Saturday, February 11, 2012

Six Wives, by David Starkey

I got off to a rough start with this book. I mentioned to an English friend that I'd started reading it. He had been one of Starkey's fellow students at Cambridge and quipped, "Ah, yes, one bitchy queen writing about six others." Oddly, being unfamiliar with the author when I began the book, I'd rather reached that very conclusion on my own after reading the introduction.  There are, of course, a great many books out there on this subject, and I suppose even a historian with David Starkey's credentials must justify yet another one. He does this by maligning earlier histories by Antonia Fraser and Alison Weir, both of which I read and greatly admired.

One other comment in Starkey's introduction struck me as simply silly: He insisted that this book is not about Henry but about his wives. I contend that every book on this subject is and must be about Henry. He was the monarch. The wives came into the story, one after the other, either because they were part of his political maneuverings or because he was infatuated with them. Four of them exited -- either the Court or this life -- when he commanded it. The women were indisputably interesting characters, but they played supporting roles.

One of his complaints, which is valid to a large extent, is that earlier writers tend to allot the same amount of space to each of the six wives. This reminds me a bit of the solar system maps from my schooldays, with each planet in orderly equidistance from its neighbours; I was shocked to learn that Neptune is 30 times further from Earth than we are from the sun. Henry's marriages don't fit into tidy episodes, either -- he was married to Catherine of Aragon for 24 years and to Anne of Cleves for about six months. Starkey's choice to allocate space to each wife in proportion to the length of her marriage and its historical impact makes sense, but it doesn't save him from wallowing in disproportionate reams of canonical law as Henry and Cardinal Wolsey tried to end the King's first marriage. Still, there's plenty to recommend this book, and it was a good refresher course for me. 

Catherine of Aragon:  The daughter of Francis and Isabella, who co-ruled two regions of Spain with equal power. ("Her mother, the warrior-queen Isabella of Castile, had spent most of her pregnancy on campaign against the Moors, rather than in ladylike retirement.") I often imagine Catherine as being demure and obedient, but her mother had brought her up to have a strong will, well-equipped to stand her ground when Henry decided to cast her aside. And did he want to be rid of Catherine because he was desperate for a male heir? Of course that must have been a factor, but in truth (Starkey and Weir agree), he was absolutely besotted with Anne Boleyn.  It didn't help that Catherine had lost her looks.
By the time she reached the menopause, which seems to have come to her very early at about thirty-five, she was (like the middle-aged Queen Victoria) nearly as wide as she was tall. What made it worse, of course, was that she had married a husband who was younger and better-looking than she, and who had kept his youth and looks longer.
And before menopause, she had been nearly constantly, and apart from Princess Mary, fruitlessly pregnant. Starkey reminds us that she was pregnant seven times in the nine years 1509-1518. It's small wonder she was stout and Henry was frustrated.

