Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Jane Seymour

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen, by Alison Weir, is the third in a series of specially commissioned books which together tell the story of Henry VIII’s wives, from their point of view. Each instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised account based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. The author is a well regarded historian and explains at the end of each book why she presented key moments in her subjects’ lives the way she did. Jane Seymour served both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn as a maid-of-honour during the turbulent years when the latter replaced the former as queen so there is a degree of overlap in the first three books in the series. Jane left little written evidence of her life and thoughts so the author has constructed a tale based on interpretation and informed invention.

The story opens when Jane is ten years old and attending a lavish dinner at her family home, Wulf Hall in Wiltshire, to celebrate the marriage of her elder brother, Edward, to Catherine Fillol. The match is regarded as a good one by both families and within a year they have had a child. By then their initial happiness has soured for disturbing reasons. Jane’s mother gave birth to ten children but not all survived into adulthood. The precariousness of life, at a time when doctors could offer little more than herbal infusions as remedies, plays a key role in the ongoing narrative. The coming years bring outbreaks of devastating plague to England as well as the tragedies of royal babies not carried to term. The fecundity of the Seymours may well have been part of Jane’s appeal to the king when he grew disillusioned with Anne Boleyn.

The timeline jumps forward to when Jane is eighteen years old. She wishes to be a nun but does not cope well with the hardships required by this life so returns home. Her siblings are making their way in the world and she starts to look beyond Wulf Hall which is no longer the happy, family home of her childhood. She is pleased to be granted the opportunity to serve at the royal court in London.

Jane soon discovers that court life is a hotbed of intrigue and gossip, the factional rivalry an unwelcome contrast to the peaceful existence she associates with Wulf Hall. Anne is approaching her zenith and Jane accompanies Katherine when she is required to leave Henry and his palaces as the royal marriage is annulled. Jane is a staunch supporter of the church so is appalled by the ecclesiastical reforms being proposed and managed by an increasingly influential Cromwell. When Katherine is stripped of her household in an attempt to force her to comply with the king’s wishes, the Seymours insist that Jane not waste the costly court place they provided. She is required to return to London and serve Anne.

Jane is witness to the distress caused by the new queen’s miscarriages. Despite Anne’s suffering, Jane despises her for what she has done to Katherine. When Henry starts to take notice of Jane she chooses not to reject his advances as she does not consider him lawfully married. In this she is encouraged by her ambitious brothers and a growing band of supporters eager to do away with Anne and reinstate Katherine’s daughter, Mary, in the succession.

The bare bones of the story are, of course, well known. In many ways the plot is slow moving as Jane’s participation and influence on key events are minor until close to the end of her life. What this enables is a detailed portrayal of life in Tudor England from the point of view of a noble but peripheral family rising through the echelons of the royal court. Clothes, food, and the day to day preoccupations of sixteenth century, privileged women are vividly presented.

Jane is depicted as somewhat gauche but aware of the risks she is taking in becoming involved with Henry. Her loyalty to her family is key in the decisions she makes. Having witnessed how ruthless Henry could be to his wives she is aware of the precariousness of her position. Although wishing to promote the causes her supporters espouse she is mostly circumspect in her dealings with the king who has little patience with any who will not bend as he wills.

The author has chosen not to ascribe Jane’s death to the traditionally accepted puerperal fever. Her reasoning for this is compelling. By this time Henry was approaching fifty, suffering from leg ulcers and putting on weight. The couple’s supposed love for each other is shown to have serious caveats. It seems unlikely that the life Jane dreamed of would have been possible even had she lived.

Although the truly historic events are the same in all three of the books so far released in this series, the changing points of view provide new perspective and depth. This is an accessible and well structured account of a queen who, despite providing Henry’s longed for prince, is rarely granted as much attention as her predecessor. It provides an intimate window into the rarefied yet ruthless Tudor world.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Advertisements

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anne Boleyn

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession, by Alison Weir, is the second in a series of specially commissioned books each of which tells the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view (I reviewed Katherine of Aragon, here). Like the first, this instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. As the author explains at the end, “The scenes in this novel are imagined, but they are not improbable.”

The story of Anne Boleyn has been told many times and from many directions both in books and on film. Each offers a slightly different take on a woman for whom relatively little personal historical detail remains. There are portraits, poetry, letters from the king, and occasional mentions in writing by her contemporaries. These have been woven into the various accounts with which those who have an interest will be familiar. All of this is to say that I was already aware of much of the story being told over these five hundred pages. I needed some fresh angle to hold my attention.

The story opens at Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle in Kent when she is twelve years old and learns that she is to be sent away to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. Anne is delighted by this news, especially as she is gaining preferment over her older sister, Mary. Her only regret is that she will be separated from her beloved brother, George.

Anne spends the next nine years serving in royal courts around northern Europe where she perfects her French language, manners and dress, and learns to play the game of courtly love. She is influenced by the scholars who visit with her mistresses, many of whom espoused enlightened views for the time on the role of women and the church. These views did not preclude the court gentlemen from attempting to have their way where the ladies were concerned. This is presented in what felt a very modern voice.

