In today’s Tudor Tuesday I wanted to discuss David Starkey’s book Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII which I read in June. It is probably fairly obvious by now that I can’t really get enough of all things Tudor related. I have read more books than I can count about this period in English History. Six Wives is a huge book, so it had been untouched on my shelves for a while until I found the right time to read it. I actually started it months ago, maybe March time, and have been picking it up at weekends and in the evenings since then.
It started off well enough. I wasn’t expecting anything ground-breaking. I knew the book would go through each of the wives lives in order and that Starkey claimed to have a new light to shine on some of the events. The reason it took me so long to read, as well as its size, was that I could not get on with Starkey’s tone at all. These was something repellent in the way he spoke about the women that I just could not get on board with. I sort of felt that he might of been on Henry VIII’s side in all this (even if you haven’t read much about the Tudor’s, you know a man with six wives to his name and 4 of them dead can’t be a good thing), and there were flares of sexism in there – a problem in a book supposedly about women.
I guess I wanted to write about this book, to suggest to any Tudor fans who might be thinking of picking it up that actually, you can do better. I know Starkey is a famous historian who has made it into the popular culture sphere, but this book was a disappointment to me. I’m not going to deny that it was painstakingly researched, it was. But it almost felt like the detail Starkey had decided to include was padding out the book, rather than adding anything to our knowledge of the wives themselves. He would spend so much time talking about the movements of one ambassador or another, to prove some slightly relevant point that it was hard to keep even this Tudor enthusiast interested.
The content of the book is heavily weighted to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn which I think is fair enough as that represents the time they spent with Henry and their importance in British history. Catherine of Aragon’s section was also the most interesting, as nothing was repeated whereas in Anne’s section, it started to feel a bit repetitive as their stories overlap. Perhaps that is just one of the problems with structuring the book this way, I can’t remember if I felt the same when i read Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII last year.
I think that this book is perhaps just packaged up wrongly. I’ll be honest it at times felt more about the men of the Tudor world, that the six wives of the title. If that is the book Starkey wanted to write, then fair play. But it wasn’t the book I wanted to read.