Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review: The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser

This is a work of elaborate research into and objective recount of the lives and fates of the six queens of Henry VIII. Although I had to struggle with the innumerable and often confusing names and titles of the gargantuan cast in the presentation, this didn't thwart my desire to get to the end.

The stories of the women themselves are poignant, if not upsetting (upsetting because they are not fictitious but real people). Their fates are a direct result of the times they lived in, which was probably one of the bloodiest reigns in English history, not to mention their ill luck of being tied in marital bond with, to say the least, a volatile and self-indulgent monarch who was obsessed with the issue of a male heir.

The author did a good job in explaining in detail the intricacies of European politics in that era: the unending strife between the Catholic and Protestant factions, the in-court rivalry between the consort-related nobility and the use of royal marriages for political ends. Highlighting such labyrinthine political background are the calculating and often deadly machinations by stakeholders behind a masquerade of civility and honor.

One gruesome detail of the narrative is the description of those monstrous capital punishments and tortures permitted under sixteenth century English law, which rival in cruelty with China's penal system in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties.

Overall, the moral lesson that can be drawn from this historical account is perhaps that a ruler or political leader (man or woman) can never be trusted with having absolute, unchecked power over others.

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