Henry VIII Fell Deeply in Love with Falling in Love ; Six Women and the History of Western Culture Hung on His Heart

Article excerpt

Following his father's death in 1509, the 17-year-old Henry Tudor, now King Henry VIII, married his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon. She was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, sponsors of Christopher Columbus and more controversially of the Spanish Inquisition.

Then some 16 years later, one daughter and many miscarriages later, Henry laid eyes on Anne Boleyn - dazzling, witty, beautiful, intelligent, musical, the perfect court lady. Henry was besotted. But this Anne was also an early convert to the new Protestantism sweeping Europe - a reform movement that favored individual good works and piety over pilgrimages and papal tradition.

The stage was set. But divorce from Catherine was eight frantic years in coming. And that was only the beginning of Henry's marital meanderings and the process that would sever England from the Catholic church and see Henry marry five more wives. Somewhere along the line, Henry also fell deeply in love with falling in love.

To be frank, I don't like the Tudors. In fact, I scrupulously avoid them. Rather like stinging nettles. Their reigns were so brutal, so full of connivers and conniving - and their greed was so greedy. Power struggles against them were invariably fatal. So I eschew them (in favor of the far calmer waters of the Napoleonic Wars). Thus it came as a bit of a surprise to find myself entranced by David Starkey's intimate biography, "Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII."

My downfall started early, on page 1, with Starkey's style. His writing is so amiable and intelligent, so entirely engaging that my anti-Tudor avoidance mechanism was fully disarmed. Instead of the arid historical cant of previous generations of Victorian and neo- Victorian historians, he begins his magnum opus this way: "The Six Wives of Henry VIII is one of the world's great stories: indeed, it contains the whole world of literature within itself. It is more far- fetched than any soap opera; as sexy and violent as any tabloid; and darker and more disturbing that the legend of Bluebeard. It is both a great love story and a supreme political thriller."

His language is fresh, alive, current. To quote Evelyn Waugh, it's like "drowning in honey, stingless." And it only gets better because Starkey is also quite a sleuth - or terrier. As he demonstrated in his bestselling biography "Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne" (2000), there is no fragment of information too small, too foreign, too illegible, too out of sync to escape his notice. …