The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
And now for something completely different. Not a mystery book review. First, a disclaimer: I have quite a limited experience with history books, having read fewer than 10 of these in my lifetime, in contrast with well over a thousand mysteries and several hundreds of “serious fiction” titles (not to mention non-history non-fiction titles or books in my profession).
I understand that Ms. Weir’s “serious” books, meaning her historical non-fiction, are frowned upon by “serious” historians as being too popular, simplistic, and too focused on the “plot”. This may well be true; however, on the spectrum whose endpoints are research-level study of history on one side, and fictitious story based on selected historical facts on the other side, “The Children of Henry VIII” lies quite close to the former, “serious” endpoint, in my view. True, there is perhaps too much focus on stories of individual people, the movers and shakers. Critics claim that there is not enough emphasis on socio-economic and global factors in Ms. Weir’s non-fiction. I tend to disagree. She shows how the heavy political interplay between the Habsburgs, France, and the Holy See affects England. She also shows the influence of mass movements (protests or expressions of sympathy) of “ordinary people” on the course of political events. And even if the socio-economic background is missing, I can always read a “serious” history book for additional depth. Also, the focus on the intertwined stories of individual people makes this book so interesting to read.
Ms. Weir vividly presents the four children of Henry VIII (three children and a grand-niece): Edward VI, Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, each of whom would end up ruling England. I find the characterizations deep and revealing. The book is also a fascinating study of how powerful people’s greed for more wealth and more power is not an insignificant driver of history.
The events take place in the 16th century so religion plays a crucial role; these are the times of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Ms. Weir’s portrayal of the contrast between religious fanaticism and treating religion as an expediency is quite sharp. I would love to learn more about where would most of the so-called “ordinary people” be on this spectrum.
The real-life “plot” of this book is more thrilling than the plot of 90% of the so-called thrillers, with their contrived, artificially convoluted, and obfuscating “twists and turns”.
For the Internet generation, it must be hard to take that in the 16th century news traveled by foot or, at best, on horseback. It might have taken days or even weeks for people in the country to learn that the king is dead, even if it was not a secret.
Finally, I loved the book because I had to read it slowly; it took me so much time to get through it! There was no skipping over sentences or paragraphs!
Four and a half stars.
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