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Title: The Children of Henry VIII (formerly entitled: The Children of England)
Author: Alison Weir
Genre: Historical Biography (Non-Fiction)
Page Count: 366
Publisher: Ballantine





Basic Plotline Premise: Weir chronicles the interwoven stories of the four monarchs that followed Henry VIII in ascending to the English throne, Edward VI


The Positives: It's no secret that I'm big fan of Weir's biographies, especially of English monarchs and the reason for this is that I think she does more than list dates and narrate through the popular theories of English royal history, rather she compiles the information and really works with it, interpreting it and then fashions it into a detailed story that not only makes for fascinating reading, but explains itself in many ways. She synthesizes the raw data that historians have to work with - letters, declarations, written accounts, contemporary sources - and then makes sense of it with a very keen common sense and clear, levelheaded way of looking at the available information. She neither sensationalizes nor downplays, but lets the history be what it is. Sometimes stranger than fiction and sometimes, as with any life, dreadfully mundane.

What attracted me to this book was not only that it was not just a straight biography of these four personages, but it was an interlocked telling of a time in England, after Henry VIII's death, when not just these four monarchs, but an entire nation and, indeed, the continent of Europe, was undergoing religious, political, and social reinvention and England was sharply torn between the forces of tradition and revolution, between not just the old and new forms of Christianity, but between the ever shifting alliances of the imperial powers of Europe. There have been plenty of biographies of these people, particularly of Mary I and Elizabeth I, but intertwining their tales and telling the co-existing stories of what was happening to each of these four from the time Henry VIII died to the time Elizabeth I finally ascended the throne is something I have not seen done.

Another thing, which I've appreciated in past books by Weir is that she shows that even the most autocratic ruler, even one with supposed divinely-derived authority is not nearly alone in the ruling of country. Weir doesn't just show the actions taken or acts signed by the monarchs, but shows the influence and power exercised by the nobles underneath the king, and in the case of all four of these Tudor monarchs, how much power could be exerted either through manipulation or outright control, especially in Edward's case. Weir takes a close look at those behind the throne and what they were doing. In a very real way, this is a biography of how true autocracy died in England. A boy king and three female monarchs did put a lot of very real power in the hands of the lords who already held a great deal of land and wealth (especially after the seizing of assets from the Catholic Churches and monasteries in England). One sees very clearly just how much of the actual running of the country - from the making of alliance, to the declaration of war, to the setting of prices and taxes and the granting or seizing of property - came to be done by various dukes, barons, lords, and how even the strongest of these monarchs had a constant and very real fight on their hands between bickering factions who held a lot of control that even the divinely appointed ruler of England had to contend with, at their own peril.

The interwoven nature of the narrative also serves to show how these four personalities shaped and were shaped by each other, both in conflict and in the few moments of harmony they enjoyed, even after Henry's death. It's very interesting to track where and how each of them were moved around as power changed hands and the political horizon shifted, and that even when Edward VI was on the throne and thought to be healthy, nobody ever forgot that Elizabeth and Mary and Jane Grey each had royal blood in their veins and a very real claim to the throne.

For me personally, another positive is having read this after having read Weir's biography of Elizabeth I, which followed her life but did not show the larger view of the political landscape and what was going on with her siblings and cousins. Seeing how their lives must have influenced hers, especially seeing as she was the last to come to power, really explains and clarifies a lot of what Elizabeth did and said during her reign.

