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The Mistresses of Henry VIII by Kelly Hart

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Seventeen-year-old Henry VIII was ‘a youngling, he cares for nothing but girls and hunting’. Over the years, this did not change much. Henry was considered a demi-god by his subjects, so each woman he chose was someone who had managed to stand out in a crowd of stunning ladies. Looking good was not enough (indeed, many of Henry’s lovers were considered unattractive); she also had to have something extra to keep the king’s interest. And Henry’s women were every bit as intriguing as the man himself.”

REVIEW: I’ve had this book sitting on my Amazon wishlist for ages, so when I saw how cheap the second-hand copies were I decided to finally give in and order it. I’ve read  quite a bit on Henry VIII’s more famous mistresses, particularly Mary Boleyn, but I enjoyed learning more about some of his other mistresses, such as Anne Stafford and Bessie Blount, and was fascinated in uncovering those whom I didn’t even know existed. This book was clearly well-researched and the rumours and gossip surrounding possible mistresses of Henry’s was clearly lifted from primary documents, giving it true authenticity. My only criticism of the book, however, is that I feel the title can be a little misleading – the book did, in fact, focus quite heavily on Henry VIII’s wives as well as his mistresses. This is something that Hart explains clearly in the introduction, as she puts forward her intention to focus on all of the women of Henry’s romantic life, which would include his wives as well as his mistresses. In this case, I feel that the title should perhaps have reflected this direction of study more obviously; however, this did not spoil the book for me and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and learning more about the extramarital affairs of Henry VIII.

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Katherine Howard by Josephine Wilkinson

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Katherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII and cousin to the executed Anne Boleyn. She first came to court as a young girl of fourteen, but even prior to that her fate had been sealed and she was doomed to die. She was beheaded in 1542 for crimes of adultery and treason, in one of the most sensational scandals of the Tudor age. The traditional story of Henry VIII’s fifth queen dwells on her sexual exploits before she married the king, and her execution is seen as her just dessert for having led an abominable life. However, the true story of Katherine Howard could not be more different. Far from being a dark tale of court factionalism and conspiracy, Katherine’s story is one of child abuse, family ambition, religious conflict and political and sexual intrigue. It is also a tragic love story. A bright, kind and intelligent young woman, Katherine was fond of clothes and dancing, yet she also had a strong sense of duty and tried to be a good wife to Henry. She handled herself with grace and queenly dignity to the end, even as the barge carrying her on her final journey drew up at the Tower of London, where she was to be executed for high treason. Little more than a child in a man’s world, she was the tragic victim of those who held positions of authority over her, and from whose influence she was never able to escape.”

REVIEW: There a very few biographies out there on Katherine Howard, and, more importantly, of the ones that are out there very few of them are actually very good. Wilkinson has done extensive research into Katherine Howard and interpreted the sources in a new and different way, uncovering new findings and creating a fascinating, sensitive and insightful biography that gives the reader a real sense of connection to Katherine herself. Wilkinson’s findings show Katherine to be a young girl whose naivety led to her being used and abused by older and more experienced men, chiefly her childhood music teacher, Henry Mannock, and her famed lover Francis Dereham. Both of these men, in Wilkinson’s eyes, used the pretty and vulnerable Katherine as a kind of plaything, and Dereham at least seems to have held their intimacy over her for her entire life, possibly using it as a form of blackmail when she became Queen, as did many of the women whom she had viewed as her girlhood friends. Wilkinson also shows that although Katherine is believed to have taken Thomas Culpepper as her lover, and indeed this is what it is often believed she and Culpepper were executed for, this may not neccessarily be the case. Wilkinson presents and compelling and believable case, using primary documentation, that suggests that instead Katherine was merely cultivating Culpepper’s friendship and loyalty so that he could report back to her when the King was unwell and unable to see his wife. This would, in turn, extend her influence when apart from the King and, although Wilkinson believes (as did many contemporaries involved in the building of evidence against Katherine) there may have been a intention or desire between Katherine and Culpepper, she does not suggest that the two of them actually engaged in any intimate sexual act; simply that they exchanged letters, were close friends, and held long conversations with Lady Rochford as their chaperone. I found this biography to provide a fascinating and somewhat heartbreaking insight into Katherine’s life and found myself fully convinced by Wilkinson’s presentation of the evidence; the only slight thing in which our opnions differ, however, is that Wilkinson suggests Katherine herself encouraged flirtateousness with the King and was glad to be even considered for the position of Queen – I personally, however, believe that Katherine was instead encouraged by her ambitious family, perhaps even pushed forward, to become Henry’s next Queen. I do believe, however, that Katherine was a good, kind-hearted queen who used her influence to help others and tried to be a good wife to her king. As such, she suffered a tragic fate, and the evidence put forward by Wilkinson which shows how she was used and then later accused of crimes she may not have even committed makes her an even more tragic victim of the tyranny of Henry VIII.

