7 of the Best Books Exploring Henry VIII’s Six Wives

Anne Boleyn; Anne of Cleves; Catherine Parr; Catherine Howard; Jane Seymour; Katherine of Aragon/Wikimedia Commons

The culture of my childhood was one lacking women role models and heroines. Trips to the library offered shelves and shelves of biographies of men, but I can still remember the exemplary women who were my limited choices: Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marie Curie, and Queen Elizabeth I. I read multiple kids’ books about each of them, but longed to find other women who were “important” enough to deserve biographies. I eventually gave up, and read books about kings, explorers, and soldiers.

But, in reading books about Henry VIII, I discovered the world of his six wives. Suddenly, there were six additional women to read about. What I didn’t realize until I got to college was that the accounts I read in childhood stories were heavily influenced by their writers. In the stories I read, Katherine of Aragon emerged as a bitter old woman who refused to grant her husband a divorce. Anne Boleyn was the ambitious and seductive manipulator, who forced Henry to marry her in order to become queen, but then turned into a shrew as soon as she had a ring on her finger. Jane Seymour was the tender, kind virgin who performed the heroic deed of giving Henry his son, but who then died because she was just not strong enough to survive childbirth. Anne of Cleves was the ugly woman who Henry was tricked into marrying because her portrait painter portrayed her as beautiful. Katherine Howard was too young and too frivolous, and had lost her head for reasons that were never fully explained. And Catherine Parr, his last wife, was the matronly caretaker who provided Henry with comfort and then nursed him as he died.

I was so obsessed with the stories of the six wives that I talked friends into play-acting Henry’s court with me. One of my favorite activities with friends was to draw pictures of the queens, seeing who could decorate her version of the lavish gowns best. Anne Boleyn was my favorite of the wives. I marveled at how a woman who had only been queen for three years (“Anne of a Thousand Days”) could have had such an impact on English history, and how the unwanted daughter she presented to Henry would turn out to be one of England’s greatest monarchs. I wondered how her daughter had reconciled herself to the idea that her father had executed her mother. When PBS aired dramas such as “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and “Elizabeth R,” I talked my family into watching them.

As I grew up, my understanding of the world expanded and I became a committed feminist, but this new understanding did not intersect with my days of playing “Six Wives” with my friends. It meant that many of my old attitudes toward Henry’s six wives were encased in amber. I didn’t really think about them as I grew up, so I never re-thought how they had been portrayed in those books.

The first time I mentioned Katherine of Aragon to a professor, saying that I never understood why she just didn’t grant the divorce, the professor jokingly called me a “heretic,” which shocked me into realizing that if I had been born Catholic, I would have seen Katherine as a true believer who had been betrayed by her husband. Flipping the narrative made me see Katherine in a whole new light, and reading further about her life revealed her to be the true warrior daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand who led an army in the north of England while Henry was in France playing soldier.

I also discovered that the six wives didn’t have much of a place in academic historiography. In the standard histories, Henry’s divorce was important because of his break with the Church of Rome, but the women he married were not. In the latter half of the twentieth century, historians became more interested in how non-royals lived, and discovered entire worlds in which women had occupied a variety of social positions.  The definition of “power” began to shift spheres other than the political, where women might be found. And “gender” itself became a site of contestation, such that “gender” could be used as a term to examine structures of power, while “sex” was the way in which bodies were marked male or female. All of these new ways of thinking meant that my interests in history went elsewhere. I was no longer all that interested in kings and queens. Biographies of women offer choices from different continents, different races, different eras, and different classes.

But I have found that deep inside me, my interest in these six women, and other women associated with the Tudor court, has never really gone away. I’m still a sucker for a television drama, and I’ve watched every single episode of “The Tudors,” and the television adaptation of Wolf Hall. When I heard that Alison Weir’s new ambitious project was to write a historical novel about each of the six wives in turn, I admit to being thrilled, and now that three of these books have been completed, it seemed like a good time to recommend them, and some other books about Henry’s marriages.

Perhaps I didn’t look in the right places, but I found that books about Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr are difficult to find, and more likely to be included in group stories about all of the wives. (I have also found that there is no standardized spelling for any of the Catherines, and multiple spellings for each queen exist.) So I will look forward to reading the new books by Weir as they emerge. And, if readers have favorite books I’ve not mentioned about the queens, I invite you to post titles in the comments.

  • The cover of the book Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

    Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

    A Novel

    While many stories about Katherine of Aragon begin at the end of her marriage to Henry when she was battling his assertions that she had not been a virgin when she married him, Weir takes readers back to Katherine’s days as a child. She was the beloved daughter of two of Europe’s greatest (and ruthless) rulers, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabela of Castile, and readers see how their parentage infused Katherine with a militant spirit. Katherine was deeply devout, and she saw Henry’s desire to divorce her as a threat to the Catholic Church. It became so when he declared the Church of England an independent church and himself its head. But Katherine was also a warrior, as she demonstrated when she led Henry’s troops in a battle in the north of England while Henry was in France. She suffered multiple miscarriages, and the of her two-month-old son, who would have been Henry IX. Her daughter, Mary, was her one comfort during Henry’s campaign against her, and his treatment of Mary and her mother when Katherine was dying was shameful.