Another positive of this book is that I think it is rather balanced in it's portrait of Mary. I think it's very easy, even hundreds and hundreds of years later to vilify her completely. And while she does deserve the scorn that is owed to anyone who orders the wholesale deaths of other human beings who's only crimes are their dissenting ideas (and keep in mind that even Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had heretics burned or put to death during their reigns, though in significantly fewer numbers), Weir shows that this bloodymindedness was a process and that Mary, initially, came to the throne with more merciful intentions, forgiving those who had ignored or disrespected her during her brother's reign and tried to wrest her religion, inextricably linked with her beloved, martyred mother's memory in her mind, from her bit by bit. She also shows that Mary was very much acting out of the abuse she suffered. While it doesn't excuse what she did, especially in the later years of her reign, it does present a more complex picture of a woman who was dealt a great deal of pain and abuse in her life and dealt it back out to others out of a sense of righteousness and righteous fury. It's interesting to see that Mary was on the receiving end of England's religious intolerance and that where this seems to have fostered a sense of quiet tolerance in Elizabeth, it created in Mary an utter intransigence where the question of religion was concerned. What really gives this biography of Mary's reign it's balance is that Weir does not hesitate to show that Mary was never just the autocratic queen who ordered deaths and terrified her court. She was very much at the mercy of others as well, even as queen, and she suffered her own pains (probably not as horrible as being burned alive), and that her actions came not just from malice, but from a deep, deep pain and a belief that if she just kept pushing and trying and punishing heretics, her pain would be relieved. One can't help feeling a kind of sympathy for her during the two false pregnancies and the practical abandonment by her husband whom she seems to have genuinely loved but never have been loved by in return.

The reason I point this balance out as a good thing is that it shows that if Mary was a source of turmoil in this point in English history, she was also a product of it. The politics she created were the politics that had shaped her into the ruler that she was. She was a woman who had watched the violent disposal of two of her stepmothers and the vicious backlash against the Catholic church and her own mother. If she practiced religious persecution, she was taught well by her father, and later the nobles and even her own brother who whittled away at her until she could only practice mass in her "private closet" with two approved attendants, with no small amount of cajoling and threatening to go along with it.

As a sort of amateur historian myself, I think it's important, to show that even in the most autocratic, dictatorial reigns, no autocrat reigns alone and that what they do, however terrible, they do with a lot of co-conspirators at their side. Politics are a cumulative result of the actions of many, even from the most disenfranchised poor person to the richest, wealthiest king and though many of those less powerful, less wealthy people may not be remembered by name, they are part of the landscape, and remembering that monarchs do not act alone is part of remembering them, even if their names and dates of birth are lost to us.

I also think that Weir does a good job of making sure that she doesn't turn Edward VI or Jane Grey into footnotes. Often, historians like to handwave away these two monarchs (and yes, I count Jane Grey as a monarch, anyone who puts the crown jewels on their head, however reluctantly and under duress, is a queen, however briefly they reign) because they were young and very much under the control of those who had authority over them - but instead of treating them like puppets, she shows that they were not only real human beings, but human beings who had agency, even if that agency was sometimes limited. Jane Grey, particularly, gets talked about as though she was more a name and a sock that somebody stuck a hand into rather than an actual young woman who lived, died, and suffered perhaps more than any of the other Tudor monarchs. Weir, however, does not speak significantly different about her than she does about Mary or Elizabeth, even when the question of marriage and inheritance comes up. She does show that Jane was not the mistress of her own fate, but neither were Mary or Elizabeth or Edward, either. They, too, were moved across the board of royal politics.

As a final positive, I think that this book is the most accessible of Weir's biographies that I've read so far. Unless you're completely unfamiliar with this time period in English royal history, you can probably follow along without needing to do much background research. If you're not familiar with this time period, a quick review of the personalities in question on Wikipedia or even just a look at a detailed timeline should catch you up enough.

The Negatives - There aren't too many negatives in this book, and none that are really major flaws in the book's writing, research, or execution.

Weir once again reiterates her theory that Elizabeth's consistent refusal to marry stemmed from the association of marriage and death in her mind, and that's a theory that I think is overanalyzing Elizabeth's psychology and also doesn't take into account the kind of social conditioning that Elizabeth would have been subject to from the moment she was born. I tend to think that given what we know of Elizabeth and the sources available that her refusal to marry was more about politics and a reluctance to surrender control. I think if Elizabeth felt marriage was dangerous, it was less about past trauma than present, practical circumstances and knowledge that her sister's Spanish marriage had been a source of conflict and misery more than anything else. Any marriage choice that Elizabeth would have had would have come with significant obstacles from one faction or another, and considering that she had to navigate the choppy waters of English and European politics, picking a husband that would have alienated lords and allies she badly needed (as well as removing the marriage tool from her belt) would have weakened her position.

