Six Wives of Henry VIII
Alison Weir's readable history, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, is everything social history should be: it's replete with detail and connects the historical characters with the spirit of their times, thereby explaining the cause for certain character traits or actions. Weir takes each wife in turn, spending the most time on Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Henry figures largely in the narrative, as he should, but Weir never allows him to eclipse the stories of his various wives. The pages are rich with wonderful, memorable facts: Anne Boleyn had six fingers; even years after Jane Seymour's death, and after Henry remarried, he continued to demand that Jane be the wife and mother depicted in the family's portraits, Anne of Cleves quietly agreed to divorce after Henry decided she was too ugly for him, and recieved a handsome sum and three houses in the bargain; young Elizabeth had an interesting affair with her Katherine Parr's third husband, Thomas Seymour, while Katherine and Thomas were married and all three were living in the same house (she probably never slept with him, but she's clearly not as pure as her appelation "Virgin Queen" would suggest); Elizabeth made a pledge never to marry after Katherine Howard was executed because she, quite rightly after her mother and step-mother's unhappy endings, equated marriage with death.
This is a large, wonderful history book that feels in its salaciousness and character development like a great novel. Weir's deft interweaving of political, econonmic and social history creates a seamless fabric and a clear view of the 16th century Tudor Britain.
The text, however, lacks citations and the reader is often left wondering how Weir would know that the person said or thought x. Clearly, from the the breadth of the bibliography, the text was well-researched, but it would have been helpful to have the in-text citations to make clear what was historical fact or historian interpretation/analysis. In most cases, the distinction is clear, and in many cases the reader can assume that Weir pulled a statement or thought directly from a letter or diary entry, but I always like knowing for sure that the person said or thought what is presented.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII is a great history, and if you're a fan of British history, dive right in.
If you like this, you might also like:
Alison Weir's Henry VIII: King and his Court
Anne Somerset's Elizabeth
Susan Brigend's New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors 1485-1603
Antonia Fraser's The Tudors