Home > Gender Politics > A view of Henry VIII’s wives

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.

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Categories: Gender Politics
  1. theanneboleynfiles
    June 15, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    As a woman who writes about Anne Boleyn and runs a website about Anne Boleyn, I guess I could be one of those people who are seen to be feminising Henry VIII’s reign but you can’t look at Henry VIII without considering the role his wives had.

    For example – and of course I have to use Anne Boleyn (!)- Anne Boleyn had a major impact on her time and on English history. She had so much influence over the King that Cromwell had to conspire to get rid of her. Anne was mucking up all of Cromwell’s plans for foreign policy, with her pro-French views, and definitely had the King’s ear. Anne also inadvertently caused Henry’s break with Rome, not just because he needed a divorce but also because Anne had shared Reformist religious works with him.

    I’m not saying that we should just focus on his wives, what I am saying is that they were a huge part of Henry’s life and were the cause of many of his actions.

  2. June 16, 2009 at 4:04 am

    I would strongly disagree. This is like saying one can’t study the Peloponnesian war without studying Aspasia, Perikles mistress. When it comes to women, as with men, one can study themes of change and continuity in their lives. One can look at the institutional roles they played, the class and status that they represented – but individually, the mean almost nothing.

    I would go so far as to say that one could study the historical significance of Henry VIIIs reign without actually studying the character of Henry VIII – which is something else that gets remarked upon a lot. Imagine, therefore, how much less important I find his wives. Study the interests represented at his court, or his reforms to agriculture and enclosure, or the dissolution of the monasteries or the birth of the Royal Navy proper.

    I know of not one thing, of wide-ranging significance, from that time which involved the wives of Henry VIII. By this I don’t mean to attack women’s history. One can’t understand the dynamics of exploitation in history without looking at the role played by women collectively. But the role played by these six women individually is the worst form of ‘high’ history to the point where it verges on popular biography.

  3. theanneboleynfiles
    June 16, 2009 at 7:32 am

    That’s not what I was saying at all! Of course you can look at parts of his reign – policies etc. – without looking at his wives, but even Starkey admits that Henry was obsessed with women and that this probably stems from his childhood because, as second son, he was brought up by his mother and women, not coached for kingship by his father. His six wives, particularly Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, had much to do with the decisions he made and the way he ruled. Some even hold Anne Boleyn responsible for the monster or tyrant that Henry became, although I don’t agree with that argument.
    I’m not a feminist or a fan of “women’s history” per se, just someone who thinks that Henry’s women did have an influence over him, the way he thought and the things he did. I don’t think that this is “the worst form of high history to the point where it verges on popular biography”, I think that considering his wives, and the roles they played, give us a clearer picture of Henry VIII and what drove him. Surely when we are researching and delving into a character we need to look at everything, leave no stone unturned.
    As far as you saying “I know of not one thing, of wide-ranging significance, from that time which involved the wives of Henry VIII”, what about Henry’s break with Rome? It was Anne Boleyn who got Henry reading literature of the “New Religion” which led to him believing that a monarch was responsible to God, not the Pope, and therefore sorting his divorce out and becoming the Supreme Head of the Church in England. For Henry, who had once been “Defender of the Faith”, this was a huge step.
    Anyway, I don’t like the fact that by disagreeing with you that people are branded guilty of “high” history or “popular biography”. The great thing about history is that we can debate it and see things from different points of view.

  4. June 16, 2009 at 8:06 am

    That is a great thing about history, but I suspect we’re approaching the subject from different angles. I’m all for historical debate, but some of the comments on your website are hysterical – and if you feel I am branding you unfairly, I need only retort that only one of the two of us is trying to make money from our websites. The same profit motive which drives good historians to write utter rubbish.

    As for the substantive issue, it is a popular idea that Henry’s obsession with Anne Boleyn led to his break with Rome. And yet, you mention Henry’s title Fidei Defensor, a title given to him by the Pope as a result of a completely opportunistic effort to attack Martin Luther, which wasn’t even written by Henry! Such is his commitment to Catholicism! Indeed the history of the Church demonstrates the clearly opportunistic tendencies which all European princes exhibited in respect of religion.

    I would suggest that there are many other reasons beyond Anne Boleyn for the English break with Rome. All the machinations in the world would have come to naught had it not been for the pre-existing sentiments at court in favour of the Lutheran heresies – and this in itself can be attributed to very material reasoning. Similarly, had not still others advocated Royal Supremacy, Henry is unlikely to have broken with Rome in the way he did.

