The best books about the wives of Henry VIII

Who am I?

Even in childhood, I was struck by the sheer horror and tragedy of Henry VIII’s wives, women who had a place at the heart of power and managed, some more so than others, to influence the politics of their time, yet were powerless to save themselves when the wind changed. It was a fascinating and turbulent period that saw England rise from a provincial backwater to become an important player in European politics, bringing the social and cultural changes that sewed the seeds of our modern world. Exploring the period through the prism of women’s lives is a major aim of all my six novels.


I wrote...

Queen's Gambit

By Elizabeth Fremantle,

Book cover of Queen's Gambit

What is my book about?

Widowed for the second time at age thirty-one, Katherine Parr falls deeply for the dashing courtier Thomas Seymour and hopes, at last, to marry for love. Instead, she attracts the amorous attentions of the ailing, egotistical, and dangerously powerful Henry VIII. No one is in a position to refuse a royal proposal. Haunted by the fates of his previous wives—two executions, two annulments, one death in childbirth—Katherine must wed Henry and rely on her wits and the help of her loyal servant Dot to survive the treacherous pitfalls of life as Henry’s queen. Yet as she treads the razor’s edge of court intrigue, she never quite gives up on love.

Queen's Gambit is soon to be a major motion picture, titled Firebrand, starring Michelle Williams and Jude Law.

The books I picked & why

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The Six Wives of Henry VIII

By Alison Weir,

Book cover of The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Why this book?

Alison Weir is a leading expert on Tudor women, has written widely in both fiction and non-fiction on the subject, and there is simply nothing worth knowing about Henry VIII’s wives that she doesn’t know and this comprehensive history of these six remarkable women is testimony to that knowledge. This was the book that first drove me to explore the women of this period and set me on the path towards my own writing. It is long and leaves no stone unturned, displaying the depth and excellence of Weir’s research, yet is gripping as fiction.


Bring Up the Bodies

By Hilary Mantel,

Book cover of Bring Up the Bodies

Why this book?

It is almost impossible to choose only one of Mantel’s exceptional Booker winning Cromwell trilogy but for me, this one just has the edge. The focus is on Anne Boleyn’s fall and the subsequent elevation of the ambitious Seymour brothers and their sister Jane. It is tightly plotted and energetic, reading like a thriller, with Cromwell and Anne locked in a silent battle for supremacy. Mantel’s writing and scene-setting are simply superb, her characters so real you feel you know them.


Confession of Katherine Howard

By Suzannah Dunn,

Book cover of Confession of Katherine Howard

Why this book?

Susannah Dunn has a way of putting you right inside history with her instinctive and impeccable descriptive writing. She has fictionalised the stories of a number of Tudor women and all are excellent but I’ve chosen this as it was the first of hers I read. It tells of Henry VIII’s tragic fifth wife, a teenager pushed into the King’s bed by her ambitious family. The story unfolds through the eyes of her companion – an intimate insider’s view, typical of Dunn’s work – who witnesses everything but is powerless to help. Without giving too much away, it doesn’t end well.


Lamentation

By C.J. Sansom,

Book cover of Lamentation

Why this book?

Part of Sansom’s acclaimed Shardlake series, this novel takes a different look at Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr. It is a thrilling dive into the plots of Parr’s life and her seditious writings from the perspective of Sansom’s eponymous fictional investigator. Detailed and enthralling we are transported to the streets of Tudor London, to explore the shadowy corners where danger lurks. 


The Constant Princess

By Philippa Gregory,

Book cover of The Constant Princess

Why this book?

No list of books about Henry VIII’s wives is complete without one of Philippa Gregory’s. She has written numerous fictional accounts of these women, most famously The Other Boleyn Girl, which was adapted into a feature film starring Scarlett Johansson. I have chosen this one as it tells the fascinating story of Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife, who was also married to his older brother Arthur. Gregory, in her typically arresting style, depicts the child bride, a pawn in European politics, brought over from Spain to marry the heir to the English throne, only to be widowed within months, and the impossible political situation she found herself in.


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