I also felt there was a somewhat dismissive tone when Weir mentioned the various ailments that Mary and Elizabeth suffered from. Sometimes Weir would put them down to mainly stress in such a way as to make it sound as though these women were being slightly hysterical rather than genuinely sick. Given that both Mary and Elizabeth exhibited genuine medical symptoms and had health problems all their life, I felt that was going too far. While it is entirely possible that ailments occurring right after or before important meetings or events in the lives of these women were exacerbated by stress, to put them down entirely to stress seems to my mind to dismiss that both of them had a long history of everything from hormonal and menstrual problem to migraine headaches.

Also, I think Weir could have reminded the readers that the stress that all four of these Tudor monarchs were under were extraordinary, and that it couldn't have escaped any of them (especially Elizabeth and Mary) that they lived in very precarious positions, and that their very lives could depend on the right alliances, staying in favor with the right people, marrying the right person and not the wrong one in a time when English politics were like an out of control see-saw. I, too, might collapse under the weight of life and death stress like that. It also would have born mentioning that these monarchs would have been aware that people with especially strong claims to the English throne and who weren't neutralized by the monarch having direct heirs tended not to meet with particularly nice ends.

Given all this, I think the dismissive use of the word "stress" to describe even psychosomatic reactions to this kind of immense pressure and constant danger underplays that these monarchs faced very real peril, political and otherwise.

On a nitpicky note, I also am not sure why the book was retitled "The Children of Henry VIII" when it had originally (and more accurately) been titled "The Children of England". The new title bothers me because the inclusion of Lady Jane Grey makes it untrue as she was not Henry's child at all, but rather the granddaughter of his younger sister, Mary Tudor, but I suppose the title "The Children and Great-Niece of Henry VIII" was a bit too wordy. Which is why I think the original title was better, because it not only was accurate factually, but better suits the thematic tone of the book, too, which is not just a straight biography of four monarchs, but a view of how those lives intersected and shaped England as much as England shaped them.



CoC Score: 0/10. A good faith zero, as this period in English history is not one that is particularly racially diverse.

Gender Score: 10/10. Despite some whiffs of dismissiveness concerning Mary and Elizabeth's ailments that I didn't see in Edward's biographies, I think she does a good job of making sure to treat all the women she describes, not just the three royal ones, as people with their own agency and even powers, even if those powers were sometimes very covert and under the radar (so to speak). I also think a good job is done of showing that yes, Mary, Jane, and Elizabeth all had to deal with the perceptions and treatment of women in that day without making it the central fact of their lives or their biographies.

GLBT Score: 0/10. I give this, as well, a good faith zero. While we do know that there were homosexual liaisons and relationships during this time period in England, I wouldn't expect that these biographies would get into that.

PWD Score: 6/10. I'm giving this a 6/10 of ten because I think, honestly, a strong case can be made that each of the Tudor monarchs in this book had some form of disability, either mental or physical. I definitely think that both Elizabeth and Mary and Jane could be said to suffer from PTSD, and Weir does lay out an interesting theory that Mary's yearly decline in health in autumn could have been a severe form of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Mary and Elizabeth's menstrual problems, headaches, and other symptoms are well documented. Edward's health, likewise, was undermined permanently after a bout of illness and I think that in this day and age, we would recognize his ongoing health issues as a disability. Given this, I feel Weir does an adequate job of being mostly respectful in the way she takes these things into account. Again, while I didn't like that she dismissed some of Mary and Elizabeth's ailments as "stress", I do think overall the portrayal was sympathetic and respectful. The four points are deducted for the remarks about stress.

July 2013

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