The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII
by Jillianne Hamilton
I am always thrilled to read anything about Henry VIII and his wives, one of my earliest historical interests! I read The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII in just a few short hours, and I found myself unexpectedly charmed by it. This "short romp" is definitely geared toward a younger audience and toward people without much prior knowledge of Tudor history. This type of book is sorely needed in today's world, to interest young people in history and educate in a fun, modern way. But I thought at first it would be too simplified and basic for anyone more experienced to enjoy. Henry VIII is something of a passion for me, yet even with almost two decades of reading and research about him, I still found Jillianne Hamilton's book to be relevant, well-researched and, overall, fun!
This book is very brief and really functions as a general introduction to the lives and times of Tudor England's most famous royalty: King Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katheryn Howard, and Katherine Parr. Each chapter is devoted to one of Henry's wives and gives a short biography of her life BH (Before Henry), then delves into her relationship with the king and her ultimate end. It also includes a basic intro to the Tudor dynasty as a whole, and ends with a postscript about the fates of Henry's children. I particularly enjoyed the many asides Hamilton included in separate text boxes, which gave interesting historical tidbits related to the main text, such as marriageable ages, Tudor bridal traditions, tuberculosis, and mental illness in Tudor England.
Hamilton does a wonderful job boiling down the key points in an often complex and confusing history, and presents the facts clearly. There is not enough room in her book for much in-depth analysis, as that is outside the scope of her work, but her research is well-grounded and her narrative makes you feel like you're getting a beer with her and listening to her talk/rant about Henry and his wives. I don't know if she drinks beer, but in my imagination she totally did.
From Top Left: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Bolyen, Jane Seymour.
From Bottom Left: Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr.
The best part about this book, and what makes it stand apart from other introductory book about the time period is Hamilton's sense of humor and sassy mockery of historical figures. She injects a lot of her own personality into the text, which I liked, and her sarcastic remarks made me laugh out loud more than once. I especially loved her translation of medieval teenage letters into modern teenage English! Beyond the humor, I found her narrative style to be lighthearted and relatable, and I enjoyed the juxtaposition of her contemporary idioms with this 500+ year-old history. My favorite part was when she quoted a letter from Jane Seymour (Wife # 3) to Henry VIII before their marriage, and then interpreted it as "...a sweet but subtle way of telling Henry that he better put a ring on it." What a funny way to resonate with new generations of young historians! I also enjoyed her comment that the young Henry "...wanted to throw some wicked parties." I've never heard it put that way before, but it's so true!
The self-stated focus of Hamilton's research and attention is on women's history. In that vein, understandably, she is ever so slightly anti-Henry. However, I was impressed with her fairness in her assessment of him, and how she never took cheap, non-factual shots at him like some people I could name (cough*philippagregory*cough). In all her analyses she did, however briefly, examine both sides of an issue and leave room for a different interpretation of Henry, which I really appreciated. I noticed this especially in the debate over whether Catherine of Aragon was a virgin or not when she married Henry. (If I was the type of person who wanted immortal fame and to have people still talking about me 500 years from now, it sure wouldn't be about a topic like this. Poor Catherine.)
The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII covers all the best parts of this history: The royal weddings, the royal beheadings (I couldn't resist), love, war, jewels, tragedy, and a nearly uncountable number of miscarriages. Also royal incest and other gross sexual encounters. Not because these are actually good things, but because Hamilton's reactions to them are so funny. This book will easily engage young readers in this fascinating history with its wit and sense of fun, and will hopefully remind older historians why they were passionate about the Tudors in the first place.