Anyone who has ever even glanced at a British history textbook knows the names of these monarchs. The Tudors have become some of the most famous and infamous rulers in the history of the isles. The Tudor dynasty fostered Britain's Golden Age and the careers of the likes of William Shakespeare, Thomas Wyatt, and Sir Francis Bacon, it gave birth to the Anglican Church, and saw the beginnings of the Empire that would come to encompass ¼ of the global population. The Tudor monarchs are remembered as larger-than-life icons -- each more imposing and impossible than the last, climaxing in the legendary Elizabeth I, quite possibly Britain's best known monarch. But in this traditional approach to the dynasty much of the humanity of its members is exorcized or sacrificed in the process of legend-making. Alison Weir’s book “The Children of Henry VIII” goes to great pains to undo that process. Weir reacquaints the listener with Tudors after Henry VIII, utterly reversing much of what one thought one knew about Henry VIII’s issue.
Weir herself says that this book is not to replace the conventional histories of the latter three Tudors (plus Jane Grey) and their reigns and if this is your first dive into Tudor history I do not recommend starting here. This book expects you know something of the Tudors and 16th century Britain. However, even if you have a superficial knowledge of the Tudors this book is amazing and will utterly turn everything you thought you knew on its head. Edward VI, remembered for being sickly and manipulated by his counsel, is revealed as a self-righteous and unyielding protestant who took his father’s break from Rome one step further and enforced the Reformed Faith on British soil. Far from being bedridden and weak-willed Edward was active and stubborn, extremely dedicated to his role as king despite dying a minor. Pious, pretentious, honor-bound, human and tragic Edward becomes more than just a placeholder until Mary dons the crown but a young man determined to be the king his country and his father’s legacy deserve. Sometimes mature for his years, sometimes bratty, always human.
The nine-day queen Jane Grey, although not Henry VIII’s daughter but intimately tied to the lives and reigns of his children, gets a closer examination as well. Generally Jane is remembered as a victim, placed unwillingly on the throne by her power-hungry family and handlers. While this is true, Jane was far from meek. Weir explores Jane’s personality and her history, depicting an intelligent and snarky young woman, who, had she been allowed more than nine days on the throne, may have been a great queen in her own right. Jane’s life and legacy are explored at length alongside those of Henry VIII's children giving the listener a full and detailed portrait of this tragic and incredibly noble young woman.
Towering over Edward and Jane in the royal history of Britain are Mary and Elizabeth, the first remembered as a twisted and cruel tyrant infamously called “Bloody Mary” the second as a shrewd and unflinching “Virgin Queen.” The Queen Mary revealed by Weir is a kind and generous woman, deeply religious and bent on restoring the Ancient Faith to Britain for the sake of the souls in her country. She is wholly ignorant both romantically and politically until late in her short life. Still she attempts to rule as the best monarch possible, a weird mirror of her younger half-brother, determined to preserve and provide for her people socially and spiritually. She was popular among her people and beloved by her friends. Although the burnings are far from ignored the queen behind them is shown in a kinder light first which serves to make her executing of “heretics” (including the elderly and a pregnant woman) all the more shocking.
But Mary is not shown as “Bloody Mary”; not as a religious zealot or a heartless lunatic but as an anxious woman who ruled by her often-conflicted conscience and wanted nothing more than to be a mother; so devout she was willing to die for her faith (and more than once in her life thought she was to do just that) and so romantically/sexually innocent she didn’t know what the word “whore” meant. Mary is shown as being once popular amongst her people, well loved and motherly. Again this makes the juxtaposition between the nurturing Virgin Mary who took the throne and the religious fanatic responsible for the horrors referred to simply as The Burnings.
Although Elizabeth I’s reign is not covered in this book -- Weir has another book dedicated entirely to the subject, which I can’t wait to read -- her childhood and early adulthood are explored. The Elizabeth depicted is as clever and cunning as her reputation but shown not as Britain's most well-known ruler but a confused teenager and a stubborn royal prisoner; vulnerable and falible rather than the impossibly imposing queen championed by pop-culture. That's not to say that the Lady Elizabeth is weak-willed or ignorant, far from it, with the extremely limited tools at her disposal Elizabeth shows courage, bravado, and political finesse that would make her famous. This more fine-tuned and in-focus lens on Elizabeth Weir uses is why I'm so excited to start "The Life of Elizabeth I" to be shown the ruler and woman in greater detail.
