Finally free of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII is now married to Anne Boleyn, and eagerly awaits the birth of his son. In a court still reeling from the royal divorce and amid growing resentment against church reform, Henry must negotiate widespread resentment toward Anne. But his lifelong dreams of a son to cement his Tudor bloodline are shattered when Anne is delivered of a daughter.
Burying his disappointment, Henry focuses on getting her with child again, but their marriage is volatile and, as Henry faces personal bereavement and discord at court, Anne’s enemies are gathering. When the queen miscarries of a son, and Henry suffers a life-threatening accident, his need for an heir becomes vital. Waiting in the wings is Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting, who offers the king respite from Anne’s fiery passions.
But, when Anne falls foul of her former ally, Thomas Cromwell, and the king is persuaded that Anne has made him a cuckold, Henry strikes out and the queen falls beneath the executioner’s sword, taking key players in Henry’s household with her.
Jane Seymour, stepping up to replace the fallen queen, quickly becomes pregnant. Delighted with his dull but fertile wife, Henry’s spirits rise even further when the prince is born safely. At last, Henry has all he desires, but even as he celebrates, fate is preparing to deliver one more staggering blow.
The virile young prince is now a damaged middle-aged man, disappointed in those around him but most of all in himself. As the king’s optimism diminishes, his intractability increases, and soon the wounded lion will begin to roar.
Even with an overabundance of Tudor novels, I’m always ready to pick up a new one by Judith because her writing is so delicious. Once again we get a Henry VIII in first person, giving us an insider’s view, so to speak, of his unswerving ability for self-justification. We go from wife number two to wife number three without regret. We don’t hear much about the religious fall-out until Henry can’t ignore public opinion any longer. Even then, he must send others to do his dirty work and put down the rebellion in the North. And still, he refuses to acknowledge any convictions that conflict with his own. For instance, when Queen Jane objects to his treatment of the northern rebels:
“I worry, Henry, after what happened in York …”
My heart sinks. She means Aske. Someone has told her he is still hanging in chains from the walls of the castle, and she is worried that God will punish us for inflicting such a slow agonising death. She doesn’t understand that Aske is the sinner, and I am guided by God. To speak against me, as God’s representative, is to speak against God Himself. Aske chose his fate, not I.
I cover her hand with mine.
“Jane,” I say gently, as if addressing a child. “God speaks through me. It is His will.”
Oh, brother! How can Henry say this with a straight face? Although he admits he hates the tyrant he is becoming, he doesn’t seem to have any interest in changing his behavior. To an extent this point of view works, but because he always has to be right, that means everyone else has to be wrong. Poor Anne Boleyn doesn’t stand a chance. This kind of skews her side of the story, because it’s not as easy to depict how ridiculous he sounds. Could she be as bitchy as he says? Maybe. Was she really as impossible to live with, as her successive pregnancies got in the way of their relationship? Henry can’t possibly be blameless in her eventual demise, but from his story he was. I felt like too many things were left out—probably deliberately, since Henry is speaking. I enjoyed reading this book, but in the end, I found it a bit unsatisfying.
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