an overveiw never hurts.

  5. As another Tudor nut, I was glad to see this book reviewed. Starkley does seem to be a bit arrogant on his subject. I did find his argument that Anne Boylen had Lutheran leanings, very valid. Most historians tend to ignore this or over simplify HVIII’s protestantism as mere lust. Neither of which are the case.

    I would add to the reading list Alison Wier’s books. I find her biographies not only well written, but much more intellectually honest. Her “Wives” and “Children” books are great reading. She pays special attention to detail using everything from laundry lists to love letters to weave a tale well told. Thanks for this review!

  6. I find Anne’s protestant leanings a very interesting subject. Her family, at least, seemed to look on religion as a political tool more than a personal conviction. And it was very convenient that her religious feelings were opposite to those held by her enemies (ie, Catherine’s supporters, the Catholics). Still, she was the first royal to own the Bible in English – openly anyway – and a handwritten copy of Tyndale’s edition at that.

    Nothing as complex as the overthrow of the papacy in England happens for just ONE reason. There was lust after Anne (Henry), desire for power (Henry and nobility), greed for land (Henry, nobility, and gentry), and a genuine desire to return to Biblical grounds for corporate worship and teaching within the church itself all played a major part. Throw in the printing press, the control of the Pope by Charles V, Henry’s extravagent spending at court, the pride England had lost in losing so many wars (diplomatic and otherwise) to France and Spain, the puritan faction within England that had been calling for reform for decades, and the freedom of religious expression gained in the last few hundred years by women in England… no, lust was far from the only cause. 🙂 And also among the less interesting in my mind. I enjoy the politics of the whole situation as much as the religious arguments made.

    Never read Alison Wier; what do you like most about her writing? Her works seem to have a more feminist slant than most. By intellectually honest, do you mean presenting multiple possibilities in one scenario (a trademark of other female writers like Mary M. Luke), or more open to other opinions? Honestly, I havn’t read them because the people who recommended them to me did so on the grounds of hey-cool-lots-of-grapic-premarital-behavior than of historical detail.

  7. Re Alison Weir: It depends on what you mean by “feminist slant.” I think one of the valuable things that feminist scholars have introduced is the possibility of more than one reason behind a scenario. I would urge anyone interested in this period (or any other) to be careful with what they read. You know what might be a temptation or could be harful to you, but no I don’t think Alison Weir is salacious merely for that fact. Rather, she is honest about what went on. She does reprint some of HVIII’s letters to AB which may have some objectionable wording, but that is unavoidable when studying history. Sadly, people do things they shouldn’t. Phillipa Gregory? Graphic! Alison Weir? Not. Being intellectually honest means admitting to the fact that yes, Elizabeth I may actually have been a virgin. It is possible. That is what I meant. I have read almost every book by Weir and find her scholarship much more thorough than Starskey

  8. My favorite authors are the ones who present multiple scenarios. They may be slanted to one, but at least you hear about the other ideas out there. I should probably have qualififed the “feminist slant” to mean “only presents ideas that make the women in the room look good.” For me, intellectual honesty makes almost any veiwpoint worth reading through, just to get a different perspective.

    🙂 Thanks for the warning, though I confess that I am more relaxed about details when someone historical wrote them than when an author uses them today. I wonder if that’s fair. Without documentation, any biography is lost.

  9. Certainly that’s fair. It’s one thing to quote verbatim and another to “interpret” or selectively quote someone. When its coming from a compiled source (i.e. not quoting) as you typically find in a biography, you are relying on someone else’s point of view and interpretation. Instead of interpreting the quote yourself.

    So yeah. Have different standards for each group. Its not really a double standard after all…. 🙂

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