  • The cover of the book Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession

    Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession

    A Novel

    Anne Boleyn was an intelligent woman whose life had been full of court intrigue even before she met Henry. She was raised in France, at the French court, where her father had a position. Weir provides readers with plenty of narrative about Anne’s days in France, and how they influenced her ways of thinking and being. When Henry met her, after he had already made Anne’s sister, Mary, his mistress, he was intrigued by her “French” ways. Anne saw how badly her sister was treated, even after Mary had given the king a son, and refused Henry. She was surrounded by an ambitious coterie of men who wanted powerful positions for themselves at court, and on occasion Anne is seen as almost a victim of her family’s cunning. But Weir restores power to Anne by making her a student of the Reformation writings of Luther, which she used to convince Henry that the only way he would ever be free of the Pope’s meddling in English affairs was to separate himself from Rome. Weir provides a view of Anne that will counteract many of the stories that have been told about her last days.

  • The cover of the book Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen

    Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen

    A Novel

    Jane Seymour has always been presented as Henry’s “sainted” wife, the one who Henry would have loved the rest of his days if she had not died in childbirth along with her son, Edward VI. But Weir gives readers a Jane who is much more interesting than the milksop Anne Boleyn mocked. Weir reveals a pregnancy that I have never seen mentioned elsewhere. She also shows a Jane of great strength, and with a strong understanding of the way the world worked, but in having that knowledge, was terrified of losing Henry’s favor. She had a realistic view of her husband and of how he tolerated failure. It’s a view of Jane that has not been written before. But Weir also offers original theories about what happened to Jane in her last days, and she argues for a cause of Jane’s death that was not due to puerperal fever.

  • The cover of the book The Autobiography of Henry VIII

    The Autobiography of Henry VIII

    Margaret George is renowned for her doorstop novels that examine the lives of historical figures in meticulously researched detail and page-turning prose. Prior to her books about Elizabeth I; Mary, Queen of Scots; Nero; and Cleopatra, George gave readers a riotous novel about the life of Henry VIII, as told by Henry’s fool, Will. Here, readers meet all of Henry’s queens as Will recounts colorful anecdotes about his master’s marriages and many affairs.

    Will’s stories of his master portray Henry as the “victim” of scheming men at court, men such as Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and Thomas More. Henry also sees himself as the ensnared prey of Anne Boleyn, which is at odds with the forceful man who executed scores of his enemies, broke with the Pope in order to found his own religion, and invaded France more than once to take back territory that had been lost.

  • The cover of the book Wolf Hall

    Wolf Hall

    This is the first book in Mantel’s planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith. As a boy, he was the target of his father’s rage until he ran away to live with his sister and her husband. After he grew up, he left for the European continent, where he served as a mercenary. In England, he trained as a lawyer before serving Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s most important minister. But, in the late 1520s, Henry’s desire to divorce Katherine and to marry Anne Boleyn resulted in Wolsey’s downfall, and in the monarch noticing Cromwell. Cromwell presented Henry with the strategy that enabled him to divorce Katherine and to marry Anne in 1533.

  • The cover of the book Bring Up the Bodies

    Bring Up the Bodies

    This is the second book in the Cromwell trilogy, in which Anne Boleyn is a huge figure. At first, she treats Cromwell as her enemy, blaming him for the delay in marrying Henry. But after the birth of a daughter, Elizabeth, and two miscarriages, Anne falls out of favor with Henry. Cromwell’s machinations allow Henry to charge Anne with treason. For fans of historical fiction who revel in the details of court intrigue, Mantel provides an almost minute-by-minute accounting of the events that led to Anne’s downfall.

    What makes both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies so good — both were awarded the Man Booker Prize — is Mantel’s deep understanding of the activities at court. She provides details of minutia that might not seem important when first read, but which will prove to be important in later scenes. She also humanizes Cromwell, who has gone down in history as a “Machiavellian” villain, a man who saw his role as one of dedication to his king and ensuring his sovereign stayed in power. In such a worldview, the sacrifice of bodies was a necessity.

  • The cover of the book The Wives of Henry VIII

    The Wives of Henry VIII

    The Wives of Henry VIII is perhaps the most “gossipy” of the books about Henry’s wives, but when published in the early 1990s, it was one of the first books to look at Henry’s marriages from the point of view of his wives. Fraser offers some depth of detail about Henry’s least known queen, Anne of Cleves, but still seems to rely on traditional views of wives like Katherine of Aragon, who he portrays as patient, brave, and willing to suffer for her faith. For a young girl like me who didn’t understand why Katherine Howard was executed, the details of the young woman’s court intrigues makes it clear that she did cheat on Henry, which he would have found unforgivable despite his numerous mistresses and dalliances.