Six Wives. The Queens of Henry VIII.

By David Starkey

Printed: 2003

Publisher: Chatto & Windus. London

Edition: First edition

Dimensions 17 × 24 × 5 cm

Language: English

Signed by: 1

Size (cminches): 17 x 24 x 5

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In the original dustsheet. Black cloth binding with gilt title on the spine.

  • F.B.A. provides an in-depth photographic presentation of this item to stimulate your feeling and touch. More traditional book descriptions are immediately available.

Most British school children learn the following rhyme to help them remember the fate of each wife: “Divorced, Beheaded, Died: Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”. Everyone recognises his portrait: a fat, larger-than-life individual, wearing clothes set with jewels and sporting a neat red beard.

You can see why David Starkey gets up the noses of many Tudor historians. Smooth and snappy on television, scholarly and extremely readable in print (good enough to have earned a living in the colour supplements had he not become an academic), he’s apparently making a fortune out of communicating brilliantly while most of the others labour with little reward in either popularity or cash, which is always a bit trying for the also-rans. There’s also the fact that he has almost cornered the market in Big Tudor Studies, though Alison Weir may be coming up on the rails. She did, in fact, get there before him with a book on Henry VIII’s wives, as did Antonia Fraser even earlier in 1992, but Starkey stakes his own claim early on by pointing out how much new material he alone has gathered, as well as proving that a Holbein miniature is indeed of Catherine Howard, which many historians before him have doubted. His is, in one striking sense, a very uneven book, for 583 of its pages are devoted to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, but this is perfectly justifiable when Henry’s first two marriages changed the course of English religious history, which was not much disturbed by the other four. So here we have Catherine and Anne – the one a woman “of indomitable courage and resourcefulness”, the other possessed of “a driving will and ambition” – quite overshadowing the wives who came after them. Starkey quite clearly admires Catherine most of all. He presents her not only as a gutsy woman who stood her corner and more than once outmanoeuvred her husband, but as a wife who loved Henry well and even continued to make his shirts after their separation. Her failing, of course, was not to produce a male heir, which was the first imperative of royal marriages, and we may speculate on what might have been had she mothered a prince instead of a mere princess.

Henry would no doubt still have lusted after Anne, but Starkey seems sure the Boleyn girl would not have submitted except in exchange for a throne. As it was, she played the skilful cocotte to a man who was moving to shed Catherine from the moment the queen miscarried for the second time, having already lost two infants shortly after birth. By the end of her marriage, Catherine would have paid lawyers £1,218 – a huge sum in the 16th century – in the attempt to retain her sovereignty. At least her life did not come to a violent end, whereas Anne’s fate was dreadful, though Starkey gives the impression that she more or less had it coming to her. She is presented here as a scheming trollop who didn’t hesitate to answer back (always a dangerous thing to do with someone who’s injured pride frequently took nasty forms) but there is pathos too in the way her fate was settled principally by Henry’s roving eye, which had fallen on Jane Seymour while Anne was failing in maternity as miserably as her predecessor. And when the king decided the time had come for another change, “Henry slipped away without a word”, just as he had done with Catherine. As the first of the secondary wives, Seymour “came from nowhere and was nothing”, but she offered a tranquillity that perhaps Henry needed after all the recent excitement: more importantly, she provided him with the son who became Edward VI at the cost of her own life. On, then, to Anne of Cleves, a political marriage that was an unconsummated disaster, possibly because the normally priapic Henry was made impotent by her failure to recognise him when they first met (that injured pride again). Although his German consort was dismissed to make way for Catherine Howard, she and Henry settled into a distantly amiable relationship, while the king was aroused once more by the second flirt to cross his sights. Howard would follow Anne Boleyn to the block, when Henry discovered that she had been something more than flirtatious with at least two men before their marriage, without telling him; and in his book that was a very great treason indeed. And so to Catherine Parr, twice widowed and with two stepchildren, who gave him, for the first time, the comfortable domesticity that a part of Henry had always craved – though Starkey makes plain that she was politically more astute than any of her predecessors. He also reckons that she just might in turn have been on her way out when Henry died at Whitehall, for she wasn’t with him when that happened, and she didn’t attend the funeral. Starkey doesn’t try to minimise Henry’s various monstrosities, but he carefully notes other sides to his character, including great tenderness to Catherine of Aragon during her pregnancies, and rather more affection for the Princess Mary than earlier accounts have given him credit for. More surprisingly perhaps, he believes that, far from making a clear-cut decision to exchange Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, Henry was highly confused by the tug o’ war between two strong-minded women.

Uneven in a purely technical sense, this is an extremely balanced book in more important ways: it’s also absorbing, though Starkey has an irritating weakness for jarring anachronism, which improbably includes references to Harrods, Pickfords and the almost inevitable Diana. But now I think we could all do with a break from Henry VIII’s wives.

There were other notable events in his reign apart from serial matrimony, and one was his laying the foundations of English seapower, which was to stand Henry’s second daughter Elizabeth in good stead in her conflict with Spain. One of the first things he did on reaching the throne was to build the Mary Rose, a four-masted carrack with gun-ports cut into the hull, which was then an innovation in maritime ordnance. The ship remained his great pride, together with the later Henry Grace a Dieu, until disaster struck in 1545, when it heeled over too far while leaving Portsmouth to engage the French; the sea rushed in through the open gun-ports, and it went down with almost all hands, while Henry watched aghast from the Southsea shore. The salvage 20 years ago was one of the great epics of marine archaeology and has added much to our knowledge of a largely underrated period of naval history. CS Knighton and David Loades have pushed our understanding a bit further with Letters from the Mary Rose, an excellent monograph that includes a number of documents – some published here in full for the first time – logging the course of the ship’s 34 years at sea. They record not only the various voyages and engagements, but life on board, and the excruciating tale of Jacques Berenghier of Lille, who was press-ganged, subsequently racked, and finally threatened with hanging after having his ears slit – and all because he was suspected of unproven sabotage aboard a sister-ship of Mary Rose. Royal wives were not the only people who lived precariously while Henry was king.

                                           Henry VIII’s six wives


Catherine of Aragon


Anne Boleyn


Jane Seymour


Anne of Cleves


Catherine Howard


Catherine Parr


David Robert Starkey CBE (born 3 January 1945) is an English historian, radio and television presenter, with views that he describes as conservative. The only child of Quaker parents, he attended Kendal Grammar School before reading history at Cambridge on a scholarship. There he specialised in Tudor history, writing a thesis on King Henry VIII’s household. From Cambridge, he moved to the London School of Economics, where he was a lecturer in history until 1998. He has written several books on the Tudors.


Starkey first appeared on television in 1977. While a regular contributor to the BBC Radio 4 debate programme The Moral Maze, his acerbic tongue earned him the sobriquet of “rudest man in Britain”; his frequent appearances on Question Time have been received with criticism and applause. Starkey has presented several historical documentaries. In 2002, he signed a £2 million contract with Channel 4 for 25 hours of programming, and in 2011 was a contributor on the Channel 4 series Jamie’s Dream School.

Starkey was widely censured for a comment he made during a podcast interview with Darren Grimes in June 2020 that was perceived as racist, for which he later apologised. Immediately afterwards, he resigned as an honorary fellow of his alma mater, Fitzwilliam College, had several honorary doctorates and fellowships revoked, book contracts and memberships of learned societies cancelled, and his Medlicott Medal withdrawn.

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