The Six Wives of Henry VIII is divided into three main chapters: Catherine of Aragon; the Great Matter; and how many wives will he have? This gives a structure to the book that turns what might have been one long, close to seven-hundred paged drag into three well thought-out and organised chapters in the life of arguably Britain’s most iconic King. These three sections are further split with each being subdivided into six or so smaller parts providing the reader with a clear guide as to where in the renowned tale they are.
Alison Weir was born in 1951, in London. She developed a love for history at age 14 after reading a book about Katherine of Aragon. This interest led her to write and release The Six Wives of Henry VIII in 1991 and her passion for the subject is evident in her writing. Weir presents her opinion that history should be written for the public, no matter the criticisms of the genre of popular history which, as in the case of Alison Weir, can attract to the subject new fans who may eventually end up writing their own historical novels and non-fictions.
A.L. Rowse of the London Evening Standard wrote on the book’s initial release that it is ‘as reliable and scholarly as it is readable’, and I fully agree. Weir’s book doesn’t just give the reader the same information that they’ve heard multiple times before but provides them with broad statements and new viewpoints on the events that took place. Weir’s brief summary for each wife is short, snappy and straight to the point and can be found on the third page of the book for those readers who’d like a quick reference. However, Weir also goes into great detail. Nearly every person whom she mentions in the book is supplied with a page or so of backstory, which helps to create a larger picture and allows us to understand who was who and why they thought and acted as they did.
If I were to find something to criticise in the book, it would be the way that the timeline jumps back and forth, which can be confusing and often require a second read. Nonetheless, this one complaint is relatively minor. Books of popular non-fiction are hard to write, especially if they are to find the correct balance between fact and story-telling, and I strongly believe that Weir rises to this challenge to produce a book that is both is enlightening and pleasurable.
Weir’s style is formal, serious and thought-out, reflecting the topic she is writing about – it would hardly be appropriate to make light of events that led to the deaths of so many people. At the same time, the text isn’t too heavy and gloomy which makes the book a pleasant read which won’t make you feel too sombre; rather, it is likely you will feel a refreshed respect for the six main women in the book.
Both long-time history fans and those with a more recent interest in this fascinating period of Britain’s past will undoubtedly find something in Weir’s book that will surprise and delight them even as it expands their knowledge. In a time of refreshed interest in Henry and his wives, Alison Weir shines a light on the talents, ambitions and controversial lives of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleaves, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr.