A view of Henry VIII’s wives
It’s probably an odd topic to bring up, but as I’m something of a feminist I thought it important to highlight Victoria Coren’s rather self-important retort to a two-bit historian’s comments on Henry VIII’s wives. She’s complaining that David Starkey (who has forfeited all credibility by traversing the Simon Schama route) has declared how Henry VIII seems somewhat ‘absorbed by his wives’. Starkey goes on to explain that this was a result of ‘feminised history’, where women are predominantly writing about women.
Now, the correct angle to tackle this from is that the undue prominence of Henry’s wives has nothing to do with the gender of the writers. Sure, you get chick-lit trash like The Other Boleyn Girl, the novel by Philippa Gregory, but this is nothing to do with Gregory being a woman. If one considers the Tudors television series, probably written by men, the women are just as prominent and the reasoning can be summed up in two words: target audience. For one, women who want to read trashy stuff about other women; for the other, men who want to watch other men get their leg over.
Instead, Coren takes issue with the idea that Henry VIII has been somewhat absorbed by his wives. Well, actually there I rather agree with Starkey. The popular story of the reign of the eighth King Henry is mostly about his wives. Three Catherines, two Annes and a Jane. Remind me where the dissolution of the monasteries fit in? Everyone remembers that Henry breaks from Rome because the Pope refuses to grant him a divorce…they don’t know that Henry had members of his court write books in defence of Catholicism.
Coren complains that from our history we (the public) can only name ten women from history…but yet the only reason we learn about these particular women is because of their connection to a famous man. How exactly is that an achievement? Starkey, I suspect, is not saying that we’re studying too much women’s history, but that the whole direction and result of Henry VIII’s reign is lost amidst prurient speculation about his wives, his mistresses, his bastard offspring and their various manipulations. Which it is.
On the subject of ten women from history…Krupskaya, Kollontai, Luxemburg, the Dowager Empress, Sylvia Pankhurst, about seven Queens of England, Germaine Greer, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem…so yeah I can name more than ten women from history. None of whom are famous because of their connection to a man…well, except perhaps the Queens of England since they’re either married to a King (Mary II) or daughters of a King (Lizzie I and II, Vicky, Anne, Matilda and Mary I). Perhaps we should learn about them instead?
Who knows, we might actually study some of the important stuff that happened in England and wider Europe during the reign of Henry VIII, instead of bothering with court intrigue.