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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

“The Children of Henry VIII”, by Alison Weir

385 pages, Ballantine Books, ISBN-13: 978-0345391186

The Children of Henry VIII, Alison Weir’s second book on the Tudor monarchy, is light history, to be sure; a fusion of biography and history may be a more accurate description of her work, but it is an engaging read. The writing is smooth and Weir keeps the story moving right along (she even manages to distinguish individuals sufficiently so that it is easy to keep track of who played what role in each of the dramas, plots, and intrigues; that in itself is no small feat when discussing the history of England, given the tendency of English parents to name all of their sons Richard, Edward, or Henry). Although Weir touches upon all of Henry VIII’s children – as well as his niece, Lady Jane Grey – the majority of this book delves into the life of his eldest daughter, Mary. Weir discusses the short reign of Henry VIII’s only son, Edward VI, as well as the nine-day reign of Lady Jane; however, the book focuses on Mary, and ends at her death and the accession of Queen Elizabeth.

This is not a serious piece of history, nor is it intended to serve as a comprehensive biography of any of the four monarchs discussed; it is strictly aimed at the casual reader and serves that purpose quite well. If you have a casual interest in the era but don’t know much about it, it could serve as a good entry point before going on to more intensive biographies. If you know little more than that Henry VIII married a lot of women and would like to know a little more without getting bogged down in the doings of the various Richards and Henrys and Edwards, this is a good place to come; if you’re looking for intensive scholarship though, you should look elsewhere. Not everything in the book should be taken as doctrine (not intended as a pun, given the religious conflicts of the time, I just couldn't think of a more elegant way of phrasing it). Weir does have a tendency to rely on dubious sources (which I really wish she wouldn’t do) though at least she does warn the reader that they aren’t to be entirely trusted. Sometimes, you get the feeling that she thought the story they told was just too good to be left out even though she knew it wasn’t true.

Weir again introduced the reader to the importance of alliances and marriages of monarchs during the 16th Century, as well as the importance of religion. This book is an easy to read narrative of the politics of accession to the English throne after the death of Henry VIII and the adult life of Queen Mary I (Weir takes the reader into more depth of Elizabeth’s reign in her book, The Life of Elizabeth I).  Weir succeeds admirable in giving a breath of life to figures that often seem remote and hard to understand. After reading this book, you have a sense of who these people were, what factors lead them to become those people, and how those traits lead them to the various fates that awaited them – tragic death, unfulfilled promise, reviled figure, and beloved (nearly legendary) monarch.

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