Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Children of Henry VIII - Book Review

The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Ballantine, 1996
Why? I'm obsessed with the Tudors
What now? into the glass case of keepers it goes 

Golden Lines

Edward VI, meanwhile, was growing up fast and excelled at riding, running and shooting, despite increasing short-sightedness.  Consistently striving to emulate Henry VIII, he was becoming more and more like his father.  Hands on hips, he would imitate Henry's straddling pose, and emit 'thunderous oaths' in his high, imperious voice.  By calculated displays of wrath and coldness, he sought to make men fear him as they had his father.  By now a fanatical Protestant, he was fond of lecturing those around him in the articles of his faith, a role which sat oddly with his youth.  His councillors and courtiers were already in awe of him. 'He will be the wonder and terror of the world if he lives,' declared Bishop Hopper that year. 

The watching lords and ladies waited politely for their new queen to compose herself, believing that she wept for the late King, since between sobs she had muttered something about 'so noble a prince.' After a while Jane calmed herself and rose to her feet, bracing herself to make a stand against what she knew to be tyranny.
'The crown is not my right,' she stated flatly, 'and pleaseth me not.  The Lady Mary is the rightful heir.'

Mary was, indeed, a political innocent, incapable of subtlety or the ability to dissemble.  Unlike the other Tudor monarchs, who made a virtue of expediency, she ruled according to the dictates of her conscience, which sometimes made her a formidable person to deal with, for she could be ruthless in carrying out what she believed to be her duty.  But, if her conscience did not point the way, then she suffered agonies of indecision; if it did, she never lacked the courage of her convictions.  An objective point of view was beyond her; she was single-minded to a fault.  The quality she admired most in anyone was goodness, which was a quality she herself could boast.

As far as religion was concerned, Elizabeth kept her own counsel.  We know very little of what she was taught as a child, only that she came under the influence of the Cambridge reformers who tutored her and her brother, and of her Protestant stepmother, Katherine Parr.  Although she herself came to embrace their views, circumstances often dictated that she had to be discreet, so she learned a certain pragmatism with regard to religion.  As a result, she was never a bigot or a fanatic.  She was not even very pious.  As an adult, she commissioned a private prayer in which she gave thanks to God for having 'from my earliest days kept me back from the deep abysses of natural ignorance and damnable superstition, that I might enjoy the great sun of righteousness which brings with its rays life and salvation, while leaving so many kings, princes and princesses in ignorance under the power of Satan'.  On another occasion she displayed an unusually enlightened view for her time when she declared: 'There is only one faith and one Jesus Christ; the rest is a dispute about trifles.'

The Tudor reign is probably one of  the most recognized time periods in British history due to King Henry marrying 6 wives, one of whom was Anne Boleyn, the woman for whom Henry broke away from the Catholic Church and began the Reformation Movement.

Edward, Mary and Elizabeth were the three legitimate children of King Henry VIII  and heirs to the English throne.    Henry divorced his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, mother to the Princess Mary, executed Anne Boleyn, mother of the Princess Elizabeth, and lost Prince Edward's mother, Jane Seymour, in her childbed before marrying 3 more times.  His relationship with each of his daughters was strained due heavily to his failed relationships with their mothers.  Prince Edward, on the other hand, was treated as a King from birth because he was a male heir and because his mother survived her marriage.  The children's relationships with one another were also complicated.  Mary and Elizabeth were brought up in different faiths, Mary in the Catholic faith and Elizabeth as a Protestant.  This issue alone caused strife between them all their lives.  Edward was also partial to the Protestant faith, but as a young King was very much led by his uncles and others of his council.  Each reigned as sovereign with Elizabeth ruling as the last of the Tudors.  Weir presents the children of Henry VIII as children first, their interactions or lack of interaction with each other and their father.  Only Princess Mary was lucky enough to have a few years with her own mother before she was sent away.  King Henry's children, their individual lives greatly influenced by the religious and  political climate during their lifetimes, and the favor of their father as well as the people of England shaped each of them into the person they would become and the kind of sovereign they were to England.

What I Liked

Information on King Edward - because he died so young I've not read much about him...He was young, and his reign was short and controlled by his handlers, so I can see why he might be considered less important than the others...however, Edward was a Protestant.  If he had not ruled before Mary, things could have been very different.

Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth - what an absolutely tough cookie this one was...not only tough but smart...she made mistakes but she learned from them...she didn't get caught up in ridiculous stuff and called her own shots.  I knew this about her as Queen but from Weir's research it becomes apparent that those personality characteristics were hers from the beginning.  I like to think she got the best of both her mother and father...the anger and power from her father and her cunning from her mother.  

Historical documentation - while I love a good piece of historical fiction, I especially appreciate a work like this one that presents history in a narrative form.  By the time I got to Mary's reign, I couldn't put the book down...even though I knew what was going to happen next.  Weir pulls the reader in so that he/she feels like these are regular people somehow.  Weir weaves in comments of documents that still exist, those that don't, lands and castles and who they belong to then and now...but in such a way that it feels part of the story.

The Bibliography - I'm a geek.  I know it.  I just love a good bibliography.  Weir provides the reader with access to the documents she studied, previous books read, and lots and lots of primary research.  Her story is based on artifacts and information that is known, not assumed.  I spent an hour just scouring the Bib.

Jane Grey - Jane Grey's story REALLY gets swept under the rug in history, but Weir doesn't shy away from it.  Jane Grey's story may be one of the saddest, in fact, being a pawn of the greedy adults around her and then paying the ultimate price for crimes that were not her own.

Queen Mary - I don't like Mary, never have.  But, Weir gives more of a glimpse into who Mary was and why she was.  There's a lot of information on Mary, and it seems Weir is very careful in the chapters focusing on Mary as queen to produce evidence rather than accepted rumor or stories that have survived centuries but aren't based on fact.  I don't like Mary any better now that I've read the book, but Mary's life was much more complicated than just her nickname, Bloody Mary, implies.  

What I Didn't Like

Mary - in all fairness as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I've never been a Mary this dislike really has nothing to do with the book really...just my personal opinion.  Weir does present Mary in such a light that the reader does get a lot of inside information on WHY Mary acted as she did.  But, that info is presented in an objective manner...the reader gets to decide for herself.  I have always believed Mary was ill suited to the monarchy...while she had many positive attributes and a strong personality, she was too emotional and too sentimental.  She was, of course, the only child of a loveless marriage, watched her father put her mother away, and then never was able to see her own mother again.  Those events alone would render a person psychologically unbalanced; unfortunately, the psychologically unbalanced don't always make good leaders.  I believe Mary was a religious fanatic...she held hard to her catholic faith because it represented something stable to her....something she never experienced anywhere or anytime else.  She truly believed she was chosen by God to be the one who healed England's religious dissention.  Because of this fanaticism she earned the title Bloody Mary...she reminds me of what we know of terrorists today.  

An overwhelming amount of information - it's not that I didn't like the amount of information....but...if a person is not into this kind of history or doesn't have at least a little background in Tudor history, he/she could easily get lost.  This isn't a read for the faint of heart or for someone who's looking for a skimmed over romanticized view of King Henry's children's lives.

Not enough Elizabeth - Elizabeth has her own books later of course so I'm sure that's why Weir chose to cut off this story at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign, but she's my favorite so I would have liked to see more of her.  

Overall Response

Weir may be one of the most talented historical writers in the world.  So much so that I added her newest book on Mary Boleyn to my Amazon auto ship before it was published; I don't do that often.  Her ability to weave facts into a captivating narrative is incredible.  Most books chocked with factual information are dry and read like a textbook...not these.


Anyone who is interested in British history, the British monarchy, the history of the relationship between church and state, King Edward, Queen Mary, or Queen Elizabeth should read this book...NOW.  


  1. Oooh, this sounds good. I just watched the entire Tudor's series, so I am all over this book!

  2. I am a huge Tudor lover, and want to read this so, so badly! I think that Weir seems to handle her subject with passion and authority, and from the quotes you chose, it seems like I would love this book a lot! Thanks for the excellent review today!

    Happy Holidays!

  3. Great review. I love to read about this time in history too and I am not a Mary fan either!

  4. I definitely need to read one of Weir's books. I like historical fiction, but it has to be well-researched, and have a great narrative flow, which it sounds like is true on both accounts in this book.

    My only fear in starting with this one is that I have not read alot about the Tudors, and thus, as you say, may get a little "lost"

    Hope you have a wonderful holiday Patti!