Henry VIII fell deeply in love with falling in love

Six women and the history of Western culture hung on his heart

Following his father's death in 1509, the 17-year-old Henry Tudor, now King Henry VIII, married his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon. She was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, sponsors of Christopher Columbus and more controversially of the Spanish Inquisition.

Then some 16 years later, one daughter and many miscarriages later, Henry laid eyes on Anne Boleyn - dazzling, witty, beautiful, intelligent, musical, the perfect court lady. Henry was besotted. But this Anne was also an early convert to the new Protestantism sweeping Europe - a reform movement that favored individual good works and piety over pilgrimages and papal tradition.

The stage was set. But divorce from Catherine was eight frantic years in coming. And that was only the beginning of Henry's marital meanderings and the process that would sever England from the Catholic church and see Henry marry five more wives. Somewhere along the line, Henry also fell deeply in love with falling in love.

To be frank, I don't like the Tudors. In fact, I scrupulously avoid them. Rather like stinging nettles. Their reigns were so brutal, so full of connivers and conniving - and their greed was so greedy. Power struggles against them were invariably fatal. So I eschew them (in favor of the far calmer waters of the Napoleonic Wars). Thus it came as a bit of a surprise to find myself entranced by David Starkey's intimate biography, "Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII."

My downfall started early, on page 1, with Starkey's style. His writing is so amiable and intelligent, so entirely engaging that my anti-Tudor avoidance mechanism was fully disarmed. Instead of the arid historical cant of previous generations of Victorian and neo-Victorian historians, he begins his magnum opus this way: "The Six Wives of Henry VIII is one of the world's great stories: indeed, it contains the whole world of literature within itself. It is more far-fetched than any soap opera; as sexy and violent as any tabloid; and darker and more disturbing that the legend of Bluebeard. It is both a great love story and a supreme political thriller."

His language is fresh, alive, current. To quote Evelyn Waugh, it's like "drowning in honey, stingless." And it only gets better because Starkey is also quite a sleuth - or terrier. As he demonstrated in his bestselling biography "Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne" (2000), there is no fragment of information too small, too foreign, too illegible, too out of sync to escape his notice.

Whether it was an obscure letter from Catherine of Aragon to her father that proved, among other things, that she knew well how to be economical with the truth; or the illegible (and thus never bothered with) transcript of Thomas Culpepper's "confession" about his relationship with Catherine Howard (Henry's wife No. 5), which sent her to the executioner's block, whatever and wherever it is, Starkey ferrets it out and makes sense of it.

(He supplied the commentary for the British documentary "The Six Wives of Henry VIII," which was broadcast this month on PBS.)

Possibly the greatest strength of Starkey's work, though, is that he remains steadfastly focused on these six women - despite the lodestar of Henry's dominating presence - revealing much about them that was previously unknown and unfathomed, but also disproving many of the prominent myths.

These women were not the brainless ciphers that history has portrayed. Anne Boleyn has always been portrayed as the vamp, which perhaps she was a bit; but she was also active in importing proscribed, anticlerical Protestant books from France and aiding in their distribution. Certainly, she was the driving force who saw Thomas Cranmer, the great reformer, installed as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Catherine Parr (wife No. 6) was a devout and sincere Protestant, a gifted writer, and a translator who wrote and published a bestseller called "Prayers Stirring the Mind unto Heavenly Meditations." She also encouraged her stepdaughters, Mary and especially Elizabeth, to follow her lead. All this suggests that perhaps the most important legacy of Henry's reign was left, not by Henry, but by these remarkable women.

David Starkey is regarded as the preeminent Tudor historian in England, and as this impressive biography demonstrates, that's no media hype. He's earned his position through brilliant analysis, perception, and an unwavering determination to get to the truth, even when it means sacrificing his own previous theories. Fans of his work will be eager to read his next project, a biography of Henry VIII.

How can you resist a historian who writes with the punch of Robert Ludlum and the fluidity of P.G. Wodehouse? You can't.

Melissa Bennetts is a freelance writer living in England.

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