A while back I got into The Tudors on Showtime and as a result, jumped into a part of history that I haven’t really been into up to this point. So after watching all four seasons of The Tudors, I decided to read up on the literature and see how it stacked up to reality. With that, I read two great books by Alison Weir, The Six Wives of King Henry VIII and The Life of Elizabeth I.
I started off with The Six Wives of King Henry VIII, and after watching The Tudors, I blew through this book extremely quickly. With only one or two differences that I caught (mostly hovering around the Duke of Suffolk), the TV show is surprisingly accurate: the wives enter and leave the stage in the way Weir depicts it. The contrast is in who is in focus: in The Tudors, Henry tends to steal the show, while in The Six Wives, the wives are the real focus of the book. The latter case is unexpected, although it really shouldn’t be when you think of the title, because the treatment that women receive is just so different from the way women are perceived in today’s world. This is important enough to stress: although history readers already really knew this, Weir brings it out particularly well, and I felt (to some degree) how women were essentially a commodity or tool to be used by family members to move themselves or their family up in society. I think this is the part where The Six Wives really shines: it’s engaging, readable, and really made me feel the history rather than just know about it.
The Life of Elizabeth I also brings out this sympathy, but in a very different way. Here, Elizabeth is clearly the central character, but she maintains much greater power (her being the sovereign as opposed to the wife of the sovereign) than any of Henry’s wives. The book really brings out the complexities of her character and make her show as a three-dimensional person: she’s a genius in the political and social realms, and plays her enemies off against one another effectively, and consistently over her forty year reign. She’s also a bit of an egotist: she needs approval from those around her and is often engaged in various social conflicts with those around her to retain her alpha position in the English court. For me, this book wasn’t quite as engaging as The Six Wives: I found most of the drama to be repetitive and centered around the issues of the succession or her marriage. The Spanish Armada doesn’t really show up until 80% of the way through and ends pretty quickly, but despite this, I think it’s worth the read. Elizabeth finds herself in a number of problems unique to her being a female sovereign, as sexism pervades almost every aspect of her rule, and how she overcomes it is often clever and interesting. With the exception of a few missteps here and there (notably the whole Duke of Essex encounter), Elizabeth maintains a small, loyal core of advisors who are surprisingly intelligent but three-dimensional as well: most have a glaring weakness that allows Elizabeth to control them as needed. William Cecil, one of Elizabeth’s closest advisors, also really stood out for me as someone who was always fighting for Elizabeth’s best interests, if not occasionally misguided, but largely a force for good in her court and mostly altruistic.
A note to readers of the Elizabeth book as well: once characters gain a title, they stop being referred to by their old name and just by the title until the end of the book, which is a bit confusing at first, and really confusing in certain situations. For example, William Cecil is just “Cecil” throughout the first half of the book, but at this halfway point he gains greater status as a Baron (Baron Burghley in particular). So he’s no longer referred to as Cecil, but thereafter becomes just Burghley, which is a bit confusing (but you’ll get used to it). The problem is slightly compounded when the main advisor’s sons show up in court and get advisor roles: Cecil’s son Robert Cecil shows up and is also referred to as Cecil, but since William Cecil is always called Burghley instead, it alleviates this problem.
With that, I recommend both books – if reading about one of them in particular stood out for you, check that one out first and jump into the engaging world of the Tudors!