    The excommunication of a King was not new to England, and the monarchy had survived. Finally, there’s also the matter of Charles V. The international politics of the time basically allowed England to choose the side to whom it would be accessory as it was not a continental power in its own right. Had not the chess pieces existed on the map of Europe to play one against the other, it is surely the case that Henry VIII would not have risked the ire of Charles V.

    Whatever the case, I advance these arguments to show that history is complex. There are any number of factors which vie for the title of determinant as regards the English break with Rome. This means that we can’t reduce an important episode in history merely to a historical version of Hollyoaks, whatever facile pleasure we may take from it.

    This is the angle from which I see you coming, especially taking into account your evident fascination with a rather tawdry television drama.

  5. theanneboleynfiles
    June 16, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Wow! Why the personal attack?! I thought we were debating history not each other’s sites. Much of your comment back to me is pretty much a personal attack with an attack on my website, calling comments on my site “hysterical”, saying I’m “profit” driven, implying that I reduce history to an episode of Hollyoaks. Do you personally attack everyone that disagrees with your views? To me, that shows a certain lack of maturity. I commented on your blog post, not you personally or your blog site.

    Yes, I do make money from my site, by offering products that my vistors may be interested in, but that is only part of my site and what actually drives me is my love of history. I’m not sure that anyone running a business does it for free. The small amount of money I make from the site allows me to spend time building the site.

    I’m not fascinated with “The Tudors”, which I assume is what you’re on about, but I love the fact that it’s got a new generation of people interested in Tudor history and asking questions.I don’t like the fact that it is littered with inaccuracies but it has got people debating and has brought history to the masses. Many of my vistors are interested in The Tudors and I’m glad that it has sparked off their interest in history and Anne Boleyn. I’m afraid I can’t comment on Hollyoaks, not my kind of programme.

    I’m not sure that you understand my angle at all and for someone who evidently likes accuracy and to have a clear understanding of people, you seem very quick to judge and stereotype me! I’m not a historian, although I did it at O’ and A’ level at school and then studied the Reformation as part of my degree, and have never claimed to be. I’m a mormal everyday person who is interested in Tudor history and finding out more.

    History is definitely a comlex subject, I agree with you there, and of course there were many factors involved in the Reformation but Henry’s passion for Anne Boleyn and her religious views were definitely factors in the break with Rome. Of course the political world of the time and the alliances that were being made were factors, I never said they weren’t and I do agree with your “chess board” analogy. The complexity of history and the different personalities involved at this time are what makes the period so interesting.

  6. June 16, 2009 at 9:41 am

    Well, actually, part of your original comment on this site was as follows:

    “As a woman who writes about Anne Boleyn and runs a website about Anne Boleyn, I guess I could be one of those people who are seen to be feminising Henry VIII’s reign but you can’t look at Henry VIII without considering the role his wives had…Anne also inadvertently caused Henry’s break with Rome, not just because he needed a divorce but also because Anne had shared Reformist religious works with him.”
    My contention is that of course you can look at Henry VIII’s reign without considering his wives. You go on to say that Anne ‘inadvertantly caused’ Henry’s break with Rome, and my reply to you is that no, she did not. She may have been one factor in such a complex decision – but she did not cause it anymore than it was a decision that was totally within Henry’s power. Henry himself, the material context in which he operated, was determined in some part by still other factors.

    To concentrate merely on one – which you do, and which your site does – is not related to the feminisation of history. It is related to the vulgarisation of it. You have taken what you admit to be a complex subject and reduced it to merely discussing what sort of person Anne was. Whether she genuinely was a witch, and any number of issues which are utterly irrelevant from a historical point of view.

    Or, at least from the perspective of grand narrative, which is what I deal with, what Professor Starkey deals with and what I was talking about in the article to which you decided to respond.

  7. theanneboleynfiles
    June 16, 2009 at 10:37 am

    I’m not sure what point you were making by quoting me!

    Why can’t Anne Boleyn be a cause of the break with Rome? Events can have a number of causes and factors.

    My website is about Anne Boleyn and I do not concentrate on her being a cause of the break with Rome, my website is about her as an historical, and frankly quite interesting, character. I have not reduced history, I’m discussing one aspect of it, one person and her impact on history and those around her. The witchcraft argument is indeed an interesting view on Anne (and a big part of Retha Warnicke’s biography) and is not irrelevant when historians are suggesting that this was a factor that caused her execution. Anne Boleyn’s execution was an historical event and it was major in that she was the queen consort, so I think that this is completely relevant.

    Anyway, I’ve had a deeper look at your blog and will not be visiting again. Anyone who can crudely use the offensive title “F*** you New Labour” (and I’m not offended by the dig at Labour!) is not really of interest to me.

  8. June 16, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I could care less what is of interest to you. You’re here on my blog. The article above is mine; it takes issue with a notion of the “feminisation of history” and with the separate issue of the aborption of Henry by his wives – in popular narrative, rather than in actual fact.

    My purpose in quoting you was to demonstrate in your own words where you said you disagreed with me and to clearly lay out point and counter-point. This I did. The specific quote was chosen because in one of your comments, you tried to agree with me regarding the complexity of history and yet, your first intervention was to stress the role merely of Anne Boleyn, contrary to Starkey’s (and my own) sentiments that Henry often seems absorbed by his wives.

    As for the ‘offensive title’, what you find offensive is entirely up to you. No one asked you to come here or read anything that I have written!

  9. theanneboleynfiles
    June 16, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I’m ignoring your personal attacks and will make a couple of final points. If David Starkey feels that the six wives have no importance at all why did he write a book about them, make a series about them, devote a whole chapter to Anne Boleyn in “The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics” and a whole episode of his recent series “Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant” to Henry the Lover, looking specifically at Henry’s relationship with Anne?

    If you read my first comment properly, you’ll see that I used Anne Boleyn’s role as an example, I was not stressing “the role merely of Anne Boleyn” and I don’t agree that my opinions are contrary to David Starkey, having read all his books and having watched his programmes. He may have talked about people feminising Henry’s reign but he himself could be seen guilty of this with the amount he’s written about them.

    I know it’s your blog and you can write what you like, just as I can on mine. I think the difference is that I don’t personally attack people who disagree with me. I love proper intelligent debate but not when it’s punctuated with personal insults.

  10. June 16, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    You are obviously not so offended as all that then!

    Neither I nor Starkey have said that the wives had no importance. Starkey said, and I agreed, that the wives tend to obscure the rest of Henry VIII’s reign. They do, whether from the point of view of popular culture, or from the point of view of what gets taught in schools (speaking as a history teacher). Whether or not Starkey is something of a hypocrite through his special concentrations on the wives is really not particularly relevant to what I have said.

    My basic point is that the entire reign of Henry VIII could be taught (at the level of popular consumption) without mentioning any of his wives. The wives certainly had roles to play – and I have not denied that – but causation stretches far beyond the role of any given individual, and when attempting to simplify things to the level of popular discourse, both the trained and untrained are wont to indulge in soap-like melodrama in the name of making things accessible.

    I don’t think that average people should be treated quite so condescendingly. I think your website (and others like them) is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Additionally, I would point out that the tenor in which comments are made and replied to on your blog often lapse towards the emotional rather than historical interest in Anne Boleyn. Which pretty much confirms my contention that all of this blather about the wives of Henry VIII – whether you, or Philippa Gregory or the Tudors on TV – is so much soap, in period costume.

  11. theanneboleynfiles
    June 16, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    You keep drawing me back!

    OK, at the level of “popular consumption” then maybe Henry VIII’s reign could be taught without mentioning the wives, but you’d be missing a large part of what drove Henry.

    I don’t treat people condescendingly and I don’t think my wbesite is causing a problem. I discuss research I’ve done and prompt people to ask questions about what they’ve read or been taught. I actually set up my blog in February as a kind of journal of my journey into finding out more about Anne Boleyn and it’s grown from there. I’m happy with it and I enjoy running it.

    I too am a trained teacher and I think that people learn by questioning and exploring, not being told things. I don’t control how people comment on posts and I reply as I like. History is dead if you cannot get emotional and passionate about it. As you have said about your blog, I can say the same about mine – it’s my blog and I’ll run it how I like.

    I agree with much of what you say, so I don’t know quite how it has to be a battleground! This is turning into a bit of a soap opera! I was offended by you having a personal dig when all I was doing was making a short comment on your blog and not attacking it at all.

    Anyway, I’m glad that your students have got such a passionate and thorough history teacher and I wish you well.

  1. April 19, 2009 at 3:16 am

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