Getting rid of Catherine, however, was a Great Matter, indeed, and it dragged on for seven years. As with many contemporary break-ups, everyone was inclined to take sides.
Henry had envisaged the case as England versus Catherine. Thanks to Catherine’s intrepidity, Wolsey feared, it was turning into the World versus England and England’s King.
Wolsey wrote bulls, envoys pleaded and reasoned, and Henry commissioned a study of the theological issues at all Europe's greatest universities, hoping that academics would sway public opinion, if not the Pope. The Pope (infallible, of course) had no intention of annulling the marriage; he couldn't risk alienating Catherine's nephew, Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor.
The decision rested with Giulio de’ Medici, who had reigned as Pope Clement VII since 1523. He was a wily Florentine, who turned prevarication into an art form. He would talk, at inordinate length, without ever reaching a conclusion. And he knew every word, in mellifluous Italian or fluent Latin, apart from ‘yes’ and ‘no’. His other dominant characteristic was a certain timorousness... He was also hoping that something would either turn up (like a French victory in Italy) or go away (like Henry’s infatuation with his new woman) to let him off the hook.
Starkey portrays Catherine during this period as a shrewd, scholarly and determined woman. Henry lost more than one skirmish when he engaged her directly. The woman who would replace the Queen offered him no refuge, either.
For the King publicly to bandy words with his Queen was undignified. It was also a blunder. As Anne Boleyn later pointed out, whenever Henry got into an argument with Catherine, he lost. He did so spectacularly this time. ...
Bested, Henry retreated to Anne. But he found cold comfort. ‘Did I not tell you’, Anne snapped, ‘that whenever you disputed with the Queen she was sure to have the upper hand?’ Some fine day, she continued, Henry would succumb to Catherine’s arguments. Then what would happen to Anne? She would be cast off. ‘I have been waiting long’, she protested with increasing vehemence, ‘and might in the meanwhile have contracted some advantageous marriage, out of which I might have had issue . . . But, alas!, farewell to my time and youth spent to no purpose at all’. One almost begins to feel sorry for Henry, caught as he was in the cross-fire between two such women.
Anne Boleyn:  Although French in manners and education, Anne was, unlike her predecessor, an Englishwoman.
But there was also surely more than a nod to the fact that Anne was the first Queen of England who numbered a Mayor and citizen of London among her ancestors: when the citizens saluted Anne, they were hailing one of their own.
Anne was visibly pregnant during her coronation procession, which probably toned down the protests of those loyal to Catherine. Everyone knew that England needed an heir. A male heir.
What made the pressure worse, probably, was Henry’s serene confidence. ‘His physicians and astrologers’, Chapuys reported, had told him that it was ‘certain . . . that the Lady would bear a son’. The King clearly believed them and had made arrangements accordingly. He had already started planning the celebratory jousts. The French were approached to send a ‘notable personage’ to represent Francis I at the christening of the Prince. And the royal clerks prepared circular letters announcing the ‘deliverance and bringing forth of a Prince’ and requiring the addressees to ‘pray for the good health, prosperity and continual preservation of the said Prince’. The letters were written in Anne’s name and sealed with the Queen’s signet, and they needed only the date to be filled in.
Oops. To make matter's worse, Henry's lustful eyes had already begun to rove.
On 3 September, a week after Anne had taken to her Chamber... Henry and Anne had their first quarrel. It was, needless to say, about another woman – perhaps indeed one of the Court beauties whom Henry had had such opportunity to scrutinise at Anne’s coronation banquet. In response, Anne, ‘full of jealousy . . . used some words to the King at which he was displeased’. And this time Henry did not swallow his displeasure. Instead, he told her ‘that she must shut her eyes, and endure as her betters had done’. And he added a threat: ‘she ought to know that it was in his power to humble her again in a moment more than he had exalted her’. Anne was finding out the difference between being a mistress and a wife. And she did not like it.
Three years after her coronation, Anne traveled the same route by barge, but this time to the Tower, where she awaited her sham trial and execution. Starkey gives stunningly little space to this process or what led Henry to disavow the woman he'd worked so long and hard to gain. (No matter. Alison Weir can fill in the gaps. Read The Lady in the Tower.)  Both historians make it plain, however, that Henry had already set his sights on his third wife when he agreed to Anne's arrest. A mere ten days after Anne's decapitation, he remarried.

