Whether the currents and eddies that we see in history are truly fortuitous or merely reflect a selective study that seeks to impose order on what would otherwise seem overwhelming chaos, is impossible to determine. Yet we do continue to study the fascinating puzzles that history presents. Among these puzzles is the tantalizing phrase "six wives of Henry VIII." If William Caxton had not helped fuel a burgeoning interest in literacy by recreating Gutenberg's wondrous invention in England, if Henry VIII particularly, and those surrounding him, generally, had not displayed a desire to express themselves and detail their lives on paper, or if Isabella of Spain and others had not been interested in developing their own and their daughters' educations, would we know anything about Henry VIII's wives? But he did, they did, and so we do.
Allison Weir examines the lives of these women, basing her account on a wealth of primary and near-contemporary as well as recent secondary sources. She includes many of the more familiar anecdotes and conjectures, as well as several that are not generally found in other recent accounts of their lives. She states in the Introduction that her work is directed to the general reader, and her easy and captivating style reflects this. Her stated goal is to answer the question "What were they really like, those six wives?"
The wives of "great Harry" have been studied by many. They have been treated singly and as a group. Their lives have been examined by biographers, romanticized by writers of fiction, and cast by playwrights. These authors have often had clear favorites, but sometimes, as in Weir' s case, they have tried to be impartial, showing the strengths and weaknesses of each. Yet in all these cases, even in those biographies that purport to be "about" one particular woman, one fact remains inescapable: the single, most important, all-consuming actuality of their existence, the central event of their lives, their importance to history, and, probably, the only reason we know anything about them, is that they were married to Henry VIII.
In many biographies of Henry, the wives are pushed to the background as the biographer deals with other aspects of Henry's life and reign. Even the annulment, an event that, despite its origins or consequences, is quintessentially marriage-related, is often treated in political, religious, or psychological terms--the psychology of Henry, of course, not of Anne Boleyn or Katherine of Aragon.
Conversely, the women's lives are defined and stereotyped in terms of "wifeness" not individualness. There is the faithful and rejected wife, the other woman, the mother of the heir, the one who didn't live up to her portrait but survived anyway, the wanton, and the nursemaid widow. Biographers who have their favorites among the women often imbue that favorite with whatever qualities are seen as positive at the time the biographies are written. Thus, biographies of Anne Boleyn show her as incestuous wanton or as Protestant saint, depending on the beliefs of the biographer.
Even Weir, who has attempted a more balanced portrait than many, finds herself defining the women in terms of their husband, or in their relationship to the other men in their families: father, brother, uncle, nephew. Early in her reign Katherine of Aragon finds herself regent of England as Henry descends upon France. The Scots, ever-ready for such opportunities, cross the border. Weir mentions that Katherine "threw herself with courage and zeal into preparations for defence" and that she even travelled to Buckingham where she "made a speech to the reserve forces." Yet, rather than explore this incident, Weir relegates this event to a small paragraph which leads quickly back to Henry and a letter Katherine sent him regarding his French campaign.
Some attempts at exploring the women beyond their relationship to Henry are made, but they are rarely carried very far. There are several intriguing mentions of the role of the wives as domestic overseers, arbiters of fashion, or regents during his absence but these ideas are not developed. Henry's wives may have been subordinate to him. All Tudor-era wives may have been subordinate to their husbands. But by choosing to present the puzzle pieces of these women's lives as she does, Weir perpetuates this subordinate role.
And so we are left with the greatest question: how did these women feel about their place in the world? It would be easy to say that they were a part of their culture and so accepted, unquestioning, their role, just as we today accept unquestioningly our right to challenge proscribed roles. Yet such a statement says nothing especially useful. Given their acceptance of their role, can we conjecture about what their thoughts and feelings were? Even if we can't, can we learn more about the things that consumed their lives? Were they concerned with the great political shifts, their husband's actions and words, or the major events of the time? Or were their lives filled with daily things? There are so many unanswered questions. For example, the description of the marriages is a catalog of failed pregnancies and dead children. Yet, with the exception of a few short scenes of grief, we learn so little about how these events which must have consumed much of their time, affected these women.
In closing, every age that consciously examines its past thinks it is peering at history through a clear glass. Yet every historian's work invariably sees not just the image of the past, but a reflection of the present. Women' s lives may have been hedged about by their position as subordinates to men, but they were still fully as long and filled with events of importance to the women who lived them. We live in an age that is willing to look at the role of women from a woman's viewpoint, to examine the minutiae of the daily round, narrow as it may seem in a history used to studying the sweeping, epic saga. Weir attempts to go beyond the one-dimensional view of Henry's wives. However, despite the wealth of detail and the impartial handling of her subjects, she does not show us these women as other than adjuncts of Henry. During their lifetime they were subject to their husband. Despite the fact that their lives are central to this book, they are once more relegated to subordinate
roles. While the book presents a fascinating picture of Henry VIII's marital relationships it fails to develop a three-dimensional portrait of his wives. Weir says it is the responsibility of the historian to "piece together the surviving evidence and arrive at a workable conclusion." Yet has she? She doesn't go that extra step--the step that Smith, Scarrisbrick, Hackett and others have gone, in attempting to draw full-bodied portraits of Henry. They dare to conjecture, sometimes wisely, sometimes in what seems to be odd ways, but always in a manner that leads to a more fully realized image of the subject. By providing a wealth of well-researched detail Weir has done a service to the student. By hesitating to conjecture, she has fallen short of her goal to help us see these women "as they really were."