There would appear to have been two big dangers to the health of women in the 16th century. One of them was childbirth – if you didn’t die during, it was highly likely that you would do so in the immediate aftermath, mostly thanks to puerperal fever (a uterine infection caused by, shudder, tearing and a total ignorance of hygiene on the part of Tudor midwives – and the other was marrying Henry VIII.
This is the story of the six unlucky ladies to have taken the plunge with one of our most notorious monarchs; Katherine of Aragon, his deeply Catholic first wife who had the misfortune of not giving him any surviving sons (though she would give him the Princess Mary, who would later become notorious on her own thanks to her persecution of Protestants on ascending the throne), Anne Boleyn, the mistress who stoked Henry’s passion for religious reform as a way of marrying her only to become the first queen to be executed when she too failed to give him a male heir (although the official excuse would be adultery – a charge which is now viewed as unconvincing at best), Jane Seymour, former lady-in-waiting and supposedly pious mouse who still managed to snag her mistress’ husband out from under her only to die after giving birth to Henry’s long awaited heir, Edward. Next came Anne of Cleves, unceremoniously divorced after the aging, grossly obese monarch with continually weeping and foul smelling leg ulcers declared her too unattractive to bone, then the coquettish 15-year old Catherine Howard who was unlucky enough to have a history of older men sneaking into her bed (and would be executed for it), and lastly Catherine Parr who unfortunately caught Henry’s eye whilst she was already in love with another, only to find that what the King wanted, the King got, even if it meant sending her lover overseas in order to marry her himself. She, however, would get off rather lightly thanks to Henry popping his clogs before he could get bored or have his passions inflamed by a younger model.
The amount of time spent on each woman is proportionate to the length of time that they were stuck with Horrid Henry, so we get rather a lot on Katherine of Aragon as well as Anne Boleyn, with the following ladies flying by faster and faster but with enough information to give us an idea of the women they may have been, although these portraits are clearly coloured by Alison Weir’s own opinions of them – while some she clearly respects, others get short shrift (like the poor teenager Catherine Howard, written off even on the cover blurb as an ‘empty-headed wanton’).
As well as providing sketches of his wives, Weir also clearly illustrates what an ordeal it would have been to be married to the increasingly tyrannical King, who also wouldn’t win any father of the year awards due to the cruel treatment of his female children (it makes me very glad to know that Elizabeth, who would give Mary a run for her money as the most neglected and cruelly treated of Henry’s children, would go on to become much more admired as a monarch than her dad).
While there may be better historians out there, Alison Weir does a decent job of making it relatable and I’ll now be continuing on in my chronological reading of English history having splashed in the Tudor pool for quite some time.