Saturday, July 27, 2013

Children of England: The Heirs of Kings Henry VIII, 1547-1558, by Alison Weir

With all the hoopla surrounding the royal birth, I was inspired this week to read up on some British history and, sitting on my shelves for quite some time was Children of England: The Heirs of Kings Henry VIII, 1547-1558, by Alison Weir.  This seemed like a great time to get to it.

Alison Weir is a fabulous historian and author who has done what few can and have done; she’s bridged the gap between professional and public writing.  It’s the dream of all historians to be able to write and publish books that are both snapped up by the general reading public and are well received by their peers.  Weir seems to have cracked the code and done just that.  Not only is she a well-respected non-fiction writer, but she’s also written several fiction books that are also popular.

In Children of England, Weir sets out to tell the story of the relationships between Edward IV, Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, who are the children and heirs to Henry VIII and his politics.

Mary was the daughter of Henry and Katherine of Aragon, and was the only surviving child of that marriage.  When Henry realized sons would be forthcoming, he divorced Katherine and married Anne Boleyn, who gave him Elizabeth; more children (including sons) might have come along, but Henry was fed up with Anne and divorced her and had her beheaded.  Edward, the long-sought after son, was the fruit of Henry’s next marriage to Jane Seymour.  Jane Grey, however wasn’t a child of Henry’s – she was the daughter of the daughter of Henry’s sister, and was raised a devout Protestant. 

When Henry died, he left behind a will that had been ratified by Parliament; Edward was his successor, but Mary and then Elizabeth would follow him if Edward didn’t have any children, and in Elizabeth’s case, if Mary didn’t have any children.  It was all very dicey as Edward with a devout Protestant, Mary was a fervent Catholic, and Elizabeth was just trying to stay alive.  When Edward died before he could marry, the Protestant faction at court scrambled to find someone to step into the monarch’s role that wouldn’t tank the Protestant reformation that had been going on in England; the natural choice would be Jane Grey, who had a claim to the Tudor blood line and was legitimate (unlike Mary and Elizabeth, who had been declared bastards when their father divorced their mothers).  The Protestant faction at court put Jane on the throne for nine days following the death of Edward, but Mary was able to raise an army in her defense and re-took the throne quickly; when Mary died without heirs (not from lack of trying, and a couple of false positives), Elizabeth came to power.

That is a potted history of the situation.  In her work, Weir states that she’ll be looking at the relationship(s) between the four heir of Henry to see how they related and interacted with one another, and how that influenced their decisions and action.  While she does this for the first two-thirds of the work, her assessment of the personal dynamics ends after Mary comes to the throne.  In my mind, the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth after Mary comes to power but before her death is critically important – it sets up rational for many of the early policies of Elizabeth’s reign and the Golden Age in England.  And yet, in favour of a religious/political assessment of Mary’s reign, Weir overlooks it.  It was a serious misstep, in my opinion.

But, for the rest of the work, and even during that last third when she assesses Mary’s personal life, Weir delivers an interesting and engaging assessment of the personal histories of three ‘blink and you miss them’ monarchs, and one of England’s most successful queens.  The stories that Weir is able to extract from a disparate collection of sources (such as court reports, personal journals, and diplomatic letters) brings a level of personalization and almost gossip to the lives of her subjects, and humanizes them.  It’s interesting and a well-written account of the lives of four of England’s monarchs.

So, final verdict?  I’d say read this book.  For a historical biography, it demonstrates exactly why Weir is so well received in both professional and public spheres – it’s interesting and engaging, it rarely lags, and it does a good job at giving as personal an account as possible of four very important figures in Tudor history.  I enjoyed it, and I’ll be going back to Weir as an author for both fiction and non-fiction works for years to come.  

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