632 pages, Ballantine Books, ISBN-13: 978-0345436597
If you are more interested in the personal side of Henry VIII – and not just his many wives and mistresses, either – then Alison Weir’s Henry VIII: The King and His Court is just the book for you. Oh, you get plenty of information on all six of his wives – including such tidbits as Anne Boleyn’s aristocratic “cloth holders” would hold strips of cloths in front of her face at strategic moments, such as when she needed to spit (!); Anne of Cleves’s disagreeable body odor; or Katherine Parr’s shoe fetish, having 47 pairs of shoes made in one year. The book seems a bit choppy in the early stages, with brief chapters jumping about from one topic to another (the various castles; how they were decorated; the strategic and logistical difficulties of going “on progress”; the quantities and types of food served to the King and his minions; etc.), but, even though there doesn’t seem to be much of a narrative in the early going, the material is fascinating in and of itself – and, after 200 pages or so, the book starts to come together and becomes more of a straightforward biography.
To give you some idea of the style of the writing, and of the personal information obtained by reading this book, here is an excerpt that deals with Henry’s “shopping around” for wife number four, after the death of Jane Seymour:
It was now more imperative than ever that the King remarry, and soon. Various brides were under consideration: it was thought that some of the highborn ladies of France might prove suitable, but Henry, who was proving particularly choosy, was taking no chances, and demanded that seven or eight of them be brought to Calais for his inspection. On the instructions of an outraged King Francis, the French ambassador, Gaspard de Coligny, Sieur de Castillon, replied, “It is not the custom in France to send damsels of noble and princely families to be passed in review as if they were hackneys for sale”.
Weir, at times, fawns a bit too much over Henry; to hear the author’s version of things, Henry was the best at everything: the best archer, the best jouster, the best poet, a great scholar, etc. You must take some of this with a grain of salt. But this is small beer, and is outweighed by the sheer joy of reading all of the interesting material. If you are looking for more of a political/military biography this is most likely not going to be your cup of tea; however, if you want to get to know Henry as a human being, and not just Henry but his wives and many members of the nobility, and if you want to find out a lot of interesting information about social life and the culture of the times, you will find Henry VIII: The King and His Court to be very rewarding, indeed.