Typically the women who married Henry VIII are seen, as the subtitle of this book suggests, purely as adjuncts to the King and are remembered best for the way he disposed of them: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived as the rhyme goes. This book aims to flesh out these women with each telling her own story, and written by a different female YA author, with some short interjections from Henry, written by M. T. Anderson.
What becomes apparent from each story is the powerlessness of royal and aristocratic women in the 16th century. Each were offered up to the king to secure advantages for their families, whether British or European. Once married, their sole purpose was to provide a son and heir. Those that failed to do that were either divorced or executed for treason. The only two queens who seemed to get anything out of their marriages were Anna of Cleves, who seemed to be quite happy to be divorced and left to her own devices, and Kateryn Parr, who had a taste of power while Henry was off fighting wars in France and then nearly overstepped herself but, in the end, outlived her husband.
In this novel, Henry is written as a bragging oblivious Trumpian figure, manipulated by the powerful men he raises up to run the country according to his whims. He believes he is irresistible to women, even when his suppurating ulcers make him stink and he is so vast he has to be lowered onto his bed by a team of servants. So it follows naturally that when his two youngest and prettiest wives – shrewd Anne Boleyn and party girl Catherine Howard – are suspected of adultery he has them executed.
While most of this will be familiar, to an extent at least, to British teens, it is almost unknown to American ones (I say this having done a completely unscientific survey by asking six students at my school what they knew about Henry VIII). This means it really has to entice and entertain on its own merits and I’m afraid it doesn’t quite pull that off. The first story, which needs to be juicily intriguing, just isn’t. Unfortunately, Henry’s first wife, the dutiful and deeply religious Katherine of Aragon (written by Candace Fleming) is not particularly interesting. The poor women gave birth to seven children of which only one daughter, later Queen Mary, survived. Once she is no longer able to bear children, Henry is desperate to move on, and desperate to bed the seductive Anne Boleyn. The machinations of the divorce, which entails Henry breaking from Rome and the Catholic Church, just don’t make for very good reading and Katherine comes across as rather dull and dry.
The remaining stories are a mixed bag but steadily improve. Anne (by Stephanie Hemphill), writing from her prison in the Tower of London, gets things going a bit more but we are with her in her last days, which tinge the vibrancy of her life with melancholy. The meek and mousy Jane Seymour (by Lisa Ann Sandell) is given just a hint of malice, but her story is short and ends with her dying after giving birth to the much-desired son, the sickly Edward. The novel really picks up with Anna of Cleves (by Jennifer Donnelly), as her pragmatic outlook on her lot gives her a much more sympathetic contemporary feel. Poor Catherine Howard (by Linda Sue Park) is bracingly sexual and, unsatisfied by her old and virtually impotent husband, tragically looks elsewhere for satisfaction. Finally the survivor, Kateryn Parr (by Deborah Hopkinson) relishes her own intellect and is able to outsmart the Bishops who feel she is too much a Reformist and a bad influence on the KIng.
The impact of the political and religious changes of the era are much more far-reaching, though less sizzling, than the fact that Henry married 6 times, though Henry’s desire for a male heir was what catalyzed it. Henry’s split from Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the battle between the different wings of the Church all had more serious consequences for the country and for Europe.
To be honest, I can’t see this book getting much traction with American teens as it’s an obscure bit of history that just isn’t that rivetingly written.