Having successfully gained her readers’ sympathies for all of Henry VIII’s wives, no matter how inimical they may have been to each other, or how entrenched our own partisanship might be, Weir has taken on a mighty challenge in writing a novel from Henry’s perspective. Not only does the tale need to be internally consistent with six other books, it has to give more than each of them, to make reading it worthwhile. It has to present Henry in a sufficiently sympathetic way as to engage the reader’s emotions, whilst not ignoring his often cruel and despotic behaviour. Finally, it has to answer some of the questions about why Henry was a serial failure at marriage.
Weir’s many years of experience in both fiction and non-fiction writing about the period have enabled her to rise confidently to the challenge! Her characterisation of Henry has two underlying themes, that, together, explain his marital woes in a way that is not just credible, but also enables the reader to sympathise with him – even if, as is often the case with other people’s problems, we just want to give him some robust advice!
The more subtle of Henry’s motivations is the trauma caused by the loss of his mother, Elizabeth of York, when he was eleven. Contemporary sources indicate that Elizabeth was close to all of her younger children, and that Henry was deeply affected by her loss. Since Elizabeth seems to have been both loved personally and admired as a queen, it is not hard to imagine that she achieved a level of perfection in his mind as wife, mother, and queen, that he sought in the women he married, but, naturally, failed to find, as none could live up to the ideal.
The other underlying theme that Weir identifies as a cause of Henry’s increasing tyranny (leaving aside the physical pain that he endured as an older man) is frustration: he begins his reign imagining himself as a new King Arthur or Henry V, who will preside over a regenerated Camelot, conquer France and leave a string of sons to inherit. But he is beset with troubles at every turn – his allies conspire behind his back, his nobles cast covetous eyes on his throne, and most frustrating of all, his wives continually let him down – particularly Katharine of Aragon, whose refusal to accept the annulment of her marriage drives him to distraction. We cannot avoid understanding and commiserating with Henry in this situation – his first duty to his kingdom (as he saw it, and as most of his contemporaries would have seen it) is to produce a male heir. By refusing to free him to make a second marriage, Katharine prevents Henry achieving even the most basic of his ambitions. Eventually, of course, he takes draconian measures to remarry in search of an heir, but the frustration is never really resolved.
This all-pervading frustration gives an air of sadness to the book. The golden prince is thwarted by fate and dies having failed to realise his dreams.