The Six Wives of Henry VIII

 Derek Wilson looks at book on the personality of a king revealed through his marriages

Book review image

Reviewed by: Derek Wilson
Author: David Loades
Publisher: Amberley
Price (RRP): £14.99

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Basic to Professor Loades’s case is that Henry’s “successive marriages… richly repay investigation” because they reveal so much of his complex personality. Loades analyses carefully the significance of marriage number one to Katherine, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and shows how his contacts with his Spanish relatives entangled him in continental wars that gained him nothing.

Henry abandoned the Habsburg alliance when he decided to have his marriage to Katherine annulled because she had failed to produce a male heir. The long struggle over the
divorce made him bitter and fanatically determined to get his own way. The enormous price
he and the country paid was England’s severance from western Catholicism.

In 1536 it was private and political prerogatives that became entwined with religious affairs, court factions and personal ambitions to bring about the downfall of Anne Boleyn. The birth of a son to wife number three in October 1537 seemed to justify the king’s persistence and cruelty. The death of Jane Seymour from post-natal complications projected the increasingly overweight Henry into his last three marriages. Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard both exposed the king’s failing sexual powers, and this Loades regards as the reason for Henry’s rejection of wives four and five. Anne failed to stimulate Henry and Henry failed to satisfy Catherine. By the time Kateryn Parr became his sixth wife sexual relations had become impossible for the obese and semi-invalid king. Instead he directed his masculine energies into a fresh burst of ruinous warfare.

Loades proposes that what serial marriage tells us about Henry VIII is that this was a man who always got what he wanted. His sexuality was a thermometer recording the temperature of his willpower. In a text of 150 pages, adorned with excellent illustrations, it is not possible to treat this theme exhaustively but Loades does offer us interesting insights into a repulsive yet constantly fascinating personality.

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Derek Wilson’s latest book is A Brief History of Henry VIII: King, Reformer and Tyrant (Constable & Robinson, 2009)