Jane Seymour:  Some historians have claimed that plain, quiet Jane was the love of Henry's life. Starkey is among those who disagree. His marriage with Jane seems rather like one of defeat and practicality. And, of course, religion and politics.
How a woman like Jane Seymour became Queen of England is a mystery. In Tudor terms she came from nowhere and was nothing... [Henry] also, more disturbingly, wanted submission. For increasing age and the Supremacy’s relentless elevation of the monarchy had made him ever more impatient of contradiction and disagreement. Only obedience, prompt, absolute and unconditional, would do... Jane was everything that Anne was not. She was calm, quiet, soft-spoken (when she spoke at all) and profoundly submissive, at least to Henry. In short, after Anne’s flagrant defiance of convention, Jane was the sixteenth-century’s ideal woman (or at least the sixteenth-century male’s ideal woman).
Jane welcomed the Ladies Mary and Elizabeth (now stripped of their Princess titles and reduced to bastardy as both their mothers' marriages had been declared invalid) into the Court, and it seems she sincerely wanted them to have warm relations with their father. She and Henry did in fact argue, and most often about religious matters. The split between England's Reformers and Catholics had not healed and was in fact only widening into a more violent chasm.
But it is important to be clear about Jane’s place in the scheme of things. For [Catholic nobles], she was a means, not an end. Their immediate goal was to restore Mary as heir to the throne, and, with Mary as a stalking-horse, to bring about a Catholic restoration also... Jane’s smooth ascent produced near euphoria among Mary’s supporters. ‘The joy shown . . . at the hope of [Mary’s] restoration is inconceivable,’ Chapuys reported.
Jane's submissiveness may have soothed Henry after his debacle with fiery Anne, and she did present him (at the cost of her own life) with that male heir for whom he was so desperate. This was not, however, what anyone might call a happy marriage.
A week after the publication of his marriage to Jane, Henry had met two beautiful young ladies. He had sighed and said ‘[he was] sorry that he had not seen them before he was married’.  Jane’s honeymoon was proving shorter than she expected.
Anne of Cleves:   She has often been my favourite of Henry's wives, although their marriage was the shortest and was never consummated. Anne had pluck and common sense, but Starkey adds a note of pathos to her story.
Anne, far from retreating thankfully into the status of a well-endowed divorcée, never gave up hope of remarrying Henry and viewed each of his succeeding marriages with despair and renewed chagrin.
But I've gotten ahead of myself. Jane had been dead less than a year when Henry started casting about for a new wife. He'd heard fabulous things about Christina, the Duchess of Milan, and the following says a lot about the superficiality of the King's affections.
Henry sent Holbein to paint the Duchess of Milan. The resulting portrait confirmed all the details of her beauty, down to the dimpled cheeks and chin. It also confirmed that she was Henry’s type. He fell in love with the woman, and, when the marriage failed to proceed, remained in love with the picture, which he kept in his collection to his dying day.
To Henry's angry astonishment (and bruised ego, no doubt), the Duchess famously rebuffed him, reportedly quipping, "If I had two heads, I should be happy to put one of them in the King's service."

