I’ve read enough historical fiction and watched enough historical films to have picked up a basic knowledge of the lives of the English royal family at the time of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. But because most of my sources have been fiction, I’ve never been entirely sure that what I “know” is correct. For example, from Lady Jane (a movie I happen to love) I might get the impression that Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guilford Dudley were passionately in love, even though there’s no evidence of anything more than a civil relationship between them. And there are also serious gaps in my knowledge. I’ve known that Elizabeth I was kept under house arrest for a time, but I wasn’t sure why.
Enter Alison Weir, popular historian and author of several books on the English monarchs. In The Children of Henry VIII, Weir tells the overlapping stories of Henry VIII’s three children (Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth) and his niece (Jane Grey). She begins with their childhoods and concludes with Elizabeth’s accession to the throne. She tells the story in a straightforward narrative style. It doesn’t read quite like a novel, but it’s pretty close.
I don’t know how Weir is perceived among academics, but she seems to have a good reputation among general readers, and I can see why. She writes very clearly and does an excellent job juggling the stories of the four principal figures in the book. I was also impressed with how often she quotes sources and eyewitness accounts from the time.
Unfortunately, like most popular histories, this book does not include footnotes or even end notes tied to specific statements, just a bibliography, which fails to give readers a real sense of which sources Weir relied on the most. Having footnotes right on the page is my preference, but even notes in the back tied to page numbers can be useful. Such notes help me measure a writer’s credibility and show me where I might turn for more information on the most interesting points.
Despite that minor annoyance, I did enjoy this book. The most fascinating section for me was the account of Mary’s reign because it was almost entirely new information. Her reign was a mix of shocking brutality (300 heretics burned in four years); terrible heartbreak (her false pregnancy); and difficult choices (to be loyal to her husband, her country, or her church). She comes across as the least likable and perhaps the least intelligent of Weir’s foursome, but she also seemed the most complex and human. Jane Grey’s story is also fascinating, but it didn’t feel very fresh, since I only recently read Weir’s Innocent Traitor, a fictionalized account of Jane’s life and death.
I picked up Weir’s novel The Lady Elizabeth when I was last at the library. I’ll be interested to see how her fictional account of Elizabeth’s early life compares to the nonfiction, so you can look forward to a review of that book in the coming weeks, provided I get it read before the library demands it back.