Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Book 76: The Children of Henry VIII

The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

I've read Weir's previous book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and enjoyed her style. Tudor England is probably one of the more popular periods of history as evidenced by the popularity of Phillipa Gregory, Showtime's The Tudors, and a variety of movies about Elizabeth to name just a few, and I too fall into the trend. One thing that was kind of cool is that I was reading this book while in Scotland, and there were mentions of Mary, Queen of Scots, and John Knox. But anyway, on to the actual book.

The book wasn't actually a straight biography of the "children" of Henry VIII. The book might be more properly titled the heirs of Henry VIII since Weir also deals quite a bit with Jane Grey, Henry's great niece through his sister Mary and good friend, Brandon Suffolk. Weir focuses on the time between Henry VIII's death and the end of his reign and the beginning of Elizabeth's. I of course knew all the basics: Edward becomes king, very Protestant, followed by Jane Grey for nine days who was really just the victim of her family's ambition, followed by "Bloody" Mary, the Catholic one, until finally Elizabeth takes over at her death. Alright, I knew quite a few more details than that, but I didn't know just how many intrigues and how much plotting was going during everyone's reigns. I also didn't realize that the man originally entrusted with guardianship of King Edward was sentenced to death. Weir deals a lot with what was going on at the courts, the relationships between the siblings and how one sibling's reign affected the others. Of course, it's hard to discuss much of a relationship since they all lived in different houses, were rather far removed in age, and had certain constraints imposed on them due to rank. Mary basically hated Elizabeth: she was popular (Mary was at one point until the burnings started), she was Protestant, and oh yeah, there was that thing with their mothers . . .

One of the things I enjoy about Weir is that for the most part she is sympathetic to all her subjects but also tries to give a balanced view of them. Do I necessarily like Edward? Not really. Actually, my issue with Edward, Jane and Mary was the same in all cases - they were all so fanatical about their religious beliefs. Obviously, the times were different back then, but I definitely don't get their complete and utter focus and devotion to religion - their subjects would have been a lot happier if their rulers had cared a little bit less about their spiritual well being and more about their physical. However, at least, Edward and Jane had an excuse: they were young; in ways, people can be less tolerant in their youth. Mary, on the other hand, was just kind of naive.

Another thing that would have driven me crazy at that time are the names. John Dudley, also known as Earl of Warwick who was then promoted to Duke of Northumberland. He was referred to by all three names at different times in the book. It's easy to lose track of who's who in history as they gain and lose titles and are then referred to by them. Especially when a title suddenly has a new family as its owner. I was also surprised to learn that Norfolk (the same one that was related to Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard - you figure after that many beheaded relatives, your life would be in danger) was still alive when Mary took the throne. And in fact rode out to battle at 80.

Overall, I'd say this book is definitely a good place to begin for anyone interested in a comprehensive history of the years between Henry and Elizabeth.

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