Book Review – The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence

By Nathen Amin

Some may argue that the topic of Henry VIII and his six wives is a subject that has suffered oversaturation in recent decades, with innumerable works produced analysing every possible aspect of the Tudor king’s relationship with the women in his life. The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence, however, proves to be another worthy addition to the genre, taking a fresh look at an old subject as has become the author’s trademark in recent years.

Subtitled ‘The Women’s Stories’, this gives you an indication of what to expect from an author well-known for her work on the female gender of 15th and 16th century England, and this isn’t a negative thing. As with her previous, and probably future, books, this isn’t a work written by woman that is only intended to be read by women. Licence’s goal is to discuss the subject of Henry VIII and his tumultuous love life from the perspectives of his female companions, a varied and intriguing array of women whose voices have sometimes become obscured by the drama that surrounded this larger-than-life monarch. Even the most casual of observers is generally aware of Henry’s wants, needs and desires, noting how he infamously ploughed through several wives to satisfy his thirst; indeed, it has been documented time and time again.

In this particular work, however, Licence sets out, and succeeds, in her objective to bring sometime-queens such as Katherine of Aragon and Catherine Howard back to life, using contemporary sources to support her conclusions, some of which are mainstream and others which are innovative in their deduction. Where Licence’s book has worth, however, is in her thorough accounts of the lives of Henry’s lesser-known lovers, from Bessie Blount to Mary Boleyn, and from Elizabeth Carew to Jane Popincourt, women often reduced to a mere sentence or two in other works.

It soon becomes apparent that this isn’t a biography of Henry VIII, and true to her intention, the book is rather divided into sections documenting the life and times of the women, with each chapter and sub-section introduced with a contemporary quote, a nice touch. Part 1 of Six Wives covers the life of Catherine of Aragon, from her birth in 1485 to 1509, the year Henry VII died and Henry VIII became king, as well as her husband. Even so, Henry was powerful, handsome and lusty during the early years of his marriage, and Part 2 looks at Queen Catherine’s rivals in the Tudor court between 1510 and 1515, including Anne Hastings, the little-known Flemish maid Etiennette de la Baume, and the aforementioned ladies Popincourt and Carew. Etiennette, in particular, is an interesting addition as even well-read Tudor aficionados may not be aware of Henry’s French conquest, or another known mysteriously only as ‘Madame the Bastard’. Part 3, meanwhile, documents the king’s affair with Bessie Blount, the only woman with whom he had an acknowledged bastard, whilst parts 4-9 cover his remaining wives.

I particularly enjoyed the brief description of a man named William Webbe who cried vengeance against the king for Henry’s liaison with a woman described in official records as a ‘wench’, and whom he installed in a property for the purposes of adultery. I wished we knew more about Webbe, for it must have taken considerable courage to accuse the king when other men remained tight-lipped in such scenarios, out of fear no doubt.

What is evident from Licence’s study is that the women in Henry’s life were, as simply as it sounds, just that; living, breathing women, full of the same hopes and fears for their future as any woman walking the planet today. This may seem like an obvious statement, but too often in books relating to the Tudor era are the women reduced to caricatures – the proud woman, the scheming woman, the flirty woman and so on. The human mind is far more complex than this, shaped by circumstances both within and without each person’s control. Whilst we have the benefit of hindsight in knowing how their actions would shape their destiny, these women didn’t have that luxury. Licence attempts to explain those she is studying with this concept in mind, and in my opinion is successful in her endeavour.  The myth, in essence, is stripped away until we’re faced with the reality.

Amy Licence is unquestionably one of the most popular Tudor authors of her generation, a reputation created from her clear style of writing, attention to detail and refreshing takes on a well-worn subject. The blurb for The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII pointedly asks “What was it like to be Mrs Henry VIII?”. After finishing this book, you will have a much better idea. A valuable addition to the study of both Tudor and female history.

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Amy Licence is the author of several books on the Tudor dynasty and the Wars of the Roses, including In Bed With the Tudors (‘A fascinating book examining the sex lives of the Tudors in unprecedented detail’ Daily Express), Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York and The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII, all published by Amberley. Amy has written for the Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and BBC History Magazine and has appeared on BBC radio and television. She lives in Canterbury with her husband and two children

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Book Review – Red Roses: Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort

By Nathen Amin

Amy Licence is arguably the most prolific historical writer in Britain at the moment, and I often marvel at how she constantly puts out numerous books concurrently without any depreciation in quality. Coming hot on the heels or her recent releases is Red Roses, the first book which focuses on the women of the House of Lancaster during the 14th and 15th centuries.

The story of the Wars is very much en vogue at the moment, which is great news for those of us enamoured with the struggle between York and Lancaster, a period often overlooked in favour of the later Tudor period. That being said, within a few years so many books have been released on the subject it seems difficult to find a book that takes a fresh look at the conflict. Licence has managed to do just that, concentrating on the females surrounding the various Lancastrian leaders. The men may have got the glory, but behind them were their women – the wives, daughters and mistresses whose lives and influences played a key role in how the Wars played out. Some, like Blanche of Lancaster and Joan Beaufort, were born Lancastrians whilst others like Katherine Valois and Margaret Anjou were married in. It is no surprise to see Licence, renowned for her women’s histories, note in her final chapter that the book is an attempt to provide an alternative narrative of English history and to ‘complement the dominant male version of events with one of female experience and influence’.

