Karen Lindsey’s “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII”

This is a well researched and written book that gives a gliding over view of each of Henry VIII‘s wives.  Each of the wives, however, are not given equal page space, and as you can well imagine, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn have about four chapters to themselves whilst Jane Seymour has one, but is barely mentioned in it as the author goes on tangents about other things.  After the more fully developed chapters on the two first wives, the other four seemed to be tacked on as almost an afterthought.

This is quite understandable, given how much we know about Seymour, and how much we know about Boleyn and not to mention just how much had to occur to get Boleyn on the throne.  However, Catherine Howard‘s and Katherine Parr‘s chapters are almost neglected, only Parr’s chapter is fleshened out by the authors addition of Anne Askew; a Protestant Martyr.  Whilst very interesting, the author, who did her PhD research project on Anne Askew, has clearly thrown her in Parr’s chapter because the author favours her, and gives her the most tenuous link to Parr to justify it.  Anne of Cleve’s chapter is detailed and refreshing, full of the author’s personal insight as to what really caused the annulment between Henry and Anne.  The short marriage is actually quite detailed.

The author promises a feminist approach to the analysis, and that promise has not been taken lightly; she verges on misandry.  I consider myself a feminist, but this kind of feminism is what gives it a bad name.  Although I do not like Henry VIII myself, I think the author goes too far to dismiss every decision he made and simplify his actions by stating they were all selfish.  The sentences with his name always contain some negative verb before or after, most often ‘tyrannical’ and ‘selfish’.  She never stops for a moment to suggest what political pressure he was under, and that he ever cared for any of his wives.  She is even as bold as to say that Henry VIII could not love.  She even dismisses his earlier time of his reign when he was charming and generous to be something of an act.  On top of that, she constantly pokes fun at his weight.  There is plenty of room for argument that Henry did good things in his time but she acknowledges none of it.  Any man in this book is given ill treatment by Lindsey in fact and that is NOT what feminism is.  She is also hopelessly modern in her interpretation of their actions.  Lindsey very often forgets the context of the time that she writes in, which is a major flaw.

This book is not for the more informed of the Tudor era, as it is pretty much a summary, and there are also some patronising explanations (e.g. she felt the need to explain that Charles Brandon marrying Charlotte Willoughby, his ward, was not paedophilia as such marriages were legal and common back then).  It is, however, a good summary, written with some humour and great accessibility.  It also includes a chapter on Margaret Beaufort (Henry VIII’s grandmother, as the author credits HER for getting Henry VII on the throne – nothing to do with the men winning the battle, of course!) and an epilogue that very quickly glides over Edward VI‘s and Mary I‘s reign before concluding that Elizabeth I took the throne and was simply awesome.


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