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The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Kateryn Parr, a thirty-year-old widow in a secret affair with a new lover, has no choice when a man old enough to be her father who has buried four wives – King Henry VIII – commands her to marry him. Kateryn has no doubt about the danger she faces: the previous queen lasted sixteen months, the one before barely half a year. But Henry adores his new bride and Kateryn’s trust in him grows as she unites the royal family, creates a radical study circle at the heart of the court, and rules the kingdom as Regent. But is this enough to keep her safe? A leader of religious reform and the first woman to publish in English, Kateryn stands out as an independent woman with a mind of her own. But she cannot save the Protestants, under threat for their faith, and Henry’s dangerous gaze turns on her. The traditional churchmen and rivals for power accuse her of heresy – the punishment is death by fire and the King’s name is on the warrant…”

REVIEW: I have read all of Gregory’s novel and was hugely excited to read this latest novel, which focused on Katherine Parr – my favourite of Henry VIII’s wives after Anne Boleyn. I was lucky enough to hear Gregory give a talk about this book on the day of its publication in the UK, and knowing how much she enjoyed writing it and how connected she felt to Katherine made the experience of reading the book even more enjoyable for me, particularly as Gregory is one of my idols when it comes to writing historical fiction. I mentioned in the review of the last book I read on Katherine Parr how frustrating I have always found it that she so rarely makes an appearance in the work of historical fiction authors, so it was refreshing to be able to read about her once again. I thoroughly enjoyed Gregory’s portrayal of Katherine; she comes into her own as a romantic, stubborn, and highly intelligent woman with a passion for reform that develops throughout the novel, so that the reader is also taken along on her discovery of the latest Protestant ideals. She is also a hugely sympathetic character; her relationship with the tyrannical Henry involves constantly walking on eggshells, just as it does for the rest of the court, and Katherine is perhaps the most successful of all of Henry’s queens at learning to manage the balance of power. She learns, mostly through terrifying trial and error, when to speak her mind and when to stay silent; when to use her body and when to use her mind; and, most importantly, that to keep safe and in the King’s affections, she must be an obedient wife. The extent to which Katherine has to go to protect not just her own life, but also the lives of her friends and beloved sister Nan, will horrify modern readers – particularly during a shocking scene when Henry abuses Katherine and derives huge sexual pleasure from the act. As a woman, I am always sickened to think of the ways in which women were treated and how they had to demean themselves to avoid such treatment in the future, and I feel that this is shown most clearly in this novel, rather than in some of Gregory’s earlier works. I was in triumph with Katherine at the end of the novel when she is bought the news of Henry’s death and can finally move on with her life; even though I knew how the story would end, I still had tears come to my eyes as I truly felt Katherine’s relief and pride that she had been the one to survive – though my sadness was perhaps added to by the fact that, as any historian will know, the rest of her life was certainly not always a happy one. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.

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No Will But His by Sarah A. Hoyt

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Her name was Kathryn Howard. Orphaned at a young age, a poor relation in a wealthy and powerful family, she was raised in obscurity. Then she came to court and caught the eye of the aging King Henry VIII. As cousin to Henry’s second wife, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, Kathryn knows better than most the danger of being favoured by the King. Yet she is a Howard, and ambition is as natural to her as breathing. So she assumes the role that Henry assigns her – his rose without a thorn; his young, untouched child bride; his adored, and adoring, fifth wife. But it is all untrue. Passion runs as deep as ambition in the Howards, and Kathryn is no stranger to a lover’s embrace. It is only the first of many lies she will have to tell to gain the throne  – and keep it. Yet the path that she will tread to do so is one fraught with the same dangers that cost Queen Anne her head….”

REVIEW: There are few authors out there who choose to focus on Kathryn Howard, probably due to the reputation she has of being a pretty but stupid young girl who took foolish risks despite her place on the throne. I have always viewed Kathryn Howard far more sympathetically than this, and Hoyt seems to share this sympathy. Her portrayal of Kathryn is both sensitive and new, giving the young Queen a mind of her own and a spirit that links in with what we as historians already know about the personalities of the great Howard family. Although they make Kathryn look extremely naive, Hoyt’s portrayal of her relationships with Henry Manox and Francis Dereham in her youth give the reader a strong sense of Kathryn’s vulnerability and of the little choice she faced in being a pawn of her far more wise and powerful guardians. They are also much more believeable than other versions I have read of Kathryn’s relationships with Manox and Dereham, and this part of the novel was one I thoroughly enjoyed. Hoyt’s portrayal of Kathryn’s accidental wooing of Henry, and her growing friendship with the demented Jane Rochford, were also very well-written and completely believable. However, there were some things about the book that I did not enjoy quite so much. One of these was the author’s attempt to use early modern English in the speaking patterns of all the characters. Despite this being a refreshing change for a historical fiction work, as it is usually avoided, Hoyt did not manage to do this successfully enough to make it work. The use of this form of language made the speech seem stilted, and as it was often infused with modern colloquialisms it was not successfully carried off, though as I say I do admire Hoyt for attempting it. I also felt that the final part of the book, the most famous part of Kathryn’s story, was rushed and poorly explained, which made it a far less emotional scene for the reader. Kathryn’s affair with Thomas Culpepper is not well-thought out, as the prologue suggests, but instead is hurried into in a way that even the most clueless of historical readers can see would have been simply foolish. Kathryn’s arrest and execution take up a mere few pages and are not, in my opinion, given the depth and justice that they deserve. Therefore, while I admire Hoyt’s characterisation of Kathryn, which was possibly the closest portrayal to my imaginings that I have read, I felt that in some places the tale was clumsily told and perhaps might have benefitted from further editing.

