My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In the 16th Century there could be no greater honor than to become the Queen of England. Yet, in her 3rd book about the Tudors called, “The Boleyn Inheritance”, Philippa Gregor explores the least known wives of Henry VIII. History has reported Anne of Cleves as ugly and shy while Katherine (Kitty) Howard reportedly was beautiful but stupid. There must have been more to these women for them to have risen to status of Queen.
Gregor bases her novel on fact and does a lot of research. You’ll notice a significant difference in her Tudor series compared to the recent Showtime hit, “The Tudors” which is a fictional soap opera using historical characters – not based on fact. While handsome Jonathan Rhys Meyers portrayed Henry VIII on Showtime, the truth is that by 1539 when Henry was about to marry Anne of Cleves he was a fat, farting, flesh-rotting old man who ruled his kingdom with a hangman’s noose and an executioner’s axe.
There is little known about Anne of Cleves and her successor Katherine Howard prior to their marriages to Henry. Yet Gregor weaves an interesting tale of court intrigue and plotting around these two queens, alongside the story of Jane Boleyn, wife of George Boleyn who was beheaded with his sister Anne, 2nd wife to Henry VIII. It is the braiding of these three women’s stories that makes this such a compelling read. While each woman struggles to control her destiny the reader learns what a truly dangerous place the court of Henry VIII was, especially to a woman. Each woman makes her own choices based on their ages, their past, and what they want in the future. And we see how the cards play out for each of them.
What does Gregor teach us in this tale of plotting and murder? It turns out that age does not mean innocence. Pretty creates vanity but vanity isn’t pretty. That cunning does not mean wise. Not always, but sometimes, honesty and pure of heart prevail.
It would be so easy to gloss over the bad parts of Henry VIII’s reign for when he was young he was the most handsome and enlightened King in all of Christendom. But to forget the truth of his legacy of tyranny would be another crime against the people of 16th Century England. And to forget his Queens, and the women of their courts, who paid first-hand for Henry’s madness and the greed of the men in his counsel would be unforgivable. Women of today need to learn from these former victims of manipulation to stand on their own–to truly rule their own destiny.
Anne of Cleves was, indeed, a visionary of female independence. She was the only Queen of Henry VIII’s to survive him and live an independent life. (Katherine Parr survived only because Henry died before serving her arrest papers.) If Anne of Cleves could manage to carve out a life for herself after Henry and be happy, every modern girl should be able to be a woman of independent means. Anne proved that by keeping your head up and holding firm, we women can do anything.