Other reports came to Henry's ear, though, that Princess Anne of Cleves was even lovelier than the Duchess of Milan.
If Anne were really so superior to Christina then she was beautiful indeed... And his feelings were fed not with images but with words. All over the summer, Cromwell and his agents had told him that Anne – the beautiful, the gentle, the good and the kind – was the woman for him. Finally he had come to believe them.
I've often thought, based upon Holbein's portrait of her, that Anne of Cleves was among the most beautiful of Henry's wives. And it was an advantageous political match, to boot. It instead proved a fiasco. Henry was repulsed from the moment he laid eyes on her and was unable to consummate the marriage. It's a wonder that Holbein didn't lose his head. Cromwell lost his. He had offended a great many on his climb to power, of course, but the failed Anne of Cleves match was the last straw for His Majesty.
The fallen minister was not even given the dignity of a trial. Instead, he was condemned by a Parliamentary process known as an Act of Attainder. The charges were a fantastic mixture of treason, heresy and scandalum magnatum, or being rude and oppressive to nobles. Only the last had any vestige of truth. But truth, as Cromwell had fatally taught Henry, was not important. Only Henry’s convenience was. 
In a time before mass media, it surprised and touched me that Anne had managed to warm the public heart. 
Despite her short reign, Anne had become remarkably popular. Her divorce, Marillac reported, had been ‘to the great regret of this people, who loved and esteemed her as the sweetest, most gracious and kindest Queen they ever had or would desire’.
To her great credit, Anne appears to have made her exit with dignity (and a generous bit of real estate), if a great deal of sadness. Henry, of course, needed to prove his virility and had begun to look about for a new vehicle for that purpose.
Anne herself probably understood little of the political storm which raged round her and of which she was the all-too-passive cause. She was shrewd enough, however, to notice the King’s attentions to Catherine Howard, and, on 20 June, she complained vigorously about them to the Cleves agent in London, Karl Harst. Two days later, she was in better spirits, because Henry had spoken to her kindly. It was the last time she saw him as her husband.
Catherine Howard:  She's often portrayed as a flighty, flirty girl. Starkey presents Catherine as a political puppet, but also a young woman whom Henry apparently loved with a passion that may well have rivaled what he felt for her cousin, the late Anne Boleyn. 
Marillac’s picture of an infatuated King is borne out by the inventory of Catherine’s jewels, which shows that Henry lavished an Aladdin’s cave of precious stones on her.
Unlike Anne of Cleves, Catherine had grown up in the English court, and thus she was vivacious, funny, and bawdy. This sort of thing was quite normal in England, and the fact that Catherine had flirted, or possibly even had sex with handsome Francis Dereham before her marriage was no deal-breaker. Only cheating on the King was high treason. When someone left an anonymous note for Henry reporting her pre-marital monkey business, Henry was distraught. Hoping for the best, he asked his ministers to investigate more fully. When they found proof that she had smuggled a handsome young courtier, a Master Culpeper, into her bedchamber at night while the King slept in a nearby room, Henry was devastated.
Henry was badly shaken. He had believed. And he had been proved wrong. ‘His heart was so pierced with pensiveness’, the Council reported, ‘that long it was before his Majesty could speak and utter the sorrow of his heart unto us.’ And when he did so, he wept freely ‘which was strange in one of his courage’. Were his tears for Catherine? Or the loss of his own illusions?
Catherine Parr: Starkey dashes the often-bruited story that Catherine, his last wife, played the nursemaid to an ill and irascible Henry. That was simply not a role that a royal wife or Queen played in those times. She did, however, appear to sooth and comfort him when they spent time together. She barely dodged a bullet when Catholics launched a campaign to be rid of her, and before they could try again, the King was dead. As it happened with so many of his wives, Catherine didn't realise that she was seeing her husband for the last time.
Henry’s will, though it gave Catherine honour and wealth after her husband’s death, excluded her from all part in government. She would be Queen Dowager, not Queen Regent. On 11 January 1547, Catherine’s lodgings at Whitehall were got ready for her arrival. But it is unclear whether or not she was allowed to see the King. Certainly she was not present when Henry died on the night of 28 January 1547.
After Henry's death -- and some say after an indecently short time -- Catherine married Thomas Seymour, with whom she'd been in love as a girl and, despite being in her mid-thirties, conceived a child. The Lady Elizabeth came to live with them. It seemed that everyone was positioned to live happily ever after.
But it all went sour. Seymour made open love to Elizabeth. The baby turned out to be a girl. And Catherine, like Jane Seymour before her, caught puerperal fever after the birth.
Starkey never discusses Anne of Cleves' death. He simply leaves her in her household in the countryside. Did he forget her there, or was there simply no record of her death?  Poor Anne. In retrospect, though, being married to Henry VIII was never easy and rarely pleasant. These women all paid dearly for their status, jewels and their prominent places in English history books. 

Mr. Starkey has a glittering vocabulary, and here are some of my favourite gems, some new, some forgotten...  termagant (a violent, turbulent, brawling woman), libri pestiferi (noxious books), polyvalent (multifaceted), "an oleaginous speech" (haven't we all heard politicians making oily speeches?), and  "one of the liminal days in his short life" (relating to the point beyond which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced, or more simply, related to a threshold).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.