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Anne of Cleves by Elizabeth Norton

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RATING:3.5/5

BLURB: “‘I like her not!’ was the verdict of Henry VIII on meeting his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, for the first time. Anne could have said something similar upon meeting Henry and, having been promised the most handsome prince in Europe she was destined to be disappointed in the elderly and corpulent King. Forced to proceed with their wedding for diplomatic reasons, Henry and Anne tried to make the best of the situation, but attempts to consummate the marriage were farcical. After only seven months of marriage Henry was so desperate to rid himself of Anne that he declared himself impotent in order to secure a divorce. Anne was also eager to end her marriage and, with her clever handling of Henry obtained one of the biggest divorce settlements in English history. Anne of Cleves is often portrayed as a stupid and comical figure. The real Anne was both intelligent and practical, ensuring that, whilst she was queen for the shortest period, she was the last of all Henry VIII’s wives to survive. Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, lost his head for his role in the marriage, but Anne’s shrewdness ensured she kept hers.”

REVIEW: Prior to reading this biography, I had only ever read about Anne of Cleves in historical fiction or in books that were about all six of Henry VIII’s wives – never before had I read a factual book dedicated entirely to her. Although Norton’s biography of Anne is short, this makes it both concise and easy to read – packing such a large amount of information in so few pages makes the book engaging and interesting the whole way through as each page tells the reader something new. This biography reveals Anne of Cleves to be a fascinating historical figure, highly undeserving of the reputation she generally holds as being dull and unintelligent. Her marriage to Henry was Anne’s first marriage, and in order for it to take place she was separated from her family and sent to a country where she knew no-one and had barely any grasp of the native language – just as Catherine of Aragon had done so many years before. As Anne’s relationship with Henry so famously began to crumble, the reader cannot help but feel sorry for this woman who is unable to seek advice from those around her and is left adrift and unsure of herself in a strange new land. The way Anne handles her separation from Henry, however, is highly admirable, showing a great level of independence and authority for a woman in this time period when her rights would have been so constrained. Anne cleverly and willingly took up her new position as the King’s Sister and showed every honour to Henry, his children and his next two wives until her own demise during the reign of Mary I, many years after the death of Henry himself. Anne was clearly much more strong and intelligent than she has been perceived to be and that was thoroughly well-illustrated in Norton’s book. I did feel, however, that the book could have been longer to avoid parts of it seeming rushed. I also felt that, at time, Norton placed far more of a focus on Henry’s character and feelings rather than those of Anne. Overall, though, I still enjoyed the book greatly and am pleased to have learnt more about this fascinating woman.

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1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “One of the best-known figures of British History, the stereotypical image of Henry VIII is of a corpulent, covetous and cunning King whose appetite for worldly goods met few parallels, whose wives met infamously premature ends, and whose religion was ever political in intent. Moving beyond this caricature, 1536 – focusing on a pivotal year in the life of the King – reveals a fuller portrait of this complex monarch, detailing the finer shades of humanity that have so long been overlooked. We discover that in 1536 Henry met many failures – physical, personal and political – and emerged from them a different man: a revolutionary new King who proceeded to transform a nation and reform a religion. A compelling story, the effects of which are still with us today, 1536 demonstrates what a profound difference can be made to a nation simply by changing the heart of a King.”

REVIEW: I have read a great many biographies of Henry VIII since my fascination with the Tudors developed, but none captured and held my attention quite as well as this one did. Focusing on one short but extremely dramatic year in the reign of Henry VIII, Lipscomb looks at the crises of religion, masculinity and politics that engulfed Henry in a period that many describe as his annus horribilis, and analyses the effect that these events had on his personality. Prior to 1536, Lipscomb argues, Henry seems to have been beloved by the people, a benevolent King who, despite outbreaks of temper, was on the whole well-liked and respected, ruling with at least an attempt at justice and fairness. After 1536, however, the tyrannical, obese and intimidating monarch that we are all familiar with from school history classes began to emerge. It is this transition – from golden prince to tyrant – that Lipscomb explores. She focuses particularly on ideas about masculinity at the time, and how Henry’s reputation as a man was heavily damaged by the adultery charges brought against Anne Boleyn and the rumours about his impotence which circulated during her trial. This meant that Henry had an even greater need to prove himself as a man and assert his masculinity, which he did through strengthening his religious policy, taking a firmer line against his political opponents and in Parliament, and through the use of royal iconography – in particular, the infamous portrait of him which was painted as part of a mural designed by Holbein. Lipscomb’s explorations of this paints a very believable image of Henry’s descent into tyranny, and clearly explains to the reader why Henry’s need to prove his masculinity was inextricably linked to proving his status as the rightful King and Supreme Head of the Church. This biography was easy to read and understand which made it easier to absorb the information – something that often passes the reader by with more heavily written non-fiction books. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading any further works that Lipscomb may publish on the Tudors.