Alison Weir. The Children of Henry VIII.
New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1996. Pp. 394.
Alison Weir is well-known to those
who study medieval British History. Weir graduated from North Western
Polytechnic of London, with a teaching certificate that emphasized History.
However, she never actually perused teaching but later became a Civil Service
manager and then a self-proclaimed housewife. Her first published book was in 1989, entitled Britain’s Royal
Families. From there she went on to write numerous books on Tudor history
like The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Mary Boleyn, and The Lady
Elizabeth. She has also written works of historical fiction, like Innocent
Traitor (about Lady Jane Grey) being her first one published in
2006.1 She is considered to be the best-selling female
historian in the U.K. and the fifth-biggest-selling historian of all time
despite the fact that she holds neither a Masters nor a Ph.D. in history.2 She considers herself a “popular historian” and
generally receives favorable reviews of her books from The New York Times,
The Washington Post and The Guardian. However, historians often find
Weir’s sources questionable and there is not a prominent scholar who will
review her books.
Correspondingly, Weir’s The Children of Henry VIII is nothing
more or less than a beautifully written story, set during the Succession Crisis
after the death of Henry VIII. Weir herself says “this is not a history of
England during the troubled reigns… but a chronicle of the personal lives of
the four English sovereigns”.3 Correspondingly, this book reads more like
creative nonfiction as opposed to popular history. She also does not cite her
sources. However, she does provide an extensive bibliography at the end, as
well as an index. Her bibliography is divided between primary and secondary
sources and an extensive list of each is listed. Though many historians will
question her use of Carloy Erikson’s Bloody Mary and multiple works by
Alison Plowden. These authors are both like Weir and have no prior historical
Weir tries to claim that this is a groundbreaking work in terms of examining
the personal relationships between Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, and the
effects their tense relationship had in England. This is misleading, given that
the book does not really center on these monarchs, but on the reactors around
them. The Duke of Somerset, and Thomas Seymour and the Duke of Warwick are
bigger characters in this book than Edward VI. Likewise, Elizabeth is sparsely
mentioned (this is probably because Weir wants to entice you to read her book The
Lady Elizabeth), making Mary the primary character. Weir is prone to
flowery language and opinionated judgments. For example, she judges Katherine
Parr’s decision to marry Thomas Seymour, claiming that “her inane sense, failed
her”.4 Weir’s reasoning is fully reliant on hindsight,
as Parr was not privy to Seymour’s courtly schemes and other marriage
proposals. She also makes an amateur diagnosis of the historical ailments
suffered by both Mary and Elizabeth. The most notable is her diagnosis of
Elizabeth’s nephritis. She diagnosed this on the basis that some unmentioned
source noted that Elizabeth’s “body was swollen and her head and arms ached”.5 This diagnosis makes me question some of her other
interpretations. These symptoms can be signs of numerous illnesses. Likewise,
the disease nephritis was not formerly discovered until 1827 (years after
earnestly tries to provide a complex view of her historical subjects but fails.
Her picture of Edward is a fanatical brat, easily manipulated by Seymour and
later Warwick, with petty trinkets, money and the illusion of exercising his
kingly power. Her interpretation of Mary is modeled after historians’, H.F.M.
Prescott’s and David Loades. Meaning, Weir portrays Mary a kind-hearted,
religious women that would have been better suited to the domestic life. This
was a common perception of Mary in the later part of the 20th century.
Therefore, Weir adds nothing new. Furthermore, she makes all of Mary’s
accomplishments dependent on the men that surround her. This diminishes Mary’s
roles in her marriage treaty and her role navigating being England’s first
Queen Regent. Weir had the opportunity to provide a fresh perspective on Mary
and her relationships with her siblings, by reexamining Mary as England’s first
have examined the ceremony, coinage and her performance of the Kingly duties
such as “healing the sick”. Moreover, she could have explored Mary’s courtship
of King Philip II of Spain, instead of writing Mary off as a lovesick fool.7 Contrastingly, Elizabeth is the same witty,
intelligent woman with a remarkable aptitude for statecraft, portrayed by many
other historians. Likewise, Mary’s ability to maneuver around Edward’s Act
of Uniformity is seen dependent on her Uncle, Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V’s
protection, despite Mary’s ability to negotiate and make expert arguments with
her brother and his Council.8 Whereas, Elizabeth’s ability to escape
persecution under Mary’s reign was seen as her ability to manipulate Mary and
make calculated decisions during Wyatt’s and Dudley’s rebellions.
despite the many problems I had with the book as a historian, and researcher of
Mary Tudor’s reign, Weir is excellent at weaving a tale of sibling rivalry,
power grabs, and courtly ambitions. However, the narrative itself lacks
historical insight and adds nothing new. Therefore, Weir presents an entertaining, but generic narrative that is
bogged down by dramatizations and unsubstantiated opinions.
Alison. “Author Biography.” Alison
Weir – Author Biography. http://alisonweir.org.uk/biography/index.php..
“Welcome to the official website of the British Author and Historian
Alison Weir.,” Alison Weir – The Official Site of Author and Historian Alison
Alison. The Children of Henry VIII. New York: Ballantine Books. (1996),
Flint, Austin. A Treatise on the Principles and Practice of Medicine:
Designed for the Use of Practitioners and Students of Medicine. Bethesda,
MD: Gryphon Editions. (2012), 863.
Duncan, Sarah. Mary I: Gender, Power, and Ceremony in the Reign of England’s
First Queen (Queenship and Power). New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.