Headline Review | 2018 (3 May) | 544p | Review copy | Buy the book
Alison Weir’s fictional retelling of the lives and fortunes of Henry VIII’s six wives is one of the most enjoyable historical series that I’ve read in quite a while. Just when you think that you’re completely Tudored out and that there’s nothing more of interest to be wrung from Henry’s notorious marriage record, it’s wonderful to be proved so wrong. The third novel in the series tells the tale of one of the most overshadowed of Henry’s Queens, Jane Seymour. We’ve had tantalising hints of Jane in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books (a series named after the Seymour home) and these have made me keener than ever to read a novel dedicated to Jane, particularly one written by as fine a historian as Alison Weir. Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen is the book of the series that I have looked forward to the most and I wasn’t at all surprised to find it excellent.
The King’s Great Matter – Henry’s annulment of his long marriage to Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, with all that this entailed, such as the break from Rome – features heavily in all three of the books that comprise the first half of Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. And what makes this retelling so successful is that we are presented with it from the three very different perspectives of these three Queens. Jane was a maid of honour to both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and her sympathies most certainly lay with Katherine and the Old Religion. Jane’s perspective on Henry’s affair with Anne and his divorce from Katherine is that of an observer, as someone who is deeply disturbed by what she is seeing. She is only in a position to catch glimpses of what’s going on and the court is alive with whispers of gossip and worried secrets. Alison Weir brings this stricken court to life while also revelling in its luxurious splendour and ceremonies.
My favourite half of the novel, though, is the second in which Jane must deal with the repercussions of Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace and death as well as her own progress to become Henry’s wife and Queen in what was seen as indecent haste. Alison Weir’s focus is now almost solely on Jane and Henry as a couple and this is a very different Henry from the one that Katherine and then Anne knew. This means that Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen has a different atmosphere and mood – here’s a Henry who’s now getting on in years, has sores on his legs and is after the quiet life while seeing conspiracies around every corner. There’s a danger that you might end up even liking this Henry, which is novel! The title also suggests how Jane is dealing with replacing another wife who has been executed by her husband.
Jane isn’t particularly easy to like and I think this is largely because, as a mere knight’s daughter, she didn’t know how to behave as Queen. She does come across as grasping, materialistic and proud. She’s also very traditional in her beliefs and faith. But she does display moments of strength and courage which are fascinating to read about. I also really enjoyed the sections on Jane and her family – the opening to the novel in the Seymour home is especially compelling and descriptive.
There’s much in Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen that gave me food for thought – about Jane, Anne Boleyn and Henry. I enjoyed so much getting to know the Tudor Queen I perhaps know the least about. These middle years of the 1530s were extraordinary years in English history, with Cromwell’s power at its height, the Pilgrimage of Grace, bouts of plague and sweating sickness, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which must have affected almost everybody in the land. Jane is thrown into a position of influence almost out of the blue and has to deal with people looking to her to control the King’s capricious and paranoid nature. Perhaps most fascinating of all is that here we are shown a young bride who, in this interpretation at least, loved her husband. This mix of intimate affection and royal power is portrayed so well in this novel.
Henry’s wives are in safe hands with Alison Weir and Jane Seymour has at last been given a voice. I can’t wait for the three more novels to come, particularly the next. In that we will see the legacy of Jane Seymour on Henry VIII. Watching his character and nature alter and change through the years (and the wives) is one of the highlights of this series. It makes it unmissable.