When war between France and England is threatened Anne returns home where she is found a place at the court of Queen Katherine. Here she falls in love but is thwarted. She is also noticed by Henry who starts his pursuit of her affections.

It took around seven years for Henry to find a way to marry Anne. This period is covered in around two hundred pages during which I struggled to maintain engagement. Naturally Anne changes over this difficult period in her life. She has chosen to eschew the love of others for the potential power of a match with a king.

There are other events to consider, especially those affecting her family. Anne’s regard for George is tested and her increasingly arrogant behaviour gains her enemies. She appears to do little of note while waiting other than call down vengeance on those who will not actively support her cause.

Once Anne is pregnant the story picks up pace although her inability to bear a living son is well known. As Henry seeks his entertainments elsewhere Anne becomes a solitary figure, widely disliked and with her hard fought for power on the wane. Anne’s enemies may now treat her as she did others.

Facing death, Anne takes on a piety that had not previously been obvious. I suspect this is not unusual. I balked at the portrayal of Anne’s decapitation. The Author’s Note at the end, especially on this, was interesting to read.

The author, a respected historian, offers new angles to consider in a number of areas which I will not spoil by detailing. She is an accomplished writer and the story flows. What it lacked, as far as I was concerned, was enough new material to maintain my interest. Given the book’s length, in places I needed more.

For fans of historical fiction this is a carefully researched and nicely written addition to the story of Anne Boleyn. I put my sometimes less than positive response above down to the number of other accounts of this queen that I have both watched and read. I do still look forward to the remaining instalments in this series. I know less about their protagonists.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Katherine of Aragon

sixtudorqueens

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon – The True Queen, by Alison Weir, is the first in a series of specially commissioned books each of which will tell the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view. This first installment is a mighty six hundred pages long. Whilst being written using easily readable and accessible language it still took some time to work through. It is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, but literary licence has been taken to add emotion. This queen may have been badly used but this was the lot for noble women at the time. I struggled to warm to her, especially later in her life.

The book opens with the arrival in Plymouth of the fifteen year old Infanta Catalina, a princess of Spain. Instructed by her future father-in-law, King Henry VII, to forget Spain, she receives a rapturous welcome from the people of England, eager to catch a glimpse of their future queen. She is introduced to a sickly Arthur, Prince of Wales and her betrothed. They marry and move to Ludlow Castle where he dies.

Events in Europe at this time conspire to put Katherine’s future in jeapordy. Marriages between the children of the nobility were political and financial in nature. Daughters were required to heed the wishes of their fathers and then husbands. Katherine had been raised to comply and, despite occasional glimpses of temper, did so willingly. A devout Catholic (her parents founded the notorious Spanish Inquisition) she regarded this compliance as ordained by God.

The facts of this period of Tudor history are well known. The author focuses on evoking the life of a lady in the English Court. Through the years of waiting Katherine writes many letters begging her relatives abroad for assistance. This was all that was in her power to do and she does it continually throughout her life. When action was taken that favoured her it was because it also favoured those who acted. I wondered at the risks she sometimes took to write the letters when it seemed obvious she was rarely more than a pawn.

Henry VII dies and Katherine marries his remaining son, becoming Queen beside Henry VIII. Their marriage was happy except for the continual deaths of their newly born children. During these years the story describes the royal couple’s clothing, accommodation, food, entertainments, and their movement between grand houses. They had a vast army of servents and followers, spending lavishly and favouring their own.

Katherine was a useful and beloved queen until she reached menopause without producing a male heir. Henry had taken mistresses over the years and had at least one son whom he recognised and promoted, much to his wife’s chagrin. When it became clear that she could no longer give him a son he conspired to set her aside. He was most put out when she would not do as he asked and enter a nunnery, his strong sense of entitlement coming to the fore.

The ascendancy of Anne Boleyn, as seen through Katherine’s eyes, is of interest but I found the description of these later years overlong. Katherine was effectively a prisoner, retreating into piety and much weeping. It was hard to retain interest when little happened to her other than suffering for her intransegence. She did not seem able to understand her situation despite having lived half a century in the midst of the corruption and favouritism of the royal court.

What the author has succeeded in doing is to make me want to read the next instalment, to see how this same history will look through Anne Boleyn’s eyes. There is also mention of Jane Seymour, the Parr and Howard families. There is much to come.

Life in the sixteenth century was obviously very different to today, particularly for women, although the machinations of the wealthy demonstrates that there are also many parallels. There is only occasional mention of those outside of the nobility or church. Perhaps, as now, they were of little interest to the powerful except as war fodder or tax generators.

In some ways this telling of a well known story felt simplified despite the detail. It lacked the nuances of, say, Wolf Hall. However, the idea of looking at the same period of history through six pairs of similarly ranked female eyes is intriguing. I hope to have the opportunity to read the remaining books from the series in due course.

catherineofaragon

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.