51kQmJqQr8LLicence’s book is chronologically split into five parts, allowing easy navigation between subjects and also breaking up the oft-times confusing nature of the period, which in this respect spans about 150 years. Part One focuses on the various wives of John of Gaunt, that father of the Lancastrian Dynasty and one of England’s most wealthy and influential magnates. Through his three wives, Gaunt’s descendants would reign over England, Portugal and Spain, spreading the Lancastrian connection across Europe. Part Two focuses on the struggle between Richard II and Henry IV with Part Three providing an overview of the early 15th century and the stories of Katherine Valois and Joan Beaufort, Queens of England and Scotland respectively. Part Four features the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, led in part by the domineering Margaret Anjou, queen to the beleaguered Lancastrian king Henry VI. The final part of the book finishes, perhaps fittingly, with arguably the greatest of all the Lancastrian women, Margaret Beaufort, a Lancastrian by descent and marriage.

We are treated to the author’s own reserved ideas on the period, putting forward her theories on events without leaping to sensational conclusions, as unfortunately often seems to be the case these days. The book runs through a number of primary sources, discussing contemporary opinions on the subject at hand with modern analysis. What is particularly appreciated is that the author does not attempt to enforce her developed opinion as fact, but rather puts forward the information and lets the reader decide. It’s a power I, as the reader, appreciates being given.

As is Licence’s wont, Red Roses is a thorough and detailed piece of work, well researched and different enough from other Wars of the Roses books to make it a worthwhile read. Although I would have preferred to see colour photographs, that this is the only real gripe I have with the book is indicative of the strength of the work presented. It’s a fascinating project documenting the lives of many intriguing women, connected through a shared Lancastrian affinity. An engaging and informative read.

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Amy Licence is the author of several books on the Tudor dynasty and the Wars of the Roses, including In Bed With the Tudors (‘A fascinating book examining the sex lives of the Tudors in unprecedented detail’ Daily Express), Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York and The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII. Amy has written for the Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and BBC History Magazine and has appeared on BBC radio and television. She lives in Canterbury with her husband and two children.

Book Review – Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville; A True Romance by Amy Licence

Author Amy Licence notes in her introduction that Edward IV has been somewhat overlooked in the annals of British history, noting that he was ‘a king who has been damned with faint praise’. This may at first seem surprising to those that study the fifteenth century over which his sizable figure looms large. Edward was tall and handsome, a courageous soldier on the battlefield who had been blessed an irresistible charm around his subjects. Yet when one takes a step back and looks at medieval England objectively, the author has a point; Edward IV has been overshadowed, if not by his brother Richard III or grandson Henry VIII then certainly by other monarchs like Henry V and Edward III.

Licence endeavours to bring this first king of the House of York out of the shadows of his illustrious relations, a task in which she succeeds with this book, the first non-fiction work about their relationship. The story of Edward is principally the story of his scandalous, kingdom-dividing marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, a topic Licence examines in detail in an attempt to uncover the significance of their controversial nuptials in 1464. It is a subject the she feels continues to fascinate ‘as an enduring love story set against the most turbulent of times’. She’s right.

Edward could have chosen any woman in Europe to have been his wife; after valiantly winning his crown on a battlefield at the age of only nineteen, he was every inch a stereotypical fairy tale prince. Tall, handsome, athletic, rich and young, he possessed ‘princely and knightly courage’. Edward IV was the most eligible bachelor in the western world. It was therefore inconceivable that he took for his wife the widow Elizabeth Woodville, five years his elder and allied to the Lancastrian affinity. It was unpopular with his nobles, his subjects and his family. Perhaps the fact she was considered ‘the most beautiful woman in the island of Britain’ had a bearing, but as the author points out, there was much more to Elizabeth than her looks. That Edward persevered with Elizabeth is an indication of his genuine love and attraction for his wife.

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The first part book provides ample background information on both Edward and Elizabeth, focusing on their childhood and early adulthood, culminating in their fortuitous meeting, some say, under an oak tree. Particularly welcomed is the detail Licence provides about the early years of Elizabeth, not a topic often covered in most works which tend to concentrate on those of royal birth. Personally I was intrigued to discover that, prior to her first marriage, Elizabeth was courted by Sir Hugh Joneys of Swansea. I was aware that Joneys would later be entrusted with tutoring the young Henry Tudor in martial arts during the 1460s and was pleased to discover this other, lesser-known, event in his life. Such small detail is a credit to the research Licence has undertaken.

No book about Edward IV and Elizabeth is complete without covering the latter part of their relationship, the demise of the king due to his excessive lifestyle and the subsequent tragedy of the Princes in the Tower. Unlike many writers who may feel the temptation to do so, Licence doesn’t dwell on history’s most famous ‘whodunit’ other than to discuss the events from the viewpoint of her subject, the desperate Elizabeth, again an often underdeveloped perspective of the period.

It is difficult to cover such a broad topic as the Wars of the Roses and the multitude of characters without confusing a reader new to the subject, but Licence succeeds in simplifying the era and in particular the complex genealogical aspect of the conflict. To do this without omitting any vital detail is applauded. Another welcome aspect of the book is Licence’s regular usage of extended sourced material as part of the main text rather than footnoted, for example the letter of Edward as a child to his father in 1455. Whilst on some occasions this may interrupt the narrative, it is utilised to such effect by the author that in this instance that it helps the reader’s understanding of the period as well as perhaps formulating their own interpretation of the source along with Licence’s.

Overall the book is well researched and engaging piece that offers a fresh view of a well-told subject, a talent which Licence has shown numerous times in her previous work. At one point Licence poses the question – ‘What was it about this woman that so captivated Edward that he was prepared to take such a risk?’. Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville, a True Romance goes some way to helping answer that question.

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Amy Licence is the author of several books on the Tudor dynasty and the Wars of the Roses, including In Bed With the Tudors (‘A fascinating book examining the sex lives of the Tudors in unprecedented detail’ Daily Express), Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York and The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII, all published by Amberley. Amy has written for the Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and BBC History Magazine and has appeared on BBC radio and television. She lives in Canterbury with her husband and two children.