When faced with questions left unanswered by history Weir takes a pragmatic approach. She gives many valid theories and picks off the ones that she takes issue with, citing historical precedence and logical flaws before backing her theory (or the theory to which she subscribes). In her analysis she recognizes something many historians ignore in championing their views; without the benefit of a time machine her theories are just theories. Weir is confident in her answers but she doesn’t show them as absolute truth, e.g. stating that while theory Elizabeth’s bachelorette life may have stemmed from a fear of marriage (after Thomas Seymour and her mother’s executions, etc.) makes sense, it is also a very much post-Freudian standpoint and thus alien to the Tudor period.
This book follows Weir's "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" chronologically and the two books compliment each other well. However Weir reverses her standpoint on the Seymour affair (that being the illicit romance between a young Elizabeth and the far older Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour) from the one she detailed at the end of "The Six Wives of Henry VIII," Elizabeth is no longer an excited participant, fully and willingly accepting and reciprocating the Admiral's advances but a fourteen-year-old with a budding, confused sexuality and a crush on him who reacts as much with fear and dismay as with pleasure and passion. This fact does create a good deal of confusion on the subject but the truth of the matter probably lands somewhere in-between. This is one of very few discrepancies between the these two texts -- indeed, it's the only one that immediately comes to mind -- thus the two books do flow nicely into each other as Weir intended. There is some overlap but it is not intolerable, it also means that either book can be read on its own.
From a feminist standpoint the text is undeniably rewarding, personally, as a feminist I found it one of the most enlightening texts on the subject of England's first female monarchs and sixteenth century Britain, second only to Weir's previous word "The Six Wives of Henry VIII." But it is not so overtly steeped in feminism as to be alienating to someone who does not associate with this school of thought. It can be enjoyed by anyone interested in the lives of the incredible monarchs regardless of her/his opinions on women's issues. The text sews the issues of gender-politics seamlessly (or at least painlessly) into the fuller picture of the lives of these incredible monarchs. I should also note that Edward VI is in no way neglected for the sake of his female successors, his short life and shorter reign are as closely analyzed as Mary's and Jane's.
One of the most engaging aspects of the book is that Weir shows Henry VIII's children as the family they were. There is a heavy emphasis on this idea as indicated by the title "The Children of Henry VIII". The Tudors of this text are not a dynasty of sovereigns and successors but a brother and his sisters. Weir explores their personal relationships as well as their political ones and how often these roles were at odds with one another. As part of showing the Tudors as people she explores their family ties to a great degree, not only between each other but also with the monarchs and the memory of their father, Henry VIII, and how each of his children tried, in his or her own way, to emulate him.
The focus on the personal lives and relationships of these monarchs makes them more human than any other source I've encountered on the subject. But because of this this book is definitely a study of the rulers rather than their kingdom, which is part of the reason why I'd recommend another book/audiobook first. This isn't about the accomplishments of the Tudors or the leaps and bounds made in their era and assumes you already have some small understanding of who they were and what they did. Europe, Britain included, was developing and booming; the arts, sciences, studies of religion and other aspects of culture were becoming more sophisticated than they ever had before. This was the Renaissance, possibly the most important period in European culture since the fall of the Roman Empire. "The Children of Henry VIII" is not about the swiftly changing culture outside of how it directly affected the Tudors and the text assumes the listener knows what was happening outside of the royal court at the time. You don't need to know much going into it, but this is not a conventional depiction of the Tudors or Britain under them and having that conventional knowledge when turning on the audiobook will help the listener.
I don't have much to say about the reader, which is not a bad thing. Prebble also reads "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" so he is familiar with Weir's style and definitely sounds comfortable with the text. However, his reading is unremarkable. That is to say it doesn't add to the text, but nor does it take away. It's a good thing as a bad reader can make even the best books unbearable but Prebble is not the kind of narrator who I would seek out. I think he is best suited for a history book like this in which he serves more as narrator than storyteller.
All in all it is definitely worth listening to if you have more than a passing interest in British history.
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